The cost of the Sinai war

On Tuesday, the military announced the results of the eighth day of Operation Martyr’s Rights in Sinai on its official Facebook page: 11 terrorists killed, 51 suspects arrested and 55 houses destroyed.

The campaign kicked off in early September and, after pressure from the military spokesperson and the Morale Affairs Department, it managed to attract more media attention than news from turbulent North Sinai tends to.

The military framed the new operation as a decisive last battle in the state’s war against terrorism, which was declared over two years ago. The military’s spokesperson posts daily tallies of the operation on his official Facebook page, announcing dozens of deaths and arrests every day.

Accompanying media reports assert that the operation is a sweeping success and will lead to the complete eradication of terrorism by October 6, poetically coinciding with the anniversary of Egypt’s 1973 military triumph.

But for North Sinai residents, the start of the operation marks an upsurge in their suffering.

For Essam,* a community leader in the city of Sheikh Zuwayed, the last eight days were some of the harshest that the city has had to endure. Fear of random shelling is constant, the last time he had access to electricity was six days ago and running water was cut the day the operation began.

More special forces have appeared in the city, Essam says, and have started conducting exhaustive searches of residences during the day. The nights are punctuated by continuous shelling and missile attacks that, according to four residents, strike more civilian homes than terrorist hideouts. The Zohour area, where a central military station exists, has been evacuated and military forces now occupy civilian properties, Essam says.

Sheikh Zuwayed is 10 kilometers away from the border area of Sinai, and is at the heart of the military’s war on some of the key militant strongholds in the peninsula.

The city has seen another wave of military operations since July 1, when residents saw the dynamics of the Armed Forces’ fight with militant groups unfold before their eyes.

“Black Wednesday” and “The Day of War” are how residents describe the military attacks on July 1, which have left at least 100 dead. The attack was a response to militant group Province of Sinai’s simultaneous assaults on military strongholds.

A number of locals say they spent the day dodging air strikes, landmines and missiles, describing the attack as the most terrifying in the constant state of suffering that has plagued the area for two years.

Essam recalls seeing militants blocking most roads with landmines. Some residents approached, asking for landmines in front of their properties to be removed, but received no response. The military did not respond to civilians’ requests either, he says.

A few locals, like Ahmed, a resident in his 20s, says that they could not reach their houses until the next day. Even then, the military allegedly refused to show them a safe path to walk back to their residences during the confrontation.

Ahmed adds that the militants’ initial success was mainly because of what the residents refer to as “ghost fighters” and militants call “submergers.” These are suicide attackers, Ahmed explains, that are highly trained in street war tactics and attack alone using heavy weapons to distract the military during a confrontation.

One of the fiercest incidents took place around the Sheikh Zuwayed Police Station, where Ahmed recounts that the militants enforced a siege for hours before the F16 attacks started. It was the first time an attack had penetrated the city so deeply.

By the early afternoon, militants were seen in the streets celebrating their control over the city with gunfire. But then military airstrikes began and changed the game, according to residents. After a wave of intense airstrikes, residents saw militants removing the landmines and fleeing Sheikh Zuwayed.

In the days that followed, the military announced several operations targeting militant posts in the city, of which Operation Martyr’s Rights is a highlight, at least based on its media coverage.

Media reports and military experts reported on the success of the operation daily, asserting that it has left militant groups destabilized and struggling to cope, and that the operation is paving the way for the development of the peninsula.  

At the time of publishing, the military’s tally had increased to 359 dead and 443 arrested.

Essam, however, is skeptical. “They are bombing us here in the city because they can’t come near where we all know terrorists are, deep in the desert.”

As far as the residents are concerned, however, unrest has reigned in the region.

Essam says that residents frequently go to military checkpoints, pleading with Armed Forces’ personnel to stop shooting directly at their residences, to no avail. He says that the military forces shop owners to close around noon on most days, yelling, “Go home, you terrorists.”

Customary warning gunshots, which residents have been living with for the two years, have recently escalated into missile attacks.

Ahmed explains the horror of hearing a missile being launched and listening to it zip by before it lands on an unexpected target a minute later.

With nothing else to do, the residents stay in and hide either in basements or behind their thickest walls. Some opt to hide through the night in far off farms with no lights, knowing that their houses can be hit at any second.

Entire villages that were associated with militants have been effectively taken off the map due to heavy shelling, leaving them completely destroyed and deserted. These include Althouma, Mahdiya, Moqataa, Lofayta and Goura, among others.

“The military considers everyone in the city to be terrorists,” Essam says. “People tell [the Armed Forces] ‘We don’t want you to protect us, we know how to protect ourselves, just don’t shoot at our houses.’”

And aside from the experience of warfare by residents, diminishing services have also rendered their lives more difficult.

The main electricity line was hit in the July 1 attacks and left the city in a complete blackout for 13 days, according to Essam. Water was completely cut as well, and has returned partially over two weeks later.

Essam adds that some residents pooled funds to buy a generator at a steep price, due to high demand. However, they could not operate it given the lack of fuel, which has been entirely prohibited from entering the city since last September, purportedly because terrorists use it for armaments.

“But what about the other 70,000 inhabitants of the city?” asks Essam.

In order to operate the generators, some of the residents drive to Arish, 40 km away, and smuggle gas back in the city in one-liter bottles. Others take gas out of their cars.

Salt-water wells are the main source for water in Sheikh Zuwayed, while a distillation unit installed two years ago provides the city’s only supply of drinking water. Essam says that, for the last year, the unit pumped water once every week or 10 days and people would store it. More recently, drinking water has only been available every three weeks, and sometimes once a month. Some have resorted to drinking salt water, according to residents.

Medical services are almost non-existent. Ambulances are banned, especially at night, and the Sheikh Zuwayed hospital is said to be understaffed and poorly equipped. Doctors at private clinics have mostly fled.

When Ahmed’s cousin was in labor in Sheikh Zuwayed, the emergency services refused to come. The family were forced to wait until dawn, when the curfew ended, to take her to a private clinic 16 kilometers away. As a result of the delayed medical care, the baby died, and the mother sustained complications that will make future chances of getting pregnant more difficult.

Cell phone networks rarely function, leaving unstable landlines and Internet connection as the only means of communication.

The violence has dealt a strong blow to the city’s economy, which is now almost at a standstill. Its market, once a busy hub, is mostly deserted today, while agriculture, the town’s main activity, has been stalled by a two-year curfew and constant attacks.

Fleeing has become one of the only options.

Essam sees pick-up trucks loaded with people and belongings leaving every day. Some residents estimate that over half of the town’s inhabitants have already left, despite military reassurances, sometimes voiced through microphones touring the town.

However, leaving is not easy. The fare of a ride from Sheikh Zuwayed to Arish, the main city in North Sinai, fluctuated from LE8 to LE100 in the days following the July 1 attacks. Rent in Arish has skyrocketed as people have been fleeing from Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, where the military has evacuated people to establish a buffer zone to combat the smuggling of arms and militants from Gaza. Additionally, Essam says that recently, almost every Sheikh Zuwayed resident attempting to travel by road gets picked up in checkpoints near Arish and Beir al-Abd and detained for a few days.

Ahmed, along with many residents, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. “When the military entered Sheikh Zuwayed, we were happy, and we thought they would protect us from the terrorists. But now we’re stuck between the two: the terrorists accuse us of dealing with the military and the military says we’re all terrorists.”

*Note: All names in this story have been changed at the sources’ request.


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