14 days of a storm in July: Recounting what happened in Arish
 
 

On the morning of Monday, July 17, and for hours afterward, Khaled tried to contact his family in Arish to check on his mother. She was sick and had a surgery planned at Arish Hospital.

Khaled, like many of Sinai’s youth, left his hometown in Arish and sought work in Cairo away from the war and the security crackdown on the peninsula that has been taking place for years.  

When he failed to reach his family, Khaled assumed communication networks had been shut down for the morning, as has been the case on a daily basis for the four-year duration of the state’s war on terrorism in North Sinai. But after failing repeatedly to contact them, he started to worry. Later, through a friend’s Facebook page, he found out that communication networks had been shut down and that the situation in Arish was not stable.

Khaled was only able to contact his family at 10 pm the next day, July 18, when communication was restored. He was able to hear his mother’s voice and check on her. “It feels as if I were born again,” he says. Fewer than 45 minutes later, however, the networks were shut down again.

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The city of Arish is the capital of the governorate of North Sinai. It has 15 residential districts and four villages, in which around 180,000 people live. Since October 2014, the city, along with others in the governorate, has been the site of an exceptional set of circumstances: The state imposed a state of emergency and a curfew, along with a host of other measures in the context of its war on terrorism. Since then, the city’s residents have gone about their lives amid an ongoing war between the military and militants of the so-called Province of Sinai.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail last renewed the curfew on July 9, a decision that was put into effect the next day and is due to last until September 2017. In most areas, with the exception of Arish, the curfew will last between 7 pm and 6 am each day. In Arish, the timeframe is shorter: Residents cannot be outside between 1 am and 5 am.

Ismail’s decision to renew the curfew came days after Islamic State militants carried out one of the deadliest attacks in the last two years in North Sinai, when dozens of masked militants in 20 four-by-four vehicles descended on a checkpoint southwest of Rafah. At least 23 Armed Forces soldiers were killed and dozens of others were injured in the attack.  

In the month after the attack, most notably from August 17 to 30, the people of Arish were largely unable to communicate with the world outside their immediate sphere for days at a time. On most days, Arish residents had less than an hour of reliable means of communication.

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Before mid July, access to all websites and social media networks was blocked for users inside Arish. This applied to Facebook, Whatsapp and various email providers, according to a number of the city’s residents, who say they called internet companies to inquire about the situation, only to be told to “restart their routers.” Residents who spoke with telecommunications branches in Arish were told that the crisis might have been caused by “pressure on the servers due to the announcement of secondary school results.”

The prolonged disruption in service raised doubts among citizens as to whether the move is an intentional one that is coming from the government, especially as some residents have been able to circumvent the block using programs and applications designed to avoid firewalls and censorship. These doubts were also expressed by an employee working at the Arish branch of an Egyptian telecommunications company, who confirmed, “All social media networking websites and emails were completely blocked in North Sinai on July 10.” 

For two weeks at the end of July and beginning of August, Yasmine Mohamed waited for the internet service to improve in Arish so that she could make a pressing electronic money transfer from a local post office — where e-transfers are often cheaper and easier to carry out — to one of her friends who lives outside the governorate. She recounts the events of July 31, when the main hall of the city’s primary post office was crowded with people.

“People were literally on top of each other. Everyone was trying to get everything done before the network was suspended. A fight was erupting every two minutes, either between the people themselves or with the post office’s employees. As they queued, people shared their worries: One was unable to pay rent, another’s daughter was in hospital and he needed money for her treatment after he had already borrowed money from everyone he knew. All of a sudden, one voice silenced the noise in the hall and declared that the network had been suspended. Everything fell silent. Everyone quietly left.”

Suspending financial services in post offices meant people had to travel more than 40 kilometers to the city of Bir al-Abd, where the telecommunications block wasn’t in effect, in order to make deposits or withdrawals.

This, however, wasn’t the only problem.

The communications blackout paralyzed the city. All public services that rely on an internet connection came to a complete halt, including passport authorities, the civil registry and the post office pension services. Moreover, secondary schools students were unable to submit their electronic applications from within Arish for the first or second stage of university applications.

At the same time, doubts over whether the interruption was intentional were compounded by a large scale military campaign in various areas of south Arish.

According to city residents, part of the North Sinai security forces’ strategy is to suspend communication channels in the governorate’s cities — Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish — during military operations. The suspensions usually take place during the day under the pretext of preventing militants from using the cities’ networks to remotely detonate explosives.

The near complete absence of communication became the backdrop to a more vicious and brutal reality for the citizens of Arish, who found themselves in the middle of a war between security forces and armed extremists.

With the beginning of the new security crackdown, security forces imposed a daytime curfew on the south of the city, close to the ring road, which goes through some residential districts and populated villages.

Those in the center of the city, however, were not much luckier than those on the outskirts, especially those close to security posts.

An area of Arish that links several main roads — including Assiut Street and Nafoura Street — was completely closed off. Arish Church, on the city’s main street of 23rd of July, was closed to traffic by steel barricades, bringing the downtown area to a standstill. The same applied to the city council area and central communication hub.

Cars were forced to navigate through narrow and twisted roads, causing drivers extreme difficulty. The most inconvenient move was the closure of the road leading to the gas canister warehouse near the city’s industrial area. In order to refill their cylinders, which had just increased by LE60, Arish residents were forced to travel to Bir al-Abd.

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In the early hours of July 17, fighter jets flew over Arish at low altitude, sending reverberations through the city and disturbing residents who had already spent a night in complete panic.

At 5 am, when curfew ended, Hatem Mohamed got in his car and set off, intending to travel to Ismailia to run errands. Near the Masaeed area, south of Arish, however, he was surprisingly waylaid by a large contingent of military tanks and armored vehicles blocking the road and preventing entrance to the area. He attempted to drive another route, but when he reached the square that leads to the entrance and exit gate of Arish, Mohamed found it closed and was told that leaving the city had been prohibited. On either side of the gate was a long line of cars. No one could exit or enter the city.

Mohamed says that a number of citizens who were trying to exit Arish decided to remain at the gate, hoping that they would be allowed to pass through at some point. However, the situation started to worsen around noon, when the sounds of explosions and gunfire could clearly be heard coming from south of where they were located. Shortly after, all those waiting decided to return to the city center.

The sound of gunfire and explosions continued constantly, especially near the city’s security checkpoints. However, by 3.30 pm it was obvious that something even worse was about to take place.

At around this time, Atef Mohamed was making his way to his house, which is located near to the Swiss Inn Hotel on the coastal road.

“I always heard about armed men killing security personnel. However, this was the only time that I saw them face to face,” Atef says at the start of his interview with Mada Masr. “Drivers on the coastal road know that an armored security vehicle is usually parked at the end of the hotel’s fence on the west-bound road. Suddenly, a truck carrying a number of armed men opened fire on the security personnel. As they fired, they also yelled ‘Allah Akbar’.”

“The most horrifying scene,” he continues, “was when one of the armed men climbed atop the vehicle to raise the black flag of the Islamic State. Another took his photo. After that, the armed men gathered the dead bodies of the security personnel, placed them in the vehicle and threw a fire bomb into the security vehicle.”

It took civilians a long time to extinguish the fire before they were able to pull the soldiers from the vehicle. When they did, the bodies had been charred by the blaze. Many of those standing in the aftermath of the attack expressed surprised that help hadn’t arrived earlier, according to Atef, especially as the Nafoura checkpoint at the end of Bahr Street was very close. Atef says ambulances took a significant amount of time to arrive. In the end, one commanding officer and four ranking soldiers were killed and five others were injured in the attack.

***

On the morning of July 19, Soliman Mohamed left his home in the center of Arish to go to work at a school in the south of the city. He usually passes through the quarry checkpoint on his way to work, but things would be different this time.

“It was an awful day,” he remembers. “As soon as I reached the security checkpoint at 8 am, an explosive device went off near a number of armored police vehicles parked by one of the mosques. Afterwards, I heard warning shots in every direction. Everyone waiting in the area was afraid.”

“The security forces had to close down the barrier to prevent citizens from passing through,” Mohamed continues. “Ambulances came to evacuate security forces who had been injured or killed. We waited for hours until they allowed us to pass on foot. This is when I decided to go back home. However, a call from my manager forced me to pass through the checkpoint and continue on to the school.”

He was met by another explosion as soon as he reached the school.

“We all got down to the floor,” he recalls. “The fences protected us from the bullets and the shrapnel. After a few hours, we found out that a car rigged with explosives had attempted to break through the checkpoint.”

A source at Arish Hospital confirmed to Mada Masr that 30 civilians arrived for treatment that day, a figure which includes those injured and killed in the day’s fighting. The source says that the hospital received charred remains, and that all of those injured suffered burn wounds.

Five days later, on July 24, the Armed Forces spokesperson published a statement on the fighting under the title: “Aborting a major attempt to target a security checkpoint.” The statement included video footage of a tank driving over a car that exploded under its weight. The spokesperson claimed that the car was carrying armed militants, and that the ensuing blast killed seven civilians (three men, two women and two children) who happened to be in the area in front of the checkpoint when the explosion took place.

***

Throughout the campaign, especially from July 18 to 20, Arish’s Zohour district, which is located close to the main sites where the principal fighting occurred, was transformed into a battlefield. Bullets and shells penetrated the buildings and houses in the district.

Zohour overlooks the ring road on its southern side, an area where there are also olive farms, there is the Arish desert and the village of Masmi, which is one of the main areas where Province of Sinai militants are thought to be active in Arish.

“We used to hear the sounds of glass shattering against the fences of our houses. Everyone inside was in a state of fear.”

This is how Walid Mohamed, a Zohour resident, describes what he calls the “days of fear.”

“Most of the residential buildings in the district have gun marks and holes, especially those close to the Zohour school and the technical school,” he says. “Many people had to remain outside their homes until July 30, especially after an artillery shell penetrated an apartment in one of the buildings. Thank God it ended well and the shell didn’t explode, but the apartment was badly damaged.”

But not everyone in Zohour district was as lucky. On the evening of July 17, Gasim al-Tahawy was celebrating his wedding with his relatives and friends. Two days after the wedding, Tahawy was standing in his apartment when he was shot by a stray bullet. He was transported to Arish hospital to receive medical care, but doctors were not able to save him.

***

At the end of July, the Armed Forces concluded the security campaign that they described as the fourth phase of “Operation Martyr’s Rights.” Communication networks and internet service were partially restored. Security forces opened roads to surrounding areas to traffic, announcing the end of the storm that had engulfed the city. But the militant attacks on security forces in the city continue, albeit at a slower pace.

The city is living a cautious calm. The people of Arish fear this calm is the prelude to a new storm, and anticipation of a coming tumult is fuelled by their memories of the horrors they experienced in the month of July and the blood that was left behind.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

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Mourad Higazy