Scenes from Arish: In search of food in a besieged city

Khaled Mohamed, a young man in his 30s, left his house in central Arish in the early hours of February 22 on a journey to buy groceries and vegetables, which have largely been absent from the city since the beginning of Operation Sinai 2018.

After heading to the Rifai and Mahasna markets, two of the city’s main destinations for supplies, he returned back largely empty handed, his only finds being herbs, such as watercress and parsley. However, with rumors spreading that a truck carrying vegetables might arrive in the city, he made plans to go back to the market in the afternoon.

He did so hours later, heading back to the market from his house via a side street in central Arish. When he arrived, he found dozens of women and men waiting for the military food distribution trucks that sell limited rations of frozen meat, poultry and vegetables, all of which normally park in front of the old branch of the National Bank of Egypt.

Civilians usually know that military food trucks are coming into the city when a police armored personnel carrier arrives to secure the area, Mohamed tells Mada Masr. That Thursday, however, he says there was no advanced sign, as the APC didn’t show up. With dozens of people waiting in the street, Mohamed says he saw the cars appear in the distance, at which point everyone prepared to queue to secure the groceries, which often run out fast.

To everyone’s surprise, however, the trucks passed by the gathered crowd and headed toward Rifai Square. The queues of people, in turn, began to run after the trucks toward 23 July Street.

Mohamed describes the scene as “very absurd and frightening.”

“In Arish now, we are running after trucks to get food!” he says.

On February 22, two weeks had passed since the launch of Operation Sinai 2018, the state’s ongoing security campaign against militants in the peninsula. Under the strict limitations on movement imposed by the Armed Forces, the cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish had been emptied of all commonly used vegetables, poultry, legumes and flour. The shortage has led to a devastating food crisis, especially in North Sinai’s capital and highly populated city of Arish.

Among the security measures taken as part of the military campaign was the closure of the international roads leading to North Sinai, preventing the entry of vegetables and essential food products, as well as butane cylinders, medicines, medical supplies and flour, which is considered a necessary commodity in every house in Sinai.

As the hour approached 8 pm on Thursday, Hossam al-Rifai, the member of Parliament representing the city, announced on his Facebook page that the supply trucks carrying food had passed the Midan checkpoint west of Arish.

The residents of Masaeed on the western side of the city were waiting for the trucks to pass by their neighborhood on the coastal international road. They took pictures of the cars and posted them on social media, attempting to confirm and break the news to the rest of the civilians hoping for relief to the crisis.

Only three trucks carrying vegetables were allowed to pass by the authorities. Arish, however, has a population estimated at around 180,000, according to a 2016 count, in addition to hundreds of displaced families who escaped fighting in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.

Despite the limited supplies, residents thought this might be the beginning of an end to the crisis.

Trucks carrying vegetables moving along the international road on their way to central Arish

Residents later discovered that the trucks belonged to a vegetable trader, who owns a goods outlet in Attalawy Square in central Arish, and who managed to secure the passage of the trucks after negotiations between the Federation of Egypt Chambers of Commerce and the Armed Forces.

As the news spread, dozens of men and women camped in the areas around the merchant’s outlet and spent the night waiting, according to eyewitnesses.  Nevertheless, hours passed with nothing happening, and those gathered left as the curfew approached.

In the early morning of Friday, February 23, Soliman Mohamed, a young man in his 20s, left his house to buy bread from the nearby bakery in central Arish, a near daily routine he has undergone since the ninth day of the crisis, as he has come to fear he would wake up the next day to a city with no bread.

At the bakery, Mohamed found a scene that broke with the norm. “It was unusually crowded. Everyone was talking about the food trucks. Some squabbling took place, as everyone wanted to get their share quickly and head to the market, hopeful for a few kilos of vegetables before they run out,” he says.

“There was an unusually fast pace to the city at 7 am, despite that fact that it was a Friday. Residents were heading back and forth to the markets in the main 23 July Street,” Mohamed says, recalling movement on the street as he was waiting in line to receive his share of bread, which he was given at 8.30 am.

After delivering the bread to his house nearby, he left to the main Rifai Market.

The food trucks that residents had once thought of as a good omen were slowly turning into a nightmare.

It was similar to a protest march, Mohamed says. “Whole families were heading to the markets. Some carrying bags and others with carts, all hoping to go home loaded with vegetables.”

Those headed to the market would ask anyone who came from the opposite direction if they had found vegetables, according to Mohamed.

“Have the merchants started selling? Is there anything in the market?” they would ask.

The answers were usually “Nothing, and the search is still ongoing.”

In Rifai Square, at the end of 23 July Street, hundreds of people, including women carrying their children, elders, men and young people, gathered on the pavement waiting for the supplies that they had been without for 14 days.

The situation was similar in Mahasna and Attalawy markets.

Arish citizens in Refai Square awaiting vegetables.

Things remained the same through Friday prayers. By the afternoon, the trucks hadn’t shown up, and no one knew where they had disappeared to away from the city’s main markets.

Residents of the Dahiya neighborhood in front of one of the vegetable stands on Friday, February 23

A young man who works in a charity group in North Sinai tells Mada Masr that “the goods in the cars were supposed to be unloaded in the merchant’s storage house and placed into plastic bags, as only certain portions would have been sold.” But this never happened, according to the source. Personnel from the Ministry of Supply’s local directorate came and confiscated the trucks, unloading the goods into their own storage houses. He says that the directorate workers said that they would be handling the selling and distribution of the vegetables from now on.

Before communications resumed on Friday night, everyone knew that merchants in the Dahiya area in eastern Arish and Masaeed had received supplies of vegetables and sold them at high and varied prices, with no supervision.

A woman who lives in the Dahiya area tells Mada Masr that “vegetable prices were varied and portions were limited. Some traders took advantage of the crisis and overpriced their goods.”

“A kilo of onions or potatoes ranged from LE10 to LE15, while green peppers were sold for LE15,” she says.

When people started to threaten to report the merchants to the officials, she adds, they were told, “Let the supply [offices] give you vegetables!”

Some of the merchants placed an assortment of vegetables in bags that were sold for LE100.

A mix of vegetables sold as a whole with high prices by merchants who took advantage of the crisis

Most of the residents of Arish returned home empty handed, having failed to buy the vegetables they had heard about but never saw.

The next day, Saturday February 24, North Sinai Governor Khaled Abdel Ghafour Harhour held a press conference to announce that there would be enough food supplies to meet the demands of the governorate.

In his interview with the privately owned satellite channel Extra News, Harhour said “The Armed Forces are providing administrative security for civilians in Sinai, including food and water. And they [the military] should take credit for it. There are a lot of newly-opened outlets where meat, poultry, vegetables and food products are available at low prices.”

He added that there is a “strategic supply” of food products in the governorate, enough to last for a long period of time.

Similarly, Supply Minister Ali Meselhy asserted that there were food products available in North Sinai, stressing that the ministry is keen to provide low priced goods, while describing the strategic reserve of food in North Sinai as the highest in the country.

On Saturday night, MP Hossam al-Rifai announced that seven cars carrying yogurt and other dairy products were headed to Arish. However, residents were not optimistic, fearing the same chaos that had occurred with the vegetable cars.

Dairy products and yogurt are a vital resource for most residential houses in Arish, especially those with children. Since Operation Sinai 2018’s launch on February 9, the shortage has strained many of these households.

With rumors of the truck’s arrival, many residents decided not to wait for distribution, and headed directly to the distribution company that  had received the other shipments.

The crowds that gathered close to Nasr Mosque in search of food prompted the company to institute rationing measures, limiting each person to two yogurts, according to some residents. Some described what happened with the cars on Friday and Saturday as “The Arish war of vegetables and yogurt.”

As the third week of the military campaign approached, the continued blockade prompted other shortages of frozen meat and poultry, as well as lentils, beans and pasta.

An owner of a well known grocery shop selling frozen products on 23 July Street tells Mada Masr that the Supply Directorate’s decision to seize the vegetable trucks raised caution among merchants who didn’t want their products taken away and sold.

“Our good are expensive,” he says. “If taken by the supply [directorate], it will be a heavy loss.”  

This pushed hundreds of residents to queue in front of military food trucks, whose supplies barely sufficed to meet demand. Those staffing the trucks handed one kilo of a random assortment of vegetables to each person.

In order to control the overcrowdedness and prevent stampedes, security forces around the outlets started to fire warning shots into the air, something they hadn’t yet done since the start of the military campaign.

Dozens of Arish residents standing in front of military-owned mobile food outlets.

Some locally grown but unripe vegetables — such as green tomatoes and small green onions — began to surface in Arish markets. However, they sold out after a few hours.

Some vegetables merchants in the Refai markets attempted to garner some revenue by selling packets of biscuits, which families bought at prices of between LE10 and LE15 to ease their children’s hunger amid the absence of dairy products.

Poultry farm owners faced a similar situation. They had to sell chickens before they had reached maturity because they feared they would die, as the blockade limited their transport. In poultry shops in Arish, full chickens on sale weighed between 500 and 800 grams. However, many of these were not sold due to the high price they were being sold at — LE33 per kilo — and their small size.

The same applies to the fish market, which has been closed since the beginning of the military operation, as the border guard forces banned fishermen from working. Some merchants started to sell Feiskh (salted and dried gray mullet), which is usually on sale during the second half of Ramadan, in order to meet the gap in supply caused by the crisis.

Bakeries also halted their activities after the supply of natural gas to the city was stopped.

Outside the markets and on the street, residents walk with their eyes on the bags of others. If someone can see that a bag has tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onions or zucchini inside, they stop the person carrying the bag and ask where they got them from, which merchant sold them and in which market.

On Tuesday February 27, security forces allowed vegetables trucks, sent by Cairo-based local Sinai businessmen, through the blockade. The products in the trucks were due to be distributed for free, but when the trucks arrived later in the day,  residents thought the goods were going to be distributed and sold in the markets. After the cars started giving out bags of vegetables for free, hundreds made their way to Rifai Square, leading to several arguments, until the driver abandoned the scene with the truck. A resident documented the moment when the car arrived and the locals gathered around it, publishing it on social media.  

Arish citizens condemned the incident on their social media accounts, arguing that families cannot afford the products on offer. Some called the act an insult. And others asked why private food cars owned by merchants hadn’t been permitted to pass if security forces had allowed the Sinai businessmen’s trucks through.

In the areas of Zohour, Masaeed, and Raeysa, some merchants were able to obtain vegetables and sell them in their private shops to dozens of families waiting in long queues.

Two vegetable merchants from the markets of Rifai and Mahasna tell Mada Masr that no one knows when the cars get in, and how their products are sold. They say they attempted to ask the Supply Directorate, but were not given an answer.

Residents’ anger prompted MP Hossam al-Rifai to post an apology on social media. “No one intended to humiliate you. They rushed to help out their people by offering necessary products,” he wrote. “There will not be free distribution of any goods, and we are working hard to allow the passage of all goods and to provide a respectable, humane, and just system for sales and the monitoring of markets,” he wrote in a second post.

On February 27, residents waited in Rifai Square for the military-owned food trucks, which have become the only source of food in the city. Only in the afternoon did the trucks arrive. People quickly surrounded the trucks, with the numbers increasing every minute.

Not far from the military trucks, there was a pile of garbage, with leftovers from the markets and bakeries. An elderly man holding a plastic bag picked through the pile, looking for anything that might be edible. When he came across a loaf of bread and some baked goods, he tasted them to see if they were still good. Satisfied, he gathered the rest in his bag.

An older women, far away from the trucks, ran toward them when she saw them arrive. However, she arrived to find a long queue, and after waiting for a long time, she returned to the sidewalk and sat down. Hands on her head, she prayed in despair: “God have mercy on us.”