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Into the Sinai

On May 24th we received word that the Rafah Crossing would be opened on Tuesday May 26th for 2 days. We left for Cairo the next day, arriving at 7:00 pm. On the plane we met a man named Musa. When he was fifteen and living in Gaza, he was shot by Israeli forces. He was evacuated from Gaza for surgery. He was all alone. He ended up in Australia where he was granted status as an asylum seeker. Now, fourteen years later, he was returning home to get married. He had been waiting in Jordan for the crossing to open since March. In the time he was gone he had lost 2 sisters and more extended family members than he cared to recount to Israeli bombs.

Outside Cairo airport we met Musa again. He was waiting for his uncle, and offered us a ride to the services (shared taxis) that would take us to Rafah. At 1:30 am we were on our way to the Sinai. We hoped to cross in the early morning hours. We wanted to get to Rafah by the time the border opened.

Crossing the Sinai is dangerous, especially at night. The people living there have long been neglected by the central government and during the revolution local Bedouin tribesman found an opportunity to exploit government weakness. After the coup, the Sisi government began cracking down on people in the Sinai. Several jihadist groups have joined the fray. Villages we drove through had been emptied. Houses were bombed. Mosques closed down, schools taken over for military outposts. Tanks and APVs were outside every outpost and lined the checkpoints on the road. We avoided the city of Al-Arish entirely. We regularly diverted to small roads through local villages where there were fewer checkpoints and less hazards. The roads were crowded with cars trying to get to the border. The services all had enormous piles of luggage secured to the roofs.

We arrived at the crossing at 9:15 am. Nearly two thousand people were already waiting. The local Egyptian youth were out hustling people for the use of their rickety pushcarts. Business was good; there were not nearly enough carts. Others had donkey carts piled full of belongings. The drop off point for cars had been moved back from the crossing at least another 200 yards from its location in 2012. People would now need to drag their belongings 300 yards to the main gate. There were no lines, no organization. Soldiers were trying to keep the crowds from pushing past them. The energy was tense. It was going to be a harrowing headlong rush to the gate. Based on the numbers of people, I thought many would not cross today. We skirted past the donkeys and the pushcarts trying to get to the front of the chaotic crowd.

We were told that the border would open at 10 am. We managed to find a spot near the front that was somewhat quiet. Several very elderly people, some in wheelchairs, others with canes, were sitting on the curb waiting. Somewhere behind us a confrontation broke out and soldiers rushed into the crowd. More and more people walked around the carts and toward the front, leapfrogging the starting point established by the Egyptian military. The soldiers started screaming at people to go back, but the crowd was packed tight, people couldn’t go back. In response, several soldiers lifted their weapons, and fired into the air. The people stopped moving forward. This scenario repeated itself several times with the soldier in charge yelling that the crossing would not open if people didn’t move back. But moments later, without warning, everyone was suddenly running forward. We became separated from Musa as he rushed forward to separate himself from the crowd. There was more firing, this time behind us. The youth with the overloaded carts pushed as hard as they could, hitting people who couldn’t move out of their way fast enough. Baggage went tumbling into the roadway and got left behind. The elders in the front were quickly overtaken. We moved with the flow, but were overtaken as well. As we got closer, I saw armed soldiers on the parapet above the gate. Fifty yards from the gate an APV with soldiers armed with a rocket launcher and Kalashnikovs was in the roadway. Soldiers allowed the first hundred people to rush past the APV to the gate. The soldiers at the APV stopped us. The carts and donkeys and people pulling suitcases and carting bundles all crammed forward. We were caught in the crush.

It was 10:30 am and the sun was blazing. There was no shade. We would remain in the crowd packed behind the APV for at least an hour. I heard F-16s in the sky before I saw them, and later heard that Israel bombed targets throughout Gaza after a rocket had been fired toward Israel.

There were dozens of soldiers, but they were completely unorganized. People pushed past them, the soldiers chased them down, screaming, and shoved them back toward the crowd. While they were distracted, others went around them. Tempers were flaring. Hundreds of people were jockeying to maneuver through a narrow six-foot space in between the APV and a low wall, others were moving around the APV where they managed to slip past the soldiers. Hanaa and I were pinned in between the pushcarts and several donkey carts and couldn’t move. The soldiers let two small groups of people through. We were now near the soldiers in front of the APV. They continued to scream at people to back up. No one listened, or moved back only to move forward as soon as the soldiers turned away.

A sense of desperation was palatable. Mothers with small children and the elderly begged the soldiers to let them pass. Men in wheelchairs and on crutches pointed toward the gate and argued their case. Little mercies were shown as some soldiers relented and let people move forward.

Finally, we too, were allowed to move forward. The crowd around the gate numbered at least 200 people. We were almost there. Before we reached this group a single young soldier with a Kalashnikov pointed his weapon at us and began screaming. We skidded to a halt as those behind us leaned into us and pushed us forward. He pointed to the ground and demanded no one move forward, not even an inch. He tried to separate woman and men. He pushed people back, screaming. People were focused on the gate; no one knew what he was screaming about until he was in their face. He kept his finger on the trigger of his weapon and kept raising it toward the crowd. I was worried he would shoot somebody.

People with infants and very old women tried to move to the side of the road to sit in the shade under the only tree left standing in the newly created buffer zone. There once was a small snack shop and a mosque here as well, but they were leveled along with all the olive groves. The soldier was raising his gun to women with infants. No one could talk to him. None of the other soldiers tried to calm him. Again we were forced to wait. In the blazing heat it seemed like forever, though it was less than an hour. We had no water. Everyone’s clothing was soaked through with sweat. Babies, young children, and some adults were crying. Later I would learn that an elderly woman, Yousra Al-Khatib, would die here in the heat.

The crossing has a 2-lane roadway with large gates to control cars as well as 4 gates for people. The people on the other side of the gate were collecting individual passports so the Mukhabarat (The Egyptian State Security Service) could examine them. Then they needed to find the people in the crowd and open the gate to let them pass. With the hundreds of people screaming at them to take their passports and let them cross, it was a process that was incredibly inefficient. It was also the process that I witnessed when I first came to Gaza in 2011. Nothing had been improved or repaired in the years in between.

Finally, we were allowed to move forward. It was 12:30. We were at the gate, but in the middle of the crowd. No one seemed to be moving past the gate, but then the soldiers began opening the gate in the roadway in order to retrieve the bags of people who had already been allowed inside. Every time the big gate opened, people desperately pushed and squeezed inside. At the same time, people were throwing 70 lb. pieces of luggage forward toward the gate, hitting the people trying to get in. Slowly Hanaa and I moved forward into the chaos, edging closer to the gate. It was inches at a time. Baggage was accumulating around our feet, making it harder to move. Still people pushed. Everyone was reaching forward, waving their passports and papers, shouting for the soldiers, “Bashar, bashar, please help, please take this!” I refused to yield as people tried to push by me, doing all in their power to get to the gate. We were now 2 people back from the gate itself. Finally Hanaa broke down. She yelled out, cursing. I don’t know what she said. But for a minute, the soldier paid attention. He asked which bags were hers. Two men by our sides, who had earlier pushed us out of their way, gathered our 3 bags. They hoisted them to the guards, who then pushed them through the gate. Hanaa followed, grabbing my arm and shouting, “We are together.” And in a moment we were through. We sat on the ground for a minute to rest. It was 1:30 pm. I was shocked and dumbfounded. Hanaa asked, “What do we do now?” A guard pointed to the Travel Hall 50 yards away. We gathered our belongings and our remaining strength, and we trudged toward the terminal.

Click here to read Crossing Rafah: Part One.

Johnny Barber writes on the Middle East. He can be reached at: dodger8mo@hotmail.com

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Johnny Barber writes on the Middle East. He can be reached at: dodger8mo@hotmail.com

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