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Eva Dadrian tracks the aftermath of the massacre of Sudanese refugees in Cairo on Friday 30, December 2005, noting that it is an insult to the memory of those killed that the very regime which originally led to their flight to Egypt will soon be hosting an African Union Summit (in Khartoum, 14-16 January). Dadrian asks: “Will the African heads of state attending the AU Summit in Khartoum, in a humanitarian gesture, stand 60 seconds in silence in memory of the tragic incident in Cairo? I wonder whether any one of them will sense that 60 seconds is more than enough for a police truncheon to cut short the life of an African refugee?”

Human rights groups and opponents of the Sudanese government call the hosting of the African Union Summit by Khartoum (14-16 January 2006) an affront and an insult to the memory of the people of Darfur who have died at the hands of the very regime hosting the summit.

Observers and political activists are asking how a country which has a civil war in Darfur - where more than 2.5 million internally displaced people are still being subjected to attacks by government backed militias – and has some 500,000 refugees scattered in 5 neighbouring countries and more than 2 million Southern Sudanese IDPs in and around Khartoum, can be considered as the host of the AU Summit?

It is a further insult to the memory of those Sudanese refugees who were trampled to death or died of their wounds during and after the vicious attack by the Egyptian security police on the Mustafa Mahmoud Park, just across from the UNHCR office, on Friday 30, December 2005, where since September 26, 2005, they were staging a sit-in in protest at the UNHCR’s earlier decision to close their files and start their repatriation.

Whatever accusations can be had against the Sudanese refugees, like those made by Egyptian comedian Adel Imam, himself a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, who said, “they put their children in front of them as human shields” or a police officer, who said, “they were singing and dancing during the attack”, the high loss of life suggests that extreme brutality was used by the Egyptian security forces during the dawn attack.

Precise figures for the dead and wounded are still unclear. Various reports have put the death toll at 56, with 15 children and many women and elderly among them. According to Astrid van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), there are also over “70 injuries of various degrees of severity”.

As shocking as it may sound to the readership of Pambazuka News, the Egyptian security forces aimed mainly at the heads, kidneys and genital parts of male and female refugees alike. All those who died and whose corpses are still lying in morgues have head wounds, brain haemorrhages, burst kidneys and burst pancreas. Many of the refugees, Muslims and Christians alike, who were later released from the military barracks they were taken to, and who had gathered in a number of churches in Cairo, said that a refugee from Darfur, who was bleeding from his head wounds, was thrown off by the police from the military truck taking them to Al Torah security barracks. His body was later recovered by fellow Darfurians from the road where he had bled to death.

Human rights groups and MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood are calling for an independent investigation into the violent clashes of last Friday. In a statement issued on January 2, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) is saying “the Egyptian Security Forces should immediately investigate these deaths and unjustified violent incidents” stating that the police used “excessive force” in breaking up the three-month long peaceful sit-in. EOHR urges also that “all those responsible be brought to trial”. Fingers of accusation are pointed at Habib Al Adly, the minister of interior known for his notorious heavy-handed techniques against demonstrators and opponents to the Mubarak regime.

Civil society activists who organised a demonstration last Saturday in protest at the “Friday massacre in Mustapha Mahmoud Park” and in solidarity with the Sudanese refugees, were defiantly holding banners and posters that read “We are All Sudanese” and “Down with Habib Al Adly”. Al Adly, whose name means “The Just one” has just been reinstated in a new cabinet and took his oath of allegiance on Saturday, January 1, 2006, a day after the Friday events.

After 5 days locked in highly secured military barracks and security forces’ camps around Cairo, the Egyptian authorities announced that they were preparing to deport some 656 Sudanese. The official reason for the deportations is as vague as the destination the refugees will be taken to. It is believed that they will land either in Khartoum or in Juba. Among these refugees are people from Darfur where there are already 2.5 million internally displaced people living in camps and at the mercy of banditry. No one can guaranty their safety when they will reach Sudan.

For three days, members of the foreign and Egyptian media, human rights activists, and members of non-governmental organisations managed to keep in touch with the refuges held in the 5 military barracks, through their mobile phones. Then, silence fell and all contacts were cut off as “the police have taken away cell phones and money from our pockets” confirmed a Southern Sudanese, who, thanks to his Blue Card giving him Refugee Status, was released from Manshiet Nasr barracks, just a few hours before I met him in the Sakkakini church in Abbasseya, Cairo.

Some refugees, accused of being the instigators of the “violence against the security forces” (by the way according to the ministry of interior, some 73 policemen and officers were wounded during the attack) have “disappeared”. Human rights activists fear for them as unconfirmed reports are mentioning that the so-called leaders are being held in the special units of the dreaded Amn Al Markazi at Al Darrassa (Central Security) for “further interrogation”.

On the other hand, the EOHR stresses the very valid point that the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified by Egypt in 1981, should be implemented “through legislation consistent with the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees the right of refuge”. According to the UNHCR office, between 1994 and 2004, some 31,000 Sudanese were given refugee status and more than half were resettled in third countries. However, the vast majority of asylum seekers have not been granted refugee status and as such are disqualified from resettlement. Furthermore, the UNHCR changed its policies for the Sudanese refugees on the basis that the Naivasha Peace Agreement signed and ratified in January 2005, between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has brought peace and improved the conditions in Sudan.

For the past 48 hours, contradictory reports have been circulating in Cairo and ambiguous declarations made by both the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and the UNHCR Cairo office. Egyptian officials say that only those Sudanese whose asylum requests have been rejected by the UNHCR and who do not have legal residence in Egypt will be expelled, yet the UNHCR declares that the Egyptian authorities have promised not to repatriate any of the Sudanese refugees. There was no comment on the reports by the Egyptian officials. However, in a statement issued by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, some 100 refugees have been flown back to Khartoum “according to their wish to return home”.

Apart from the loss of life, the accusations and the blame, the consequences of these tragic events are already having serious repercussions on diplomatic relations between Cairo and the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). In a statement issued by GOSS, Vice President Riek Machar declares that his government is “greatly shocked by this callous act from the security forces of a friendly and sisterly country that has been known of spearheading the unity of the people of the Nile Valley, and particularly the peoples of Egypt and Sudan.”

The wording of the statement is extremely severe as it implies that what happened in Mustapha Mahmoud Park is a crime as it “breaks every known international law including the UN Human Rights Convention and the fundamental right to life.” In Southern Sudan politicians are already voicing a freeze on the diplomatic relations with Egypt, while unconfirmed reports from Sudan have mentioned the closure of the Egyptian consulate in Juba, on the request of GOSS.

But officials in Cairo, Khartoum and even the UNHCR have all rejected calls for an international investigation, so who is to stand by the fundamental right to life of some 25 million African refugees, homeless and IDPs? Will the African heads of state attending the AU Summit in Khartoum, in a “humanitarian” gesture, stand 60 seconds in silence in memory of the tragic incident in Cairo? I wonder whether any one of them will sense that 60 seconds is more than enough for a police truncheon to cut short the life of an African refugee?

* Eva Dadrian is an independent broadcaster and Political and Country Risk Analyst for print and broadcast media.

* Please send comments to [email protected]