One night last November, near dawn, Suleiman* was woken by noises and colorful lights flooding the street. He looked out and saw a security vehicle and a military tank offloading masked soldiers who began climbing up a nearby building where his relative Mohamed Ayoub lives.
Ayoub and Suleiman’s homes overlook the Mediterranean Sea, near the Swiss-In Hotel, in an area that used to be the tourism center of Arish, North Sinai, before the deteriorating security situation brought tourism to a halt.
That night, Suleiman heard the sounds of breaking doors in his relative’s building, and did not know what to expect. “Because of the lack of security, when we hear noises like this, we don’t know whether it’s security forces, thugs or militants, so I was afraid to go out and see what was happening,” he says.
Suleiman later learned that the commotion was caused by security forces breaking into the house to arrest Ayoub, his 18-year-old brother and their father.
After spending two days at the police station, Ayoub’s brother and father were released, however he remained missing. Their journey to find him commenced, a journey that has become familiar to the families of hundreds who have fallen victim to the widespread security practice of forced disappearance, and one that, for Suleiman and his family, came to a tragic end.
How can they say that he was killed in clashes when he’s been in their custody and they’re responsible for his safety?
On January 13, the Interior Ministry released a statement announcing the killing of 10 young local men in an exchange of fire after security forces stormed a militant hideout in Arish. The statement released the names of six of those killed, including Ayoub, and said that the identities of the remaining four are unknown. They were accused of taking part in the most recent attack on a security checkpoint in Arish which killed seven police personnel and one civilian.
Suleiman recounts: “We went to look for him. They said he was in Battalion 101 (the central military command base in Arish), then they said he’s in Arish Police Station 3, then they said he’s in the National Security headquarters, then that he was transferred to Ismailia. Then they said, be patient he’ll be out in a couple of days. We never saw him again, in the 50 days since he was taken, until we found his name in the Interior Ministry’s statement. How can they say that he was killed in clashes when he’s been in their custody and they’re responsible for his safety?”
Suleiman adds that the family was able to locate Ayoub’s body after the authorities contacted representatives of North Sinai in Parliament, who told them that families were permitted take the bodies from the Ismailia general hospital.
He couldn’t think of much to say about the quiet life of 23-year-old Ayoub which, since his graduation from a technical high school, revolved primarily around his house and his work as a driver.
The Interior Ministry’s statement was met by wave of rage from citizens of Arish, with many asserting that those listed had been detained and forcibly disappeared months ago. They held a meeting which was widely attended by many, including representatives from the city’s families, during which they threatened civil disobedience.
Enraged, the people have gone out to the streets en masse for each of the men’s funerals, since the arrival of the first body on January 14, chanting “the police are thugs.” This, in the midst of security forces’ iron grip, is the largest street movement that the city has witnessed since 2011. A popular funeral was also held for Ayoub on the evening of January 18 in Arish.
The situation can’t continue like this, there’s no law to protect us, and those who should protect us are the ones who kill us. It seems like the only thing we do around here now is put people in their graves.
Suleiman says that security “abducting” young men from the streets or their houses and keeping no record of their arrest has become a widespread phenomenon in North Sinai.
He echoes others’ sentiments, that this incident was the last straw for many who had been putting up with injustices and difficult conditions for years.
“We have been patient. For four years we put up with forced relocation, the destruction of agricultural land, random arrests but we won’t accept our kids being returned to us shot and accused of terrorism,” Suleiman says, adding: “The situation can’t continue like this, there’s no law to protect us, and those who should protect us are the ones who kill us. It seems like the only thing we do around here now is put people in their graves.”
Following the ministry’s statement, reports of forcibly disappeared people flooded Facebook, posted by their friends and relatives as part of a local initiative to document these cases in order to protect them from the fate of the 10 killed in January.
One family is mourning the loss of two of its members, second cousins who were both mentioned in the ministry’s statement. Abdel Aty Ali Abdel Aty and Ahmed Youssef were carried on people’s shoulders in a march across the city as part of a combined funeral in mid-January. However, the family can’t give in to its grief as it continues to search for a third missing member. Youssef’s cousin Nour Aldin Al-Sayed was arrested 10 days after him in October and remains disappeared.
Ashraf**, a member of the family close to Youssef, says that the 24-year-old taxi driver hurried to say goodbye to his pregnant wife, who is still in high school, on the afternoon of October 17 when he saw security forces breaking down the front door of their newly furnished house, which they had moved into shortly after marrying in August. Ashraf says that security forces surrounded the building and searched all the apartments, arresting Youssef and his uncle; the only males present at the time.
He recounts that they violently assaulted Youssef and his wife, causing her to miscarry. He adds that when he inspected the house following the raid, it was entirely destroyed, with not one piece of furniture left intact and so much blood splattered across the apartment it looked like someone had been killed there.
Ashraf describes Youssef as “just a kid,” which is the impression that the juvenile photos posted on his Facebook account gives. Youssef’s uncle was released the next day, however the young driver remained missing. Ashraf says that although the security forces took his wife into the military vehicle with her husband, they quietly asked her to leave after blindfolding him so that he would think that she was detained as well. This could then be used as additional leverage against him during interrogations.
Ashraf says that the house raids and arrests of young men, “some of whom return and some don’t,” have become a common practice in Arish.
His family started the same futile process of trying to track him down. They sent notifications to the Interior Ministry and the General Prosecutor and toured police stations, but they didn’t learn anything about Youssef until they saw his name in the ministry’s statement.
The family is still looking for Youssef’s cousin Nour, who was also taken from his house and detained ten days after. Nour studied media at Sinai University and is married with one daughter, who was two months old at the time of his arrest in October.
The fact that Nour’s father is a retired police officer didn’t save him, as his father stood helpless, unable to deter the soldiers who dragged Nour to the police station before his eyes. During several visits to the Arish Security Directorate, where he had previously served, his father was told that investigations showed no evidence against Nour and that he would be released shortly. However, during his last visit around a week after the arrest, officers told Nour’s father that an unknown organization had taken him and that they were not aware of his whereabouts. The family has been unable to obtain any information about him since, and following Youssef’s death, their fears doubled.
“We want to know where he is, before we are stunned by news of his death like Youssef,” Ashraf says.
The armed conflict in North Sinai, fought between the military and militant groups since 2013, has been primarily centered on the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. However, the effects have been increasingly echoed in Arish in recent months. The city has seen an increase in militant attacks and oppressive security measures like house raids and random arrests.
*,**: names have been changed to protect sources.