A day in Deir al-Garnous: Christian families mourn in Minya
“People tell us our loved ones are better off in heaven. Who told them they would not have been well if they continued to live?”
A service in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Deir al-Garnous for 7 of the victims killed in the St. Samuel Monastery shooting - Photograph: روجيه أنيس

The women of Deir al-Garnous village in Minya march solemnly from their homes dressed in black. Seven residents of the village were among those killed on their way to St. Samuel Monastery last Friday.

The women gather at the entrance to Deir al-Garnous to perform a mourning ritual, welcoming neighbors from nearby villages and visiting the homes of those who lost loved ones. They are of all ages, and walk in lines with the older women at the front wearing the open-necked robes typical in Upper Egypt, their hair tied back with scarves. Black veils made of tulle and synthetic silk fall loosely over their heads and shoulders.

Women from nearby villages offer their condolences to the families of the victims

“These are very bad days, my daughter,” one of them tells me. “I have never seen what we have seen during these years. I used to take my daughters to the fields where we would farm, sit, eat and rest. All of us, Muslims and Christians … May god protect our daughters and children. We have already felt enough heartache and anguish over our neighbors in Karam.”

Exactly a year ago, an elderly Christian woman was stripped naked by her Muslim neighbors in the nearby village of Karam as a result of rumors her son was in a relationship with a divorced Muslim woman.

The women speak

Deir al-Ganous is a majority Coptic Christian village in Upper Egypt. The door of every home is open, even those that didn’t lose a loved one in the attack. They share each others’ pain as one, they say, especially in a such a close-knit community that is bound together by intermarriage.

Women flock to the house of Ishaq Lamei, who was killed in the attack, to pay their respects to his wife and daughters. The windows and gate of the building are decorated with wrought iron in the shape of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Some of the women stand outside, waiting for others to leave. They tell me Lamei’s daughter, Wafaa, is a high school student who was supposed to join her father at the monastery on Friday, but chose to wait at home for her older brother who was on leave from military service.

Wafaa Lamei - Photograph: روجيه أنيس

Her voice shaking, she says, “The first time i realized the world is a bad place is not when my father was killed, but when I started high school. We don’t have one here, so I attended high school in a nearby village. This was the first time I heard obscenities, and verbal abuse that i cannot repeat,” she adds, explaining that children from the village rarely come across people from other faiths until they attend school or leave the village.

Friends of Wafaa Lamei (left) visit her home in Deir al-Garnous to offer their condolences for the loss of her father. - Photograph: روجيه أنيس

“We are grieving, though we take solace they are martyrs in heaven,” says one of the women who is visiting. But we are humans and citizens, ya masr. There is no justice here. Christians are not equal to Muslims. The future of our children is dark.”

During the attack the victims were made to choose between death or declaring the only god is Allah and Mohamed is his prophet.

“Why must the road to heaven be reached only through bombing and murder? Why can’t we get to heaven in the normal way?” one woman asks. “People tell us to rejoice, for our loved ones are in heaven and they are better off there. Who told them that they would not have been well if they had continued to live?”  

At some point in the conversation everyone stops and looks at Wafaa. “Now i have no dreams. Why would I dream in a country where there is no hope?” she says. “My father was soft on me and never pressured me into doing anything I didn’t want to do. Now I am stronger than I was before. I am not afraid of anything or anybody.”

The men wonder

As soon as news of the attack spread to the village, a large tent was mounted in front of the church, where mourners and visitors from neighboring villages have been congregating around the clock.

Ashraf Ishaq was in Mahalla al-Kubra, where he lives, when he heard the news. Since then he has been in a daze. “We had to keep silent,” Ishaq says. “It is true we are peaceful, but this is not fair.” He recalls how security forces and the Health Ministry treated his brother’s body. “His body was in the hospital from 10 am, and no death certificate was issued until 5 pm. When our priest asked the police officer present whether this was too much of a delay, he answered, ‘Do you want to cause trouble?’”

The matter didn’t end with the issuing of death certificates. Lamei’s cousin Milad Rizk accompanied the bodies from the site of the attack to the hospital, and has several issues with how the death certificates were written. Some say the cause of death was circulatory failure, not a gunshot wound, which may affect the possibilities for their families to seek compensation.

“They told us they would change the certificates later, and that they just wrote this for now so they could bury them,” Rizk says. “Of course, changing certificates is difficult and can take months.”

“Aren’t we in a state of emergency, meaning the military is in charge? Doesn’t the military have planes in Minya and Beni Suef that could have followed the criminals? Are there no planes with which to transport the wounded?” he asks. “We are not ignorant and we are not idiots, though this appears to be what the state believes, judging from how it treats us. We are being silenced.”

Silence is a recurring theme throughout the conversations.

“The state wants to silence us,” Ishaq tells me.

Health Minister Ahmed Rady ordered the transfer of those who were seriously injured to hospitals in Cairo by land immediately after the attack.

“We moved the bodies in trucks, some families took them in tuk tuks,” Rizk says.

“Ok, so the state doesn’t know these terrorists, but it knows doctors and nurses and police officers,” he adds. “What has Libya got to do with us? These are big interests that have nothing to do with Copts. They should come and see the racism we experience when receiving treatment at hospitals and from security forces.

“When we told the hospital we wanted to bathe the bodies in preparation for burial, they told us there is no water in the hospital.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed the country in the aftermath of the attack, saying: “What you have seen today will not be without consequences, and the camps where those [terrorists] came from and where they trained have been very strongly hit.”

“Terrorism is here in Egypt, but they can’t speak about it, so they say we attacked the terrorists elsewhere. If we talk, they tell us we are causing trouble. Why didn’t they use a plane to try and find the criminals who must have hidden somewhere near to the monastery?” Rizk says.

Sisi pointed to Egyptian aerial attacks in Derna, a stronghold of the Shura Council of the Derna Mujahedeen in Libya, even though they denied their connection to the attack in Minya, saying they drove the Islamic State out of Derna and that they are the ones who are responsible.  

Ishaq believes the threat comes from within Egypt. “When we told the hospital that we wanted to bathe the bodies in preparation for burial, they told us there is no water in the hospital. We washed the bodies with water hoses that we connected to houses by the gate of the hospital. Would they accept that for a Muslim body?” 

“The most apparent enemy is the terrorist groups that the state claims to be attacking,” says Father Matta al-Qoms Akhnoukh, pastor of the Deir al-Garnous church. “But the hidden enemy, the more brutal one, is the security gap in protecting Christians, and the lack of punishment for those who commit crimes against them. The hidden enemy is the gap in medical care because the victims are Christians. Can you imagine the pain and anguish when we have ask for water in buckets to wash the bodies?”

“These people are known to the state and they work in state institutions. Their behavior shames authorities who claim they are against racism. They make us feel that president Sisi is working alone in defending Christians, because those under him do the opposite of what he says. What is he going to do about this?”

Ishaq continues to receive condolences for his brother and other men of the village. From time to time, he returns to continue his conversation with me. “It is good the martyrs are in heaven, they are lucky. But I, as a citizen, am still alive. What am I supposed to do? What kind of future awaits our children and grandchildren in this situation?”

The child hero

Fourteen-year-old Marco and his brother, 10-year-old Mina, whose father was driving the truck transporting the workers, and who also lost his life in the terrorist attack on Friday, are sitting in the funeral tent. Villagers approach them to pay their condolences. Marco is singled out as a hero. He is the one who reported the attack after the terrorists left.

Marco and Mina - Photograph: روجيه أنيس

After receiving condolences, Marco and Mina returned home and sat in a circle of dozens of men from the families of survivors. “Stay strong, Marco, you are a hero,” one of them tells him. “You did what was not easy for anybody else to do,” another one tells him. Despite their sympathy, Marco breaks down and cries.

“The terrorists stopped the car and took Ayad [their father] away,” the boys’ uncle tells me. Marco and Mina were there too. They told the children to run far away, so they did. After they saw the terrorists’ cars abandoned in the middle of the desert, they returned. Marco took the car and drove for one kilometer until he got phone signal. He contacted other villagers, told them what happened and then returned to wait by the bodies.”

Marco’s face changes back into a daze. Mina holds his hand and looks at him.

Their uncle proceeds, “Ayad, God bless his soul, was teaching Marco to drive despite his young age, especially on the rough road.”

Translated by Lina Attalah

All photos by Roger Anis

Karoline Kamel 

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