Off the Arish-Qantara International Road, by the opening to a narrow lane leading to Rawda village, a private car stands in the middle of the street. Blood is spattered on the driver’s seat and there is a bullet hole in the windshield.
Just outside the village, which was the site of a violent attack on Friday in which militants detonated explosives and opened fire on people conducting Friday prayers, several pickup trucks wait in a line to collect the bodies of the victims. After the burial ground in the village reached its maximum capacity, trucks were used to move the remainder of the 305 killed to a graveyard in the neighboring village of Mazar.
Rawda is under the jurisdiction of the regional district of Bir al-Abd in North Sinai, located approximately 35 km to the east of the city. However, it is closer to the governorate capital of Arish, which is less than 20 km away. The population is approximately 2,111, most of whom are Sawarka — a tribe of the Jaririya clan.
The rest are people who relocated from the Nile Valley or tribespeople who fled the horrors of the ongoing war between the Armed Forces and militant groups in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah.
Travelers also often stop by Rawda, whose people are known for their hospitality and generosity toward transient visitors, as every household contributes a monthly payment for that very purpose.
At the heart of the village stands Belal Mosque. With a capacity of 500, it is the main mosque in Rawda. Across the street, one can see the zawya where Sufi rituals are performed. The four streets surrounding both houses of worship have been blocked by the villagers for several months after threats of a militant attack on the village were reported by security agencies, allegedly because of the prevalence of the Sufi Jaririya order in the village.
Across the road from the mosque, 10-year-old Khaled sits on a large log used as a roadblock. “Why are you sitting there?” we ask him. “My father and brother died there yesterday,” he says, without taking his eyes off the mosque.
Khaled survived the attack, but the lives of 27 other children — with whom he used to play every day — were taken, along with 278 adults, according to the official death toll.
The smell of blood is everywhere. Victims’ shoes are scattered over the steps leading up to the two main doors. The once-white floor of the front yard is barely visible under the pools of red. At first sight, it appears as if a wave of blood had flooded Rawda, overflowing into the mosque and soaking the green carpets and people’s scarves, white hats and canes.
Near the back door, Suleiman sits and looks at the blood on the ground. He points to a pool of blood and tells us, “This is my father’s blood. This is his iqal (headband). This is his oqda (scarf). This is his hat, and this is his cane. Here, my father was murdered.”
Choking on his tears, Suleiman recounts the details of the bloodbath. “I arrived at the mosque just before the Friday sermon. It was at capacity. I had to sit outside by the back door. A little while later, I decided to escape the sun’s heat and find myself a place among the crowd inside. Just as the sermon started, we heard heavy gunfire outside. We thought that a military patrol was in town, firing warning shots, but within seconds, all hell had broken loose.”
“Chaos broke out. Shots were coming from all directions. Three armed men rushed into the mosque’s yard and started shooting at worshipers indiscriminately. One fell dead next to me. I crawled toward a nearby window. I looked to where my father had been sitting, and I saw him lying dead in a pool of blood. I jumped out the window and I ran, with no destination in mind,” he says.
The armed men had not yet surrounded the mosque when Suleiman fled. He survived. However, the assailants later encircled the mosque and spread throughout the surrounding area, he recounts. They pursued anyone who attempted to flee, killing them on the streets of the village.
When the militants first began to fire their automatic weapons on the prayer-goers, Mohamed — a man in his 40s — was sitting at the center of the mosque, looking at the imam while he gave the sermon.
“I lay down on the floor and placed my hands above my head. Moments later, the man who I had been sitting next to slumped on top of me, his blood trickling over me. Before long, the man who had been sitting on my other side fell too. I stayed perfectly still under both of them,” he says.
Mohamed took cover under the two dead men for approximately 45 minutes while the killing continued.
“The sound of every gunshot killed me. I was waiting for my bullet,” he says. “Fifteen armed men were inside the mosque. Worshipers were still sitting down, and they were shooting them from behind. It looked like a mass execution. They aimed for their heads.”
Mohamed heard one gunman instruct the others not to let anyone escape and to “kill them all.”
“There was a stampede. People wanted to escape through the library, where there is a window overlooking the street and the old yard. But the armed men threw hand grenades into the crowd, killing a large number of people. Those who managed to reach the library were ambushed, as an armed man standing in the terrace threw small IEDs that killed the last of them. The mosque’s ceiling cracked under the impact of the explosions,” he recalls.
When it was all over, Mohamed went home. He took off his blood-soaked clothes, dug a hole in the ground and buried them. “I never want to see them again. I do not want to see any reminders. I would rip my head off, if I could,” he says.
According to Mohamed, the assailants spoke in an accent that did not sound like any of those from Sinai or Egypt. Rather, it was closer to a Levantine dialect. They were large-framed, unlike Sinaites. “They were not of the Sawarka, Bayadiya, Armelat or Tarabin tribes, and they are not from Arish,” he says.
They were well-trained killers, he points out. They had perfect aim. Even from far away, their bullets hit their targets with precision.
Attiya and his cousin Atef dodged what would have been their certain deaths. Attiya was performing wudu (ablutions before prayers) in the mosque’s bathroom after the Friday sermon had started. Atef, a teacher, was asking his cousin to hurry up so that they could attend the sermon. The delay saved both young men’s lives.
When they heard the first gunshots, they hid inside a bathroom stall for an hour. “The sounds of shooting and screaming felt very close. It was terrifying outside,” Atef says.
“We heard footsteps. One of the militants was coming toward us. He shot a worshiper in the bathroom, but he left when another militant asked him to follow him somewhere else,” he adds.
An hour later, when the two young men were certain that the sounds had stopped, they left their hiding place. “Bodies were everywhere outside the mosque. Everywhere you looked, there was a body. Pools of blood were everywhere. Bodies and injured people were lined up all over the floors of the mosque and in the main yard,” says Atef, who is in tears as he paints the picture.
All of the villagers we spoke to say that the violence lasted for approximately 45 minutes. Not only did the militants kill people inside the mosque, they also stormed nearby houses looking for men who had not yet gone to prayer, dragging them outside and killing them in front of their families. Anyone found walking through the village was killed.
Before they left, they burned all cars in the center of the Rawda, so that they couldn’t be used to transport the wounded to hospitals.
By Friday night, most households had lost at least two or three people. Some households lost all their men, and no one were left to bury their dead. The Mansouriyeen family alone lost 50 people. But the largest toll was paid by the Jarira clan — the natives of the village. Every household in North Sinai knew at least one victim.
According to Ahmed, a young man from Bir al-Abd who volunteered at a hospital to help the wounded, 17 of those who were pronounced dead at the hospital remained unclaimed for hours. An injured man eventually provided some information about them. Upon trying to contact their families, villagers found out that they had all been killed and that their bodies were still at the mosque. Most of the 17 were members of two families. Villagers then buried them in the city of Bir al-Abd.
Rawda residents were furious with health officials in the governorate, as very few ambulances arrived as first responders, and they came quite late. According to villagers, the first response was carried out by relatives from neighboring villages who used their private cars and pickup trucks to move the injured to hospitals in Arish and Bir al-Abd.
The few ambulances barely moved a small number of injured people, sometimes four or five at a time in the same ambulance. Those who had been killed were not taken to hospitals, but rather laid down inside the mosque. The governorate, therefore, sent officers from the social solidarity and health ministry directorates in North Sinai to the mosque, where death certificates were issued at the door. Three hundred certificates were issued on the first day.
The Bir al-Abd General Hospital was not sufficiently prepared to handle emergencies, according to Rawda residents. It did not have enough blood units. Calls for residents to donate blood were made through mosques, but when they lined up outside the hospital, they found out that no bags were available to collect the donated blood.
Ahmed says that a critical lack of resources forced villagers to transport their injured family members outside Sinai, but even that was difficult due to the lack of ambulances.
Poultry farmers from Bir al-Abd padded the flatbeds of their pickup and medium-duty trucks with mattresses, volunteering to transfer the wounded to hospitals in other governorates, he tells Mada Masr.
In the neighboring village of Mazar, some spent Friday night digging a mass grave, while others continued to move the dead from the mosque in the trunks of their cars. It took hours to bury them in the unforgivingly cold night of the Sinai desert, in fear and anticipation of another attack on the civilian assembly that was largely comprised of individuals who had survived the afternoon attack.
Cars were bringing bodies from the mosque to the mass grave in the village of Mazar until the early hours of Saturday morning. Within these few hours, 300 people were buried.
Translated by Salma Khalifa