'I'd rather be killed than go back': The risky journey for Egyptians escaping the security state
In a country with more than 60 thousand political prisoners and where members of the opposition and civil society are regularly jailed, pursued, or banned from travelling, many Egyptians see the dangerous journey of fleeing the country as their only path to freedom.
This year, there has been a drastic rise in the number of Egyptians looking to flee their country. The New Arab has spoken to several Egyptians who asked smugglers to help them cross the border after failing to do so via the airport, while the state’s security apparatus pursued them for months.
Sarah was arrested while travelling for work-related training. She was released after several months but had to appear at the police station three days a week, with court attendance every 45 days. She complied with these measures for about a year, until one day she was kidnapped by security forces.
She was blindfolded, handcuffed, and forcibly hidden for two days, during which she was beaten and threatened. She was finally released, only to repeat the ordeal weeks later. Sarah began to consider getting a new passport and leaving the country. But when she learned that her name was banned from issuing a passport for travel, she decided to escape across the border with Sudan.
"The instructions they received were clear: take a train from Cairo to Aswan in the south, bring a backpack with only one necessary piece of clothing, bring water and necessary food, money, a passport if you have one, and nothing else"
Fatima made the same decision under different circumstances. An active participant in the demonstrations against the 2013 coup that overthrew President Morsi, she was once attacked by thugs who threatened to hand her over to the police. After continuous raids by state security forces on her home, she decided to look for a safer place for herself and her daughters.
At the airport, Fatima was banned from travelling, detained, and threatened, while security refused to give her passport back. She spent the next six months arranging for her daughters to leave while trying to get a new passport issued, but to no avail.
Adam had bribed an airport staff and knew he was banned from travelling. To leave the country, he paid a smuggler about USD 1,400. Just a year later, when Fatima was making the trip, the price had risen to about USD 3,500.
The movie-like adventure started by providing them with a new phone number where they would be contacted about the details of times and movements inside Egypt. Once they reached an agreement with the smugglers, they had to be on standby.
The instructions they received were clear: take a train from Cairo to Aswan in the south, bring a backpack with only one necessary piece of clothing, bring water and necessary food, money, a passport if you have one, and nothing else.
Hossam, who had spent a year in Egyptian prison and faced a life sentence, thought he had been tricked after waiting for three hours at Aswan station. He had decided to take the train back when he received a call from the smugglers.
The travellers say they were transported by car to an abandoned house or workshop, where they waited for the rest of the group, which contained at most nine people according to the testimonies heard by The New Arab.
"I was more afraid of disappointment. I was about to throw myself into the unknown, and I preferred to be killed than to go back, especially to prison," said Adam, who spent four days waiting for his journey to begin.
Crossing the desert
The first leg of the journey was to cross the desert in a pickup truck. On each trip, there is a driver and a guide, pointing out routes to avoid that may have security checkpoints or ambushes, while keeping an eye out for quicksand. Rarely did they speak Arabic or the Egyptian dialect.
The travellers usually sat in the back for more than 12 hours a day, draping a piece of fabric over their heads to protect them from the scorching heat. Adam recounts being covered to avoid being seen while Hossam said he had to sit on top of boxes and electronic devices for the entire journey.
In the stories heard by The New Arab, the shortest trip took three days in the desert while the longest lasted six days. They drove from dawn until late night, and the heat of the day and cold of the night made both unbearable for the travellers, who had only a backpack.
"Are you sure we could sleep in the open? Won't animals get out?" Fatima asked her driver. "Be only afraid of the human," he replied, referring to the security and border forces.
"'You deal with people who treat you like a commodity. You pay ten thousand, and you are sold if someone pays 12 thousand. It feels like you're cheap'"
"The first night was the most difficult. Deadly calm. In the moment the whole universe is silent," Fatima said, describing how she laid her head on her shoe to fall asleep.
Fatima wrote her will before starting her journey, but she couldn’t prepare for the dread she would feel when the driver pointed to some stones and told her about a previous group who died after getting lost and running out of food and water.
Fatima describes the smugglers as merciful. They made tea, once baked bread and shared it around, and hunted a gazelle to feed the group who had been surviving on dates for days. Also, they stopped when she asked to give herself an injection of painkillers for her kidney stones.
Drivers of these trips take roads in the desert far from the paved ones to decrease the chance of security ambushes. The journey duration varies from one smuggler to another, depending on their route and method. On Adam's trip, the smuggler preferred to let the travellers cross the mountains on foot, instead of driving around the mountains.
Adam climbed mountains for about four kilometres. It was freezing in January, but ultimately they reached the other side. The group prostrated with joy, and the doctor took a selfie with his back to Egypt. They waited hours, but no car arrived to continue their journey. Their guide told them they needed to go back to Egypt so he could access the network and call his colleagues.
"You deal with people who treat you like a commodity. You pay ten thousand, and you are sold if someone pays 12 thousand. It feels like you're cheap," the doctor told The New Arab.
For Hossam, crossing the mountains was particularly difficult, especially after spending three days waiting for their truck to be fixed. The first time their vehicle broke down, they had to wait for days while the driver repaired it, left in the desert without enough food or water.
"These days were more difficult than the period of solitary confinement in prison," Hossam said. At one point, their guide shouted, "The Blues arrived!”, referring to the Sudanese border guards. The truck drove at full speed to escape from the guards over the rocky Sudanese desert.
Sitting in the open back of the truck, they were flying around due to the speed, so they tried to tie themselves to things in the truck. One member of the group was vomiting. Another, who Hossam met later in Sudan, had surgery on his knee because of the trip. Eventually, they managed to hide behind a mountain, turning off the engine and the lights.
Sarah, who is only in her twenties, also encountered the Sudanese border guards on her journey, who shot at them. The group ran out of food and water, and their car got stuck in the thick sand of the desert. Despite her terrifying journey, Sarah knew she could not go back.
"I was afraid of travelling through Sudan, but my fear of imprisonment and violations [in Egypt] again was greater," Sarah said.
"Despite the harrowing journeys, they were all grateful for the ease of their journey compared to others stories they had heard"
Past the border
When The New Arab asked each of the travellers what was the first thing they did when they finally made it across the border into Sudan, all of them said that they immediately called their loved ones to reassure them with the few words they could muster.
Next, they mentioned using the toilet and taking showers, especially Hossam, whose white robes had turned entirely yellow after five nights in the desert.
Despite the harrowing journeys, they were all grateful for the ease of their journey compared to others stories they had heard. They mentioned other trips where some had to fill empty water bottles with their urine after they got lost in the desert for days and ran out of water.
They were glad that they were not caught by the border guards and forcibly disappeared or handed over to the Egyptian authorities, or been in a truck overturning accident while trying to escape from "The Blues”.
In Sudan, Fatima spent the first several days sleeping and eating only. But Adam preferred to spend his first night walking without fear for the first time in a while and drinking Sudanese tea.
* All names have been changed for the safety of the individuals and their families.
Shaimaa Elhadidy is an Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights defender based in Istanbul.
Follow her on Twitter: @salhadidy