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Nubian resettlement crisis: A question of priorities
Published in Daily News Egypt on 16 - 05 - 2007

CAIRO: A dark-skinned, turbaned old man in a spotless white galabeya walked into the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights as I waited to interview Nubian author and activist Haggag Oddoul.
I never spoke to the man in the galabeya, but the passing encounter took me back to 2002 when I visited Aswan for the first time. I had left with two unwavering convictions: that Aswan is the most beautiful city in Egypt and that the Nubians are its most hospitable, peaceful community. During my three-day sojourn, perfect strangers invited me to two local weddings.
It was therefore no surprise when I found out that the Nubians are among 25 "peaceful societies listed on a web site promoting nonviolence by a group of internationally acclaimed sociologists and anthropologists.
"People living in peaceful societies try as much as possible to live in harmony and avoid violence: they shun aggressive behavior and refuse to fight in wars, is peacefulsocieties.org's definition of these small scale, yet extraordinary communities that usually thrive on the fringes of contemporary urban societies.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the media frenzy surrounding the "Nubia between Resettlement and Development conference that was held in Cairo in late April.
"Rumors that the Nubians want to secede are nothing more than sensationalisms, Khalil Abdel Khalek, managing director of the Information Center Development Project at the Masr El Nuba Association in Aswan told The Daily Star Egypt.
Aiming to dispel this image the Nubians ended their conference, which, according to Abdel Khalek, was also attended by the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Irrigation, by singing the national anthem, emphasizing their Egyptian identity.
This, however, does not negate the deep grievances the majority of Nubians have been silently accumulating for decades.
Award-winning novelist Oddoul, who is at the forefront of a revivalist Nubian rights movement, traces the problem as far back as 1902.
"When the British first built the Aswan Dam that year, many villages were flooded, which led to the first wave of Nubian migration to the mountains. But we are Nile dwellers. The move has hit the core of our culture and traditions and bred social ills, he explains.
At the time, Old Nubia consisted of 43 villages along the banks of the Nile, spread out over 350 km from the first Cataract in Aswan to Wadi Halfa near the Sudanese border. The gravity dam was found to be faulty and so was raised in two phases in 1912 and 1933, but it wasn't until the completion of the High Dam in 1964 that the final wave of Nubian migration took place when all the villages were submerged under Lake Nasser.
As the country's most important water reserve, the dam resulted in almost doubling Egypt's agricultural production, became a main source of hydroelectric energy and put an end to the destructive annual flooding of the Nile which wiped out the cotton crop.
But the toll was huge on the Nubian community, then estimated at 100,000, of which 48,000 were still physically present in the area, according to a 1960 census conducted by the Ministry of Social Affaires.
"We are not against the dam, says Oddoul. "We are against forced migration.
He explains that the "supposedly reclaimed desert town of Kom Ombo, the site of the first Nubian temple ever built, about 45 km north of Aswan, where the Nubians were resettled, consisted of 100 square meter, cookie-cutter style "cement cells, a far cry from the huge houses the Nubians had lived in before.
"There was no greenery as we'd been promised. We were moved to the middle of the desert, says Oddoul.
Abdel Khalek adds: "The government was too hasty in choosing this location and the loamy soil on which they built our houses was not suitable, hence 50 percent of our houses are about to collapse.
To add insult to injury, says Oddoul, 5,000 of the 8,000 families promised compensation of one house and five feddans in 1964 have yet to receive what the government pledged.
In his conference speech Oddoul refers to the empty rhetoric of Sadat, who welcomed a Nubian return to the reclaimed land around Lake Nasser (the closest area to the site of Old Nubia) during a visit in 1979 and promised to construct 42 villages for them. Along with Abdel Khalek, he lamented the status quo despite recent statements by President Mubarak, giving priority to the Nubians to settle in the newly constructed villages with complete infrastructure.
"The final touches have been added to three of 18 villages around the Lake, each housing 100 homes over an area of 500 feddans. But despite promises that the Nubians will have priority in settling there, the government is bringing in peasants from all over the country, says Oddoul.
This is not unintentional oversight or bureaucracy, he adds, it's public government policy. "There is a systematic trend to eradicate Nubian culture, traditions and language.
Abdel Khalek concurs. "The governor himself announced that settlers in the new villages will be chosen according to a quota system. Of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Aswan, only 82,000 are Nubians, according to statistics updated annually since the 1996 census, this leaves a very slim chance for Nubians to resettle in the new villages.
What they demand is to implement the promises President Mubarak made in his March visit to Aswan and to compensate the 5,000 families with homes and land around Lake Nasser.
But the recent conference was not the first time the Nubians demanded what Oddoul calls "the right of return, using language associated with the plight of Palestinians suffering under Israel's settlement colonialism in the Occupied Territories. In October 2002, the First Nubian Congress convened in the Nubian administrative center of Nasr Town in Kom Ombo to draft a petition to then Prime Minister Atef Ebeid.
According to press reports, the petition entitled "100 Years of Nubian Grievances demanded the Ministry of Social Affairs reopen the Nubian compensation file. It also alleged that of the LE 25 million spent by the government on the relocation, only LE 200,000 was allocated to the Nubians as direct compensation.
And at the 2007 conference, activists like Oddoul and Manal El Tibi, who heads the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, and Abdel Khalek, made even more serious allegations implying the misappropriation of funds.
"About 10 years ago, Oddoul told The Daily Star Egypt, "The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization [FAO] gave the Egyptian government a $1.5 billion grant to fund the resettlement of the Nubians in the Lake Nasser area. The money was spent, but to relocate non-Nubians.
However, contacted by The Daily Star Egypt, an official at the FAO, denied Oddoul's claims, saying that the organization has had no activities in the area since the dam was constructed 45 years ago.
She said that the figure was not plausible since, at the time, FAO's entire Egypt budget did not exceed $500,000.
"It is possible that money was donated to help some families back then, but nothing on that scale, she said, adding that relocation and forced migration issues did not fall under the FAO's jurisdiction.
According to a report by UN agency World Food Program (WFP), there are only 4,600 settlers living on 23,000 feddans of land around Lake Nasser. Of these settlers, barely 800 are Nubian.
Nadine El Hakim, the WFP official responsible for Upper Egypt, the WFP doesn t target Nubians specifically. "We target the poor who are also people without food security and are landless. They can be and are Nubians in some cases but it is because they are among the poorest. So, the list of beneficiaries who received food assistance from WFP over the years included numerous Nubian households and entire Nubian communities, she told The Daily Star Egypt in an email interview.
She also said that over the past 10 years WFP has had projects in the high dam lake area valued at no more than $15 million for the benefit of vulnerable regions in other Upper Egyptian areas as well.
The program's role, she explained, was to provide food assistance to beneficiaries so that they could invest their limited savings on buying new farms and/or new technologies instead of on food for their families. The projects assist the development of essential services such as schools and health services that are needed to make stable, viable communities.
"In 2004 WFP expanded the project to target smaller villages with food-for-work/training projects which would help to upgrade the housing and access to high quality basic services and stable irrigation systems that would allow for almost year-round cultivation. These villages have received tremendous support from the Nubian communities who see the improvement in their living standards and livelihoods, she said.
But Abdel Khalek believes a more complex dynamic is at play and it involves the mega Toshka pumping station project.
"Toshka has raised the value of the land in the area which is optimum for large scale agricultural projects for the quality of its soil and the availability of water. But the High Dam Development Council prefers to give the land to huge corporations to generate more profit, thus privileging the private sector, over small farmers, he says.
Strategically speaking, in the long run this policy will not breed settler-based communities because these faceless companies will import workers who will have no sense of belonging to the land, he says.
Observers, who preferred to speak off the record, are beginning to draw parallels between the Nubians and other marginalized communities like the Bedouins.
"These people are getting nothing from the government, so it's understandable that little by little, they will lose their sense of belonging to this country. These are the fruits of state terrorism, one lawyer told The Daily Star Egypt.
Indeed, the recent development in the Nubian crisis, according to Nubian intellectual Hassan Abu Taleb has not only drawn attention to the issue on a national scale, but has revealed the rift within the Nubian community as to the course of action they should take vis-à-vis the government.
Opinions span the gamut from the very confrontational combative attitude deriding the government's discriminatory treatment of the Nubians with a politicized discourse that views Egyptians as colonizers; to accusations of ethnic cleansing and racism and on the far end of the spectrum, to the view that the Nubian issue is no more than yet another example of state bureaucracy and negligence, but this time at the expense of a whole community that sacrificed its very existence for the greater good.


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