Flight From Darfur Ends Violently in Egypt

Hagga Abbas Haroun's daughter, Samar, shown with a family friend, survived the fire from Egyptian border guards that killed her mother.
Hagga Abbas Haroun's daughter, Samar, shown with a family friend, survived the fire from Egyptian border guards that killed her mother. (Photos By Nora Younis For The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 19, 2007

MARKER NO. 6 ON THE ISRAELI BORDER, Egypt -- For Hagga Abbas Haroun, a 28-year-old refugee from Sudan's Darfur region, four years of struggle to bring herself and her family to safety ended violently last month on Egypt's border with Israel.

In her last moments, sketched by fellow refugees, their lawyers, Bedouin desert guides and Egyptian border officials, Haroun hugged the cold rocks and sand of the desert floor at night for cover, her 2-year-old daughter at her side. She was waiting, along with other families fleeing Darfur and other troubled areas of Sudan, to sprint across the border into Israel.

A sudden wail from one of the Darfur children broke the night silence. The darkness was suddenly filled with the excited shouts of Egyptian border guards and then the muzzle flashes and boom of gunfire.

The journey that Haroun and 21 other refugees risked early on July 22 was part of a recent flood of migrants from Darfur and other troubled regions of Africa attempting to cross the border from Egypt into Israel this summer. After receiving only five of the refugees in 2004 and 59 in 2005, Israel as of late June had up to 50 African refugees crossing its border a day, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

The Sudanese refugees had fled across Sudan's northern border into Egypt over the past several years, escaping wars in their home country. In Egypt, the refugees said, they found little help from international agencies and almost no jobs -- and they faced discrimination and occasional deadly attacks by Egyptian security forces. Now, the refugees are pressing farther north across Egypt into Israel, hoping for jobs and safety in the Jewish state. As many as a third of the refugees attempting the crossing into Israel come from Darfur, a region of western Sudan where Arab fighters allied with the Sudanese government attack African villages and refugee camps in a campaign that President Bush and others have labeled genocide.

The Israeli government earlier this year allowed a few of the Sudanese refugees to take jobs inside Israel. But that decision may have inadvertently encouraged this summer's influx, the refugees said.

In Israel, hundreds of the Sudanese refugees are being held in prisons, in mushrooming tent cities and trailer parks, and on remote kibbutzim in the desert, while the Israeli government presses Egypt to take them back. The unwanted influx has given rise to an intense debate in Israel, on whether a country born from the Holocaust can justifiably deny haven to desperate families escaping a modern-day genocide in Africa.

Egypt regards its border with Israel a military zone, and anyone trying to cross it is considered an infiltrator. Egypt has tried about 50 of the refugees in military court in the last six weeks, said Bilal Amr, an attorney representing some of the refugees before military tribunals in the city of Ismailia, on the Sinai Peninsula. The men, and women without children, have been sentenced to one year in prison. Amr's clients in recent weeks included a Sudanese man carried into court on the back of a fellow defendant, Amr said; both of the man's legs had been shattered by bullets when he was captured by Egyptian security forces.

Since July, Egyptian border guards have repeatedly used lethal force on the unarmed refugees. Egyptian security forces confirm shooting and wounding two Sudanese men in separate incidents at the border in the first days of July. Israeli soldiers told news media that they watched on Aug. 1 as Egyptian guards shot and killed two Sudanese refugees at the border, then dragged two other refugees from the border and beat them to death with rocks.

The beaten and bound body of another Sudanese man was found near the border on Aug. 8. Egyptian officials said the man likely was killed in a money dispute with Bedouin guides. Israeli media quoted officials there as saying Israel has surveillance video proving the man was shot by Egyptian security forces.

In Haroun's group, Egyptian officials acknowledged, the victims included women and children; all of them were survivors of the killing in Darfur.

Seeking Refuge From War

Haroun came from a village in the Nyala region of southern Darfur, her cousins now in Egypt said. She was the oldest of nine children. Her parents poured their resources into her education, investing for the family's future. Haroun graduated from the University of Sudan with a degree in commerce and became engaged to another Darfur college graduate, Saddik Sahour Abkar.

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