by Jihad Abaza
“The night they killed Medhat and Saad, I felt like they were going to walk into our house right then and kill my husband and children. It was horrifying,” Sabah, a middle-aged mother of four, told the Atlantic Council’s MENASource.
Sitting in an Ismaliyya youth hostel belonging to Egypt’s Ministry of Youth, Sabah recounted the story of her family’s displacement from their Northern Sinai hometown, Arish. Her family is one among dozens of Coptic Christian families who have had to flee their homes, mostly heading to Ismaliyya, after being targeted by ISIS-affiliated militants.
In a series of attacks on Coptic Christians, ISIS-affiliated fighters in Northern Sinai have killed at least seven people over the past month. Father and son Saad and Medhat al-Hakim were found dead on February 23. Saad was shot in the head, with reports that Medhat was burned alive. According to the Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, at least 133 families left Arish for Ismaliyya.
According to many of the families, the past two to three years have been difficult for the residents of Northern Sinai given the rising insurgency in the area. However, Sabah says, “Over the past two months it has become even worse for Christians, who are especially targeted.” This is a sentiment shared by many of those who fled to Ismailiyya.
Sefian Morqos, an 89-year-old man who has called Arish home for the past 55 years of his life told MENASource that during his time in Sinai, he lived through two Israeli wars. “There was violence and there was death, but I did not leave.”
However, he says the past three months in his hometown have been like nothing he has ever experienced. “At first [militants] used to attack the police, the army… now they left them and they are attacking the Christians,” he said.
Morqos says that in Northern Sinai’s tribal society, even the tribes are afraid of the militants. He says the militants maintain their anonymity by covering their faces. “You can only see his eyes… if you were able to see his face, you would know which family he is from,” he says.
“Arish is gone,” Morqos adds, lamenting the loss of all his family’s belongings and savings. “We left with nothing but the clothes we had on.”
Morqos told MENASource that the state is partly to blame for their plight. He says, “We go to the police, and they tell us, well what can we do for you?”
As she thinks of the future of her teenage son, his high school exams, and the vague future of the state of limbo she and her family are currently in, Sabah remains skeptical of what the state will do. “Do you think they will compensate us with apartments, or anything?” she asks.
Jihad Abaza is a freelance journalist and anthropologist in Egypt.
All photos © Jihad Abaza