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Samir Aziz: 'I just wanted to fight to defend this country'

In this ongoing series, Ahram Online celebrates several of Egypt's Coptic-Christian war heroes who risked life and limb in defence of their homeland

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 7 Nov 2012
Samir Aziz
Samir Aziz (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
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His military skills are testified for in some of the world’s most acknowledged references; his memories of the days and years of war "to defend this country" are detailed and elaborate; his entrenched but well-masked pain over the loss of a son at his prime youth only recedes with the joy of chatting with his wife and daughter.

Samir Aziz, a retired jet fighter lived his life on the edge to protect a country and a dream that he believed in.

Today, Aziz feels a good part of the dream has been defeated. As for the country, he remains committed "for better and for worse."

“I know that the times are not really easy and I am aware of the limitations that some are trying to impose on the lives of Copts in this country, but I am confident that these challenges cannot take me away from a country that I nearly died for, more than once, not even if they hurt me,” said Aziz to the sad sigh and nod of his wife Heidi.

The Azizs insist that throughout the moments of sorrow and grief with the now unmasked anti-Coptic sentiments and practices they were solaced with the support of Muslim and Coptic friends.

“It is so sad because this country does not deserve, above its many problems, to be doomed by civil animosity. It is not an all-out hostility, but it is certainly unmistakable,” said Aziz.

For Aziz and many other Coptic and Muslim Egyptians, this "whole nightmare started with" former President Anwar Sadat and his attempt to solidify his rule in the face of the firm Left opposition. He chose to play the religion card that inevitably instigated a sequence of incidents of strife and climaxed with the decision of Sadat to banish the head of the Coptic Church, late Shenouda III, in 1981.

The Azizs said that the attacks on the Coptic Patriarch by Sadat had initiated a prominent ‘Coptic apathy’ – as more and more Coptic Egyptians were declining to actively participate in politics.

For Aziz, the mistake that Sadat made when he prompted the faith-divide in Egypt “is unforgivable” and its damage “seems so hard if not impossible to repair.”

Still, Aziz insists Sadat should always be remembered with the October War – and not with any of his mistakes.

“This war was so important; it really put this country back on its feet; it helped people regain their sense of dignity and I am not just talking about Egypt, but about the entire Arab world,” said Aziz who nearly died on the third day of operations and was only saved to be forced into bed for 6 months.

“Then I could not care less; I was just so happy that the war had started and that we were fighting back; we were not aggressing against anyone; we were dying to regain our land and to retaliate the humiliation that we had suspended in 1967,” he said.

It was only four years after his 1963 graduation that Aziz was confronted with the humiliating defeat of 1967. “An unforgettable sense of pain, humiliation and frustration; who could ever forget?” said Aziz.

Caught by surprise with the Israeli aggressive raids on the morning of 5 June 1967, Aziz could not believe his eyes. “The Israeli fighters were just eating away at our planes while they were stationed at the base,” recalled the man whose facial expression revealed a perpetual sense of disbelief.

Stationed at Fayed Air Base located towards the east end of the country, Aziz, then in his early 20s, was aware with the political showdown between Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Israel, but he was convinced that some precautions must have been carefully taken.

“We looked at Nasser as a hero – as bigger than a hero; we believed in Nasser and not just in his words,” he said with a sigh.

Having lost every plane at their base, Aziz, along with his commander, Amozis Mikhaeil Azar, and the rest of the team rushed away to the nearest base to catch the jets. “We just wanted to fight back,” he said emphatically.

However, it was only a matter of two to three hours for the whole group to realise that “the war was over and the defeat was done."

"We lost all our planes and no army could fight, let alone escape defeat or win without an air force,” he lamented.

A few days later, when he was in Algeria to collect jet fighters offered to Egypt, Aziz was shocked to hear the news of Nasser’s plans to step down.

“I thought it was a disaster; this meant that we were losing our leader at the time when we needed him most. Nasser was indeed the leader, despite the defeat,” he recalled.

Yet, Nasser held on and so did the army. “It was so harsh, but we were determined we could fight back; we were sure we could get this land back,” Aziz recalled.

During the subsequent years of the War of Attrition that "paved the way to the October War" Aziz met Heidi; later they were engaged.

“I kept thinking that I should not get married because the war might start at any moment,” he stated.

However, it was only a few months after Heidi and Aziz decided to celebrate their wedding that the war started. For Aziz, as a newlywed it was a moment of joy for the military operations to start.

The Aziz's recollection of the first days and hours of the war are simply inundating and warm. “We were all ready to die and die over again just to get this land back and just to undo the humiliation; it was a moment of a unique sense of unity in the army; we were just one; it did not matter from which socio-economic background we were; it did not matter which faith we believed in. There and then we were just all together to undo the damage that was done upon us,” Aziz recalled.

Heidi, a graduating student of pharmacology on that year, has a similar recollection of a society bound together behind an army that was fighting to reverse the 1967 defeat. “But those were the good days,” she recalled.

On 8 October, Aziz nearly died in operation, as he insisted to keep going despite a deadly failure in his jet fighter. “I could not just have let go of my team, as we were engaging the Israeli planes,” he said with a renewed sense of determination.

When his plane let him down and he was saved in the shores of Port Said by fishing sailors, Aziz felt closer to death than life. At the moment, as he was rushed into hospital, he thought that if he died he would be content to have died while fighting,  “not while watching the planes being burned down by Israel, as we did in 1967.”

It took Aziz a few days to realize his injury was harsh and that paralysis was a possibility he needed to consider. To his dismay, “with a desire to go back to the war,” Aziz started to get better, but not well enough to rejoin the operations.

Aziz argues that having survived the war made a remarkable military achievement. Egypt should have started to move towards serious development – the dream that Nasser had promised before the 1967 defeat. “But unfortunately Sadat lost sight of the nation’s best interest and got too engrossed in his own political calculations,” Aziz argued.

Heidi and Aziz were hoping, as did many Egyptians, for a new beginning when ousted President Hosni Mubarak, as the Head of the Air Force, took over following the Islamists' assassination of Sadat in 1981.

As many Copts did, this couple dreamt of an end to the then growing sense of religious-divide, which they felt was so alien to the Egyptian culture. However, these dreams were very short-lived.

The couple perceived The 25 January Revolution as a possible resurrection of Egypt, as they have known and loved it, “with its ability to melt in all the diverse faiths and communities.”

On 25 January 2011, Aziz saw an Egypt he last encountered back in 1973. Then again, this encounter was brief.

“This sense of a one and united nation is always very short-lived, but it is only when it exists that this country can deliver," Aziz insisted.

Aziz is not sure what it would take to regain this unity –nor is he sure that it could be regained anytime soon. The new leadership of the Church [still undecided as he spoke to Al-Ahram Online] could help, but it is essentially the responsibility of the leadership of the nation to regenerate this sentiment.

Whatever happens, Aziz is proud that he has lived this feeling three times: once during the October War, 25 January Revolution and in the early 1960s when Egypt started to build the High Dam.

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