Preparedness, action and perseverance are the attributes which best describe the troops at the North Sinai Security Sector headquarters where we boarded a military vehicle tasked with distributing food and supplies to forces stationed around Arish.
In addition to securing roads, the bases where the soldiers are stationed serve as platforms for staging raids against terrorist targets during COS 2018.
I looked at one of the food containers to be distributed to officers and soldiers alike which form the substance of their three meals a day and wondered whether it could really sate the appetites of men who bear arms, march alongside military hardware as they comb roads, race in pursuit of takfiri operatives across the rugged terrain, and conduct raids on caves and houses in which the terrorists may have planted explosive devices.
On the convoy they do not call each other by given names. Soldiers are most often dubbed according to the name of the governorate or district they come from. Damietti, Sharqawi and Shobrawi hail, respectively, from Damietta, Sharqiya governorate and Shobra in Cairo.
I asked Damietti what he thought about the quantity of the food. “It’s more than enough. I carry out my duties here every day. Sometimes I spend the night here. This food is enough for me. I don’t get hungry. What counts is that I stay awake,” he said.
We stopped at a security checkpoint where the commander told us briskly that we must either wait or turn around.
“We have a mission. We spotted three takfiris planting explosive devices on the roadside. We set up an ambush for them,” he said, adding confidently, “we’ll get them, dead or alive.”
He closed the door of our vehicle quickly and set off without even looking at the food container he had been handed.
After some moments of silence we conferred and decided to stick with the food patrol.
At the next security point a soldier climbed out to distribute the food containers. During the few moments this took the officers spoke to us about the course of operations.
They were optimistic. The army’s control over strategic locations had extended to the point that terrorist elements were cornered.
As we moved on to the next installation the soldiers in our vehicle broke out into a commando song which has become popular among the troops.
I asked Sharqawi for his thoughts about the troops and their morale. He reached into his pocket to fish out his mobile which he uses as a kind of diary, and said “every picture here has a story to tell.”
“There are dozens of moving and heroic stories. These are the heroes who died near here. Their stories tell of how they fought until the end against the takfiris and how they sacrificed their lives for the sake of Egypt, the nation they cherished above all else.”
At one point, he said, it was too dangerous to walk on the hills in the area through which we were travelling, “but now we’re the ones in control.”
“They might come to plant some explosive devices and run away like rats but we’ll mount raids and hunt them out of their rat holes.”
According to Sharqawi, there are also snipers armed with weapons smuggled to them by their funders.
“Some of these weapons cost more than LE1 million,” he said. He then gestured to the colleague next to him, “This soldier, here, shot a takfiri in the head before the takfiri managed to shoot him with an automatic weapon with telescopic sights.”
I asked Shobrawi, positioned at the turret of our armoured vehicle, why he fired a shot as we approached every checkpoint. He replied “it’s a signal to our comrades at the next stop that we’re on our way”.
And what did he think of the takfiris?
“I’ve been here for two years. I’ve seen many. They don’t speak with us. But during investigations the authorities have obtained information. Some of them are kids who’ve been trained in how to plant explosive devices.
Some of them are women who do the same thing in exchange for paltry sums of money.”
We had completed our rounds and were now on our way back. I asked Sharqawi if he wasn’t afraid of dying. He responded with a question that took me by surprise: “What about the heroes of the October War who liberated this land before us? Their deeds have gone down in history.”
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has paid tribute to the family members of martyrs of the October 1973 War while simultaneously paying tribute to families whose sons have sacrificed their lives in COS 2018.
Evidently the young fighter drew the same link as the supreme commander of the Armed Forces. After all, the mission is one: eliminate the enemy.
Sharqawi resumed his accounts about his comrades who had sacrificed their lives. He concluded, “It would be my honour to meet my maker while bearing arms in the defence of honour, in the defence of the nation and even in the defence of Islam which those crazies have distorted with their warped minds.”
There was little point in asking the soldiers whether they felt afraid or worried. They all shared the same creed and the same desire — be part of COS 2018 and free their homeland from terrorism.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly
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