Egypt Nubia: 50 years of displacement

Amira Noshokaty , Saturday 2 Nov 2013

Stories of loss, longing, and hope for the future mark the fiftieth anniversary of Nubian displacement from their historic home


On 18 October, 1963, the Nubians embarked on the final chapter of their deracination. Ahram Online sheds light on 50 years of Nubian displacement: the unspeakable loss, the new land, and all that fell in between.

Ever been to Nubia?


The one-hour drive north of Aswan was a smooth one. Wafting from the car's cassette player, a Nubian beat drifted like the musical equivalent of the Nile River, on the banks of which were scattered the blue houses of its original inhabitants.

Along the Nile, stretching from the south of Aswan's Fourth Cataract and up to Egypt's border with Sudan, lies the ancient land of Nubia.

This rich, albeit forgotten chapter of Egyptian history, is believed by some to have derived its name from the ancient Egyptian "Nbu," meaning gold, in reference to the abundant gold mines dotting the area. Famed for its wealth and pre-historic multilayered civilisation, the 'Land of Gold' was in the 1960s flooded by Lake Nasser – the High Dam's water reservoir – and 44 Nubian villages were consequently drowned, along with their 12 million palm trees.

UNESCO, as well as some 40 countries, cooperated to salvage the Nubian monuments, which were relocated to the banks of the newly-formed Lake Nasser. As for the Nubian people, well, they were promised new villages.

The Nubians got new villages, 44 to be exact, but their new home of Markaz Nasr Al-Nubia shares little of their homeland's glory. Resting under the scorching desert sun, 'New Nubia' is devoid of the true lifeline of Nubian culture: the Nile's waters.

"Nubian displacement villages are situated 60 kilometres north of Aswan, east of Kom Ombo, some 25 kilometres away from the Nile," explained Samir Haqqar, chief of Markaz Nasr Al-Nuba. Occupying an area 180 square kilometres in length and 50 square kilometres in width, the location housed some 47,000 displaced Nubians in 1963/64. Today, this number has increased to 87,000, divided among five main constituencies: Al-Fadigga, Al-Konouz, Arab, Thomas Wi Affia and Nasr Al-Noba, Haqqar added.




North and South


The construction of the Aswan Reservoir, which preceded the High Dam, forced the Nubians to relocate multiple times prior to the final 1963/4 displacement – in 1902, 1912, and 1933 – with governmental approval to select the destination of their choice along the Nile's bank.

Upon the erection of the High Dam, however, all Nubians had to be deracinated from their homeland in order to make room for Lake Nasser. "At that point, Nubians held opposing views, with some choosing to be relocated north of the dam and others opting to remain south near their salvaged monuments," remembers Abdallah Hassan, the mayor of Thomas wa Affia village. "Gamal Abdel-Nasser issued a referendum supervised by Nubian teachers, and I was one of them," he noted.

In old Nubia, only one hospital could be found, in addition to a sailing boat clinic providing medical care. "Since we were deprived of numerous basic services, the majority voted for north of the dam, hoping for a better chance at medical and educational government services," Hassan explained. Thus, the Nubians were relocated to the desert separating Kom Ombo from Aswan, some 25 kilometres away from the Nile, or any shade of greenery.

In the Valley of the Jinn


Along with their cattle and luggage, the Nubians were dropped in the middle of the desert at a location known as Wadi Al-Jinn (Valley of the Jinn). "When we first arrived, among thousands of other families, we discovered that only 30 percent of the houses meant to receive us had been built, while the rest were mere chalk marks on the ground," recounted Ahmed Ishaq, head of the Follow-Up Nubian Committee and chairperson of the General Coalition of Thomas wa Affia village in Cairo.


Little has changed since. In Thomas wa Affia, one of the displacement villages, the houses are the colour of sand and the powerful sun. Inside the mayor's modest house, an elderly woman clad in all-black sat beside an interpreter who translated her Nubian into Arabic. Refusing to revisit her grief, Fatma Abdou, one of the many mothers who lost their children in the 1963/4 displacement, summarised her first day at the new village in one sentence:"I remember fatigue, illness and death." Her two- and four-year-old sons both died from drinking contaminated water, she told Ahram Online.

The government provided drinking water in rusty buckets, and small canals bearing traces of agricultural pesticides offered the only other alternative. Intolerable heat, combined with the contaminated water, contributed to what Nubians refer to as 'the nursery tombs.' "The hardship caused by the displacement killed all the infants born in 1963/64. Graves were being dug from dusk to dawn, yet the media never made mention of the incident," Ishaq explained to Ahram Online.

Another shortcoming of the displacement process was the insufficient research done on the soil, which, "in 90 percent of the displacement villages, is 'baga' [porous] and cannot hold concrete foundations, so houses crack," commented Hassan Abdallah, the Thomas wa Affia village mayor. Of the 300 village houses, not a single one is free of cracks.

As most of the displacement houses are still government-owned, the government allocates LE125,000 for the restoration or reconstruction of each faulty unit based on an annual rotation.

But even this solution proved insufficient, as new cracks became visible on Samir Ibrahim's house only 15 days after its restoration. "How is it possible that our mud houses in old Nubia were able to sustain the rain and the floods, while here they can barely stand on the ground," he wondered.


Aside from squandering government resources on houses that cannot be salvaged, the repeated restoration and reconstruction process brings additional problems. Village homes either share walls or are very closely built. As such,every time a home is dug around for reconstruction, damage is inflicted on neighboring houses, Hassan noted.

A few months ago, government consultants had a novel idea. They believed that if the villagers built several stories on top of each other, the buildings would be heavier and have enough concrete foundation to remain fixed. However, the government passed on the idea due to its high costs.

Fortunately, the implementation of a sewage system has helped the soil sustain the houses, the mayor of Al-Genina and Al-Shebak village explained.

Over the past ten years, the government has installed sewage pipeline in Al-Balana, Al-Madina and Qora Al-Arab villages, and the rest will soon follow.

There have been other positive government contributions to the displaced Nubian villages. Over the past 50 years, the government has built hospitals, schools, and youth centers. In 2012, the state initiated a program to encourage young Nubians by selling one square metre lots in Nasr Noba for LE10, El-Haqqar added.

But the two acres allocated to each family in 1963/64 was widely viewed as inadequate. Because families could not survive on their land alone, young generations of Nubians migrated either abroad or to the cities like Cairo and Alexandria to support their extended families back home.


"Compensations?" exclaimed Hany Youssef, the former spokesmen of the general Nubian Union. "The Egyptian government priced each palm tree at 10 piasters, as opposed to the LE10 per tree offered to the Nubians of Sudan," he added. "This means that my daily allowance as a school boy in the sixties was equivalent to half a palm tree," Youssef scoffed.

"They promised us agricultural land, which my village received five years later," recalled Haggag Addoul, a famous Nubian novelist and current member of the 50-member committee amending Egypt's post-revolution constitution.


The Right to Return

For the past 50 years, Nubians have been calling for the right to return to their land. In the early sixties, priority was given to Egypt's wars and regional autonomy. With time, displaced people in Suez and Sinai returned to their homelands, but Nubians remained displaced, despite government promises.

"I am now calling for the right to return on the basis of international law," Youssef stated. Egypt participates in international treaties, and according to international law, the right for native populations to return to their homeland is a priority. "We were part of the 25 January Revolution that called for social justice, and we haven't got our rights yet," Youssef argued.

"I am quite sure that there have been forces developing since the sixties which fear our return to the borders as an ethnic group. The corrupt body we inherited from the Mubarak era had their hearts set on the riches of Nubian land," Addoul asserted.

"As a representative of Nubians in the 50-member committee drafting the new constitution, I am calling a 'Nubian right to return' in the charter's article concerning border inhabitants of Egypt," Addoul stated, explaining that the return must be planned strategically so that Nubia becomes the gateway to Africa and the Nile Basin countries.

"We have called on agricultural development associations for help, in order to develop old Nubia without burdening the government," Addoul added, emphasising the Nubians' eagerness to invest in their old lands. 

After the 25 January Revolution, former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf ordered the creation of The High Institute for Reconstruction South of the High Dam. However, since then, the institution has remained on paper only. Over the years, outside attempts to invest in the Nubian homeland have been largely unsuccessful.

Nubians believe that if given the right to return, they could be the ones to finally develop the land. However, rumors abound that if Nubians are allowed to return, they would immediately call for independence. "We are the roots and the essence of Egypt, how can we ask to be independent from it? Besides, Nubian tribes are scattered across nine other countries in Africa, how does the idea of independence even fit into this picture?" lamented Ishaq.

"We have been sacrificing for this country for over 100 years and especially since our last migration in 1964, when we gave Egypt millions of acres of agricultural land. All we want is to go home," he concluded.


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