Who have Borne the Battle
Available at: http://www.egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7841
Photo Credit: Khalid Habib
In 1973, the nation called and they answered. They restored Sinai to Egyptian hands, restored pride to a despondent nation. Egypt’s war veterans, from the 1940s to the peacekeepers of today, asked for nothing in return. Sadly, that’s exactly what most of them got.
By: Ethar El-Katatney
The “March for Those Who Died for Us” was scheduled for October 6, 2007, the thirty-fourth anniversary of the 1973 War. More than 900 people received invitations: 200 said they might attend, 120 confirmed that they were coming, the rest were missing in action. At 8pm, in front of Al-Ahly Club, the march began. Total number of participants: three.
With kids to feed, bosses to please or jobs to search for, many people are too busy with the here and now to even think about the future, much less contemplate the past. Nevertheless, there are people who subscribe to the adage, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Forgetting our history, they say, is tantamount to losing a chunk of our national identity.
That chunk of ‘national identity’ — Egypt’s entire modern military history — is currently relegated to a handful of high school classes focused more on places and dates than what we were fighting for or what constituted a victory or defeat. While we may not know much about the wars in which Egypt has fought, we most certainly know someone who fought in them — fathers, grandfathers, uncles, bowabs, taxi drivers; they are all around us. We just do not recognize them, at least not for what they have done.
With mandatory military service, there is no shortage of veterans in this country. A veteran is any person who has served in the armed forces: Army, Navy, Air Force or Air Defense. If they died or were wounded during peacekeeping duties, if they never saw actual combat during a war or if they completed their entire service during peacetime, they are still considered veterans. A war veteran, however, has been tested under fire, serving his country in its time of greatest need.
Abroad, veterans and war veterans are accorded great respect. Many countries have designated holidays to honor both living veterans and those who fell in battle. The most well-known is November 11, called Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, and known as Veterans Day in the United States. On November 11, 1911, the Armistice was signed, bringing a close to the ‘war to end all wars,’ as World War I was optimistically dubbed. On Remembrance Day, people around the world honor those killed in action then and in the wars that followed with somber memorial services, while living veterans take the spotlight in street parades.
Egypt’s war veterans, on the other hand, are a dwindling and forgotten crew, asking for nothing and receiving even less. Three people showed up to honor the fallen from a war that restored national pride. Military pensions, if available at all, are dismal. The state provides little to no aid to veterans suffering from physical or mental disabilities. If they are lucky, disabled veterans have family to support them; if not, they face life on the streets.
Nevertheless, the nation’s veterans carry their service and memories with pride.
The Second Lieutenant
Darwish Hassan Darwish recalls that fateful moment 34 years ago when Egyptian troops shouted with one voice “Allahu Akbar” before advancing to meet their foe. Darwish, now 62, started his military career in the Egyptian Air Academy at the age of 21, but transferred to the Egyptian Military Academy after an accident. He graduated as second lieutenant in 1969. Twenty-four hours after the graduation ceremony, he joined the troops on the frontline of the War of Attrition (see sidebar). Darwish, who eventually became a battalion assistant operations officer, spent the next three years preparing for the Sixth of October War.
He recounts how many times the troops went through practice runs, hoping that maybe this time they would fight for real. “The second we went through the Bar-Lev Line and 35 Israelis came out lifting their hands in surrender, this was a moment not I or anyone else can describe. The people who caused the death of our friends and had been such a thorn in our side for years were surrendering to our forces.”
Like many veterans, Darwish is reluctant to talk about the difficulties of war, focusing instead on the victories. In the public eye, daily hardships get lost in glory’s afterglow. “[Once we crossed the canal,] how did we eat? How did we drink? How did we cover ourselves at night? The October nights are cold and long, but for these necessities to come to us it took time  the first bridge to be built was at night and then you need to think, shall I send over a tank to destroy Israeli troops or send food and drink? There were priorities and our needs were last on the list.”
Priorities forced difficult decisions on the soldiers themselves. Darwish remembers the time his friend was lying injured on the field, but he could not save the man as enemy aircraft were firing upon them.
Darwish completed the maximum time possible serving his country. After the war, he taught for six years at the Staff Officers College until he was let go. Today, he runs a small air and sea shipping company.
Staff Major General Mohamad Zaky Okasha is a veteran of not one, but three of Egypt’s wars: he fought as a pilot in the Six Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition of 1968-9 and the Sixth of October War. Okasha has authored several books about the 1973 war, including The Flying Cage, referring to the combat planes. The Flying Cage recounts some of the missions he and his comrades flew, situations that he says “make your hair stand up on end when you hear them.”
In the story “The Defeated Missile,” Okasha describes an air raid on an Israeli camp. After reading some verses from the Qur’an, he stepped into his MiG-17 Hawk jet fighter. As the formation of aircraft took off, one pilot said, “We are setting out as eight, and God willing all eight of us will return.” The first and second raids were successful and they headed back. Okasha describes his feelings after the raid, waiting for the Israeli Mirage III fighter planes to appear and hoping to be able to make it back to base safely.
The Mirage was the biggest threat we faced on our way back. [W]ould we be able to return? I stayed at a height of 15 meters and sweat was pouring off my back. Finally I saw the Canal and we were once again in our lands and protected by our Air Force.”
Ecstatic, Okasha immediately took his plane straight up to 800 meters, his fatigue completely erased. But perhaps most touching of all was the reaction of one of his comrades who had not joined the sortie and with tears in his eyes told him “I was very scared, Captain Mohamad, even though I was here on land.”
The courage of those who fought went above and beyond the call of duty. Okasha tells of his friend Ibrahim Selim, a soldier in the 1973 War who manned a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. An RPG allows the user to be at least 500 meters away from the target; the resulting explosion, however, can reach up to 2000 meters. Selim — an accomplished gymnast — launched the grenade at the enemy and then launched himself into a series of back flips to get out of range of the explosion. His comrades on the front line cheered, “Ibrahim ya jinn,” for, just like a genie, Selim had an amazing ability to get out of a tight spot. Sadly, he hit one tight spot too many, and died later on in the war.
After the war, Okasha put in another 12 years in other military branches such as intelligence. In total he served almost 20 years in the military. Today he runs a small company in Mohandiseen offering services to businessmen.
Ahmed El-Hawan is one of the country’s best-known war heroes. If the name is not instantly recognizable, think Gomaa El-Shawan — the lead character in the 1980s TV serial Domoo’a fee Oyoun Waqeha (Tears in the Eyes of the Brazen), starring actor Adel Imam and based on El-Hawan’s life. El-Hawan was a double agent, an Egyptian pretending to spy for Israel while actually spying for his homeland.
Among his many contributions to Egyptian intelligence gathering, El-Hawan is credited with stealing an Israeli “Fat Duck” high-speed radio transmitter. His efforts were instrumental to Egypt’s success in the war, but came at a high price — the hero is crippled and blind in one eye. He says that years of decoding secret messages took his eye; he had to peer closely over papers treated with invisible ink, and over the years the chemicals gradually damaged his vision. El-Hawan’s leg was permanently damaged after he was hit by an armored car during one of his covert field missions.
The stress of the job was just as debilitating: El-Hawan says that the 11 years he spent as a spy in Tel Aviv were among the most difficult in his life.
“I didn’t sleep because I [used to] suspect everything and I was scared I would [talk] in my sleep,” the former spy says. “I suspected that the photo frame had [a bug], that the blanket had one. I felt terror, unreasonable terror. I was scared of everything. Scared of the bathroom. Scared of the living room. A cat making a noise made me need Pampers.”
Made famous by the TV serial, El-Hawan has given thousands of seminars about the October War and has hundreds of fan-related websites. He supports himself with the proceeds of a store selling memorabilia. His business card title reads “Oppressor of the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence).”
In 1973, Yosry Ahmed Abd-Allah Omara was a 27-year-old Brigadier who had already made a name for himself by catching Egypt’s first Israeli prisoner of war (POW), Dan Avidan, in the War of Attrition. Omara added another notch to his belt in the October War by capturing the most famous POW of all, Assaf Iajor.
The day Iajor was caught was a busy one for Omara. Earlier he had been shot in the hand by an Israeli soldier. Rather than returning fire, Omara ran directly at his enemy. One shot would have killed the Egyptian, but the element of surprise was with him and he managed to get close enough to hit the Israeli on the head.
Omara and his unit continued on their mission until they came across some Israeli soldiers preparing to attack. The Egyptians ambushed the seven men, killing three and capturing the other four. Iajor, who was the commander of the group, eventually became an agent for Egypt, providing valuable information about Israeli war tactics.
The Brigadier is now retired, living off what he calls a reasonable pension.
On that fateful October 6, Major General Labib Nabawy Ismaeel was commanding an infantry battalion of 300 men, defending Al-Balah Island off the North Coast, directly overlooking the Suez Canal. He recalls that when the planes flew overhead and the troops realized that they were really going to fight, “you can’t imagine the happiness […] we all hugged each other because we felt it was time for us to regain our dignity and return things to how they were. It was a turning point in our lives. Every person lifted the person next to him in the air.”
This was the moment that justified the tribulations they faced — both before and after — realizing that they were finally going to fight for their country.
“It would happen that your comrade would get injured and die right in front of you,” says Ismaeel. “Before we crossed, [the Israelis] thought that Al-Balah Island was the strongest point, so they used to attack us often. We destroyed 14 tanks in front of our unit with artillery and missiles, and so many of us died. When you stand next to a man and he dies in his place, it changes you forever. But in the end you are fighting, so you enter the mood of the fight; you forget everything except that you want to win and face death staring at you from all sides.”
Ismaeel recalls the days after the crossing, when they managed to capture all remaining Israelis. “On the second or third day after we crossed, we would come across Jews hiding out. When they came out like startled rats and we would capture them.
“But,” he adds, “we treated them humanely in accordance with POW rules.”
Ismaeel now runs several businesses including a clothing store, a hotel and a tourist operation in Sharm El-Sheikh.
A BEVY OF BENEFITS
The veterans say that the soldiers and airmen were ecstatic that they were going to fight — and possibly die — for their country. And many of them did.
“No matter what that country or government does for those who fought, and those who died, they won’t give them what they deserve,” Ismaeel says emphatically. “We used to go out [to fight] and not know if we would return. My mother waved goodbye to me without knowing if I would be coming back. Imagine that feeling. So no matter the benefits they give anyone — disabled, healthy or ill — it will not equal the effort and sacrifice that they gave.”
Many countries offer their veterans extensive benefits including discounted or free public transportation, education and job training, healthcare, life and health insurance, employment and pensions, as well as benefits for their dependents or survivors. Special attention is given to disabled, ill, homeless and unemployed veterans. The services, provided by both government and private organizations, are intended to improve the lives of veterans and their families.
Egypt has one main veteran’s association called the Egyptian Veterans and War Victims Association (EVWVA). Headquartered in Mohandiseen, the EVWVA also has offices in Alexandria, Zagazig, Assiut and Mansoura. The association was founded in 1951 to “provide comprehensive social care to the veterans, war victims and their families,” according to their online mission statement.
Established as a governmental organization, the EVWVA is supported by the Ministry of Defense and Military Production. When approached for an interview about the association’s services, EVWVA officials referred Egypt Today to the Armed Forces Morale Office to obtain written permission. The Morale Office denied the request without explanation, telling the reporter to come back in six months.
According to the EVWVA website, the association is very busy hosting seminars, tours, sports competitions, research contests and artistic exhibitions for its members. Among the benefits, EVWVA members are entitled to ride public transportation for free, EgyptAir for half price and trains for quarter fare. Opera tickets are half price and some members can get assistance to make Al-Hajj. Members receive postcards on holidays, such as Veteran’s Day, which is celebrated in Egypt on March 9 for no discernible reason.
Veterans in the EVWVA are entitled to free hospital care. Members are also supposed to receive financial compensation for disabilities as well as false limbs, wheelchairs and the opportunity to travel abroad for treatment if necessary.
The best perks, according to the website, include “financial support allowances to the members such as attendant allowance, monthly allowance, occasional allowance, wedding and delivery subsidy, death subsidy, disaster subsidy and small-scale project subsidy.”
Okasha, who has been a card-carrying member for 20 years, asserts that in reality, these privileges are almost non-existent. Bus conductors, he claims, no longer let veterans ride for free, even though it is the law.
Approximately 10 years ago, the EVWVA actually filed a lawsuit against the government’s public transportation authority, accusing them of violating the law. The EVWVA won and put an ad in local newspapers to publicize the ruling, but apparently word has not filtered down to conductors yet.
According to Okasha, the veterans association has specific criteria for who can join — the veteran must be at least 50% disabled, for instance. Membership criteria, however, is not listed on the website.
Aside from the EVWVA, there is a national network of Armed Forces Clubs, with membership open to active and retired military personnel, war veterans, their spouses and children under the age of 25. Darwish, who is a club member, says that major generals and brigadiers get one week of free full board holiday in the summer. Darwish adds that the Morale Office stays in contact with both active and retired officers and produces newsletters about the armed forces. There is also a general services center where active and retired military personnel can get discounts on commodities and household furnishings.
While all the veterans interviewed are familiar with at least one of these organizations, almost none of them benefit from the advertised services, even if they are a member. Nor are they overly interested: Their faith in the system, like their years of service, is a distant memory.
“You have to understand, we were not waiting for services and we weren’t waiting for compensation back then,” says Omara, who retired as a staff major general, says. “But these days we definitely are. I have two medals  They give me nothing. No one gets anything.”
Though Omara was twice awarded the Military Star, the nation’s second highest medal, he is not entitled to any financial rewards for his heroism. Only recipients of the Star of Honor, the nation’s highest medal, are entitled to a monetary award of LE 10,000 per month.
Okasha confirms his comrade’s assessment. Patriotism was high when the troops returned home, he says, “but then the state started pulling back. I believe the people of October now represent a problem for the state.
Things used to be good, but then they started to pull back with the excuse  that the war is over so that’s it. They don’t give me anything at all.”
During his career, El-Hawan collected over $16,800,000 from Israeli intelligence, handing it all over to the Egyptian authorities. To this day, he has not received a single piastre from the government.
“I’ll tell you something, but don’t be sad as an Egyptian when you hear it, ok?” says El-Hawan. “I asked for a pension from the government [for the first time] just [one year ago] ago and I got a phone call telling me to come to room 47 in Mogamma Tahrir. I told them I was disabled and couldn’t walk, so they came to my house — out of love for me, mind you, and not because the law told them to. They came and talked and talked and talked, and the most  the government could give to a hero, who did this and that and lost his leg and lost his eye for Egypt  was LE 70 per month.”
The officials were not being stingy, just realistic. According the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, the national pension system currently covers 70 to 90 percent of the labor force, including public and private employees and civil servants. Pensions do not usually exceed LE 100 for any person.
El-Hawan declined the offer and instead told the officials to give the money to the armed forces to buy needed equipment. “I am sad at their actions, but I don’t want anything from them,” he says with a shrug. “I rebuked myself later on that I asked for my pension from Mubarak. I told myself, ‘How could you do this? You haven’t taken anything since 1967, why ask for your rights now?’”
A Grateful Nation Forgets
This wasn’t always the case. After the 1973 war, the nation showered its heroes with adulation and attention. After all, they had done what many said was impossible: Cross the ‘impenetrable’ Bar-Lev Line and regained control of Sinai, which had been in Israeli hands since Egypt’s humiliating defeat in 1967.
“Any demand we had was fulfilled,” Darwish says, recalling the gratitude of a nation after the war. “We got health insurance for ourselves and our family. My wife and I get it until death and my children until 21 for sons and until marriage or age 21 for daughters, whichever comes first.”
After the war, Ismaeel recalls, “The country was in a state I wish it could have remained in. When we returned we saw patriotism among civilians, and people felt how their army had exerted sweat and blood [for them].” He claims that if you read the newspapers of that time, you would see that there was very little crime — criminals stopped committing crimes to avoid wasting police time. This, he believes, is the extent of loyalty to Egypt, because, according to him, “war unified the people, and made them feel that we should stand shoulder to shoulder.”
Okasha adds that “the unity was unbelievable and your hair would stand up on end when you would see what people did for the troops.” He recounts the story of a pilot whose plane crashed in the desert. The pilot, severely injured, staggered from the wreck, pressing on until — crawling by this time — he reached the fields of a fellah (peasant). When the fellah saw the injured man, “he immediately took off his galabeya and gave it to the soldier. And that’s a simple peasant!”
Darwish, on the other hand, casts a slightly more jaded eye on the ‘glory days.’ He believes that even back then, when the war was ongoing, no one felt the war’s impact “unless they had a son or a husband fighting  Life goes on, people get married, movies are produced of all kinds  Life moves on as if there was no war at all or people being martyred.”
There is at least one person who ‘feels’ the war, even though he was not even alive when it was waged. Twenty-two year old Mohammad Foda organized [last] year’s “March for Those who Died for Us” after noticing that the majority of people treat October 6 as a day off, rather than an opportunity to honor the veterans.
“I felt that these [men] deserved a lot more,” Foda explains. “They died for us and without them we would have never had the life we have now or the freedom we have now. They secured our way of living and I think they deserve all our respect. They deserve at least to be remembered on this day. On that day so many people shed their blood trying to cross over [the Suez Canal ] Doing nothing [to remember them is not] appropriate.”
Egyptian by birth, Foda was born and raised in Canada, where he saw Remembrance Day ceremonies firsthand. He later lived in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, coming to Egypt six years ago for university. Now an account manager at a call center, Foda was very disappointed by the turnout for the march.
“I expected a minimum of 35,” he says. “I got personal messages from people telling me they were coming, and some called me personally. They seemed really interested and invited others, so I really thought they would show up.”
Old enough to have watched the flames of patriotism fade to ashes, the war veterans are even more disappointed.
“All we do is have a holiday on Sixth of October,” says Okasha. “That’s it. The memory is faded, and even the celebrations are the same and repeated. I don’t know why we are mekhasmeen [refuse to talk about or know] our history.”
Ismaeel concurs, claiming that the media is partially at fault for the public’s lack of awareness. “Did you feel [Sixth of October last year?]? What do you know about the war? Have we had a serial about the war in the last 20 years? A movie? Anything to show the sacrifices? No. I wait for [Sixth of October] to listen to the songs, but I only heard two or three songs [last year, and] nothing was on TV.”
Okasha believes that Egyptians neglect their veterans because they are ignorant about the wars they fought. If they only learned their military history, then people would care. “Take the Ramadan serial last year about King Farouk,” he illustrates. “The instant people watched it, they were lifted out of the coma they were in. People are all talking  they had no idea at all. They were startled because of one serial. Imagine if the same thing was for wars on a continuous basis? People will wake up and start knowing their history.”
In a perfect world, veterans would be recognized every day, rather than only on October 6 or April 25 (Sinai Liberation Day) or March 9, for that matter. “On the Sixth of October people feel what happened, that people died and were injured, but then on the eighth they forget it,” says Okasha.
“There’s school and college and work and housework, this is life. But when [hosts keep] inviting veterans on TV and shows, [people] will remember. All we invite to celebrations are TV stars and sport stars, but there are other stars that are worth much, much more than them.”
Okasha would also like to see the government name more streets after soldiers who died in action, to give weight to their sacrifice and to have something their children could point to and be proud. He argues that it will not cost the state much and be much better than “streets that we call sokar we lamon (sugar and lemon) and sebaa binat (seven girls), [names] that have no relation even to the [Arabic] language.”
A seemingly valid suggestion, but it overlooks the fact that the government does name some streets after soldiers, schools do teach national history and the media does run programs about the wars. There are even people who make the effort to recognize the veterans’ service and sacrifice. As Foda found out, however, it is nowhere near enough.
But it is about more than just recognition. While all the veterans interviewed have found ways to support themselves in civilian life, El-Hawan draws attention to those who cannot. “Some of them are walking barefoot, some of them can’t find food to eat. They exist and they need the leftovers of the leftovers of food that is leftover from you. Those who are missing arms, legs, and eyes and begging  these are [the true] Egyptian heroes. They beg because they served and lost limbs and are too old to work.”
These are men who carried their kaftan [shrouds] in their hands and did so unflinchingly for their country. “Because to be Egyptian means I am willing to give my life,” Okasha believes. “We fought so we wouldn’t be like Gaza and the West Bank is today  Many of this generation don’t understand why we did this — they look at us as if we are abnormal. Our reward was things that do not exist nowadays: loyalty, country, el-turab [the soil], land.”
Despite their disappointment in the government and society, all of the men interviewed remain staunch patriots. Each one said that he fought for his country and not for any reward.
“I am not an artist, or dancer or football player and I see that the government offers [services] to those three [professions] only,” says El-Hawan. “But I am proud to be an Egyptian and to have served my country and not my government. And elhamdulela I am now in history and that is what honors me, not the state.”
It is a noble sentiment from a band of noble men, keepers of an honorable heritage. With the passing of the years however, more of them join their comrades who fell in battle so long ago. It will soon be too late to say thank you. “Veterans aredying. We should benefit from their experience before they are all gone,” says Omara. “We have to start caring.” et
Arab-Israeli War (1948-1949) The First Arab-Israeli War, also called the Israeli War of Independence by Israelis, and Al-Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians, referring to the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as soon as Israel gained independence. The new country was invaded by the armies of six Arab nations: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan (later Jordan) and Saudi Arabia. Israel won, but Jordan occupied the West bank, while Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip.
Anglo-Egyptian War (1951-1952) Aided by the government, Egyptian guerrillas carried out a campaign against the British forces stationed at the Suez Canal. The troops retaliated by attacking an Egyptian police station, but eventually withdrew.
Israeli Raid on Gaza (Feb. 28, 1955) Egypt seized an Israeli ship and conducted a number of guerilla attacks. In response, Israeli forces conducted the largest raid against Arab forces since 1949; 39 Egyptians were killed.
Suez/Sinai War (1956) Also known as the Tripartite Aggression. Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the company that ran the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956. France, Britain and Israel, all of which had vested interests in the Canal, launched a coordinated attack on Egypt, with French and British troops seizing the Suez Canal and Israelis invading Sinai. The war lasted for six days, and Egypt suffered a crushing military defeat.
Yemen Civil War (1962-1970) Royalist rebels supported by Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen, and Egypt sent troops to support the Yemeni Republican government.
Arab-Israeli War of 1967 Also known as the Six Day War, Israel crushed the military forces of Syria, Jordon, and Egypt, seizing large amounts of land from each, including Sinai.
War of Attrition (1968-1970) After the 1967 War, Egypt launched multiple attacks trying to breach the Bar-Lev line. Israel retaliated with air raids deep inside Egypt’s borders. The conflict ended with a cease-fire brokered by the United States with support from the Soviet Union.
Arab-Israeli War of 1973 Known as the Sixth of October War by Egyptians and the Yom Kippur War by Israelis, as it fell on the Jewish holiday of that name. Egypt and Syria attacked an unsuspecting Israel, making significant advances before being pushed back by the Israelis. All parties accepted a UN brokered ceasefire. The outcome of the war is contested: While Egypt did not occupy Israel, its forces managed to penetrate the Bar-Lev line — touted as the most impenetrable military wall in the world. Ultimately, Egypt regained Sinai in the 1978 Camp David Accords.
Libyan-Egyptian War (1977) A four-day border war between Libya and Egypt, which ended in a cease-fire facilitated by the Algerian president.
Gulf War (1990-1991) After Iraq invaded Kuwait, Egypt sent troops to join the UN-backed Coalition forces, which liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Molazem, Second Lieutenant
Molazem Awal, Lieutenant
Moqadem, Lieutenant Colonel
Lewa, Major General
Fareeq, Lieutenant General
Fareeq Awal, General
Arkan Harb, Staff Major General