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Residents angered by official response to Cairo rock slide

They say rescue crews watch as poor families dig for survivors.

September 07, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy | Times Staff Writers

CAIRO — Hind Hussein returned from the hospital after going into false labor and was nodding off early Saturday morning when the cliff above her shantytown rumbled and boulders the size of tugboats rained down, crushing scores of apartments and houses in a storm of grit and dust.

Hussein and a few neighbors ran for cover in a mosque, but for many the rock slide that roared through a quiet Ramadan morning erupted too quickly. At least 24 people have been reported dead and dozens injured. Residents in the crowded Douaiqa slum in east Cairo said hundreds were missing beneath rocks and splintered houses.

"The government is not doing anything to rescue the people," Hussein said, standing on a battered terrain that was once a neighborhood as friends and families clawed through debris to get to loved ones.

"The government is just watching. Some people are still alive in there. We hear them shout and ask for help. Some are even calling us from mobile phones."

By dusk, whole families were unaccounted for. Men and women covered in dust and sweat pushed at immovable rock, listening for survivors in an eerie vigil punctuated by rising anger at the government.

Rescue crews from the national civil defense agency arrived hours after the slide, and the people of the shantytown said authorities were ignoring the poor.

"While we were digging to rescue people, the civil defense personnel were just watching us and doing nothing," said Ghareeb Atayya, who spent hours searching for his neighbors. "We have been rescuing babies, old men and women. I rescued around seven people and not all of them were still alive."

Many Egyptians view the government of President Hosni Mubarak as negligent, corrupt and incompetent in its handling of crises. In August, a palace that houses the upper chamber of parliament was gutted by fire because the emergency response was so poorly executed. In July, a court acquitted a Mubarak-appointed lawmaker charged in the deaths of 1,000 people who drowned in 2006 when an unsafe ferry he owned sank in the Red Sea.

Such headlines have become national embarrassments and have further agitated a population that is enduring joblessness, a persistent high inflation rate and a government that silences and imprisons members of opposition political parties.

In a country where 45% of the people live on less than $2 a day, workers of all stripes protest in the streets for higher wages, and a widening chorus of activist bloggers has begun campaigns against the ruling National Democratic Party.

The rock slide, which occurred about 7 a.m. while many in the shantytown were sleeping after a predawn Ramadan meal, drew new criticism against authorities and highlighted the danger from the Muqattam cliffs around Cairo. The cliffs were weakened by quarry mining that began in the 19th century and have become more fragile under pressure from expanding slums in this city of 17 million people.

Tumbling cliffs in a nearby area killed 30 people in 1994. After Saturday's slide, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief said in a statement, "We are following the case step by step and providing care and comfort for the residents. We would like to remind people of the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas."

Sitting in despair among her neighbors on a hill of garbage, Sabah Mohamed worried about her daughter Safaa Adel, who had disappeared beneath the rocks.

"She had to do the laundry this morning, so she woke up and went out to buy a detergent in an alley hit by the rocks," Mohamed said, trying not to weep. "I blame the whole government for what is happening. It has not done anything so far. People have been under the rocks since 8 a.m."

Many spent the day peering through crevices, waiting and fearing new fissures in the cliffs would bring more crashing rocks. The government began evacuating the area after nightfall.

"Where can we go? How can we sleep here? The kids will be too scared to sleep here," said Wafaa Hassan, who lives with her sister and children and grandchildren in a wooden hut.

Hussein, the pregnant woman, didn't worry when she heard the first rumble. She said she was used to such noises; for eight months, pieces of the hills and cliffs have been breaking and sliding toward her neighborhood. There was rarely damage and life went on.

Hussein said she and her neighbors had asked the authorities what they should do.

"They said if it gets worse, try to hide," she said, "or move to the home of a relative away from here."

--

jeffrey.fleishman @latimes.com

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