When Ibrahim was arrested it was a summer’s day in Arish, the capital of North Sinai, and he was wearing a light t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Two winters on his mother is worrying if he has enough warm clothes to wear.
On 25 July 2018 security forces broke into Um Ibrahim’s home and arrested her husband, returning a day later for her and their son Ibrahim, who was just 14 years old. He was in the third year of preparatory school, a child like any other child, his mother says: “He loved playing, like all kids.”
Her husband, Mohammed Shaheen, ran a shop which sold spare parts for cars and when Ibrahim wasn’t studying, he would go to help his father at work. Besides Ibrahim, they had four other children, three girls and one boy.
The family had moved to Arish from Rafah several years before after the city on the border with Gaza was completely razed by the government and between 70,000 and 100,000 people were forcibly displaced as part of the government’s heavy-handed war on terror. So far, she has not received any compensation.
Um Ibrahim showed us a picture of Ibrahim and her husband taken days before their arrest. Mohammed is a slim, bespectacled man and he stares straight at the camera, his arms crossed across his chest. Ibrahim stands on his left, wearing a grey American football t-shirt. He has dark hair and the beginnings of a smile – it’s far from the last image she has of him, locked up in one of Egypt’s notorious prison cells.
“He was sick, scared and hungry,” she recalls of their last encounter, five days after their arrest, the day she was released alone. “There was a lack of food and water in the prison. God knows what happened later to him. I don’t know anything about him or his place of detention. I don’t even know if he is alive or dead.”
In mid-August Um Ibrahim sent a complaint to the attorney general about the disappearance of her husband and son, demanding that their whereabouts be revealed, but received nothing in response. Then, almost two months after their arrest, she was scrolling through Facebook when she saw her husband’s name on the official army page. She could see his body in the photo and stared at the marks and sores on his arms and legs. She had been warned by a fellow inmate that he had been tortured inside prison.
“They wrote that he was killed in an operation against terrorists in Sinai. I learnt that he was killed by the security forces with another group of detainees. They said he was a terrorist.”
For one month, Um Ibrahim was not allowed to see the body. When she finally did, she described the smell as overpowering. “His face wasn’t clear, only his teeth,” she recalls. She showed photographs of her husband to the staff and they said it was him. “A very close family friend entered the morgue and saw him and assured us it was him,” she added.
Two of Um Ibrahim’s brothers have been detained and sentenced to life, one in Tora Prison in Cairo, and one in Minya Prison, around 245 kilometres south of the capital, on the western bank of the Nile River. A third brother is wanted by the army on accusations of belonging to the local Daesh affiliate Sinai Province. “We haven’t heard from him in a long time, we got news from people that he was killed, but the authorities do not believe us because they didn’t see his dead body.”
“My husband and my two detained brothers were all detained instead of him. My husband was detained and killed for that reason, because they couldn’t find my brother.”
One year and eight months after her son’s arrest Um Ibrahim has a new concern to grapple with – the COVID-19 pandemic which could explode if it hits Egypt’s jails. Activists are calling on Egyptian authorities to release political prisoners for fear an outbreak inside detention centres could not be contained. “I’m so afraid of coronavirus spreading among the detainees, I’m afraid he will get infected,” says Um Ibrahim. “Because the detainees – and especially the forcibly disappeared – are usually held in filthy conditions with no ventilation. They are unsafe places for humans and for children, it’s very dangerous.”“We thank God there are no reported coronavirus cases in Sinai till now, but I am afraid for my son.”
Our interview with Um Ibrahim comes shortly after the release of a widely shared Human Rights Watch report which documented abuses against 20 children kept in Egyptian detention facilities aged between 12 and 17. The report has some harrowing details and tells of torture with electricity, stun guns and waterboards.
This abuse is aided and abetted by prosecutors and judges who turn a blind eye, says the rights watchdog. They also say that arbitrary detention and abuse of children in the country is widespread and systematic, something that Ibrahim’s case confirms.
Whilst rights groups consistently point out that children cannot be prosecuted unless it’s a last resort and only in line with international juvenile justice standards, it’s particularly hard for children like Ibrahim since the government has imposed a blackout on the peninsula, including for activists and journalists, which makes their cases difficult to highlight.
Still, over the course of the Egyptian army’s campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, video evidence has emerged showing that unarmed civilians have been extrajudicially killed by the armed forces and then portrayed to be terrorists online, and war crimes, including against children, have been documented.
Without her husband Um Ibrahim worries she will be left completely destitute. She arrived in Egypt from Palestine in 1984 with her family and lived for a year in Cairo before settling in North Sinai. Her husband is also Palestinian but had Egyptian citizenship which means that whilst her children were granted the Egyptian nationality through their father, Um Ibrahim is still considered a Palestinian.
This has only added to her woes since the current government has ramped up animosity towards Palestinians, who were already consistently denied their basic rights to education, work and residency. “All the doors are closed to me now because I’m Palestinian. I can’t apply for residency and can’t apply for a pension for my children. I need help, I need to know the whereabouts of my son, he is a child he should be playing with his friends now and he should go to school.”