Egyptian writer and Novelist Fouad Hegazy
A former POW
I was serving in the paratroops battalion. We were approaching a place called Gerada, half way between El Arish and Garallah, when we first saw the Israeli tanks. We took refuge in a huge hall, at the nearby railway station. The Israeli tanks swept over the station and flattened it out, with the people inside. We had some old weapons that were useless then. They entered the place not with the intent of taking hostages or prisoners of war, but clearly to cleanse the area. They went in turning the corpses, stealing the gold and money, as well as the important identity cards such as those belonging to the Egyptian intelligence. We were wounded. , and they were surprised to find us.
Our battalion was not alone in that place; there were hundreds of other soldiers who had been lost, roaming in the desert for days. Their fate had led them to us in Gerada, near the railway station. All in all there were nine soldiers alive, all wounded. One had a bullet in his arm, another had his intestines falling out of his stomach. The enemy clearly did not need prisoners on that first day of the war, and they killed everybody. Luckily, on June 6, an officer told them that their leadership were ordering them to take us as prisoners. I later came to realize that on the 6th there were 9 pilots who fell as prisoners of war in the hands of the Egyptian army, and they spared our lives to trade us with them.
They ordered us to sleep on the floor on our stomachs, and the tanks started rolling towards us. We understood they would run us over. The sound of the tanks chains approaching near our heads was terrorizing. Some of my colleagues had white hair from shock! They then ordered us to stand up, and they moved us to a prisoners us camp in Rafah. We were all wounded. They asked us to spread on the ground; then they showered us with bullets over our heads. Anyone who raised his head so much as one centimeter was instantly murdered. It was hot, and we were bleeding. There were no toilets in those camps. Anyone who requested to go to the toilet, was asked to dig a hole in which he was thrown and murdered. No one asked for the toilet any more!! The bullets persisted throughout the 6th of June.
On the seventh day, our capturers threw us in trucks, tying our hands behind us to the seats. It did not matter whether a soldier was wounded or not, capable of moving his arm or not! They tied us regardless, and drove us towards Israel. At the border, every time they suspected there was a Palestinian resistance ambush, they untied us and used us as shields, walking in front of the trucks. They told us: “Die at the hands of your own brethren!” Many of us died with our own peoples bullets. If any of the Israelis was wounded or dead, they used to start their ad hoc firing. We stayed this way till we arrived at Al Magdel, where there was a camp for prisoners of war.
The camp was without toilets. This was our fourth day in a row without food or water. The families of the Israeli soldiers who had been murdered in combat, were brought in to see us. They attacked us, squeezed our wounds, spit at us and stoned us.
They had to move us to another camp in Atlit. This is when the terror trip began. We had to ride a train for transferring cattle. The cars had no windows or light. In a car that would normally take ten people, they squeezed in more than one hundred and fifty. They closed the doors with huge locks. This lasted from 10 o’clock on the morning of June 8, till 12 midnight of June 9. We lost all sense of time. The fifth day began. We were sitting on top of each other in the car. Our blood mingled with each other’s. We defecated on each other, thinking we were defecating on the floor. After we discovered this humiliation, we clawed the floor and dug holes through which we may defecate. Those holes also gave us some air to breathe.
The train stopped. They emptied the trucks. Between 10 to 15 soldiers died on that trip. They made us stand in lines at the station, and fired bullets over our heads. Many died. I was unable to count the dead. The Israelis deliberately shot at some of us. As soon as the bullets ceased, the families were brought in to stone us and spit at us, violating the remaining fragments of our humanity.
I can never forget one sight, however: without concern with the spitting and the raining bullets, the soldiers suddenly saw a water hose. They crossed all boundaries of fear and rushed towards it. The Israelis shot at us. Our blood was mixed with the water, but we never stopped. They stopped shooting. Each one of us drank from the hose and left it to the next soldier, only to pull it again, hug it, pour its water on our fully clothed bodies and torn wounds. I remember I returned to that hose six times that day.
The gathering at the arrival station ended. They brought us garbage cars to transfer us to the camp. I remember its smell to this day, and it makes me feel nauseous. We arrived at the camp… still without food or water. They did not notify the Red Cross of our presence except after four months in imprisonment! The Atlit Death Camp: The first thing we ate was bread. Every eight soldiers were allowed one loaf of ordinary sized bread. There was also an onion for every five prisoners. In the evening it was the same, in addition to one turnip for every four. They gave us one glass of water in the morning and another in the evening for every five prisoners. There were two holes in the ground covered with a wooden seat. This was our toilet. It was not sheltered with any curtain, and we had to go in front of everyone. We slept on the cement floor, on straw mats. In winter they gave us rotten blankets that smelled horrible. We gathered a few of them and made curtains for the toilets.
We spent four months without bathing because the water was barely enough to drink. We stayed without cure for our wounds and without change of clothes. We smelled of blood and sweat. Some of the wounds oozed with pus and were full of squirming worms. We cleaned the worms with tree leaves. Some of us died from their wounds. When the Red Cross arrived they were shocked from the worms and lice that was eating our bodies and hair. We used to scratch until blood oozed out.
We organized a demonstration, but they fired at us. Many died. We wrote complaints to the Red Cross which arrived after four months. After their intervention, they allowed us one bar of soap for every 7 prisoners and opened the taps for bathing for only one hour a day, to allow one hundred prisoner to bathe!! Anyone who tries to bathe at any other time was instantly murdered.
There was a white chalk line near the barbed wires. Anyone who approached near it to even try and breathe the fresh air of the nearby sea, was murdered. We demonstrated once again. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Chief of Staff, came to us with a helicopter and sat with some of the more important Egyptian generals. The food was then enhanced from turnip to minced beef whose expiry date was long gone and that smelled rotten. Nevertheless we ate it to live.
It was tragically funny that we found some Israeli soldiers smoking Cleopatra brand of cigarettes, and we understood that gifts had come to us which they stole. After negotiations with the Red Cross, we finally received some of the presents. We offered them as bribes to the Israeli guards to allow us to do a few extra things. Despite all that torture, we wrote plays and poetry, and organized cultural lectures for the less-educated soldiers. The Road Home The Jordanian POWs were released one week after they were arrested. The Syrians after one month. As for us, Egyptians, we stayed eight months.
I later realized, from the writings of Mr. Mohammed Hassanein Heikal (an Egyptian journalist and historian), that President Nasser refused to trade us with nine Israeli pilots and two Israeli spies! He said spies were not to be traded with soldiers, without bothering about our situation. We were 5580 prisoners of war, all in all, among us 50 generals in addition to the education commission to Gaza which included male and female teachers who were not young in age, and the medical commission with physicians and nurses.
After pressures from the families of the POWs who met with Nasser, he finally relented and agreed to trade us.
We were back home.