Sudanese gangs afflict Cairo streets

1171.jpgMaliah Bekam, 24, came to Egypt to escape the civil war in southern Sudan, but he died in a pool of his own blood in a Cairo street. The fatal machete blows came from members of his own community. The crowning irony is that the attack happened outside an event marking World Refugee Day.

Maliah is the latest casualty of violence between rival street gangs from Cairo’s Sudanese community.

Unofficially (there is no official figure), the death toll is at least four in the last 18 months.

Deng, 22, says he has witnessed two killings. Like others associated with the gangs, he did not want his real name published.

“They fight about nothing. They use knives and sticks. Sometimes you’ll see more than 10 people injured,” he says.


Clad in silky tank tops, trainers and baseball caps, the Lost Boys, Outlaws and other gangs base their loyalties not on tribe or religion, but on territorial claims to areas of the Cairo.

Members are usually in their late teens or twenties, love rap music, often live together in shared flats and socialise at parties and picnics.

But they also rob fellow Sudanese, attack other gangs and beat up youths in their area who refuse to join.

Teacher David Awo Farajalla, 30, has scars on his head and shoulder from when he was mugged by gang members on his way home from church.

“I just heard a sound in my head, and then started seeing the blood. They took the money and ran away.”

Aywel Jonathan, 20, says he was targeted for refusing to join a gang: “I was on the street, they attacked, cut me on my hand and beat me. It was a very big knife.”

But why have so many young Sudanese turned on each other?


Many Sudanese came to Egypt hoping to be resettled in the West, but that can take years and successful applications have plummeted since the January 2005 peace agreement between Khartoum and the southern rebels, although few southerners feel it is secure enough to return.

While Egypt has long had an open door policy for Sudanese, work permits can be difficult to obtain, discrimination is a fact of life and the labour market is already overcrowded.

Sudanese also have limited access to state education, which leaves them reliant on unaccredited church-run schools.

“They lost their country and their identity,” said Dominic, who maintains relations with the gangs and has attempted to mediate between them.

“They are marginalised, missing out on education and employment opportunities. They don’t have anything to believe in, so they created these gangs to belong to.”

The breakdown of community and family relationships is also considered a factor, with many fathers dead or absent and mothers often working as live-in maids away from their children.


Deng’s experience may also offer a clue: “When I was 10 I went back to southern Sudan, but fighting broke out and I saw my cousin killed in front of me.

“Most of the guys in the gang have seen something really bad.”

The love of rap – among gang and non-gang Sudanese youth alike – may also be telling: “It’s about tragedy, having trouble in your life. It’s like there’s something you want to bring out of your heart. It’s talking through your pain,” says Deng.

Many see a link between the rise of gangs and an incident in December 2005 that made international headlines when Egyptian security forces killed at least 27 Sudanese as they broke up a sit-in.

Researchers from the American University of Cairo (AUC) believe “new depths of frustration and hopelessness” after the event fed into the gangs’ behaviour.

Government policy

The AUC report suggests the incident resulted in police adopting a “hands-off” policy – an accusation levelled by many Sudanese who say the police are failing to investigate gang crimes and round up leaders.

The government said at the time that it was “saddened” by the deaths and had handled the sit-in with “patience and flexibility”.

It says it has taken steps to improve living conditions for Sudanese, but did not respond to requests for a statement on policing policy.

Deng says most new gang members join either to avoid getting beaten up by – or to avenge injuries received from – another gang.

To become a gang member, he says, you have to take part in a new attack.

“Of course when someone dies, members of the gang that did it don’t feel happy. But they don’t blame themselves – they just say it was his problem, he shouldn’t have been fighting against us,” he says.

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