As the call to prayer crackles through the village loudspeaker, 82-year-old Aicha hunches over a rickety coffee table in her conical hut. She grasps at a string of prayer beads and begins to mutter under her breath, asking to return to her homeland.
“I remember all the details of my childhood village,” she says wistfully. “Fresh tilapia from the Nile, harvesting the date palms, the wheel that brought water from the river to our house; when we moved away, we lost everything.”
Aicha is among the first generation of Nubians internally displaced following the damming of the Nile more than 50 years ago, which forced 60,000 people to migrate north to the temporary shelters of Kom Ombo. Her home now lies submerged under one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Nasser.
“When we left, everybody was crying and kissing the earth. We only had two small bags with us, but we didn’t have the chance to go back to get anything else. I think about that day very often,” she says.
Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1964, which flooded the Nubian villages, successive governments have made a series of failed promises to repatriate the Nubians and compensate them for their losses.
Under the 2014 Constitution, the Egyptian government officially recognised the Nubians as an ethnic group for the first time and promised them the right to return to their homeland. But a few months later, more than 2,400 square miles of land was reclassified as part of the state’s military zone and marked out for a large-scale agricultural project. The land is now being sold off to domestic and foreign investors, activists have pointed out.
“This project is not for the Nubians; it is for businessmen,” Nubian rights activist Fatma Emam said. “For the government, this is an opportunity to make money and to gain political power. It is not to help the Nubians.”
In recent months, Nubian activists have taken to the streets to protest the move. Last November, a caravan of more than 150 activists blocked a 300km stretch of road from Kom Ombo to Lake Nasser, calling for their right to return. Since then, activists have continued to mobilise online, and will not rule out the possibility of further protests.
There is a double discrimination. First as a citizen, because we do not have the same rights as an Egyptian; and secondly because we are a different race with a different language and heritage. This discrimination is harming all Egyptians.
“This is the most effective way to pressure the government,” said Mohamed Azmy, a human rights lawyer and activist. “We have to ensure that this issue remains on the political agenda.”
During the November protest, Egyptian authorities prevented the caravan from travelling beyond a checkpoint, alleging that the demonstrators were acting against government policy. The activists then staged a sit-in at the checkpoint, remaining in their cars and blocking the road for three days.
“They threatened to arrest any Nubian who tried to cross the security checkpoint and they banned food or water from reaching the protesters without warning,” Azmy said. “But we continued regardless. We have nothing to fear.”
The protesters called for a rejection of the government’s agricultural project, an amendment to the 2014 Constitution to remove the Nubian villages from the designated military zone, and the implementation of a 10-year project to resettle Nubians in the “original areas” set out in the Constitution. There has been no official government response to these demands.
For many Nubians, the caravan was the first opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s approach.
“They didn’t try to even negotiate with the Nubians,” said Wael, an activist in Abu Simbel whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “That made a huge hurt in the Nubians’ hearts.
“I agree with investing in this place, but you have to include the Nubians,” he added. “You have to partner or share this information so when they come back, they will find their land, not only companies.”
Alongside the state’s commercial interests, activists say that this is part of the Egyptian government’s plan to further marginalise Nubians in political, economic and cultural terms.
“There is a double discrimination,” Emam said. “First as a citizen, because we do not have the same rights as an Egyptian; and secondly because we are a different race with a different language and heritage. This discrimination is harming all Egyptians.”
Safar Mahmoud Hassan, former geology minister, who led the development of the Aswan High Dam in 1964, maintained that the Nubians’ calls have been heard and denied claims that the government will benefit financially.
“There has not been much investment yet. One village has been completed, but it is not possible for Nubians to live there, as the infrastructure is not in place,” he said, noting that he was optimistic that the involvement of foreign investors would bring jobs and growth to the area.
“Some businessmen have arrived from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and have started cultivating and working in the quarries,” Hassan added. “This is an area very rich in natural resources, especially mining resources. We have limestone, granite and clay quarries. This presents a growth opportunity for the Nubians and for all Egyptians.”
The Egyptian government has repeatedly said that it was facilitating a return for the displaced Nubians and seeking to develop the area to create employment and encourage tourism.
But in the meantime, activists say they will continue to draw international attention to the issue and to call for their right to return home.
“We have to keep up the pressure on the government to oblige them to fulfil their duties,” Azmy said. “They must give the Nubians the rights stipulated in the Constitution.”
For some Nubians, however, the changes may come too late.
As she gazed out at the barren wasteland from the temporary shelter where she has lived for more than 50 years, Aicha said: “I hope one day to see my homeland, to feel the earth between my toes. I have dreamed of returning for so long.”