Questions after Egyptian workers killed in Cyprus fire

One week after wildfire devastated surrounding countryside – killing four people – residents of a Cypriot village are facing questions over the treatment of farm labourers.

Farmer Antonis Korniotis said: 'If we had waited everyone would be dead now' [Nigel O'Connor/Al Jazeera]

Odou, Cyprus – Approaching sunset brings an end to the working day in the farming community of Odou, in Cyprus’s Troodos mountains. As light fades, the quiet village is enlivened with the hum of a series of pick-up trucks returning from the fields, loaded with fresh produce and the Egyptian farm labourers who picked it.

Situated amid abrupt rock faces and terraced farmland, Odou bares the scars of fresh tragedy. The surrounding slopes are entirely blackened, charred by a forest fire – described as the worst in Cyprus’s recorded history – that engulfed the village on July 3.

Four Egyptian workers were killed in the flames and their fate, along with their surviving compatriots, has become the subject of accusations over maltreatment.

“If you don’t respect workers they’re invisible so these things can happen,” Doros Polykarpou, director of the Cypriot human rights organisation KISA, told Al Jazeera.

The remains of Ezzat Salama Youssef, 36, Samwiel Milad Farouk, 22, Maged Nabil Yonan, 23, and Marzouk Shohdy Marzouk, 39, were found among the burned terrain outside of Odou the morning after the fires. They had been employed by a local farmer to pick tomatoes during the summer harvest and were working in the fields when the fire approached and cut off their escape route.

Polykarpou claims the deaths were a direct result of institutional discrimination of migrant workers.

“Again and again the authorities make promises after these incidents but they take no action,” he said.

Calls for governmental action have also been taken up by trade unions.

“We expect the labour ministry to act promptly so they can provide answers to everyone and assign responsibilities where they exist,” The Pancyprian Federation of Labour said in a statement after the deaths.

Smoke from a forest fire is seen in Ora village, Larnaca, Cyprus [File: Andrea Anastasiou via Reuters]

To date, the only arrest in relation to the blaze is that of a 67-year old man suspected of starting the fire when burning grass at his field in nearby Arakapas village. In addition to those killed, 55 square kilometres of countryside and farmland were burned – destroying 50 homes, causing millions of euros in damages, and forcing the evacuation of 10 villages.

Andreas Christou, of the Department of Forests, the responsible agency for fighting forest fires, told Al Jazeera a mixture of high winds, a summer heatwave, and dry vegetation meant conditions prevented the blaze quickly being controlled.

“All factors favoured the fire,” he said. “The narrow agricultural roads prevented quick access of fire vehicles to the fronts.”

He said it took 15 firefighting aircraft to control the fire by July 5.

A usual evening in Odou would see the Egyptian workers shower, change into fresh clothes, and gather along with locals in the village square. However, when Al Jazeera visited five days after the fire, many came directly from work to assemble for an impromptu street-side discussion about labour rights organised by KISA.

“There is no up-to-date framework to regulate salaries or workers’ rights here,” Polykarpou said before questioning the workers about their conditions.

With the smell of smoke still lingering in the air and tree stumps on distant hillsides continuing to smoulder, many of the Egyptian workers at the gathering were more interested in the fate of their lost compatriots and immediate concerns rather than systemic change.

“My boss’s fields were all burned so I don’t know if I will continue to be paid,” said one.

Another questioned the desire to talk about working conditions when the focus should be providing burials for the deceased.

“Their bodies haven’t been returned home yet and the families want to bury them,” he said. “How can we talk about this now?”

They said the average monthly salary was €500 ($590) per month.

The Egyptian workers of Odou form a close-knit group. In the summer months the village’s population of 175 residents is swollen by as many as 150 seasonal workers. Most come from villages around the city of Sohag, in Egypt’s Upper Nile region, many sharing family connections or mutual contacts.

The workers were reluctant to talk openly to the media – fearing reprisal from the Egyptian authorities upon their return or jeopardising their chances of future employment in Cyprus.

Beniamin (not his real name), 28, said he had been coming to Odou for the summer harvest for six years.

“My boss is fine and the work is good,” he said. “I have no issues here. At the end of the season I return to work my farm at home.”

The workers said on the day of the fire they returned to the fields after lunch at 3pm. It quickly became apparent there was a problem as smoke filled the sky. Employers began calling work crews to tell them to find safety.

Everybody who was in Odou on the day of the fire attributes the tragic deaths to the speed of the blaze, which was whipped up by strong winds.

“The fire was so fast it couldn’t be controlled,” said local farmer Antonis Korniotis. “We started making plans to evacuate at about 3:30pm. All of the farmers were calling their workers in the fields to tell them to leave.”

He said villagers took the decision themselves to evacuate and he piled a group of Egyptians into his pick-up to drive them to safety.

“There were no official orders to evacuate,” he said. “If we had waited everyone would be dead now. The village was saved because some people stayed behind to defend it.”

Beniamin confirmed that locals had helped take them to safety. He said it was understood something had happened to the four deceased in the evening when their mobile phones no longer rang. A group of Egyptians began searching the mountains near their accommodation in the darkness, but were forced to call off the search until morning.

“At six o’clock we returned and saw their car crashed in a ditch – fully burned,” he said. “We began walking up a nearby, dry river torrent but some said it was impossible they had come this way as it was too steep and difficult.”

The bodies were found on the mountainside about 400 metres from the abandoned vehicle – a mere 150 metres from where the fire stopped.

The mayor of Odou, Menelaos Phillippou, said everybody in the village was grieved by the loss of life.

“These deaths are a tragedy for us,” he said. “All of us that employ workers are thinking that it could easily have been our employees.”

A firefighter battles the flames in a forest on the slopes of the Troodos mountain chain [File: Georgios Lefkou Papapetrou/AFP]

He rejected any accusations that Egyptian workers are mistreated. As the mayor, he said, each local farmer is required to report the identity and number of employees in order to be charged a fee for municipal services. Everything else is regulated by the national authorities.

“Since the fire we have had people talking about us in the media but nobody has come to ask information about the situation before they accuse us,” he said, adding the Egyptians were a welcome addition to the life of the village. “In the evenings we gather together and play table football or billiards. Each week they hold a service of the Coptic Church in our community centre with a priest coming from Limassol.”

Along with a local recovery package the Cypriot government has announced plans to aid the families of the deceased with payments of €95,000 ($112,200) and additional payments per child. The children of those who died will also receive scholarships to Cypriot universities.

In addition to government efforts Phillippou said villagers had also been fundraising and planned to travel to meet with the families in Egypt. He said a memorial to the victims of the fire would be unveiled in the coming weeks.

“Even after 100 years their names will still be remembered here,” he said.

The bodies were returned to Egypt and funerals conducted on Sunday.

Beniamin related that the delays caused anguish for those at home.

“Everyone at home was going crazy,” he said. “I knew the father of Maged. We spoke just a month ago and he asked how was his son.”

To him the help for the families is welcome but the uncertainty of their position remains the cause of the tragedy.

“The money promised by the Cypriot government is something for those left behind but it won’t bring them back,” Beniamin said. “The biggest problem is the economy in Egypt. If we could be comfortable at home we wouldn’t need to come here.”

Source: Al Jazeera