Terror in the Desert - Egypt 1991 by Alison Galilian
Hurgada!, Hurgada!’ yelled the bus driver out the battered door. The old engine roared reluctantly to life and we were on our way at last. Perhaps I shouldn't have chosen August to travel across the desert. The sun was ferocious - the rays intensified through the glass windows, turning the non-airconditioned bus into a human oven.
A little while into the journey, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes. We were surrounded by army trucks. A soldier hammered at the door of the bus, ordering the driver to open the doors. He came aboard holding his rifle out in front of him. His cold stare worked its way quickly and efficiently around the bus. He walked slowly up the aisle, staring at each passenger - his rifle aimed in the same direction as his eyes. No one spoke. No one dared move. The soldier turned to a passenger halfway up the aisle. He yelled angrily at him in Arabic. The terrified man began frantically searching through his pockets. I found myself willing him to find the elusive item before something far worse happened. The man eventually produced a crumpled, torn paper. The soldier snatched it from his hands then grabbed him by the collar and dragged him off the bus. I watched in horror as the man was pushed face down in the sand. Another soldier placed a foot on him, then pointed a rifle to his head. Our armed man returned. Two more passengers were dragged off the bus. I sat rigid, afraid to move in case I attracted his attention. I wished I hadn’t sat in the seat facing the aisle. I wanted to cower behind a seat and be invisible. The area we were travelling through had seen its share of militia attacks and political unrest. I started to worry I might be taken hostage.
The soldier was now walking towards me. His cold eyes suddenly locked on mine. My heart was thumping so hard, it pounded in my ears. I stared back, determined not to show my fear. He walked up to me until the end of his rifle was inches from my face. He glanced quickly at the passengers on each side of me, then turned around. He shouted something at the driver before stepping off our bus. A few minutes later, the road block moved away to allow us to pass. We were on our way again. Excited chatter broke out amongst the remaining passengers, who appeared united by this terrifying ordeal.
Two hours later, thick, black smoke began belching into the bus. The engine began to splutter. The bus jolted violently forwards then ground to a halt. We were in the middle of nowhere. The driver went to inspect the engine and was soon followed by all the passengers. I took the opportunity to escape the toxic human oven, and resigned myself to the fact that we had a long, hot wait. I passed the time listening to my walkman, allowing the music to become the backdrop of my surreal movie set.
I didn’t hear the jeep arrive. When I saw it skid to a stop next to the bus I took off my headphones. A soldier got out and went to speak to the bus driver, then walked over to me. 'You! Come!', he insisted. Too afraid to argue, I grabbed my bag and was pushed into the jeep next to three other soldiers. I thought of my Dad, who was well read on Middle Eastern affairs, and who had warned me to be careful in Egypt. I imagined the phone call my parents would receive. 'Hello, we're sorry to inform you that your daughter has been taken hostage by militants whilst travelling through a volatile part of Egypt.
The jeep moved quickly across the desert. We eventually came to a stop at a small, remote building. 'Out!', shouted the same soldier who had forced me into the Jeep. 'You stay here'. Any questions I had about what was going to happen to me were unanswered. Whether it was due to a lack of English or whether I was deliberately not being told, I didn't know. I was pushed towards the building and told to wait outside. A soldier was left to guard me. The others went inside. I sat down in the sand, too hot and tired to make sense of what was going on.
An hour or so later, a convoy of armed trucks pulled up. A soldier came out the building and ushered me over to one of the vehicles. Guns pointed out every window. I tried to push away the images of being held hostage in a remote part of the Egyptian desert.
As we once again sped through the desert I stared into the wavering horizon, waiting for some sort of sign that my journey was near its end. I soon lost track of time. Suddenly the convoy turned off the sandy track and onto a proper road. We were approaching a populated area. Hurgada?! We pulled up outside a guest house on the periphery of the town. 'What’s going on?', I asked again. The driver never replied. He went to speak to the owner of the guesthouse. then returned and signalled for me to get down from the truck. The convoy left as quickly as it had arrived. The guesthouse owner, a large jolly man, came out to greet me. 'Welcome friend!’ he shouted. I grinned back, feeling a little confused at the sudden change in my situation.
The owner explained what had happened. Four policemen had been shot by militants in Qena - which was where our bus had been searched by the Egyptian army. When passing soldiers had discovered our bus broken down in the desert later, they had taken me to the nearest base for safety. From there, the army organised an armed convoy to escort me to Hurgada. I suddenly felt very grateful to the soldiers who rescued me!