SAFAGA, Egypt: It was a long, unhappy weekend in Safaga.
Ben Wederman was at breakfast. In person, he looks like Van Morrison. The rest of the media was there as well, TV cameras stuffed under tables. The morning news spread out between plates of scrambled eggs and weak coffee. Fixers scanning and reading the headlines.
The real guests, the tourists who had come for the sun and the diving, looked on nervously. Their away-from-it all resort had somehow become a base-camp at the eye of a storm.
Ten minutes away, men were sleeping on the sidewalks in droves. Thousands of them came to find relatives from the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, camped out for days with nothing but a gallabeya and an ‘ama for shelter. While wind-surfers whipped back and forth across the azure waves and para-gliders floated serenely in the sky, they crowded forward to hear the lists of survivors read out.
Some were lucky.
Ahmed is a small man with a strong, raspy voice and a quick smile. Standing on the steps of the Safaga hospital, his back to the security blocking his 29-year-old brother inside and himself outside, he described how he heard the news from another brother in Kuwait.
“He was watching Al Gezeera and he phoned us and said that Hossam is dead, he said as he paused and cleared his throat. “We got in the car and came. We’ve been here since the first day . I didn’t check the bodies of the dead because I thought he was dead and I thought there was no hope.
But then came the moment when they heard his name read out.
“I cried. I was very happy and I cried. And then I phoned to Kuwait and home. . When we get him, we will go from here to the balad and start a celebration. We will slaughter a cow, he said grinning.
But the lucky ones were always going to be in the minority and the town was battened down from the beginning. A line of riot police, plastic padded and helmeted, was drawn across the entrance to the port, and the nearby offices of the El Salam Maritime Shipping Company were shuttered.
The measures caused tempers to boil among those who were forced to wait in the street for information.
“First they said that he was here, and then they said Hurghada. I went there, and they said that he is here, shouts a middle-aged man in a quilted jacket. He points at the door of the hospital, his face reddening. “If my son is in there, he is a patient, and if he is a patient, he has the right to a visitor.
At the port, where the men had less to hope for and more to fear, emotions were released in the volleys of rocks and bottles that crashed down on the police line and accidentally atop the TV vans parked nearby.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, yelled a helmeted riot cop, hunkered down behind one of vans. His colleague was standing up, scanning for a target for the baseball-sized chunk of cement in his hand. Two meters away, a wild-haired technician was trying to protect his satellite equipment by rolling out a masking tape fence, yelling “no, no, no, no and waving his arms.
After that, the media took up positions on top of the low buildings across the street out of the firing line.
By Sunday evening, less than 400 survivors had been found. Much of the remaining hope had leaked away and an awful, silent fear was filling the space it left behind.
In front of the port, men sat in defeated lines on the curbside. The restless shuffle of the previous days and the constant search for information had given way to a silent wait.
Small trucks circulated, dropping off anonymously donated bags of oranges and bread.
“I’ve been here since Friday, said Mahmoud, a well dressed man in his forties, “and I’m going to sit here a while longer. He was eating bread from a bag. “We’re waiting for his son, he said, reaching out to point to a man about his age a meter or so away. “He’s my brother.
He looked at the food in his hand ruefully. “What else have I got to do?
Much of the media packed up and left before Monday, leaving the breakfast buffet to the tourists and missing the next round of clashes, in which relatives smashed the offices of El Salam and set fires in the street. With coffins stacked in the street and corpses displayed on screens for identification, another spasm of anger was no surprise, however.
“As the time goes on, said Dr. Mohamed Nader Reda, assistant director of the Hurghada General Hospital, “this is going to get harder; not only harder to identify the victims, but harder for the relatives as well.
Upstairs from his office, 6-year old Mohamed Mahmoud Hassanein was laying in his bed staring at the ceiling. His entire immediate family is among the missing.
“He is not telling us anything, said Dr. Nader. “He is too traumatized.