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(E) The memorial at El-Shatt is silent
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  02/13/2006 | Opinions | Unrated
(E) The memorial at El-Shatt is silent


The Memorial at El-Shatt is silent

Ghost of the Sinai

A quiet memorial recently reopened in Sinai commemorates Egypt's forgotten refugees: The 825 Croatians who died at El-Shatt displaced persons' camp in the final months of the second World War.

Sometimes, it seems as if the entire Sinai is a graveyard. burned out hulks of tanks, unexploded ordinance and old fortifications from recent wars, some of them turned into museums, leave no doubt that many have lived their last days here. Even civilian deaths in peacetime are somehow haunting this land. The empty patch of sand where the burning bush was thought to have sat near St. Catherine's Monastery leaves little impression, but long after their visits even jaded travelers remember the piled sculls of the monastery's dead monks.

Stopping at all the peninsula's monuments and markers, grand and humble alike, would take a lifetime. Sinai's position as the land bridge between Africa and Asia makes it a highly strategic area, one that has been fought over by armies in every generation of recorded history. Picking and choosing which sites to visit is the only way to wind across Sinai in a reasonable time frame.

One site however, demands an impromptu visit: Croatian Memorial Cemetery, the sign announces, undoubtedly leaving many a passerby wondering "When did the Egyptians have a Croatian war?

The Croatian War Cemetery, as it is also called, is in fact dedicated to the memory of Croatian refugees of the Second World War who were saved from starvation in squalid camps in southern Italy when they were shipped here in 1944 by British relief agencies. In an outcaste corner of the Sinai peninsula's, they lived until 1946 under Egyptian and British protection.

A new memorial was quietly dedicated to their memory this past April by Croatian President Step "Stripe" Me sic, who said, "The Croatian refugee camp in E.S.T. is only a minor episode in the history of the Second World War, known only to a few people in the world. But for us in Croatia, it is a part of our history which we shall and must never forget. And I am here to bear that out. I am here to say: Heroes of E.S.T., for you were all heroes, your homeland has not forgotten you.


Very near the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula's, directly across from the city of Suez, lies what remains of El-Shatt Refugee Camp. Next to the ruins behind a tall stone wall are rows and rows of blank tombstones popping up out of a barren, although immaculate, piece of the Sinai desert. Towering above the rows of unmarked graves stands a statue of a woman with folded arms who is simply named Mother Dalmatia, executed in a style similar to that of the celebrated Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. She overlooks the white marble memorial wall that bears the names of the nearly 850 people who are buried there. the five-sided star that forms the pillar on which she stands is an homage to Croatia's socialist past.
The star clashes with the cross near the top of the pillar and Mother Dalmatia's saintly appearance.

The clashing symbols are a reminder of the conflict that drove these people far from their homes to their final resting place here among the rest of the dead on the Sinai Peninsula's. For four years during the Second World War, there were at least three separate wars raging through Croatia. The first was obviously the World War itself: Italy invaded in 1941 and, after the Italian surrender in 1943, the German army occupied the areas they had left.

Originally conceived at the end of the First World War as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which included the land that has once been and would again become independent Croatia), wartime Yugoslavia quickly fell apart as at least three groups clashed in bids to chart their future. The Yugoslav Prince Regent originally supported the Axis forces, a decision that proved so unpopular he was deposed in an Army coup. The subsequent invasion by Axis forces, split the Yugoslavs - and Croatians - into at least three distinct groups.

The Ustase were Croatian fascists who supported the Axis invasion in return for which they won Nazi support to form their own nation separate from the Yugoslav experiment, the Independent State of Croatia, as it became known. Royalist forces led by Draza Mihailovic became known as Cetniks after the units in which they fought. The third, (and ultimately victorious) army consisted of the communist Partizans of Josip Broz Tito, who would later declare themselves "Socialists" and (with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and India's Jawaharlal Nehru) form the Cold War-era "Nonalignment Movement".

So if the first war was between Axis forces and Yugoslav resistance groups (Partisans and Cetniks), the second was a bloody civil war between Mihailovic's Royalists forces and Tito's Partizans. Another war pitted the Partizans and Cetniks against the Croatian fascist Ustase. And on it went.

By 1943, the Partizans have gained control over much of Croatia, despite Allied support to Mihailovic. At this time, Tito established a permanent headquarters on the island of Vis, just off Croatia's beautiful Dalmatian coast. The island's own population was already swollen with refugees from the mainland. The civilians of Vis were evacuated by way of southern Italy, which was by this time firmly in Allied hands, to make way for Tito's headquarters and a new British Royal Air force runway for bombing runs into Germany itself. Between 25,000 and 30,000 of these refugees, some of them claimed by the Partisans to have been Ustase or Royalist supporters, were soon transferred again to an undeveloped stretch of the
Sinai called El-Shatt when famine threatened their Italian camp.


The camp at El-Shatt covered almost 170 square kilometers and was divided into five sub-camps. each roughly organized along the lines of a Croatian village. The British organization MERRA (Middle East Relief and refugee Administration) set up the camp and was responsible for it. But the United Kingdom, already pressed by the war effort, had few resources to spare for the refugees.

An American officer stationed in Cairo at the time later recalled "Everyone in Cairo who was interested in refugee relief spoke to me with indignation about this infamous camp." The refugees, mostly women and children, were largely left to fend for themselves. Even the administration of the camp was largely controlled by the refugees, a development made necessary by the high turnover rate among aid workers.

John Corsellis, a British pacifist who served with the Society Friends Ambulance Unit and worked at the camp, later wrote, "People mysteriously appeared and disappeared with a frequency reminiscent of a popular transit hotel".

The entire population of the camp lived in surplus British army tents. Few permanent structures were built, and those that were dealt strictly with administrative functions. A degree of permanency was given by the refugees themselves, who tiled the floors of their tents and set up schools, clinics and even a theater. British officers who had neglected the camp for a time were shocked when, ordered there to "organize it"
they discovered the refugees had organized their own newsletter (Nas List, Our Paper) and even their own courts and police force. the famous Split-born composer and conductor Josip Hatze, who was by then an old man, spent his time in the camp organizing choirs.

Corsellis in a letter home describing the camp, wrote, "considering what the refugees went through and the desolate and discouraging surroundings in the Sinai Desert, their adjustment was a tribute to their self-sufficiency." He later added, " I must not give the impression that these people created a little paradise here on the desert with their resourcefulness. Their extreme lack of everything only makes what they do more impressive, standing as it does against such a background."

The schools that they organized had no textbooks - the children were learning to read from old copies of the camp newsletter. Workshops providing all of the necessities in the camp were merely cobbling together scraps as best they could. And the refugees' clinics could do little for the disproportionately large number of the very young and very old in the population: more than 800 died in the eighteen months
they were there.

Still, some degree of normalcy prevailed: there were 300 marriages in the camp and 650 children were born to fill the gaps left by the dead, whose remains stayed behind in the Sinai even after the living left.

This past April, Mesic laid a wreath at the feet of the statue of Mother Dalmatia in the newly reopened cemetery and read aloud the words written on it: "The homeland does not forget". "More than 60 years ago, the winds of war brought them here," he said, "War seemed to have followed them even beyond the boundary between life and death."

Indeed it had: In the 60 years of its existence, the memorial at El-Shatt has nearly been lost twice in other conflicts. The original cemetery and memorial was destroyed during the Israeli occupation of the peninsula's in the 1967 war. After Egypt recaptured the Sinai, the Yugoslav government (of which Croatia was a part at that time) rebuilt the cemetery, with the outside wall in the shape of a five-pointed Partizan star, renaming it the Yugoslav Partizan War cemetery.

Less than 20 years later, Croatia once again found itself in the middle of a war as the Socialist Federal Yugoslavia collapsed and Croatia waged a war for independence that ended only in 1995. In his address this spring, Mesic, the only man in modern history to have been president of two separate nations, (having been head of state of both Yugoslavia and Croatia) discussed what this had meant for the memorial: " As the Yugoslav federation disintegrated amidst war, the cemetery was neglected, almost forgotten".

Professor Ivan Ivekovic, the former ambassador of Egypt from Yugoslavia, who was here during the Yugoslav wars and now teaches at the American University in Cairo, said the years of neglect had been hard on the memorial,which was badly vandalized.

This year's ceremony commemorated the completion of the renovations and the dedication of the new memorial wall. Today, two half-shattered monuments flank Mother Dalmatia as reminders of the times when these people's memories were almost lost.

Mesic thanked all the people of Egypt and Croatia who worked on the renovation, then went on to add:
" I thank all the people who helped maintain the memory of the hundreds of refugees, some literally at the start of their lives, who never returned to their homes from the far away Sinai expanses."

And those who did live Sinai? What became of them? Their fate remains shrouded in the fog that often blankets Croatia's beautiful Dalmatian coast. As most agree, most of the brave refugees were repatriated to Yugoslavia starting in 1946 - not to the Yugoslav Kingdom they fled in war, but to the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The stories diverge here: Some claim the refugees resumed their lives in Tito's Yugoslavia, while others allege the SFRY jailed, tortured and executed many of them for alleged Ustase and Royalist activities.

Whose account is to be believed? The memorial at El-Shatt is silent on that, bearing witness only to the brief stint they lived under the blazing Sinai sun. et.

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  • Comment #1 (Posted by Richard Sain)

    My parents, Oscar Cicin-Sain, and my mother, maiden name Helen Smoje, lived in this refugee camp. My brother, Joseph Sain, was born at the camp. As it turned out, a Brittish Officer found out that my mother was born in the USA when here parents left Croatia to escape WWI. He told her that she was an American citizen and could go to the USA. She contacted Croatian friends in Chicago and moved there, leaving her husband and two children at the camp. It took a while for her to file all the required documents that would allow her husband and children into the US, but the family was eventually reunited.

    I was born in Chicago and shortly after my birth, our family moved to Los Angeles, CA. I still have more relatives on the other side of the Atlantic that I do here. I did have the oportunity to meet my mother's cusin, Milenko Smoje; and my cousin, Tonci Cicin-Sain, when we traveled to Croatia in 1975.

    We grew up speaking Croatian, but both of my parents have been dead for so long that I have forgotten a great deal of the language.
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Lena (Svicarevich))

    Very emotional for me reading this article. My family left in 1948 for Australia, I was 6 at the time. Will go back & visit in the near future.
  • Comment #3 (Posted by Lena (Svicarevich))

    Thank you Nenad for setting up these sites & making us aware how important it is to preserve the stories, memories associated with the plight these refugees endured. Being a child, memories are more of an adventure, but I am fully aware of the sorrows & hardships they all experienced. Many of the older folks have passed on & only us children, adults now, remain. Lena ( Svicarevich) Martin.
  • Comment #4 (Posted by anthony)

    i have a great deal of photographs of hundreds of people being transported and escorted from el shatt to jugoslavia and greece in july 1944 with written permission for l.m. powell to escort them, they travelled on s.s. dunnotar. they all look happy
  • Comment #5 (Posted by Ruth Muller)

    My mother, Margaret Powell (L.M. Powell) was a nurse-midwife at El Shatt for at least 2 years. I have a few photos that I recently found in her papers (she died in 1990). It would be interesting to hear from people who were in the camp or whose relatives were there.
  • Comment #6 (Posted by Rita (Kranjac))

    My mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother escaped from Zlarin (Croatia) with the underground and ended up in El Shatt. As they got off the ship, my mother saw the barren land and tents and thought "those poor people have to live there." Little did she know she would be one of those "poor people" for three years. Very interesting to hear from others.
  • Comment #7 (Posted by Dusko Mario Sever)

    My aunt on my mother's side met her husband in El-Shatt. During her stay in the camp she fell terribly ill but the British doctors managed to save her life. Ever since they returned to Dalmatia, and for as long as I can remember, they spoke highly of the kindness of their hosts.
  • Comment #8 (Posted by Peter Vasic)

    My Father was conscripted to the Royal Serbian Army and was succonded to the British, He fought alongside British and Australian Troops in Malta and Egypt, finally he ended up at El-Shatt and was a corporal and a n MP. He passed away in 1995. After the war and 3 more years in El-Shatt he came to Australia (1948) as he was fearful of going back to a communist Yugoslavia, He married a Serbian born woman of Austro - Hungarian blood line, our family is a big mix of Croatian, Serbian and Austro - Hungarian mix !. Thank you Nenad for this journey into a difficult history
  • Comment #9 (Posted by Shayna)

    My great grandmother did not return from El Shatt camp, she died at age 21. All other family members returned but she did not. Her name was Maria Damjanovic-Bragadin. If anyone has any information on how she died would be beneficial.
  • Comment #10 (Posted by milan veinovic )

    Sava Veinovic,my mother @ Martin Jajas my father they met in El Shatt.Would like to know any info. or picture,my mother told me long time back that their ship got torpedo during the trip do not remember how many died.
  • Comment #11 (Posted by Albina uljevic -Wright)

    My mother and her siblings were told that the next boat would come for them. But instead her mother and her older brother departed for El shatt. Her husband my grandfather Tomoslav Vlahovic was killed by the Italians while returning home to Brac. The family then separated ..because the younger children were afflicted with some sort of skin condition or parasite I think. The ship did not return and they were taken by an Aunt to Baska Voda to live in a "Dom". Meanwhile grandmother and older boy lived in El shatt ... Grandmother worked in the Kitchen as a cook ...and I believe there were other relatives a
    Such as cousins. She was now a widow ..and the story goes ..a fine English doctor took a liking to her but her son fiori was against this ..and threatened to throw himself in the path of an army truck should she consider this. The war ended ..she returned to Split .. Collected her other children from the Orphange. I never really got to know her as.. She died 12 days after I was born .As for my uncle ..He became a fire fighter and married. The older brother was in the Partisan Movement and was later an officer . I got to meet both of my uncles who are no longer with us. They were exceptional men of high standards and refinement. Our name ..Vlahovic from Milna Brac. The story of El shatt and my grandmother ... I remember as a child .. Something I associate with my grandmother and the plight of the Dalmatians during the W
  • Comment #12 (Posted by varya kuis)

    I was almost six when we left El_Shatt to come to Buenos Aires. As a child the desert was a fun place and I only have happy memories of my life there. But my poor parents lost their youth and their dreams trying to give their three children as normal a life as possible in the camp.
  • Comment #13 (Posted by Frank Dorotich)

    My grandmother Margarita (Vojkovic) Dorotic is said to have died in El Shatt in 1944. She was in exile from the island of Vis in Dalmatia in Croatia. She would have been about 64 years old when she died.
  • Comment #14 (Posted by Emma)

    My Grandmother, Milena Cupic was born and raised in Split. As a young girl she joined the partisan and soon had to flee as a refugee to El Shatt camp in the Suez, Egypt. There she met, fell in love and married my serving British Grandfather, Frank Eagles. They married on the 6th of October 1945 at St. Saviour's Church and celebrated afterwards at the Warrant Officer's and Sergeant's Mess, Adabiya Coy Camp. My Grandmother now lives in London and will be 90 years old in October. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and it has caused me to reflect on the sacrifices so many millions of people made. lest We Forget.
  • Comment #15 (Posted by Sonja Garelja)

    My mother Maria Popovic was born in the camp in Nov 1944. She was lucky to survive as there was a measles outbreak at that time. She returned with her family to the hamlet of Bonkovica (Gdinj - Hvar) in 1946. In 1959 she was sent to live with family in Auckland, New Zealand and 6 years later married my Dad whose family had also been in El Shatt. Dad had stayed behind in Podgora with his Mother and 1 of his brothers as there was no room on the boat for them.
    I visited El Shatt in 1991. It was very difficult to find and my cousin Dinko Curin and I took a risk by crossing the canal and then walking through the desert on our own using a map drawn up by a friend of ours in NZ (Simun Ujdur) who was a teenager in El Shatt, therefore had memories of where it was. We were lucky to be picked up by an Army truck and driven to the monument.
    It was an emotional visit and I made sure to take photos of every single named plaque. This proved to be useful many years later when I was able to send my photos to the Embassy in Cairo to assist with the re-build after the damage the memorial sustained.
    I would love to take my Mum back there one day - she is now 70. It certainly is a unique and fascinating part of our history and I always love telling people my Mum was born in Egypt! When I was a junior in school I had to take her passport in to class one day as the teacher didn't believe me but it's there in black and white "Place of Birth : El Shatt, Egypt".
  • Comment #16 (Posted by Mate Sumich)

    My mother then Mary Hrabar, now Mary Sumich, was at El Shatt with her father and mother, her mother passed away at the camp. Mum was brought with her father to Australia by her two brother who were settled in the vineyard area of Western Australia. She met and married my father Andy Sumich. Both mum and dad originated from the coastal town of Podgora. My two brothers and I are proud of the way our parents worked through the very difficult times to establish a life for us in Australia, but i will never forget their origins and what they had to endure.
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