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.
LIFE IN THE CAMPS
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.