THE DESERT ROBBERS CONVERSION

By Len A.Hynds

It was in the stifling heat of the summer of 1949, when I was posted from my station at Suez, to take charge of a police post out in the desert that was on that long road towards Cairo. The road on leaving Suez continued to rise for many miles, until it crossed an escarpment about four miles wide, to the south you could see the Gebel Ataqua range of mountains, and to the north the high uncrossable sand dunes. From those mountains came the only life giving water, by the clouds around the peaks, seeming to soak into the porous earth, and emerging as a trickle through a fissure in the rocks a thousand feet lower, and forming a rock pool oasis at desert level. Around that oasis was a mud-brick tiny village with about thirty inhabitants, which could not be seen from our post owing to an intervening ridge.

From time immemorial the inhabitants were the robbers of the escarpment, charging a 'toll' from travellers, mostly the camel caravans, and when the road was built, vehicles were held-up at the point of a gun.

From the time of the establishment of a police post on the road, some 2 miles from the village, all this highway robbery had stopped, but their frustration and anger knew no bounds.

I had not been warned of their current activity of firing at us from the intervening ridge, until I heard distant shots, and then a reply from three of my Sudanese Askaris with their rifles, from one of our dug-out tents. I had twelve men of the Sudanese Frontier Force, one of them a Lance Corporal, the only one who could read or write, and every one of them had been charged in their own country with some offence by the Egyptian Police. Each one told me it was a trumped-up charge, and at court given the option of prison or joining the Frontier Force. Their country was known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but really an Egyptian colony, and as Egypt was a 'Protectorate' of ours, so was the Sudan. So the Sudanese hated all Egyptians.

The Askaris were fine looking tall men but painfully thin, all with tribal scars cut into their cheeks. With their army turbans they were about 6'-7" tall.

Askari Soldier with gunI stopped them returning the fire, and was told about this frequent happening, so stated my intention to visit the head man the following morning, and detailed eight of them to accompany me. They became so excited at the prospect, that I told them that it was only a social visit to warn him off and all rifles were to be unloaded, as I was having no mistakes.

The following morning at dawn, I was sitting on the wall by their oasis, with my lads in strategic positions, when he was brought to me in a state of fear and trepidation. I said that I was not happy with him, and that I would hold him personally responsible for any more firing.

It was quite obvious when speaking with him, that he was a man who had been educated probably down in Suez itself, and he had difficulty in controlling some of the younger elements. As I looked round that god-forsaken place, I wondered what I would have done if born there.

A glimmer of an idea began to form in my mind, and I said, "There is a way you can earn from those travellers without robbing them. There is probably one vehicle every half hour that uses that road, and the caravans always keep well away from you these days. There is only one travellerís Rest all the way to Cairo. I would have no objection to you building a stopping place for travellers on the road, and you could come under our protection as well." He came to see me the following day, and we chose a site.

The travellerís rest came on apace, and soon every vehicle stopped there, and my Askaris when off duty would wander down there to play dominoes with the villagers. They also volunteered to help in clearing a pathway from the village to the road as I suggested that camels could carry the water from the oasis, to save the poor women that trek constantly with fresh water on their head or shoulders.

I have no doubt that robbery still took place, but with a smile this time.