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Out There News

Poor suffer most in Egyptian earthquake

By Paul Eedle 

CAIRO, Oct 13, Reuter - The poor suffered most in Egypt's earthquake, as so often seems the cruel rule in third world disasters. 

Cairo's poor live two families to an apartment in dilapidated tenements, some of which are so unsafe that building collapses are regular news, without an earthquake. They died in their scores when the tremor cracked and damaged nearly 200 buildings, most of them in the poorest districts of this densely-packed city of 12 million. 

The children of the poor attend overcrowded classes in understaffed government schools. Many children stampeded in panic when the quake hit the city and 200 were trampled and crushed to death -- nearly half the overall death toll of 450. 

People in the small middle class survived largely unhurt in the well-constructed shops, offices and hotels where they work. Their children, in small classes at private schools, were ushered to safety in playgrounds by disciplined teachers. 

Government social services barely reach many of the poor at the best of times. In the aftermath of the quake, bewildered people who had lost homes or were too frightened to stay in badly-cracked buildings slept on the street, uncertain who would help them to rebuild their lives. "I told the police station, I told the head of the local council but nobody has come to ask about us," Kawthar Gouda el-Said wailed at the centre of a crowd beside the half-collapsed block where she had lived in the poor district of Seyyida Zeinab. "I have only the gallabiya I am wearing. I have my children. I have no money," she said, tugging at her brown patterned robe. An older woman, Soheir, demanded: "What are we to do? Are the children to sleep in the street?" 

The only practical help these people had seen a day after the quake came from Moslem fundamentalists, whose charitable health and education services have helped to make them the most powerful opposition force in Egypt. 

The Humanitarian Relief Committee of the fundamentalist- dominated Doctors' Union had put up two tents for the homeless next to a small mosque across the street from the rubble of Kawthar's home. The mosque began collecting money for quake victims within hours of the disaster. The head of the mosque, a middle-aged teacher called Ra'fat el-Askalani, said they raised 63,000 pounds ($19,000) in two weeks after a building in the street collapsed three years ago. Appeals for contributions echoed down the quarter's dusty, littered streets from the mosque's loudspeaker. 

Many buildings still standing had cracks in walls and people were too frightened to stay inside. Hamdi Bassioun Wali, a 42-year-old engineer, had tied furniture and and carpets onto the back of a small van in the alley outside the building where he lived. The floor in his shabby top-floor apartment was covered in white fragments of plaster which had fallen from the ceiling. "We will take our things to our relatives," he said. "For the moment we'll just put them wherever anyone has space." 

Even in a natural disaster, a gulf divides rich and poor in a third-world city.