Report on CHIM’s death in Sinai by Enrique Meneses Jr.1956
BALZAC 00-24 IS NOT ANSWERING ANYMORE
Report by Enrique Meneses Jr.
A veil of fine sand has risen on the side of the road, a few meters in front of the Mercedes. Moussa, the driver, brakes abruptly. We can hear again the sound of the submachine gun, then the infinite silence of the desert. On our right, a man has sprung up from the dunes. He points his weapon at us. Other soldiers appear and surround us. They spring out of the earth like specters, unreal beings. Their bushy beards testify to the sleepless nights they have had to endure while waiting for the enemy.
A man comes closer to the taxi. He has feverish eyes and a bluish, several-days old growth of beard. I hand him over my foreign press card. He checks it out meticulously then looks at me. The other soldiers have closed in and their weapons’ barrels are stuck inside the car windows. This excess of caution irritates me. Do we need a dozen machine-guns so that we won’t escape? Even with a child’s toy gun pointed at him, Moussa would be incapable of starting the engine. The soldiers address me with a few words in Arabic, then walk away towards a small house set on the roadside on our left. In front of us, a few meters away, an overturned post wrapped in barbed wire blocks half the road. On our right there are a few dunes, some shrubbery and behind that a narrow sweet-water canal. To go there you have to use a right-hand detour.
We did not know the exact place where the Egyptian lines ended and where the 500 meters “No Man’s Land” that separates the two opponents started. In Ismailieh nobody was able to give us information on these limits: some said Al Quantara, others El Cap, or even El Tina. Now we know that, without realizing it, we are on the verge of leaving the territory that is under Egyptian control. Watching the frayed nerves of the soldiers that surround us, I realize the danger we are in. It is ten in the morning and the sun pours its glaring rays on us. The reflection of the light on the sand hurts my eyes.
Two men come out of the old house and towards us. One of them is the one who had taken my press card. I try to get out of the vehicle. The door slams violently on my leg. I feel pain and rage simultaneously overtaking me. The soldier who pushed the door back looks at me sternly.
-“I am the station Commander,” says, in English, the officer who has just come near the taxi’s window. He looks young and, like the others, his face is drawn and pinched by lack of sleep. He wears a greenish sweater with his stars on the epaulettes, khaki pants and very dusty boots. ”I don’t understand how you could venture into this zone without a special permit from Central Command,” he adds, again examining my photograph on the card.
– “ I think that my press book signed by General Hatem is enough,” I say, though I know I am not right.
– “Hatem is General Director of the Press but has no authority on the military operations field. Moreover, you have not yet explained to me what you are trying to do here.”
– “To go into the Anglo-French zone to tell my newspaper what I’ll see there.”
– “Here, yesterday, around twelve thirty, behind these shrubs that you see there,” The Commander says pointing with his forefinger to a group of small trees on our right, “two men died. They were also journalists and were following the same itinerary you are, but the other way. What kind of guys are you, the journalists, who don’t want to understand that war is something serious?
– “What were the names of the two journalists?” I asked without answering his question.
– “One of them was Jean Roy, the other I know had a Jewish name but I can’t remember it.”
“Moreover, if one of my men had not shot in front of you to stop you, your vehicle would certainly have blown up because the road is mined starting at a hundred meters from where we are now.”
I thanked him with a wide smile and he gave us a military salute while his men got into our car to take us to headquarters in Ismailieh where, after over an hour of discussion we were released and allowed to go back to Cairo. Before leaving I asked if I could see the bodies of my two colleagues but they refused authorization.
On the road that runs along the Canal, going towards Egyptian battle lines, a Jeep is driving at full speed. The passengers do not talk much. They are in a very dangerous zone but it seems impossible that they would have an equal degree of awareness of the danger. The driver is wearing a Para beret and the French campaign uniform bearing these haphazard markings that are called camouflage. He is so tall that he seems to spill out of the car. He has a young and open face. He is the typical risk-taker with the mentality of a mercenary soldier, a man who craves an adventure everyday like others crave drugs.
Next to the driver is a 45-year old man with graying hair and abstracted eyes that look up and down behind a large pair of glasses. He is not a fighter like his companion. He has suffered and the past has carved a deep imprint into his life. In spite of that, he is well known for his kindness and empathy. They are both journalists and were drawn into this adventure by the idea of a reportage about the arrival in El Kantara of a hospital train in charge of evacuating the Egyptian wounded from the front. It is a little after noon, on this Saturday, November 10, 1956, on the road that runs along the Suez Canal.
On the Oriental side of the Canal lies Asia with the Sinaï desert, with the history of our religion written on the infinite sand. In the southeast Moses, “the solitary one” has received the Tables of the Law from the very hands of God. Close to where we are, a few thousand years ago, the Jews, pursued by the Egyptians, crossed the Red Sea.
On the Jeep driver’s right, the desert again, then the delta of the legendary Nile. The road is located between two canals: The Suez Canal and another, very small, 7 to 8 meters wide, called “The Ismailieh canal” or “the sweet water canal”. Further on towards the west, after two hundred meters of “tundra” another road runs, called Treaty road: the name commemorates the Anglo-Egyptian treaty signed in 1936. Between Port Saïd and Ismailieh, roads, canals and train tracks never split up: they move forward in parallel lines, as if linked by the same destiny.
In El-Cap, 39 kilometers away from Port Said there are the French-British lines. The British have settled on the west bank of the Suez Canal while the French are billeted on Asian ground, in the Sinai. Five hundred meters further we find the Egyptian lines, perfectly hugging the shape of the “Gesr El Herch”, a desert zone practically impassable because of its muddy terrain. Then, after Treaty Road, the Egyptian lines veer off to the north and seem to close on the enemies. Inside “No Man’s Land” and on Treaty Road are two military outposts belonging to the two adversaries. The British patrol is on the west side of the road and the Egyptian patrol on the other. These two spots are at 250 meters only from each other. Canal Road, where the two journalists are driving, has no Egyptian outposts because it is dead-ended: six kilometers further the road is destroyed by the crater of an explosion and blocked by a whole fallen tree.
The Jeep passes the last British outposts on Canal Road and the soldiers signal them to stop, but they disregard the warning. Do the two car passengers know that have just entered “No Man’s Land”? In any case their vehicle’s speed, 90km per hour according to the rare witnesses, does not back up this idea.
On the Egyptian side the Jeep has been spotted and the outpost soldiers wonder if it is friend or foe. Since it is painted green, the vehicle belongs to the Egyptian Military Police. But the plate is not Arabic, and with binoculars you can read:”BAL 00-24”. They have no clue what these letters and numbers mean. For Jean Roy, a sentimental kid who likes to have a laugh, the phone number of PARIS MATCH, his magazine, is occasion for a joke. He is not a Parisian for nothing. His companion David Seymour, “Chim” for his colleagues, would never have had the idea to put up such a plate- but this is because the two men are so different. The well educated man who studied at the Sorbonne and does not like war reportage has only his profession in common with the photographer who was parachuted in Normandy in 1945 and who was waving both a camera and a ’45 gun in Guatemala. Soon, they will share the same fate. In a few minutes, the differences in their personalities won’t matter anymore.
When the car enters Egyptian territory, Jean Roy and David Seymour must know where they are. It is true that nothing indicates the limits of “No Man’s Land”. But there are soldiers who are running from Treaty Road to Canal Road. Did the journalists hear the Arab voices on their right? We will never know.
They have crossed Egyptian lines while the outposts are still wondering if the Jeep is theirs or belongs to the enemy. Jean Roy and David Seymour could still stop and change their destiny, but who could change what is written? “Mektub!” the Egyptians will say when talking about Roy and Seymour, “It was written.”
The situation gets worse by the minute. Do the two journalists realize that their life hangs by a thread since they have, voluntarily or not, passed the British lines? Are they trying to test their good fortune? Luck has always smiled upon the seductive Jean Roy, will it leave him now? While he forges ahead, he does not believe it.
The Jeep stops near a Norwegian ship anchored there since the Canal has been out of use. Another question arises: does Jean Roy want to take refuge aboard the ship? It does not seem probable since getting aboard would take time and a few meters separate the ship from the bank. If they had stopped there, the two men would have been made prisoners, and after they had argued their journalistic status they would have been, at the worse, brought into Cairo to join the group of British and French correspondents who were confined at the Semiramis Hotel before they could be repatriated. But certainly something prevents Roy and Seymour to think along those lines.
From an old building on the edge of Treaty Road several men come running. The Jeep makes an abrupt U-turn and moves away towards British lines. Jean Roy is exhausting the share of luck that has been his in life. It is barely two minutes since that they have left the British outposts – and they have barely two minutes to live.
As they reach “No Man’s Land”, on the side of the road, half a meter away from the Sweet Water Canal, a man suddenly springs up in front of the Jeep. Machine-gun fire bursts under the blazing sun and the noise disappears in the desert as if swallowed by cotton. David has been shot in the head and falls on the Canal side while the car, out of control, runs into the Ismailieh Canal. Roy, wounded in his right arm, jumped before the Jeep sinks in the water. Laboriously, he gets up, arms up. His lucky star is still with him. First Lieutenant Hammuda, who points towards him his still hot machine-gun, observes him. Other men come running on Canal Road and on the wooden bridge that links the two roads.
“I am a journalist!” Jean Roy shouts. “I am a journalist”! he repeats. What he says afterwards, nobody will know, for the men around him do not know his language. They look at him, as if trying to understand the motives of his mad run and his presence there. Jean Roy’s right arm hurts terribly, it is swelling. His posture does nothing to alleviate his suffering. How much time does the wounded man’s monologue last? Some will later say only a few seconds, others that it went on for several minutes. But the fact is that Roy’s arm was going down little by little.
In Hammuda’s head things were also happening. In front of him, this man was probably explaining the reasons that had brought him behind the lines, but at the same time, the Egyptian officer considered him as an enemy that had entered his camp in circumstances that defied logic.
A few days earlier, there had been a movement of troops that had settled under the shrubbery near the sweet-water canal; nobody had been able to spot that advance since it had happened at 11pm. At six in the morning, British-French airforce has bombarded that very position. Only the Norwegian ship could have had informed enemies of the Egyptian troops’s presence
in the copse. Roy’s Jeep had reached the ship and then, seeing soldiers running towards them, the car had made a U-turn and started towards British lines. Didn’t the car passengers have the intention of contacting the ship?
Once again Hammuda looked at Jean Roy’s uniform. A few meters further David Seymour was lying on the ground, also wearing military gear. Roy’s arm was still going down as if he wanted to reach a weapon in his pocket.
The First Lieutenant pulled the trigger and Jean Roy fell for ever, a few meters away from his reportage companion, his last reportage.
In Jean Roy’s pocket they found a few dollars, Swiss francs and traveller’s checks, then his passport, his PARIS MATCH press card, the Press Union card, a pass from British Headquarters in Cyprus, a pass for the Paris metro and another from the French army, dated 1945. From this last document, Egyptian authorities will infer that Jean Roy also worked for the Central Agency and that he was going to the Norwegian ship to contact someone that supposedly collaborated with enemy forces. All this seems like pure fantasy since this is only a military pass given to Second Lieutenant Jean Guy Roy at the time of the Liberation.
It is said that machine-guns were found in the Jeep, which seems difficult to prove since the car was an open one and had fallen in the Canal.
Three days later, the bodies of David Seymour and Jean Roy were given to British authorities after delegations from the two sides had met in “No Man’s Land” and had determined the time and place, which was at nightfall on Treaty Road.
Jean Roy’s death seems stupid since once his arms were up and he was surrounded by soldiers he would not have been capable of escaping or causing problems. Did the First Lieutenant’s nerves give way, pushing him to open fire? It is very probable that Jean Roy’s gesture happened since he had been wounded when the first machine-gun burst killed Seymour and he could not keep it up for a long time. But maybe this is a tardy explanation given by the Egyptian officer.
At the autopsy, according to people who were witnesses, it was found that David Seymour had been struck with 23 bullets and Jean Roy 97. It is difficult to know the exact result of this autopsy as no report seems to have been filed with the Army Public Relations Services – unless they are refusing to communicate it.
It is said that the Ministry of Information had been asked to provide photocopies of Jean Roy’s military book so they could prepare an article for the press demonstrating the journalist’s “double personality”. It is expected that in two weeks Colonel Hatem will make an official communication on the subject for propaganda reasons.
(translated from the French by Carole Naggar)
Born in Madrid in 1929, Enrique Menese lived in Paris during the German occupation and later studied at the Salamanca and Madrid universities. In 1954 he moved to Egypt and in 1956 covered the Suez war for Paris Match. In 1958 he went to Cuba to cover the Cuban revolution, befriending Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Later on he was a correspondent for Paris Match in India and the Middle East. In the 1960s he was in New York where he covered, among other topics, the assassination of John F.Kennedy. In 1972 he became a president of ABC News. In the 1980s he moved back to Spain and produced several radio series as well as ten books. The last one, a memoir, Hasta Aquí Hemos Llegado .was published in 2006. Menese lives in Madrid where he has recently received a life-time award for his work as a journalist.