The 70-acre patch of agricultural land is prime real estate next to Cairo, and it has been the subject of a long fight over ownership.
It's not easy to get to Qursaya island, a tiny bit of land in the middle of the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt's capital. You have to take a boat from the riverbank. There are no cars on the island, and it's only had running water for a few years.
It's a quiet 70-acre patch of agricultural land amid a megacity, where mooing cows provide the soundtrack, and farmers and fishermen have lived for generations.
But not all is as bucolic as it seems: The island is at the heart of a yearslong legal battle between those farmers and the government.
"Countryside in the middle of the city — and that's why I came here and I decide to live here," says Mohammed Abla, a prominent artist who moved to Qursaya in 1997. "And I think the first years were very quiet but the problems [started in] 2000."
Who Owns Qursaya?
Before 2000, Abla says, the government neglected the island. But it is prime real estate, and the problems began when the government told residents that it sold the land to an investor for a tourism project, Abla says. Ever since then, the islanders have been struggling with the government, the military and investors over who gets to keep Qursaya. The issue of land ownership is murky, but the residents won a major court case in 2010.
"I think this was a good decision by the administrative court because it made a very clear ruling that the people of the island of Qursaya have the right to live there and they have the right to work there," says Heba Morayef, a director at Human Rights Watch who has been monitoring the situation.
Despite that ruling, the Egyptian army claims it owns several large strips of land on the island. Some of the residents repossessed that land last year because it was sitting empty.
But before dawn one morning last November, military police landed on Qursaya and seized the areas after clashing with residents.