‘It was a massacre’, witnesses to Cairo killings say
Investigation into events of July 8th points to co-ordinated assault by security forces on group of largely peaceful and unarmed civilians
Ten minutes later, once the teargas became too much, many in the human chain sank to their knees. Moussa broke free, and tried to find something to soothe the stinging. On the other side of the junction, he found a bucket of water, which he used to wash his face and eyes. Then he tried to get back across the junction to the wire. But there was too much teargas, so he took refuge instead behind the truck that had acted as a makeshift stage for the imam.
To his right, coming from the eastern edge of the sit-in, he could see that at least one armoured police vehicle – followed by both police and army officers – had broken the sit-in’s defences. Their colleagues approaching from the other end would not be far behind.
“I could hear and see them shooting live rounds,” Moussa said. “They were already about 20m away.”
According to those in the camp, the casualties now came thick and fast. Mohamed Abdel Hafez – who was hit by a live round in his stomach – said he had been sleeping in his tent only minutes before becoming one of the first casualties. “I was asleep and woke up to the sound of shooting,” he said later, in hospital. “I got up and I was shot.” Mohamed Saber el-Sebaei said he had still been holding his prayer mat when he was hit. “I was taking cover with another guy behind some rubble and I felt something hit my head,” he said. “I held my prayer mat in my hand and I started to cover my head with it. But I couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Amid the chaos, at least 100 protesters fled into the nearest residential tower block, banging on any door they could find and asking for shelter and vinegar, a remedy for teargas. The residents showed them up to the roof, where the police later arrested them. One 11-year-old was still there in the afternoon.
Moussa was also one of the earliest casualties – hit by police birdshot on his left knee. He could stand the pain, just about, so he stayed by the truck until he was hit again two minutes later, by a live round just above his right knee.
The second injury was too much to bear, so Moussa turned and staggered up Tayaran Street to find cover.
“It was there that I got my third injury. I felt a pain in my fingers. I looked at my hand and two-thirds of my right index finger had been shot off.”
Other protesters carried him to a nearby car, in which he was driven to the nearby Health Insurance hospital.
Hours later, while being transferred elsewhere, state television employees phoned him – as they often did after serious incidents – for a live interview on the casualty count. Moussa told them that he had been there himself, and that it was a massacre – before being cut off by the channel. Later in the day, he was fired from his job as health ministry spokesman for spreading misinformation.
Up at the makeshift field hospital half a mile away in Rabaa al-Adawiya, Dr Alaa Mohamed Abu Zeid, the medic responsible for recording the number of injuries at the hospital, said casualties started arriving at around 3.45am. Days earlier, doctors had taken over a large room in the mosque compound, set up six beds, and filled shelves with medicine, expecting to deal with ailments such as flu or heatstroke. They weren’t prepared for what happened. “The first case was a shot to the head,” said Zeid, a radiologist who also volunteered at field hospitals during the 2011 revolution. “Part of the skull was missing.” The man was dead.
Realising something serious was going on, the hospital manager woke all the doctors, and told them to prepare for an emergency situation. But they could never have been ready for what happened next. There were only six beds, and in a worst-case scenario, doctors had expected to deal with up to 25 cases at any one time.
“This was a massacre,” said Zeid. “We couldn’t cope. All the time, we wondered when it would stop.” By 4am, Zeid said there were already three dead people at the clinic. Between 3.30am and 7.30am he claimed the hospital had received 12 dead, often driven up Tayaran Street in private cars or motorcycles, and around 450 injured.
“Some people had bullets that came through the back and the chest – which suggests they ran to one side, where they were shot, then ran to the other side, where they were shot again,” said Zeid.
Dr Mohamed Lotfy, in charge of the clinic’s pharmacy, had also volunteered as a medic during the Libyan civil war. “It was the same kind of cases,” he said, “as if we were in a war zone.”Lotfy felt particularly emotional about it. While at the hospital, his mother, wife, two daughters and son were down at the Republican Guard club. “You can imagine how it feels to be running things over here,” he said, “but to have your heart and mind over at the massacre.”
By 4.30am, most of the clinic’s medicine supplies were running out. Those with minor injuries were being sent to state and private hospitals in the area, where many complained of waiting hours to be treated - or even being turned away by officials frightened of involvement in a highly politicised situation. By 7am, Zeid recalled he had to roll up his trouser legs because there was so much blood on the floor.
“Regardless of how well-equipped a hospital was, no one would have been able to deal with what happened,” he said. “We were working and crying.”
Zeid said the most heartbreaking cases included a 10-year-old boy wounded by birdshot. A six-month-old baby was also brought in unconscious from the teargas, Zeid said.
While no child died during the incidents, these cases dispel the myth that the army and police did not harm women and children.
Dr Khaled Abdel Latif, a surgeon working in the field that day, reported treating at least 20 women for teargas asphyxiation, while the Guardian met two others who were shot.
At one point, Dr Yasser Taha – Moussa’s friend – was brought in on a stretcher, a bullet wound in his neck. “We couldn’t believe it,” said Zeid. One of the doctors, Samer Abu Zeid - a heart specialist used to seeing blood in trauma situations - collapsed to the floor and burst into tears.
Hassanein, the doctor who had returned to Rabaa at 3am to sleep, was woken by the hospital manager at 3.45am. “He said there was an emergency situation, an attack,” said Hassanein, who emphasised that, while sympathetic to the pro-Morsi protesters, he was not a member of the Brotherhood.
“I ran there. I took my pack with all my first aid - cotton wool, Betadine disinfectant, stitches, vinegar spray - and I arrived there about 4am, 4.10am. As I went down Tayaran Street, I could hear shooting and teargas, but I couldn’t see it. And as I was running, I ran past the wounded being brought the other way ... One of the protesters came to me with a shot arm. He was screaming very loudly, and the [bottom of the] arm was attached just by the skin. There was nothing I could do for him.”
He added: “I saw women and children running back. Other people were running there to defend the wounded with stones and used teargas canisters, and burning tyres. They wanted to create as much smoke as possible to prevent the snipers from shooting.”
In the fray, Mohamedi tried to help more vulnerable protesters make their way back up Tayaran Street towards Rabaa al-Adawiya.
At one point, he ran into an elderly woman who was choking on teargas. “I’m looking for my son, I can’t find my son,” she told Mohamedi, after he tried to help.
According to Mohamedi, he replied: “We’re all your sons: let me help you.” But she refused again, saying: “It does not matter if something happens to me – but my son is my life. I need to find my son.” So Mohamedi left her there, and headed up Tayaran Street, where he was shot through the inner part of his right thigh. “I saw the officer who shot me,” he said. “He was one of those who came from Sayeda Safiya mosque. He made it to [the bottom of]Tayaran Street, and he shot me from about 30m away.”
At around the same time, Hassanein was also arriving at the junction of Salah Salem and Tayaran, which by now had mostly been cleared of people. On his way he said he saw at least one unarmed protester shot in the head. “I would say this. At that time, at 4.15am, when I saw that guy shot in the head, there was no protester with arms. Some had sticks and wore helmets, but that was it. I swear those who were shot in the head were not carrying guns.”
In among the chaos was Dr Ahnam Abdel Aziz Gharib, an assistant professor of microbiology at Zagazig University. Once the teargas became heavy, the veiled Gharib hurried to and fro, trying to find her 21-year-old son, who has asthma. “As I was running from one tent to another trying to find him, they were shooting at us from different directions. I couldn’t find him but everybody decided to take cover on the floor. And while I did that I was shot in the back with birdshot - and I began to cough up blood.” Later, x-rays would show she had been hit by 75 pellets. A few are still inside her lungs, Gharib said.