‘My son, my son! He is an engineer! Not a terrorist!

Accounts of what happened in Rabaa Square vary hugely, partly because gunfire was so intense


The smell of death inside the Al Imam Mosque in Cairo crept through every seam in the building. A crowd of desperate, screaming relatives gathered outside, some banging their fists on the main doors of the building, pleading to be allowed in.

Well over 100 bodies lay wall-to-wall inside. Bloodied white sheets being used as shrouds were roughly tied at the top and bottom, holding together bodies quickly decomposing in the Egyptian summer heat.

A much smaller shroud lay next to Sabah Farouk, covering her 16-year-old son Mohammed’s body – just a small figure of white with a Koran placed on his chest. When she was told her son was dead she ran to the main protest sight in Rabaa to find the mosque there on fire and occupied by police.

“They didn’t want to let me in so I entered against their will,” she said. “When I entered I saw it was on fire. I started looking at the faces of the dead to identify my son but I didn’t find him. So I came over here and I found him with a bullet in his chest.”

She spoke quietly, and in serene calmness sitting cross-legged, clearly in shock.

Most others yesterday in Al Imam Mosque – the main sorting area in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City for the dead after Wednesday’s violence – were hysterical.

Some bodies, after being identified, were taken out in crude wooden coffins to be registered at the morgue and buried. As one father followed a box being carried out by volunteers, he turned and shouted, “My son, my son! He is an engineer! Not a terrorist! An engineer!”

He continued shouting as he exited, more bodies at his feet with blocks of ice placed on their chests and plug-in fans tossing loose shrouds to the side, exposing charred limbs.

Soon after the Egyptian security forces moved into Rabaa Square to end the protest, plumes of smoke rose above the area as it burned. Eventually, many bodies that had lain in the mosque and the crude field hospital there were burned.

‘Let me treat the people’
Marwa al Tahawi was volunteering as a nurse in the field hospital. When she heard that the police had moved in, she rushed to the site. She said she was soon confronted by a heavily armed police officer.

“I begged him for a while to let me treat the people who were wounded and after a while he let me, but under the condition that I give them the ones who are not badly wounded,” she said, starting to cry. Speaking from Al Imam Mosque yesterday, her head scarf was spotted with blood and dirt, and her voice was hoarse.

“I told some of the wounded to pretend that they are dead so they wouldn’t take them. After a while, they started firing tear gas so the wounded started running away . . . I dropped to the ground and started crying. All this time he was pointing his gun at me. There was a soldier on his mobile phone and told them to take it easy.”

Intense gunfire
How exactly the mosque and field hospital inside Rabaa Square began burning is not clear. Accounts of what happened yesterday vary enormously, partly because the gunfire was so intense that most independent reporters were either pinned down for some time or forced to flee. I was standing about 50 yards from one of the entrances to Rabaa Square when Sky News cameraman Mick Deane was carried out with a gunshot wound to his chest.

Shortly afterwards, a protester ran past towards the square entrance carrying a drum of petrol. Overhead, high-velocity rounds of live fire were being shot in two directions – into and out of the square almost constantly. In the narrow streets surrounding the entrance it was impossible to see the gunmen, but it appeared shots were being fired from within the crowd of protesters as well as from the police. Many shots came from inside buildings. The gunmen were clearly not keen to be spotted.

Sporadic gunshots
Further up the road, as hundreds of protesters faced the inevitable choice to leave Rabaa late yesterday afternoon, sporadic gunshots could still be heard in the background as thick smoke billowed in the distance.

One man with a bloodied face began shouting. He said he had been inside Rabaa Mosque when it was surrounded and stormed by the police.

“The police car had given us five minutes to get out. If we didn’t come out and surrender they would shoot us with live ammunition,” he said. “So we came out with our hands up and we had a lot of people [with us], thousands coming out of the mosque, and as we came out with our hands in the air, we were surrounded by police cars and police with ammunition and they shot us on the way out.”

As he spoke, several cars with the dead and injured beeped their way past, racing to other hospitals. Many were keen to gain the attention of reporters. One elderly man pulled his car over to the side of the road, quietly got out, and opened the door to the back seat. A dead man in his 30s with clear gunshot wounds lay on the back seat. The elderly man buried his head in his arm resting on the open car door and burst into tears.

Jane Ferguson is a Middle East-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English