|Makeshift clinics in Tahrir Square [Malika Bilal/Al Jazeera]
CAIRO, Egypt – Treating gunshot wounds, seizures, and severe head injuries on a pavement steps away from a fast food restaurant is not what 23-year-old Do’aa Ayman envisioned when she began dental school.
As a trained emergency health professional living in a transitioning Egypt, however, that is exactly what she finds herself doing, and she is not alone.
As Cairo’s Tahrir Square once again became the focus for clashes between demonstrators and security forces, makeshift clinics sprung up in the square and its environs to meet the immediate medical needs of hundreds of injured protesters.
The clinics are staffed by volunteer doctors from across the city. Each is protected by protesters linking hands to form a human chain, preventing non-injured passers-by from entering.
Within the circle, wounded patients – mostly male – lie on large rugs as the white-coated volunteers tend to their injuries.
The wounded arrive in a steady stream, clutching their faces, coughing and vomiting amid calls of “doctor, doctor”. Seconds after one patient is bandaged, another takes his place.
Ayman, a dentist in Cairo, says she has seen everything from pellet shots and eye injuries to severe wounds on nearly every part of one man’s body by what she imagines was an iron instrument.
She was in Tahrir Square in January during the height of the uprising that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president. These protests, she says, are much worse.
“In January, we only had [clashes against] police. Now we have the military. The tear gas is also much more strong. I was there in January and I could help myself, now …,” she trails off, gesturing to the handful of men lying on the ground beside her.
For 24-year-old Khalid Hamdi, a student of opthalmology, the scenes are reminiscent of the January protests, but the kinds of wounds are different, he says.
“We’ve seen new types of injuries here today. We’ve seen many faintings and we’d never seen that before. About 70 per cent of the injuries are fainting. People are coming in with asthma, convulsions sometimes – this wasn’t often before.”
Hamdi came straight to Tahrir on November 18 off a flight from Saudi Arabia, where he had just completed the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage. The timing was tight, but he was intent on being in the square for the large “Friday of One Demand” rally that preceded the violence.
“It’s supposed to be a new government, a revolutionary government. It was just a trick. We were trapped. These nine months, they were just rearranging their roles,” Hamdi says of the country’s leaders.
Undeterred by violence
Hamdi’s sentiments are echoed by Mahmoud Hanafy, a 24-year-old surgeon who has been at the clinic since Saturday after hearing the reports of intense clashes.
Hanafy has seen injuries of every kind, he says, the worst being fractured skulls.
“We made a revolution and we thought we were successful. We thought we got our rights, our freedom. But we didn’t.
“Very good guys died in the few past days. I’m so sorry, so sorry.”
Despite the severity of the violence, protesters continue to fill the square. With the rising number of protesters comes a hike in the number of cases these doctors treat.
Many of those limping into the clinic are suffering from the effects of tear gas, ailments that range from redness of the eyes to suffocation, says Jehan Saad, a 21-year-old pharmacy student and clinic volunteer.
They are treated with the limited medical supplies available, she says.
In the case of more extreme wounds, the doctors call for a hospital ambulance, which must inch its way through the hordes of people filling the square to reach the injured.
“It’s supposed to be a new government, a revolutionary government. It was just a trick. We were trapped. These nine months, they were just rearranging their roles“
– Khalid Hamdi, medical student
The sirens of those ambulances ring out every so often in the distance as the tear gas attacks intensify and the number of protesters determined to make it to the front lines of the clashes increases.
The security of the clinics is tenuous and those inside the human chain frequently brace themselves for an onslaught of protesters fleeing the encroaching government forces.
Peter Helmy and Mina Reda, both 21-year-old medical students at Cairo University, say they rarely feel completely safe inside the clinic.
But after their first day of volunteering, they know they will return, despite the threat of violence.
“When I see people running in a hurry, I feel unsafe,” Helmy says. “But I’ll be here as long as it takes.”
It is unclear for most people here how long that might be.
For Do’aa Ayman, however, the length of the demonstrations is less important than the potential that renewed protest has sparked among Egyptians.
“People woke up again. They will never return home until the rights of those people who were killed, those people who lost their eyes, those people who lost their hands – is taken. We have rights and we have to take them.”
Follow the author on Twitter @mmbilal