Cairo’s Rabaa massacre: One year later

Egypt descended into violent chaos, peaking with the clearing of two vigils held in support of a deposed president.

One of many people injured was brought to a makeshift hospital in a Nasr City mosque [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

D. Parvaz is the special projects editor at Al Jazeera English online. She was in Cairo in July and August 2013, and witnessed the violent dispersal of protesters at the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in on August 14. Al Jazeera asked her to share her experiences from that day.

For days, there was an ominous feeling hanging over Cairo. The two sit-ins – a smaller one in Giza and a massive one in Nasr City – were about to be cleared one way or another.

Authorities had asked and ordered supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi to leave their weeks-long, by all accounts disruptive (often the point of civil disobedience), vigils and go home, but the crowds remained. To them, the military and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had made a mockery of democracy by orchestrating “a coup” to remove a fairly elected president.

And so the Nasr City camp grew, as volunteers built shelters, playgrounds, and stages on city block after city block.

In early August, Egyptian media was filled with reports of a plan to peacefully clear out the sit-ins with minimal use of force, but previous violent episodes did not serve to reassure anyone that this would be the case. Other reports also said that a certain number of deaths – up to 5,000 – would be considered a “reasonable” loss.

Security forces clear Cairo protest camp

Along with a local producer – a bookish, soft-spoken guy – I spent countless hours at the the sit-in at and around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr City over several weeks.

We had left the sit-in at 3am on August 14, but he messaged me at around 6am that something was up. “Meet me at the sit-in,” he wrote. Neither of us was surprised that the other was awake – it was impossible to sleep with the tension and paranoia choking the capital that summer.

I raced to meet him, and reached the sit-in just as the police line sealed off the area. I saw police beat two photographers, cracking one on the head with the lens of his own camera. Blood pouring down his face, the man was dragged off, along with his colleague.

I had a mercifully brief run-in with shouting balaclava-wearing officers who surrounded me and confiscated my laptop, notebooks, and press ID. They wiped my phone of all images, but returned it, along with my passport and wallet. I got off easy.

Local media were reporting that police would grant safe passage to those who chose to peacefully leave the sit-in. But my producer was trapped inside Rabaa square, from which columns of black smoke billowed and the sound of gunshots grew increasingly frequent.

The series of frantic messages from him flooded my phone, compelling me to stay put at the foot of the 6th of October Bridge on Nasr Street. Leaving him there was out of the question – but how could I get him out?

RELATED: Grief and fear follow violent Cairo clearing

A sense of impending violence enveloped the entire neighbourhood as plain-clothes men forming a line in front of the police started throwing rocks at myself and others around me, prompting us to move back a few metres at a time. People placed calls to their friends, telling them to show up; by around 9am, a crowd of protesters, some holding rocks, had arrived.

In response to their arrival and to a security vehicle careering off the bridge, police created a thick wall with smoke bombs and tear-gas before unleashing an unrelenting barrage of live rounds through it all. We ran – protesters, reporters, and neighbourhood residents alike, some holding their children and groceries, as we darted from street to street, alley through alley, and hid behind and under cars.

After a couple of hours of this, one of the men I was running with, a young doctor named Abdulrahman, found us shelter in a tiny mosque. There, I was able to contact my producer. He had managed to talk his way into a resident’s car and leave the sit-in.

Trapped at the mosque, I started reporting on the stream of bodies being brought in. Doctors and nurses, hearing of the events, somehow appeared, and neighbourhood residents volunteered to take people to hospital – but some died on the floor, the frantic medical teams having done all they could. Doctors described some of the wounds as “sniper” wounds – many were shot in the head and chest.

The sound of gunshots outside was fierce and the tear gas was wafting into the mosque, made leaving at that point impossible. Roughly four hours later, Abdulrahman found someone to give me a lift back to my hotel as bullets continued to pop in the distance.

RELATED: Smell of death lingers in Cairo’s Iman mosque

A sense of impending violence enveloped the entire neighbourhood as plain-clothes men forming a line in front of the

The next day was its own nightmare for the families of victimsas they gathered at another mosque, where hundreds of bodies had been taken. The smell of that mosque, where blocks of ice rested on row after row of charred human remains, will never quite leave the people who experienced it.


Hundreds of burned bodies lined the floor at al-Iman mosque the day after the sit-ins were cleared [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Perhaps it shouldn’t.

In the year since the clearing of the sit-ins, Egypt has elected Sisi as its new president, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and sentenced hundreds of Morsi supporters to death.

It has also arrested several of my colleagues. Some have been released, while three have been held in Tora prison for over 200 days and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison each for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like my imprisoned colleagues, I interviewed people from all sides – members of the Muslim Brotherhood, military experts, Sisi supporters, and those who supported neither camp.

I saw reports of massive weapons caches being found at the sit-ins, and I heard from those who deny those charges. I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle – it’s plausible that some protesters had guns (according to the Egyptian health ministry, 43 security personnel were killed that day). I just didn’t see any. The health ministry also said over 600 people were killed on August 14, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood maintained the number exceeded 2,500.

Within a day or two of the events at Rabaa, workers started cleaning up the ravaged sit-in area, replanting trees, painting over scorched walls and clearing debris. Many in the city supported the clearing of the sit-ins and saw this as a return to normalcy, but rights groups – domestic and international – said security forces used excessive lethal force.

Maybe Egypt can move on from last summer’s violence, but I’m not sure if any amount of fresh paint and new shrubbery will serve to whitewash what happened.

Follow @dparvaz on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera