On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, killing an estimated 1,000 protesters. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, which deemed the Rabaa massacre “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day on recent history”, it was part of Egypt’s policy to use lethal force against protesters on political grounds.
Scores of others were arrested by security forces, including Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy, who was released in June 2014 after being held without charge for 10 months. Elshamy was released after going on a hunger strike for five months.
On the second anniversary of the Rabaa massacre, Elshamy reflects on how the experience changed him, and on the ordeal still facing many of his friends in Egypt.
Two years ago, I witnessed the most horrific day of my life – something that has changed the way I look at life forever.
Since being released from prison, I have been avoiding my experience and trying to detach. But over the last three days, I’ve done something that I hadn’t done since my release: I started watching videos from the day of the Rabaa massacre.
It brought back many painful memories.
On the evening of June 30, as the streets of Egypt buzzed with political turmoil, I was in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and out for a stroll with my wife. Around midnight, my phone buzzed with an email notification, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Cairo. At the time, I was thinking about the job ahead – I didn’t know that the next year would change my life forever.
Six weeks later, I was in a security van with 50 other people, locked up without knowing our destiny. We were arrested, beaten, and abused verbally and physically by Egyptian security forces. On the streets of Cairo, chaos was calling the shots, and a lot of blood was spilled.
We took turns pressing our faces against the small van window to get fresh air. We were eventually taken to the Cairo stadium, filled with hundreds of people, some of whom were bleeding or unconscious. At dawn, I was sent with more than two dozen others to a police station in Cairo.
Throughout my three-year journalism career, I always suspected that the upheaval and burden of detention would one day find me, but I never thought it would be in my own country. Being a journalist in Egypt is difficult at the best of times, but what made things worse was my affiliation with Al Jazeera, a news network that wasn’t welcome in the country at the time of my arbitrary detention.
During my long journey towards freedom, I was shuffled between four jails, and went on a hunger strike for five months. Time passed slowly at first, and I tried to tell myself not to get used to it.
This is not the country we dreamed of when the January 25 revolution took place.
Egyptian prison is a world of its own; you build connections to get things done, such as obtaining decent food or being allowed medical check-ups. The common currency is cigarettes, and officers would sometimes accept these in return for turning a blind eye to our actions, allowing us to go between different cell blocks and visit friends.
But no matter how much you try or what you do to improve your life inside prison, you still long for freedom with every breath.
My worst fear while I was on hunger strike, and later when I was transferred to a maximum-security prison, was that I may not be able to see my family again before I died. The experience ultimately made me, my wife, and our family stronger. We found a new meaning to life, and it will never be the same for any of us again – it will be better.
It has now been over a year since I left Egypt, but I am saddened for the people I left behind – people like photojournalist Esraa el-Taweel, and many more who have been arrested without just cause. This is not the country we dreamed of when the January 25 revolution took place.
I often ask myself whether I miss Egypt. Though I wasn’t born or raised there, I remember how my chest ached when the plane took off one last time and Cairo disappeared below the clouds.
I know it is very unlikely that I will go back there anytime soon.
In the days ahead, I will dedicate myself to defending press freedom – and hopefully someday soon, we will all live in a world where no journalist is kept behind bars.