/ 15 August 2013

‘Later, they set fire to the hospital’

Defeat: A man walks between lines of bodies at a makeshift morgue in Cairo.
Defeat: A man walks between lines of bodies at a makeshift morgue in Cairo. (Mahmoud Khaled/AFP)

On a street leading to the besieged Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp, doctors set up a makeshift ward on the pavement. Paving stones became pillows. Car covers became beds. Instead of medicine, all the doctors could offer were cartons of fruit juice bought from a nearby kiosk. As gunfire was heard hitting walls around the corner, the wounded were hurried over at a rate of one every minute.

“I’ve carried many people,” said Muaaz Ashraf (18), who turned up to help injured supporters of the ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. “Some were dead. One was shot in the head. His skull was split open.”

Ashraf, a university student, pointed to the grey and red stains that had dried on his shirt. “This is part of his brain.”

The dead man was one of scores of Morsi supporters who were shot dead by military and police forces in Cairo on the bloodiest single day in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Violence also broke out in other areas of the capital, and in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Assiut. Hundreds of people died across the country.

It was the third mass killing of Morsi supporters at the hands of Egypt’s security services since the army ousted him, and the most deadly. Most of the killings took place at two six-week-old pro-Morsi camps situated on either side of the capital, in Nahda in west Cairo and Rabaa in the east, as security forces attempted to end their passive resistance with brutal force.

Their intervention came on Tuesday morning. Foot soldiers, bulldozers and armoured personnel carriers advanced on both camps, firing teargas, pellets and live ammunition in quick succession, witnesses said.


Vehicles were used to bulldoze makeshift fortifications and, according to some victims, to run over protesters. At lunchtime, police officials said they had only used teargas, that no protester had died, and that they had been fired on first.

Evidence suggested that some pro-Morsi activists threw stones in response or simply held their ground, but in the mid-afternoon, the Guardian saw some preparing makeshift petrol bombs while under heavy gunfire. In the main, the protesters were peaceful, and included many women and children.

Nahda was cleared shortly after its defences were breached. The larger and better defended Rabaa al-Adawiya camp took longer to overwhelm, but police said they were in full control by the evening.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders were in custody. A curfew and a month-long state of emergency – a restrictive law reminiscent of the Mubarak era – were imposed in several cities.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s leading liberal politician who was appointed as vice-president after Morsi’s departure in an attempt to give a respectable face to the new military regime, resigned in protest at the day’s events.

Access to Rabaa was impossible for much of the day without braving heavy gunfire, despite the government’s promise that protesters who wanted to leave would be given safe passage. Inside, doctors at the camp’s makeshift field hospital, designed to accommodate just six patients, described horrific scenes.

Stop counting

“There must be hundreds of casualties here,” said Dr Ashraf Abu Zeid, an anaesthetist volunteering at the clinic. “But we had to stop counting because the field hospital is only 10m by 10m and it was completely covered in corpses. So was a second room. So was a third room. At that point, we could no longer count.”

Abu Zeid said state officials had blocked ambulances that were trying to reach Rabaa, and Cairo’s main morgue turned corpses away because officials there said they had no permission from the prosecutors’ office to examine the bodies.

“In the morning, there weren’t any ambulances,” said Ashraf, the volunteer stretcher bearer. “We just had one car, and we had to squeeze three bodies in it. The door wouldn’t close afterwards.”

As evening approached, Abu Zeid told the Guardian by telephone that security officials had finally breached the hospital building, situated next to the mosque at the centre of the Rabaa site. “They went inside the hospital,” he said. “They were shooting teargas.

“We had to leave the hospital. We had to leave casualties. We had to leave bodies. It was horrible. It was barbaric. I saw with my own eyes one person shot in front of me on the steps of the hospital.”

For much of the day at Rabaa, the military and police on all four sides of the camp had fired at those holding their ground on the fringes of the sit-in. They were content to fire mainly teargas at the thousands inside, who were mostly gathered around a stage where Muslim Brotherhood preachers and leaders gave speeches.


At Nahda in west Cairo, the clashes were over far sooner – the camp was breached and brutally cleared within hours.

“I was sleeping and I woke up around 6am to the sound of screaming,” said Said Ghonim (30), a mechanic from Kafr el-Sheikh, who had been inside the camp for a month. “I ran to the entrance and I saw military and police vehicles moving in, and firing a rain of teargas. I stood in front of one vehicle. Another one on the other side moved in on me. I was stuck between them, and then one ran over my leg.”

Ghonim, who counted a broken hip among his injuries, was then taken to Umm Masryeen state hospital in west Cairo, where state intelligence officers attempted to stop the Guardian from interviewing him. “Is it normal to treat people like this? I was unarmed, standing on my own two feet, and they ran me over.”

Nasr Yasin Suleiman, an accountant in the Egyptian civil service, also said he went to Nahda’s entrance to see what was going on.

“We only had rocks in our hands,” said Suleiman, who was later shot with birdshot in his groin and left leg. “They fired teargas beyond belief. We started running inside and they came after us, the vehicles chasing us, firing pellets … Later, they set fire to the field hospital at the camp and some people were burnt.”

Amid the clashes, two journalists were killed and four were wounded by gunfire. Other reporters were detained or had their camera memories wiped by state officials.

The crackdown was nominally aimed at putting an end to the unrest that has deeply destabilised Egypt since Morsi’s overthrow on July 3.

But in reality, it seems to have made the situation significantly worse, with the violence spreading across the country, and Islamist anger likely now to be significantly heightened.

Opponents of the new regime are also likely to be unperturbed by the return of the emergency law, an authoritarian approach characteristic of the Mubarak era. At the Rabaa camp, the immediate reaction to its reintroduction was one of derision. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad and Hamza Ashraf