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Friday
Oct142011

Egypt's deadly night: what really happened

Witness testimonies implicate Egyptian army in the bloodshed that left at least 26 dead and hundreds injured.

Five days on from the street violence in Egypt which left at least 26 people dead and hundreds injured, driving a fresh wedge between Egyptians and the increasingly brutal military junta that now rules their country, the debate over exactly what happened that night continues to rage fiercely.

At a rare press conference earlier this week Egypt’s ruling generals denied accusations that the army had been responsible for the bloodshed – instead blaming Christian protesters for instigating the clashes and pointing the finger at shadowy foreign conspiracies who were looking to destabilise the nation.

On Thursday, however, those caught up in the clashes fought back with their own press conference – using witness testimony, video clips and medical reports to argue that the army’s narrative of events was deeply flawed. Pressure is now mounting on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) and Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to come clean over the violence – with many now questioning the military’s claim to be a supporter of the revolution and an institution committed to democratic transition.

“The performance of the military, which always took pride in never firing a bullet at the revolutionaries, surpassed that of Mubarak’s mercenaries,” read a statement put out at the alternative press conference signed by a range of political parties and youth groups. “It shed the blood of Egyptians in cold blood and with the cruellest of means, even throwing dead bodies in the Nile in an attempt to cover up their crimes.”

Sunday’s events may yet prove to be a crucial turning point in Egypt’s ongoing revolution, as pro-change activists seek to galvanise more widespread opposition to military rule. The words of Mary Daniel, whose brother Mina was shot dead at the protest, will strike a chord with many Egyptians in a society where criticism of the armed forces is traditionally considered taboo. “I wish he [Mina] had been killed by the enemies, but he was actually killed by Egyptian bullets,” said Mary. “When will Egypt stop sucking the blood of its own children?”

The Guardian has collated a number of testimonies from eyewitnesses who saw first-hand what transpired on Sunday night. They directly contradict the military’s claim not to have used live bullets against protesters, and the military’s claim that no Egyptian soldiers attempted to run protesters over with Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs). The testimonies are dramatic, moving and in many cases highly graphic. Most have been translated from Arabic and appear here in English for the first time. They have been edited for space and clarity; for more information visit Maspero Testimonies, whose volunteers helped find, record and translate the following accounts.

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1. Bishoy Saad

“The soldier at the tank hatch was opening machine gun fire in every direction … Pray that the nightmare that is the military comes to an end before Egypt is destroyed”

Sunday’s march was different [from previous demonstrations] … The numbers were huge, packed with people, Muslims and Copts. They didn’t like the way the last sit-in in front of Maspero was dispersed by force. And they didn’t like the fact that churches were being unjustly burned without punishment or prevention. So they went and chanted ‘Muslims and Christians are one hand’. Most of the chants were directed against Tantawy and the Council.

We walked along as normal down Shubra Street, and there were the usual few incidents of friction and harassment. But because the numbers were so huge and people were so enraged, no one dared to curse at us or spit on us like on previous occasions.

We went on to Ollaly [a bus station area in Abdel Munim Riyad Square, between Maspero and Tahrir Square]. At a municipal government building there we heard heavy gunfire. People panicked and started running everywhere. A priest saw the fuss and climbed up on top of a car that was part of the demonstration. He said into the microphone:

“People, our demonstration is a peaceful one, and no matter how much provocation and friction occurs it will stay peaceful. Please, we don’t want anyone to get aggravated and lose their temper… even by cursing or insults … we don’t want to spoil the image of the march.”

I stopped to buy a can of Pepsi from the kiosk in front of the Ramses Hilton hotel, and was held up for a few minutes speaking to my mother and sister on the phone and assuring them I was fine. The march was now ahead of me and as soon as we got on to the Corniche [the road by the Nile, next to Maspero], we heard heavy gunfire.

All of a sudden the people in front of us were turning and running towards us, screaming, ‘Run … they’re firing!’ I thought the army was just scaring us as usual with a few shots in the air. [But] all at once all the lights went off and I heard the sound of a car grating on the ground. I looked and saw an army tank coming from afar at an insane speed with a solider at the hatch opening machine gun fire in every direction.

People were running like madmen in every direction and the tank was crushing anyone in its path. The light was very faint and almost no one could see in front of them … we could just hear screams and the window glass in the building next to Maspero shattering from the gunfire.

I ran to hide between two parked cars, I thought it was all over. Then I saw two other tanks speeding in the same way and also crushing anyone in their paths. They got to the end of the street and turned around and came back and did the same thing on the other side. Imagine the sight of the terrified people. Especially as the majority of the march were women and young people.

We ran to an alley that came out into the parallel street. It was pitch black. The sounds of weeping and screaming were everywhere. I ran and ran until I got to the Ramses Hilton. And then I stopped, trying to make sense of the scene I just saw. I was stunned at the reaction of the army forces, because that violence was unexpected. I was stunned at the body parts that were everywhere and the sound of weeping and the screams of ‘O God, O Virgin, O Jesus!’

No matter what I write or say I can’t describe the brutality of what I saw. I witnessed two people carrying someone whose lower body was gone. I looked at his face and saw that he was the man I had been walking next to when I first joined the march; he had been chanting next to me right up until I stopped to get the Pepsi. So if I hadn’t stopped at that kiosk and been delayed, I would have been in his place.

I saw several people who had taken bullets all over their bodies. Their blood drenched the streets. People went wild. Some of them tried to carry the injured away and take them to the Ramses Hilton but security prevented them from doing so and attacked them. So people went mad and started banging and shaking the glass.

I beg of you, don’t believe a word of what is being said on Egyptian television, no matter how respectable or trustworthy the speaker. Every single inch of that filthy place [Maspero] is controlled by the military. There’s not a word that gets said there that is not pre-planned and pre-calculated. Don’t believe any rumours or talk of strife between Christians and Muslims until you make sure of the source, because this is a dirty game right now, where the tables have turned and the council of shame [Scaf] has been transformed from the perpetrator into the victim.

Spread any information or media that tells people what really happened. Pray that the nightmare that is the military comes to an end before Egypt is destroyed. For the sake of the people that died today whilst chanting ‘Peaceful! Peaceful!’, please don’t add coal to the flames and turn on each other. God have mercy on every hero martyred and protect our blessed country from destruction.

2. Ragy El-Kashef – 24 years old, film director

“I saw three soldiers carrying a corpse and throwing it into the Nile … I saw scenes with my own eyes that will haunt me forever”

I heard that there was an attack on the march, and when I went to see what was happening I found the same scene as the camel battle on February 2nd [when pro-Mubarak militias attacked Tahrir Square on horse and camel-back in an attempt to break up pro-change demonstrations]. I got a little scared because I was among thugs and soldiers, and there wasn’t a single officer present.

All the soldiers present were Muslims because they were cursing at the protesters, saying “Those Christian sons of a whore, those pimps.” I apologize to my Coptic Egyptian brethren for mentioning the profanity. Throughout these two hours, the soldiers were beating anyone just for being Christian or carrying a cross.

I saw a scene with my own eyes that will forever haunt me. There was a woman with a child and her husband who were carrying a cross and standing in the Maspero parking lot ... Suddenly the soldiers attacked them and assaulted the three of them, as well as another [nearby] woman who had a child carrying a cross, all for absolutely no reason. They hadn't even uttered a word. They assaulted them in every way (slapping, kicking, head-butting, using their batons) and I could hear the woman screaming. I couldn't do anything about it; I couldn't even say “This is wrong!”

The second scene [that haunted me] was when I was standing on the 6th October Bridge and I saw three soldiers carrying a corpse and throwing it in the Nile. There was a military police officer standing with them. When I pulled out my camera to take a picture, the soldier yelled “Get that son of a bitch with the camera!” but I ran off towards downtown.

The soldiers went into downtown after the regular people, regular Egyptians, shooting blanks and tear gas. They chased until they reached El Borsa [a neighbourhood of outdoor coffee shops] and they were beating whoever was in front of them. My friends and I were beaten there.

Mubarak's Military Council [Scaf] wants to create a rift between people so that they can rule us and create the chaos that was promised by Mubarak – Mubarak the dog, the coward, the one who is peacefully enjoying the International Medical Center [where Mubarak is being held during his trial] while we are biting the dust. Down with military rule – down with all traitors!

3. Khaled El-Sherbini

“The Copts (men, women, children and elders) were being beaten by thugs … no not beaten, annihilated”

What I found when I arrived at Abdel Munim Riyad Square was beyond belief. A group of armed thugs demanded my name, one of them saying, “We will kill any Christian here.” They were standing among soldiers from the Military Police and the Central Security Forces.

I tried to treat some of the injured, but the medical supplies I had on me were too basic, just some stuff I got from one of the doctors who was there in Tahrir. I tweeted for help, and thanks to God’s mercy and the efforts of some brothers, I received enough medical supplies to set up a field hospital. But it was a problem to find a place to treat people, because of ongoing scuffles around me and stones being thrown from both sides.

Anyway, I got onto the 6th October Bridge amid a barrage of tear gas bombs and rocks being thrown from below. I descended the pedestrian stairs on the other side, and said my final prayers. Whenever I witnessed the break-up of protests before, I’d be afraid of being beaten or arrested. This time I was afraid of losing my life.

All I saw at Maspero was a burning armoured vehicle and some burnt cars, so I went into the backstreets behind to see what was happening there. I can't find words to describe what I saw, except massacre or genocide, amid loud screams and the smell of tear gas. The Copts (men, women, children and elders) were being beaten by thugs … no not beaten, annihilated. Anyone who was carrying a cross was brutally attacked with knives and rods.

I went back to Abdel Munim Riyad Square to received more medical supplies, and found demonstrators there chanting ‘Islamic, Islamic’, though frankly they didn’t look ‘Islamic’ at all. One of them said, “We came to defend the army because Christians are killing army soldiers.” I asked him where he had heard that and he replied, “On the television.” At first the army was in collusion with them – they did not try to disperse or attack the crowds – then suddenly, after about an hour, the soldiers started chasing and arresting everyone (Muslim and Christian alike). I got to Talaat Harb Square where there was a battle underway between security forces and protesters, with stones and tear gas being thrown. At this point the chants thundered: ‘Muslims and Christians are one hand!’

Before I finish I would like to add something: I don't see what happened as sectarian violence. This was planned annihilation, and God only knows who was behind it. Dear God, have mercy on the souls of the martyrs of that day, give patience and strength to their families, and heal all those who were injured.

4. Hani Bushra

“The order to use live ammunition was made in front of me … This is not religious strife, this is state sponsored terrorism”

I was alone, and I began to walk back to Tahrir and send a tweet. Someone saw me and asked my name, so I said ‘Hani Sobhi’. He then grabbed my wrists to see if I had a cross tattoo [common among Coptic Christians], and when he did not find it he asked for my full name. I replied ‘Hani Sobhi Bushra’. He asked if I was a Muslim or a Christian, and I said that I was a Christian.

At that point he began to scream for others that he caught a Christian, and people began to gather. They wanted to search me and my bag, and I said that I would not let them. At that point there were about 30 people around me, some of them punching me on my head. I began to walk quickly to the police cordon to find an officer but before I could reach it someone yanked my gold chain from across my neck and took the cross. All I did was to tell him “wow, you are such a man” and I clapped for him. That pissed off the people around me, and so someone snatched my phone from my belt.

I kept shouting at the thief to give me my phone back, and he said that he would give it to me in front of a police officer. By that time, I was being hit from many people, my ankle was sprained and I was called a ‘Nossrani [Christian] dog’.

We reached the police cordon, and I showed my US passport to the general there, saying I was now under his protection. A policeman in civilian clothing who appeared to be the coordinator between the mob and the police began telling the general that I was a Christian, saying that I instigated the mob’s attack on me and that I was carrying weapons in my bag. The general told him to shut up, and I was assigned a young officer to protect me.

From that point onwards I stayed with the CSF [‘Central Security Forces’ – riot police who are separate from the army], and observed the following:

1) Four bodies lay in the lobby of an apartment building that the Egyptian ambulances could not carry because the blood was everywhere and some of the bodies were in pieces. When I asked my CSF companions (we had became friends) about the bodies, they told me it was three Christians and one Muslim shot by the army and driven over using a humvee.

2) Members of the CSF were armed with live ammunition, and that order was given in front of me.

3) One of the CSF told me that he beat senseless a Christian man he had arrested because it was said that this man was carrying a gun and shooting the people.

4) The army and not the police were the ones attacking the protestors.

I was there for about two hours, and then suddenly a mob came to the police saying ‘Christians where are you, Islam is here’. Nobody stopped them; in fact they were cheered by army units which were parked by the CSF cordon.

I used the confusion to get away from my handlers and head towards Tahrir. I reached the Kasr El Dobra church and there I saw another Muslim mob chanting, ‘Christians where are you, Islam is here’. What shocked me is that an army officer with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel was organising these mobs, telling them that they should be the first line of defense and that they [the army] would stand behind them.

I am safe, but I am saddened about what happened. This is not religious strife, this is state sponsored terrorism towards the Copts.

5. Lobna Darwish – 25 years old, independent journalist

“I found a woman screaming … I ran to hug her, and her husband was shot dead by her feet”

By the time we were close to Maspero the spirit was great, there were about 25,000 people on the demonstration, and for a moment I began to feel secure. I said to myself ‘of course the army can beat us after midnight, but they wouldn't be crazy enough to beat us now when there are so many children in the march.’

On the edges of Maspero, I found protesters chanting ‘Muslims and Christians are one hand’. Thirty seconds later, CSF soldiers began running after us and firing in the air. Everyone started fleeing to escape the beating; the firing that was in the air began to be directed at our bodies.

By 6.30pm I was next to the Ramses Hilton hotel by the Nile, standing in the road and trying to understand what was happening. Suddenly people yelled at us to get on the pavement, so we ran and saw two APCs [Armoured Personnel Carriers] chasing people with crazy speed through the middle of a street filled with pedestrians. At first I thought they were just stupid soldiers who would kill us with their stupidity. But then the APCs started moving with crazy speed back and forth in the street, in a zigzag. It was like the APC driver would spot a group of people running and then chase them, driving over the pavement after them and running them over, before spotting another group on the other side and doing the same thing. I couldn't believe myself, and I was terrified.

Then the two ACPs left and another two came and did the same thing: crazy speed, smashing people, running them over, people fleeing in all directions. A group of people that included at least two young boys, 14 to 15 years old, were hiding behind a parked car. I saw an APC driving towards them, going over the parked car to destroy them and smash one of the two boys. The rest of the group managed to escape to the other side and avoid getting smashed.

I went back towards the Ramses Hilton to look for one of my friends. There were a lot of people, especially women the same age as my mother, praying in the middle of the road and asking for mercy. Suddenly people started opening fire at us from over the [6th October] bridge, a long line of army soldiers shooting at us. Everyone ran, but there were people that returned courageously to face the bullets and the bricks. I saw a man shot down dead in the middle of all of this.

The shooting continued for a while and then stopped. Then the tear gas started; it was suffocating and the burning sensation on our skin was more intense than usual. I ran to a side street to buy Pepsi for the tear gas [acidic drinks help lessen the impact of the gas], and I found a woman screaming “Oh God, we don't have a place in our own country, have mercy on us.” I ran to hug her; she was standing, and her husband was shot dead by her feet. We tried to get him to an ambulance, but he was dying, making scary sounds with his throat and blood was coming out of his chest. The sounds and the blood stopped before we got to the ambulance, and the paramedic inside told us he's dead and we would have to wait for another car to transfer the body, because ambulances had to give priority to the severely injured. I was hugging the woman on the floor while she was screaming and her husband was next to us dead.

What happened on Sunday has nothing to do with confrontation between Muslims and Christians. This wasn't sectarianism, it was simply the violence of the authorities against peaceful protesters, the same thing that used to happen in the Mubarak days. It proved that the military council [Scaf] is willing to sacrifice all of us, Muslims and Christians, willing to create sectarianism out of nowhere and ask Egyptians to beat other Egyptians just to protect the very regime that we are demanding must fall.

-Published in The Guardian
-Cairo - October 2011