Egypt’s darkest day

One year on from the slaughter of more than 600 protesters in one day by Egyptian security forces, not a single officer has been prosecuted. Meanwhile Egypt’s criminal justice system has been swift to arrest, try and sentence alleged Morsi supporters after grossly unfair mass trials. Two hundred and thirty two have already been condemned to death and courts have recommended death sentences for over a thousand.

Amnesty International’s Egypt Researcher Mohamed Elmessiry witnessed the massacre at Rabaa al-Adaweya square and has been campaigning for justice since.

I woke to a 7am phonecall. “It’s started.”

This was the day I had feared since the protests began on 28 June 2013. After a month and a half, the Egyptian security forces had lost patience. I called a contact I knew on the square. “Live bullets are raining down on us, randomly,” he told me. “The security forces are dismantling the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Nahda squares sit-ins.” I could hear shots rattling down the line.

An Amnesty colleague and I rushed to the sit-in protest at Rabaa. We tried to enter from all directions – but tear gas and gunfire made it impossible. We tried the exit route on Nasr street, designated “safe” by the Interior Ministry, but even here the bullets were flying. On every street injured people lay bleeding on the floor, dragged into doorways as medics tried to treat them.

At around 11am we entered the al-Salam mosque on one of the side streets near Rabaa. The mosque had been converted into a field hospital. There were at least eight dead bodies, all killed by gunshots to the head or chest. Every few minutes another casualty was brought in, mostly hit in the upper body by live ammunition. Many of them bled to death within five to 10 minutes and were placed with the other bodies in the corner of the mosque.

On 14 August 2013 the Egyptian security forces dispersed sit-ins by supporters of Egypt’s deposed President, Mohamed Morsi. © Amnesty International
On 14 August 2013 the Egyptian security forces dispersed sit-ins by supporters of Egypt’s deposed President, Mohamed Morsi. © Amnesty International

One of the protesters there had carried in the body of his friend. He told us how they had been attacked: “The security forces took no mercy on us. They fired tear gas and pellets for the first 45 minutes, then they used live ammunition randomly. They were even shooting those trying to help the injured. What religion tells you to shoot and kill innocent people?!”

I remember another man, in his early 20s, who was carried into the mosque after being shot in the face. He bled from his nose and mouth until he died. Minutes after he died, his mother called his phone. She’d only just missed her last chance to talk to him.

From al-Salam we tried to move to the closest large hospital, but soldiers blocked us. “It’s not the right time,” they said.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the scale of the massacre. That became clear after we visited the morgue, hospitals and the al-Iman mosque, where many of the bodies from Rabaa were taken.

Police claim that they were able to differentiate between peaceful and violent protesters: “We have very high-tech vehicles, “Sherpa”, with cameras that can zoom up to 8km,” a police officer with the Central Security Forces told Amnesty International. “This is how we differentiated between armed and peaceful protesters, when we used force.”

But what we saw next made it clear they had not.

The MorgueThere’s a path from the main street to the gate of the morgue – it’s around 400 meters long. This path was full of dead bodies and cars carrying even more waiting for autopsy. The bodies lay exposed to Cairo’s August sun. I saw relatives crying as they tried to put ice on the bodies of their loved ones to stop them rotting in the heat, and asking god to give them patience.

Inside the morgue, it was chaos. Dead bodies everywhere, even in the head of the morgue’s office. By the time we arrived, the morgue had already conducted 108 autopsies. They had over a hundred more to do.

I was devastated to see the family of journalist and protestor Habiba Abdel Aziz. She’d been killed by a live bullet to the chest, and her family was trying to collect her body. I had spoken to her just over a week earlier, when she told me:

“I am not Muslim Brotherhood and I don’t belong to them…I am protesting here because I don’t want to see the military rule back. I will not leave this sit-in unless I die or Morsi is reinstated….I voted for Mohamed Morsi and it was the first time my vote counts…..the military don’t have the authority to take out my vote and oust a democratically elected president.”

Habiba was not armed during the dispersal, she was utterly against any form of violent demonstration. She’s just one example of the hundreds of peaceful protestors killed that day.

We left the morgue and headed to al-Iman mosque near Rabaa in Nasr city, a district of Cairo.

The MosqueThe mosque stank of death and decomposing bodies. Corpses were heaped on the floor, leaving no space to walk. When we arrived, we counted 98 dead. A register in the corner had kept track of those that had come in and then been collected by their families. A total of 267 killed.

There were women and children among them. Again, almost all of the dead had been shot with live ammunition in the head or upper body.

Horrifyingly, we noticed six burned bodies in the mosque. Some of them had been burned alive, others after they died. Some were burned so badly as to be unrecognizable, and people were wondering how their families would identify them.

The doctors there told us they had been burned by security forces in their tents or when security forces set fire to the medical centre. One described how he was treated when security forces stormed the building: “A security officer hit me on the back with the butt of their rifle and pushed me towards the stairs. After I left the centre with the rest, the security forces set it on fire.”

Another medic said:

“The security forces were storming the medical centre and I saw snipers on the roofs of buildings near the medical centre dressed in black. We were then forced out by the security forces and had to leave both patients and bodies behind. I hope they weren’t left there when security forces set the medical centre on fire.”

The National Council for Human Rights puts the civilian death toll at 632, and says the majority were peaceful demonstrators caught in crossfire.

Some protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya admitted to Amnesty International that they had used rocks and Molotov cocktails, setting police vehicles alight in an attempt to prevent the dispersal. And there is no doubt that following the dispersals of the sit-ins, some Morsi supporters did use violence, including firearms, launching attacks on the Giza Governorate building, police stations and security personnel.

But that does not give security forces carte blanche to open fire indiscriminately on protesters.

For the past year, Amnesty International has been calling on the Egyptian government to conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the excessive use of lethal force by security forces on 14 August. Despite a wealth of compelling evidence heavily implicating the Egyptian military in killing protesters, not a single security officer has been referred to trial for the bloodiest incident in Egypt’s recent history. That fact is an affront to humanity. Egypt must bring those responsible to justice.

Read more:

A week of violence and curfew (Blog, 21 August 2013)Egypt’s disastrous bloodshed requires urgent impartial investigation (News story, 16 August 2013)
Egypt: People were dying all around me (Briefing, 16 August 2013)
Egypt: Security forces must avoid further bloodshed (News story, 14 August 2013)