I remember Rabaa


An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo on August 14, 2013. MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM/AFP/Getty Images)

An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo on August 14, 2013. MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM/AFP/Getty Images)

I remember 14 August, 2013, more than I remember most days of my life. I was planning on wearing my new black shirt to work that day; the one with a semi-transparent back.

I remember drowsily getting out of bed, considering which stories I would cover for the paper that day, before being updated by my mum about the latest news.

“They’re dispersing the sit-ins,” she said, shaking, while anchored in front of the television airing live footage of the dispersals.

“What?” I might have used a curse word, but I don’t quite remember which one it was.

“It started right after dawn. They’ve cleared out Al-Nahda completely,” she said in reference to the smaller pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in set up in Giza. “But they’re having a hard time with the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in.”

I remember thinking: “this is bad.” But I don’t remember having a particular scenario for how bad it could be.

Checking out my phone, I remember receiving an email from my editor assigning our team of eight reporters different field and desk assignments. I was ordered to go to the office to help produce next morning’s paper. Five other reporters were dispatched to cover the Rabaa encampment in Cairo and the Al-Nahda encampment. I remember the photos Mostafa, one of the reporters sent off to Rabaa, sent me for publishing. It was the earliest glimpse I caught of security forces that morning as they stood at the entrances to the Rabaa sit-in.

I remember my mum being adamant about me not leaving the house. Dismissing her pleas and threats, I called a friend who lives next to the paper’s office to make sure I could safely drive there.

I remember the office to be really quiet. It was only Fady, Basil and I there; the three desk reporters for the day. Basil took a short trip to the remains of Al-Nahda sit-in, which was within walking distance from our office. Entirely cleared and cordoned off by security, our two reporters Joel and Charlie were sent to the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandeseen instead, following the footsteps of the evacuated Al-Nahda protesters.

I remember writing a short update on the sit-ins’ dispersal. I didn’t give myself a byline since I was unable to clearly identify the death toll. Yes, I remember being stupid enough to believe I would get an accurate death toll so early on in the day.

I remember being the only girl who made it to the office that day, apart from my editor. I remember Paul, the temporary copy-editor covering for our desk editor Adam, talking to me about his long stay in Egypt and how he believes now is the time to head back home to the States. In retrospect, I believe Paul was initiating small talk with the poor girl freaking out about the mess her country was spiraling into. I nevertheless don’t remember freaking out … not at all.

I remember following up with our field reporters through their tweets. Mostafa and Nagi were unable to get inside Rabaa due to the large security presence cordoning the encampment and due to the war raging within. At one brave attempt to maneuvre his way inside, I remember my editor Sara calling Nagi on the phone and menacingly warning him and Mostafa against it.

I remember Joel and Charlie posting a selfie as they took shelter from the crossfire. They ducked behind a kiosk as security forces faced off with pro-Morsi protesters in the vicinity of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque.

“We’re heading back to the office to recharge phones and selves,” Charlie tweeted shortly before coming back. It was Charlie’s 22nd birthday and he had planned to spend it on a Sinai beach with our photojournalist, Aaron. Little did they know they would be dodging bullets in Cairo’s streets instead while struggling to do their job.

I remember Charlie’s and Joel’s faces when they walked in on us in the office; I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. They were the faces of men who had just seen death … probably for the first time. I remember feeling lost and embarrassed as they took a moment outside to shed tears over the bodies that fell around them from every direction just a few minutes before.

Thirty-nine civilians were killed as a result of the Mustafa Mahmoud clashes.

Charlie nevertheless stressed that, while the protesters were praying, he saw with his own eyes armed civilians with covered faces guarding the worshippers with AK-47s in hand. I remember not being shocked.

Fady was the next person to break down in the office, I remember. He was able to confirm that his good friend had died during the dispersal, ongoing still.

I remember the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that at least 2000 protesters have already died during the clearing of the sit-in; all while the official death toll remained in two-digit numbers.

I remember Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) spokesman Tarek Al-Morsi describing to me the sit-ins’ dispersal as “a massacre carried out by the Israeli Army in Egypt and the Mossad’s Ministry of Interior.”

I remember the fear mounting within the office about Aaron’s whereabouts, especially after rumours that they were locking down Nasr City, where the Rabaa sit-in was located. Aaron, a big, white American guy, was not as familiar with Cairo’s streets as natives like Mostafa and Nagi are. It took us over an hour to confirm he had safely made his way out of the warzone that had become of Nasr City.

I remember collecting information about all the churches that were being torched and looted nationwide as reprisal attacks simultaneously carried on with Rabaa’s violent dispersal. Getting photos for the damaged churches was among my final tasks in the office.

I remember being sent home at around 3pm. My editor wanted me to be safe with my family when the authorities impose a curfew, a highly anticipated move.

I remember quickly wrapping up a story I was working on before joining my dad, who came specifically to drive me home. The streets were scarily quiet that afternoon. They reminded me of Cairo’s streets during the security vacuum which prevailed throughout the 18-day uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

I remember the state declaring a state of emergency and a night curfew the moment I arrived home. I quickly jotted down a news story for the paper.

I remember being too consumed with the quick updates to grasp the magnanimity of what was happening. But I remember brief arguments with my parents, who believed the sit-ins’ forcible dispersal was the right decision.

I remember feeling safe and secure after confirming that all the boys have safely made it back home. I don’t remember feeling bad about those who were being killed in Rabaa probably as I was texting Joel to make sure he was safe. I don’t even think I fully understood what was happening at the time.

I was fasting that day. I remember delaying breaking my fast to write a story about Mohamed ElBaradei’s resignation from his post as interim vice president for international relations. I remember being proud of the story, not just because I was happy ElBaradei had finally come to his senses and recognised the farce of the 30 June protests for what they truly were, but also because my deputy editor Campbell told me the story was “excellent[ly]” written.

I remember the “surrender” of the Rabaa protesters around 6pm that day. Private-owned satellite channel OnTV exclusively aired footage of them exiting the square, looking defeated. At the time, my understanding was that they exited the square when they “lost the battle against security forces.” Little did I know this was the first time protesters were allowed to exit the sit-in. Security forces fired at armed and unarmed protesters at the safe exits, thus blocking the exits for almost 12 hours.

I remember covering a televised press conference for Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim that night. The minister insisted security forces maintained the “highest levels of self restraint” while dispersing the sit-ins.

“Protesters were betting on a large death toll to result from the dispersal,” Ibrahim said. “When the Al-Nahda sit-in was dispersed without deaths, they began attacking us.”

The health ministry meanwhile put the death toll for Al-Nahda sit-in’s dispersal at 21, a small number compared to the independent death toll of 96 provided by the statistical website Wiki Thawra.

So far that night, the health ministry was using a conservative death toll of 113 during the Rabaa dispersal. Ibrahim said 42 security personnel were killed on that day. It was later revealed that only eight of them died while dispersing the Rabaa sit-in, weighed against an official civilian death toll of at least 627.

The numbers weren’t hitting me hard. I don’t remember taking a moment to let the death toll sink in, to understand what had happened that day.

I remember in college a group of my friends giving a presentation on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. To help deliver the atrocity of the incident, my friend highlighted the fact that 800,000 people were killed over the course of 100 days.

“Which means an average of 800 people were killed every day for 100 days,” he said. I remember being awestruck by this fact, wondering time and again how the world allowed this to happen.

The Rabaa dispersal left an estimate of 1000 people killed over the course of 12 hours. I don’t remember asking myself how the world was letting that happen as I numbly watched that massacre unfold that day.

One year on, I remember Rabaa, though I wish I didn’t.

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