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Egypt’s fast forgotten heroes

Yasmine Fathi , Wednesday 6 Jul 2011
Injured treated at Tahrir's field hospital during 25 January Revolution (photo: Hossam El-Hamalawy)

On 28 January, the day Egyptians call the “Friday of Rage,” 22-year-old Islam Hasan decided to join the nationwide protests against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. He walked into his room, rummaged through his belongings until he found an Egyptian flag, the one he used to carry with him to football games. He took the flag and headed towards the door.

His mother, Tafida Ramadan, had heard that the government was planning to kill protesters that day and was frantic with worry that something horrible might happen to her son. “I ran up to him while he was opening the door and grabbed his arms and begged him not to go. I told him that he might die.” Ramadan remembers. “But he just smiled and told me that he wants to fight for his country’s freedom and that he would gladly die for Egypt.”

And he did. Only a few hours later, Ramadan was told that her son had been shot in the head and transferred to a hospital. After a tense week in intensive care, he died.

Islam’s tragic story was echoed in many Egyptian homes. The price of the Egyptian revolution was not cheap. Hundreds died and thousands more were wounded, sometimes with debilitating injuries that will need a lifetime of medical care. Following the revolution, many of those who sacrificed for Egypt’s freedom were branded as heroes, their photos passed around and hung on posters in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution. There were even reports that all of Egypt’s main squares and streets would be renamed after the martyrs of the revolution. But as the days passed and as Egyptians started to look towards the future, many now feel forgotten, neglected and even betrayed.

“My son gave up his life for this revolution and now what?” asks Ramadan. “What has the government done for us? Not one thing. Even his murderers were not put on trial.”

During the tense months following the revolution, families of martyrs struggled not only with their loss but with watching their children’s murderers roam free. Only a handful of police officers responsible for the killings have been put on trial, and even then family members complained that trials were being conducted at a snail’s pace. Families looking for closure also had to struggle with frequent postponements. Several times martyrs families were refused entry into court proceedings, which culminated in clashes between them and the police.

The situation reached crisis point on 29 June when thousands of Egyptians headed to Tahrir Square, in the “Martyr’s Day of Rage,” to support martyrs families after they clashed with police forces in front of the Ministry of Interior and the Balloon Theatre in Agouza.

The situation escalated even more on 4 July, as families of martyrs in Suez began protesting in the city’s El-Arbaeen Square after a criminal court released, on bail, 14 police officers accused of killing ‎‎protesters during the ‎‎18-day uprising.‎

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the armed forces have both announced that they will set up funds to compensate the wounded and the martyrs’ families, and help them in their treatment and rehabilitation, the situation has not calmed down. In fact, many believe it is too little, too late.

For many families the loss of their sons in the revolution meant the loss of their main breadwinner. Some now have no one to support the family. Ramadan’s son used to support his parents and two siblings who are still in school. She herself is sick and unable to work. When she tried to get a government pension for her son, she had to deal with stiff bureaucratic procedures that included several trips to Cairo over five months.

“They should make it easier for the mothers of the martyrs,” stresses Ramadan. “They shouldn’t let us suffer like this.”

Indeed Ramadan is not the only one. Adel Mohamed, from Alexandria, lost his 23-year-old son Mohamed on the Friday of Rage. Mohamed was shot twice in the back and died early the next day. His loss not only left a gaping wound in the heart of his parents, but denied them the income that supported them. Adel Mohamed is a casual worker with very little income and his wife is sick.

“We used to rely mainly on him,” says Mohamed. “But now I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Mohamed’s family, like those of many who were martyred during the revolution, filed several lawsuits against Egypt’s police for shooting and killing protesters. Now, he says, wealthy businessmen associated with the old regime have been going around Alexandria telling people to drop their cases in exchange for hefty sums of money.

“We are desperate for money but we refused,” Mohamed says. “No money will ever compensate me for the loss of my child. I want punishment for all those who hurt our children.”

Many families feel rage not only towards the officers who shot their relatives, but also officals who gave the order to shoot. These, to many of the families, include ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his minister of interior, Habib El-Adly. Mubarak has been residing in Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital since he was detained in April and has not yet been put on trial. It has been announced that he will stand trial in August. El-Adly is in Tora Prison, but much to the dismay of victims of the revolution, his trial has been postponed several times.

“I’ve been sick and bedridden ever since I saw on the news that his trial was postponed,” says Ramadan. “As long as these people are free, I will feel that my son is dying again in front of my eyes every day. Please bring us justice so that the fire in our hearts can be extinguished and we can have peace.”

Adel Mohamed agrees. “I want Mubarak and Adly to be shot in public squares, like they did to our children,” says Mohamed. “Why are they causing us all this pain? Isn’t it enough that I lost my son? Isn’t it enough that I will never see him again?”

But the families of the martyrs are not the only ones feeling betrayed. The thousands who are were injured are also struggling to cope with the fact that their attackers are still roaming free, while they struggle every day with new disabilities. “The martyrs have got peace from death, while we are dying a little every day,” says Rabie Mohamed, a 31-year-old who was shot in the eye during the revolution.

He was also shot on the Friday of Anger, while protesting in downtown Cairo. He was marching with hundreds of others, chanting “Peaceful peaceful,” as a signal to the police not to fire at them. “So they stopped shooting us until we were all in one place and then betrayed us and started firing at us,” he remembers.

It happened around 6pm, which is what he and his friends dub the “hour of eye shooting,” because the police were specifically aiming at protesters’ eyes. He was first shot by pellet rifles in his legs and dropped to his knees. Then, he was shot in the eye and fainted.

“I only regained consciousness when I was in the makeshift hospital in Tahrir Square,” says Mohamed. He was offered to be transported to a hospital for treatment, but he asked the doctor to clean and bandage the wound and insisted that he wouldn’t budge from the square until Mubarak left.

“The pain was terrible and the doctor kept telling me that any delay would mean that I may never get my sight back, but I refused to leave until he leaves,” says Mohamed. “I used to take Voltaren shots for the pain and just gritted my teeth through it.”

But if Mohamed thought he was going to be treated like a hero by post-revolution Egypt, he was wrong. He struggled to find a doctor to treat him, the government did not offer any help, and the long recovery period meant that he also lost his job. Now he works in a supermarket for L.E 600 — half of what he used to earn before the revolution; ironic given that harsh economic conditions were one of the reasons Mohamed and millions of others hit the streets in January. The reduction in his income also meant that he had to give up his apartment for a smaller and cheaper one.

“It’s so sad. I feel like I am being humiliated for participating in this revolution,” says Mohamed.

He may have hit the nail on the head. Sedika Abu Seda, a political activist who has been helping the injured of the revolution get medical help, says that many of them are being purposefully mistreated. “They are punishing them for taking part of the revolution,” Abu Seda says. “They are telling them you are not heroes and we will teach you a lesson so you don’t speak out against the government again.”

The injuries she has witnessed vary. Some have lost one or both eyes. Others are paralysed for life or had to have one of their limbs amputated.

“They are sadists,” says Abu Seda. “They were aiming to kill or cause a lifetime disability at the least.”

Without any governmental aid, the revolution’s injured have had to rely on various NGOs for help. Several, including Abu Seda, grouped together to form the “Association of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Revolution,” which tried to offer help to victims. Asmahan Abu El-Asad, one of the members of the association, said that not only was the government not helping, but they were also making it difficult for those who were trying to offer any form of aid.

“They refused to even get a correct list of the injured people and we literally had to go from hospital to hospital to talk to the patients and often we were denied access and turned away,” remembers El-Asad.

Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, the association met with an official from the Ministry of Health who told them that the ministry believes there are between 9500 and 10,000 injured. “But when we asked them where they are, they said they don’t know,” says Asmahan. “Well, if they don’t know, then who does?”

Many of the wounded struggled with the costs of the treatment and surgeries they needed, while others became depressed because they were told that they may need years of physical therapy, the costs of which they may never be able to cover.

“There is also unbelievable cases of neglect. In one case, they released a victim who was shot in the head and was in intensive care and in another case, they did not clean a leg wound of a victim from Ismalia, which led to the formation of gangrene.”

Another obstacle is that many of them are no longer able to work their old jobs because of their injuries. Mohamed Hassan, a watchmaker, can no longer work after he was shot in his eyes during the revolution. “I am disabled, I can’t work, so how can I support my family?” asks Hassan. “They should give us pensions and aid. People who ignite a revolution are heroes and should be treated as such. But the revolution has failed and people are telling us, what made you go?”

The government has announced that they will give compensation money for the injured, but when they try to apply they are told that they need to get medical reports that confirm that they are disabled. Hany Shehata, who was shot in the eye, was refused compensation because he was told that his disability was not severe enough.

“But the doctor told me that I lost my eyesight, how is this possible?” asks Shehata.

Now the injured have released a set of demands on the government that include the issuing of special pensions, giving them free medical treatment, offering them jobs in the public sector, encouraging the private sector to hire them and creating a special office that will help them get the necessary documents to get their pensions so that they don’t have to deal with government bureaucracy.

Ashraf Mohamed, another protester who lost his eyesight during the revolution, says that even if they manage to get compensation it won’t be enough to keep them and their families afloat. “They won’t cover debts, let alone the food and medicine. It’s the stupidest aid ever,” he insists.

Some of the injured have even been prevented from returning to their previous. Ahmed El-Dessouky, who shot in the chest, hips and stomach, decided to return to his job as a lifeguard to make ends meet. “But as soon as I took my shirt off and my boss saw how disfigured my body is he told me to leave,” says El-Dessouky. “So how can I live now?”

Osama Meghazi returned to his job as an employee in a government office, despite the fact that he lost his hand after being shot during the revolution. He cannot afford money for a prosthetic hand and has to struggle with excruciating pain.

“But what can I do? I need to live,” Meghazi said.

El-Asad insists money is not the answer and the government should provide the disabled with new jobs that they can cope with, or help them set up small projects to support themselves.

“Money is only a temporary relief, but a new job will not only help them financially but psychologically, because it will give them purpose to live.”

Indeed many protesters now feel disillusioned; that they sacrificed their lives for nothing. “I don’t want to feel regret,” says Hassan. “But we have hope that the country will get better. The martyrs have died, but we are dying slowly.”


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