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Houses of God turn to field clinics in Tahrir's ongoing revolution

Amid the barrage of tear gas, bullets and buckshot targeting Tahrir's revolutionaries, a story of tolerance and unity ‎unfolds in a mosque and church now turned field hospitals

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 24 Nov 2011
Anglican Church
Field clinics in central Cairo's Presbyterian Church (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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The blaring sound of an ambulance siren alerts the triage station of its approach. Doctors, exhausted from treating hundreds throughout the night, look at each other in shock.

“Have they started attacking the people again?” one of the doctors asks.

At that moment, the ambulance door opens and a young, unconscious man is rushed into the hospital. At once, doctors are busy firing instructions to nurses, as they begin treating the young man who suddenly begins convulsing.

“It’s the gas; the gas is making people have fits,” the doctor screams, as he begins attending to the patient.

Doctors at the Evangelical Church have seen such chaotic scenes intermittently repeated since clashes between protesters and security forces erupted last Saturday. The church, situated close to Tahrir Square, has been turned into a makeshift hospital, helping to treat the constant flow of wounded protesters. Church staff are cooperating with the Omar Makram Mosque, just metres away, which has also been turned into a hospital. Since the attacks began, the two houses of worship have been sharing doctors, supplies and an unbreakable resolve to tend to the injured.

Pastor Sameh Morris of the Evangelical Church says that staff members decided to turn the prayer grounds into a hospital after security forces began targeting Tahrir’s field hospitals.

“We were worried that the protesters would not have anyone to treat them, and we simply could not keep the church doors closed in this time of need,” Pastor Morris says. “One of the miracles Jesus did was that he healed the sick, and I believe that it is my duty as a human being, as a Christian and as an Egyptian to help those who are wounded.”

The church’s courtyard has been set up to resemble a small hospital, with oxygen pumps and IV stands positioned next to each of the nine beds. On one side of the courtyard, emergency aid equipment, including bandages, hospital masks, eye drops, temporary anaesthetic and painkillers, are piled high on a large table. In the other corner of the yard, stacks of boxes filled with food and water line the wall. The items that fill the courtyard were donated following announcements on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook that the church would be turned into a temporary clinic.

“And the donations keep coming,” says Pastor Morris. “These show the amazing humanity and generosity of the Egyptian people.

Amani Qandil, the church’s accountant, says that this charitable spirit has warmed the hearts of the exhausted hospital staff.

“Yesterday we had a very poor man come in with a plastic bag that had a piece of cotton and a bottle of medicine,” Qandil says. “It is all he could afford and he wanted to give it to us.”

Doctors work eight-hour shifts, as the hospital remains open around the clock. Yesterday, according to doctors, was one of the busiest days since the start of clashes: 300 cases were admitted. However, the 150 doctors who turned up alleviated the sudden pressure caused by the massive influx.

When it gets bad, and the beds are no longer enough, church staff spread blankets on the floor, treating the wounded there.

Since the hospital began operating, doctors have treated a variety of ailments including bullets wounds, epileptic fits, convulsions and suffocation resulting from teargas inhalation. What’s more, due to the church’s close proximity to the square, the effects of the government’s endless supply of teargas are felt inside the grounds.

“At times, there is so much teargas in the church that you can barely see,” explains Morris. “The presence of the gas means that as doctors are trying to treat cases of teargas suffocation, they themselves are suffocating. These doctors are no less than heroes.”

Experience has taught the exhausted doctors to predict when the next attack will come.

“It always happens during the prayer times and whenever the government announces a truce. Like clockwork,” laughs Dr Moheb Gamal who has been helping in the church hospital since it began operating on Saturday.

Gamal is a qualified dentist but works mostly as an organiser, administering the flow of supplies going in and out of the church. He recalls one case when a 15-year-old suffering from teargas suffocation was brought into the hospital but would not let doctors help him. The young boy refused to receive treatment or talk to the doctor and was obsessed with trying to pull a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. The paper had the components of CR gas on it.

“He didn’t want treatment,” remembers Gamal. “He just wanted to show us that the security forces hit him with teargas. He was deeply troubled that they would do that.”

Many hospital volunteers are also in shock at some of the horrific scenes witnessed. One woman volunteer stands with her hands on her mouth in shock, as she watches a doctor attempt to revive the young man who was just admitted.

“It’s the wailing and sobbing that breaks my heart,” says Gamal. “Many of the cases brought are suffering deeply and it’s sad to see it.”

Nevertheless, these traumatic scenes are not devoid of heartwarming moments.

“I think that what makes me smile is the unbelievable collaboration between Muslims and Christians,” says a volunteer who preferred to remain anonymous. “This shows the true Egypt where we are all just Egyptians and religion doesn’t matter. I’ve been watching the doctors work. I’ve seen the wounded brought in, and guess what? Christian blood looks exactly like Muslim blood! I know it sounds silly but sometimes they make you feel that we are two different species, but we are not; we are all humans, all Egyptians.”

In fact, the church has opened a section for Muslim protesters to come in and pray. A steady stream of Muslim worshippers have since done so. Indeed, many Muslim physicians and volunteers work in the church hospital. One Muslim doctor, Mohamed El-Menisy, has been working in the church for three days.

“Islam is about tolerance and love,” says El-Menisy. “I feel very comfortable here, working on the church grounds, helping my Christian colleagues save lives.”

Omar Makram Mosque has been swarming with doctors and volunteers since field hospitals inside Tahrir were destroyed by Army soldiers on Sunday. The mosque, located at one of the entrances to the square, has been a refuge for protesters since the revolution first erupted in January.

Next to the mosque, ambulances and makeshift clinics line the streets, as doctors wait on standby. Like the church, the mosque’s courtyard has been turned into a triage station, while the inside of the mosque has been reserved for severe wounds requiring surgery. The hospital is currently operating with 107 volunteers who have been working continuously since last Friday.

“I haven’t left here for days. I am basically keeping myself awake with coffee and cigarettes,” says Ahmed Rougdy, one of the doctors.

Roudgy, from Tanta, is a qualified psychiatrist and his skills were needed in the church’s clinic when one of the patients suffered a nervous breakdown.

“A surgeon was needed in the mosque,” explains Rougdy. “So I went to the Church and my colleague Michael, who is a Christian surgeon, came to the mosque and replaced me. We are all working together, eating together and saving lives together.”

The doctors in both houses of worship, however, are distressed by reports that security forces are targeting Tahrir’s hospital volunteers.

“During the past few days, 13 doctors were killed in the square,” says Rougdy. “But, I am not scared. God will help us.”

Across the street at the Evangelical Church, Pastor Morris shares the same sentiment.

“We are being targeted. But God is protecting us,” he says. “There is no place safer than a house of worship.” 

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