Dr. Hanan Al-Amin was in a makeshift operating room in the Rabaa field hospital when security forces burst into the room and ordered her and another doctor to leave. A patient was on the table with his abdomen open – they had found six bullets in his liver, his spleen and his diaphragm.
She told the officer that she couldn’t leave her patients, pointing to three other people in front of her. He took his gun and shot each one of them in the heart.
“At that point I lost the ability to think,” she recalls. “All I could think is that there is no way this person is a human being, there’s no way we’re in Egypt, there’s no way these are my people,” says Al-Amin and begins to cry at the memory.
“My life paused on 14 August 2013” she says eventually. “I can’t move on to the 15th, my life agenda stopped on that day.”
It was four years ago today that security forces advanced on protesters in Rabaa Square who had gathered to protest against the ouster of the country’s first elected president Mohammed Morsi.
For 12 long hours snipers fired indiscriminately into the crowd, bulldozers crushed the camp beneath their tracks and security forces set fire to the tents.
Once they had massacred as many demonstrators as they could they turned to the field hospital where a number of doctors including Al-Amin were volunteering. Some 1,000 people died that day.
Protesters begun congregating roughly one and a half months before the massacre. Al-Amin lived opposite and in the beginning would go for a few hours a day before or after work at the University of Zagazig, where she was a paediatrics professor.
As the days went by and the protesters continued to demand their rights she decided to commit herself to serving in the square. Al-Amin began to feel it was the nation’s cause and the future of her children.
“I wanted to set an example for people to volunteer,” she says, “for peaceful demonstrations and to rescue the country and demand a better life for the people.”
As top of her school, not just her class, when she was young Al-Amin was confident she could be a good doctor. But nothing she had learnt at school or university could prepare her for what she saw in the square that day.
“Never for one second did I imagine throughout the whole time of studying and being a doctor for 30 years that I’d have to treat the severity of the wounds I saw in Rabaa,” she says. “I saw what was done to Palestinians during the Nakba by the Israeli occupation but I never thought I would see Egyptians doing it to their own people.”
“I never thought that I’d see so many people who are protesting and demanding their rights be wounded by their own army and police who are put in place to defend them,” she adds.
In the days before the massacre Al-Amin herself participated in the demonstrations. In the afternoons, when most people were resting, they organised women’s marches to help motivate others. She would go out for an hour or so then come back and continue working. “They were my way to recharge,” she recalls.
“I felt like the demonstrations were really what kept everything alive in the square. On some days when I didn’t go out I could see them and it would give me motivation and I would wish I was out there with them. We saw all the marches and protests that started at Rabaa or anywhere else as a form of reviving our intention and hope.”
A lot of the doctors in the field hospital were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood but not all of them, she says. The director of the hospital, for example, was not; there were also groups among the protesters who simply believed in Egyptians’ right to live freely.
“Everyone believed in the people’s rights to express their opinion and people’s right to self-determination,” she continues. “We believed in our right to exercise democracy, that the Egyptian people that wowed everyone with their revolution have the right to live their lives in the way they want to.”
But this was not enough to save people that day.
The massacre began at 7am and from the start Al-Amin and her colleagues worked tirelessly to try to treat the wounded. By around 3pm there was barely any medication left, she recalls, not even pain killers. “I was just standing there helpless, I couldn’t do anything. In those moments I hated myself and hated medicine. I just hated everything,” she says.
Terrified children had gathered in the mosque in search of safety but were suffocating from the tear gas. Ambulances were prevented from entering the square: “It was a war zone,” she says. “The whole aim behind that was to instil fear and intimidate the people. They declared genocide on us that day.”
Hospitals around Rabaa square were equipped but Al-Amin says they were given direct orders from authorities not only to block the ambulances but prohibit them from admitting patients. Even the surrounding pharmacies were instructed not to supply medication.
As Al-Amin was escorted out of the field hospital by the man who shot her patients, a young boy called out to her not to leave him. She didn’t dare to look at him in case he was shot too.
Outside she turned to see smoke rising out of the hospital, which was still full of wounded people. Security forces set fire to it – “they burned them dead and alive,” she says.
Al-Amin knows one doctor who was shot in the back and is now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. But some of the doctors were spared that day. Perhaps God destined some of them to live so they could bear witness to the massacre, Al-Amin suggests. Or maybe the criminals were too busy killing the opposition.
Because people at the protests were so afraid of repercussions from authorities they smuggled their children’s bodies out of the square wrapped in cloth and hidden in baskets, and then buried them. Many did not wait for official death certificates as they were too scared their loved ones or siblings would be punished by association.
Some time after the massacre one of the officers admitted they had scooped up 700 bodies in the metal plate of a bulldozer and transported them to Gebel Al-Ahmar near Heliopolis and buried them, some dead and some still alive. That’s why Al-Amin believes the death toll is likely to be far higher than 1,000.
Security forces had three clear goals on the 14 August 2013, she reflects. First, they wanted to eliminate everyone who was there; second they wanted to send a message of fear and intimidation to anyone else who was considering opposing the regime. Finally, they wanted to portray this as a military victory.
What they’ve succeeded in doing, says Al-Amin, is splitting society in two. “One half has been killed and the other half is happy they’ve been killed,” she says. “The split that emerged will take years, if not decades, to heal.
“Anyone who was involved will be punished,” she continues. “We will see them punished in this life time in order for the people to heal.”
As for the international community, “they stood watching silently from 7am to 6pm while not Muslims but the human race were being burnt and killed and murdered before the eyes and ears of the world. That day is a day of shame and disgrace for humanity as a whole,” she reiterates.
“As a paediatrician I have never loved and hated a profession more than on the day of Rabaa. I felt the true value of medicine. I loved my profession because I felt the value of it but I also hated it so much because I’ve never felt so helpless. I never thought that I’d ever be a helpless doctor. I never thought I’d see a patient in front of me without being able to treat them.”
The effects of Rabaa will be felt for years to come, she says. Some people were so afraid of the government their children weren’t treated in the aftermath and are suffering the psychological effects today. Some have been orphaned; many have fathers in prison.
“I am certain that the children who were in Rabaa are our strategic treasure,” says Al-Amin, “because after witnessing Rabaa they will refuse to live as slaves”.
Marwa Assem contributed reporting