“A day where I witnessed with my own eyes humanity being demolished.” That’s what Fatima Halawa, 26, replies when asked what the word “Rabaa” reminds her of. Memories of what happened on 14 August 2013 in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square remain painful for those who suffered abuse at first hand.
Anti-coup protesters had occupied the square as part of a peaceful sit-in in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi a month earlier. The coup was led by Egypt’s now President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
For Irish-Egyptian siblings Ibrahim, Somaia, Fatima and Omaima, lending their support to the sit-in was an important moral act influenced by the revolutionary spirit that had driven former President Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. “When it became quite clear that people’s freedom was being wiped away, I couldn’t just sit still,” explains Fatima. “That’s when I truly felt obliged to participate.” She was 22 years old at the time and had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in digital media.
I think deeply when you experience freedom on a daily basis, you honestly wish it upon everyone… without [them] ever having the fear of being prosecuted or oppressed [for it].
However, the peaceful calls that filled the spirit of the square were soon replaced by scenes of war as a massacre began to unfold. The army and security forces stormed into the square, bulldozing protesters’ encampments and attacking a field hospital full of injured people. It was a premeditated attack planned at the highest echelons of the Egyptian government.
In the space of ten hours, over a thousand people were killed in what Human Rights Watch at the time would call “one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
Fatima recalls that it never crossed her mind that a massacre would take place. “Children, teenagers, women and men were murdered in the blink of an eye. I saw the worst of the worst and the best of the best [in Rabaa], although at times it becomes hard to remember the good because of the atrocities I witnessed.”
Claims that the Rabaa protesters were armed “terrorists” have since been discredited by eyewitness accounts detailing how security forces used snipers and live ammunition. They, quite literally, created a bloodbath on the streets.
It is difficult for Fatima to talk about what she saw that day. “It’s a memory that I try to suppress heavily because if I don’t the effect and consequences it has on me are far more severe.”
When you witness innocent people being murdered right in front of you how do you come back from that? How can you ever forget these innocent faces? How does the booming sound of a gunshot ever leave you?
Somaia, 31, compares what she saw in Rabaa to images of war in Palestine that she has seen on TV. “I saw tanks crushing people with no mercy, as if we were in a war,” she says.
Despite the amount of evidence implicating the Egyptian army and security forces in the Rabaa massacre, no one has been brought to trial, nor has the Egyptian government launched an open investigation into the killings. To add insult to injury, the government subsequently renamed the square after Egypt’s former Public Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, a figure who personifies the unlawful detentions, forced disappearances and deaths of thousands since Sisi took office. Over the past four years, more than 40,000 people have been detained; at least 124 have died in detention from torture, sickness or the general ill-treatment and conditions in prison.
“[The government] feared the consequences that [the Rabaa demonstration] may have on them and their elimination from power so they decided to destroy it,” Fatima says as she tries to explain why the massacre took place.
The Halawa siblings were subsequently arrested and detained after a siege at Al-Fath Mosque in Cairo on 17 August. They all agree that the first four days of their three-month “horrific” prison ordeal were the “hardest”. For Somaia, who was 27 when she was arrested, it was like being in a “coma” with no hope of returning home.
The sisters were transferred to the overcrowded Al-Qantar Women’s prison and were given food and drinks past their sell-by date to survive on, as well as one toilet break, which they had to share communally. As they endured this, the screams of men being tortured nearby could be heard. They still echo in Fatima’s mind.
Though the sisters were returned to Ireland three months later, their brother Ibrahim is still being held in prison. Having had just completed his School Leaving Certificate in Ireland, Ibrahim found himself arrested and shot in the hand (for which he was denied medical attention) at the age of just 17. He has been charged with 16 offences, including murder, attacking a police station and being part of a terrorist organisation. His case is being heard in a mass trial along with 492 others; it has been adjourned 34 times.
According to Somaia, her brother has only been allowed to see his lawyer once and his family have been barred from attending the trial. In the meantime, three judges have withdrawn from the case without reason.
The Irish government has been watching Ibrahim’s case closely since his arrest; it has a team of observers in Egypt, led by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the Irish Ambassador in Cairo Damien Cole. They have had limited success.
Speaking last month, Coveney highlighted the limitations of the Irish intervention in Ibrahim’s case, instead relying on the Egyptian authorities’ promise to “fulfil the clear commitment… to resolve this issue as soon as the trial ends, and return Ibrahim Halawa to Ireland.”
Somaia speaks of the fluctuating sense of hopelessness felt by the family. “The process of getting Ibrahim released has been the hardest process ever when you see that your efforts remain useless,” she explains.
Correspondence with Ibrahim is limited and occurs mainly through smuggled letters which are often sent or received with long intervals in-between. This has had a profound effect on Ibrahim’s emotional and physical wellbeing; he is said to be wheelchair-bound, according to his lawyer. “Not your average teenage experience is it?” Fatima asks.
Writing in the Guardian last year, Ibrahim highlighted the “normality” of being “cursed, stripped naked, beaten with a bar, or put in solitary confinement…”
They might also torture another prisoner in front of you. Of course, you never forget…
Marking the third anniversary of his arrest last year, a letter he wrote to his “beloved” Ireland was published online in which he begs “to feel your goodbye tears” and be buried there should he die in prison.
“Dear Ireland,” he wrote. “I have been taken away from you for so long… I just can’t understand why they have kidnapped me away from you.”
He apologised to his family, especially his sisters Somaia and Omaima for missing their weddings, and “complains” to Ireland about “how one human enjoys torturing another human” before questioning “the continued injustice, the oppression and the killing of the innocent.”
Unlike other known cases of dual-nationals being freed from prison in Egypt, such as American-Egyptians Mohammed Soltan and Aya Hegazy, Ibrahim’s case receives little attention. Like the young Irish-Egyptian, Soltan was also shot and arrested after documenting the events of Rabaa, and imprisoned for two years. He underwent 489 days of hunger strike before he was returned to the US. Ibrahim has also used a hunger strike to protest against his detention and prison conditions.
“What kept me going,” says Soltan, “was seeing the incredible support outside, the humanity of the people who campaigned for me.” That, he adds, kept him sane.
Soltan’s sister Hanaa campaigned tirelessly for her brother and continues to raise awareness of the political situation in Egypt, just as the Halawa family do now. “There were many moments when we felt our efforts would never bear fruit, where doubt about being slightly effective crippled our ability to re-strategise,” she points out.
We could not give up hope so long as people stayed engaged with the story and genuinely connected to the human beings whose stories we were telling.
For Fatima, faith carries her family forward through the hopelessness they feel about ever seeing Ibrahim released. “You begin to feel hopeless for not being able to take away their pain or even easing it [but] if I didn’t give myself hope then in all honesty I don’t think I would be able to survive.”
Rabaa Al-Adawiya has shaped Fatima’s perspective on life, which she describes as a “rollercoaster ride” that she cannot get off. A quote that shapes Fatima’s message is one from Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For Fatima, if people don’t believe in that and act upon it, “Then regrettably it also becomes a threat to us too.”