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PTSD. Anxiety. Nightmares: Life after prison for Egypt’s child detainees

An Egyptian boy wields a megaphone as he chants anti-government slogans in Tahrir Square the afternoon of 31 January 2011 in central Cairo, Egypt. [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]
An Egyptian boy wields a megaphone as he chants anti-government slogans in Tahrir Square the afternoon of 31 January 2011 in central Cairo, Egypt. [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

On 27 September, Egypt’s public prosecution ordered that 79 children detained since the start of the demonstrations be released.

All the children were aged between 10 and 15 and most were from Upper Egypt. It raised a pressing question: What happened to them during the seven days they were in detention?

“When these children appeared, they were really dishevelled,” Aya Hijazi, who runs a charity that advocates for child political prisoners, Belady, told MEMO.

“Some of them were barefoot, some were taken from Nubia and travelled for 14 hours. During this time, they had no access to their family, no access to a lawyer and no access to psychological care.”

Hijazi herself was detained in 2014 for almost three years on trumped up charges related to child trafficking. Inside Azbakeya Police Station, she saw a three-year-old girl who was arrested, detained, and handcuffed every time she went to the prosecutor.

“The psychological effect on these children is huge,” she adds. “These children are innocent, they haven’t done anything wrong, and they have not only been arrested, but also treated really badly. It’s not a hidden fact in Egypt that arrest is always accompanied with violations.”

These violations have worsened over the past several weeks as the government attempts to quell discontent. On 20 September the ruling regime’s lethal cocktail of police violence, corruption and a house demolition campaign exploded into protests across rural Egypt calling on Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to stand down.

READ: Despite protests, thousands of Egyptians still face house demolitions

Videos circulating on social media captured large numbers of young people and children on the front lines. Two of them, Yahya Qader and Mohammed Amad, were arrested after taking part in a demonstration in Aswan.

Nubian boys from Aswan, Yahya Khairy Abdel Qader and Muhamad Ahmad [Gehadashraf007/Twitter]

Nubian boys from Aswan, Yahya Khairy Abdel Qader and Muhamad Ahmad [Gehadashraf007/Twitter]

Their smiling faces, pasted side by side, went viral, partly because at just 11 and 12 they were so young. As public pressure mounted, authorities were forced to release them. But the news was met with cautious relief. According to Belady’s lawyers, 31 of the 110 minors and children swept up in the crackdown remain in detention.

Even for those no longer behind bars, what happened in that one week could cause a lifetime of psychological issues. For many of Egypt’s child prisoners – and there have been a lot – the isolation, shattered dreams and humiliation they face inside returns to haunt them for decades.

At 14, Haitham became one of Egypt’s youngest political prisoners when he was arrested in 2015 and his story serves as a warning for what others may be going through. He was threatened with torture and kept in an overcrowded state security room known as the fridge for over 40 days.

“I didn’t meet anyone for about three months because I was afraid to be rearrested,” he says, on how he felt after he was released. “I was also worried every time I saw a police car. My family was also really worried; I didn’t go to school because I and my family were afraid the police might come and arrest me at school.”

After a year he moved to Turkey: “The feeling of isolation was very painful. I was psychologically tired, with a new language, a new community and a new school. I couldn’t adapt.”

Former Egyptian child prisoner Haitham Abdel Rahim

Former Egyptian child prisoner Haitham Abdel Rahim

READ: Egypt executes 15 political prisoners

Dr. Rasmia Ali Fahmy, a psychotherapist for post-traumatic stress disorder, has worked with several child prisoners in her home country Egypt, including one who was detained at 15 and released at 17.

“Usually at this age the child is full of enthusiasm and energy – full of dreams and hopes and plans for the future. Once they are detained at the juvenile detention centre, they are subject to insults and abuse designed to destroy their character,” she explains.

She recalls that one of her patients was sent a white training suit, which had to be worn by the detainees, by his family and one of the officers set fire to it, then threw the food they had brought for him in the bin.

The guidance and psychological counsellor who was supposed to help the children, instead took pleasure in torturing, insulting and beating them and ordering the non-political child prisoners to harass the other child detainees.

“He lived for two years in shock,” she says of the boy she was counselling. “He was waking up every day with someone hitting his face and neck and being threatened all the time. He felt insecure and that the world is an insecure place and that there is nothing worth living or fighting for.”

“He had a shock because of the difference he felt before detention. He went from having freedom, happiness, human rights and having a cause to fight for, to feeling restrained, captive, humiliated, and just needing to eat and drink to live. So, the feeling of safety and security was lost. He had to think every day, will I be humiliated today? Will I be beaten today?”

Fahmy says that he went on to suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, excessive crying, isolation and loss of interest in the world. “He felt he was helpless, unsuccessful, powerless and weak because he couldn’t defend himself when he was being beaten and tortured and neither was he able to help himself or other, fellow oppressed when they were tortured.”

READ: One slap has broken the fear barrier in Egypt

For the loved ones that are left behind, the repercussions of child detention are tough. Um Ibrahim is the mother of Ibrahim, who was 14 when he was arrested from his home in Arish, the capital of North Sinai, two years ago.

Ibrahim before arrest in Egypt, 8 April 2020

Ibrahim before arrest in Egypt, 8 April 2020

She tells us that when Ibrahim was first arrested, he was hospitalised in the prison because he became so ill due to anxiety and lack of food. Since then, she has had no news of him: “From the day of his arrest, I do not know anything about him, his whereabouts, or if he’s dead or alive. What is he wearing? When he was arrested, he was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of trousers. Many winters have passed since then.”

“It’s so sad that my son is spending his time in prison instead of with his family and friends,” she adds as an afterthought. “I’m sure he’s changed a lot during this time, it’s painful that I didn’t see him go through these changes. I dream about him every night and that he will come back to us. His brothers and sisters are psychologically tired of waiting.”

There is various legislation to protect children like Ibrahim – Child Law, for example, or the Convention on the Right of the Child. But Egypt is a rogue state, and cares little for the law.

In Egypt, children are treated as the perpetrators rather than the victims, says Hijazi. Whilst there is legislation to protect them, it is more likely to be used against them. “Why does Egypt arrest children? Because it does not care about human rights, or about children’s rights,” she says.

“Detention at this age is devastating and destructive,” adds Fahmy. “It breaks the back of the child and extinguishes their flame of enthusiasm, which turns into helplessness and weakness.”

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