Egypt: Scenes From a Besieged City
January 29, 2013, Port Said, Egypt.
It is dark, pitch dark, on the streets of Port Said. Small groups of young men are gathering in the center of the city, mostly around burnt out cars. Some are very restless. They shout and gesticulate, furious.
Fires are burning in the middle of the streets. After recent clashes between police and protesters – or, more precisely, after a recent rampage by police, during which they killed both protesters and bystanders – there seems to be no armed forces in sight.
But make no mistake: the entire city is encircled, besieged, by police and by the military especially. Tanks rolled from barracks and all along the Suez Canal: from Suez City to Ismailia, and from Ismailia to Port Said. The muzzles of their cannons point at cars on the roads. Roadblocks are everywhere. In the city of Port Said itself, armored vehicles are blocking all the major arterial roads leading in and out of the center. Soldiers are clinging to their machine guns, ready to shoot.
In the pitch darkness we park our vehicle at the curb and proceed to Port Said General Hospital.
There is a powerful smell of urine in the hallways; the lights are dim and the hallways packed with both patients and their families… some men injured, some women weeping… it is a total mess; countless nurses and doctors are trying to restore at least some semblance of order.
I walk into a dimly-lit space that resembles some third-rate Hollywood horror film: carcasses from medieval operating theaters, all crammed together in dirty, appalling operating rooms enclosed by filthy walls bedecked with gaping holes.
“This is our emergency room”, a young nurse, her hair covered by a headscarf, volunteers. “And these are our three operating theaters.”
“Are you sure?” I ask, idiotically.
“I am positive”, she replies. “I work here.”
An exhausted-looking young doctor is mechanically assessing the situation: “The blood bank is at a decent level and we have enough basic medicine. There were some rumors that we are out of all necessary medications and equipment, but that is not correct. We are facing other issues, but that is not one of them.”
Those ‘other issues’ consist of the fact that nobody expected such an onslaught in such a short period of time.
“This is an absolute disaster”, exclaims Dr Ahmed Attia from one of the private clinics in the city. “Newspapers say: ‘Port Said needs blood and medicine’, but that is not correct. The problems that we have been facing here, particularly during the first two days of killings, are related to what we call ‘lack of medical experience’. Many doctors simply did not know how to treat gunshot wounds and other serious injuries. Patients had to be flown to Cairo University Hospital and other hospitals in the country.”
I ask how many people died.
“Let’s see”, doctor Attia counts. “At least 42. On the first day, 31; on the second day, 7; then there were four people who died from the injuries they received on the first day… and we counted almost 900 people injured so far.”
“People are still dying”, someone says behind our back.
“It is all terrible”, Dr Attia declares. Then he utters: “Here, we have a group of socialists…”
“I am one of them…” I say, smiling.
He comes close to me, a man almost two meters tall, and gives me one mighty bear hug. “Come back”, he says; “come back to Port Said, and we will talk. I will tell you what really happened here. But now, let’s go to work.”
Back at Port Said General Hospital, I am taken to see several patients, victims of the violence.
I visit Ahmed Mamdouh, who has two bullet wounds in his chest.
He laments: “I have no idea what happened! I’m a secondary school student… I was just going to attend my class and the police began shooting at people, with no warning. I was hit twice.”
In another crammed room a man is in agony, surrounded by his family. He has been obviously fighting for his life. He was shot through the kidneys. I refuse to go in, respecting his privacy and his pain. But his relatives are soon running after me, shouting: “Please come and take photographs, and see what they are doing to us! He is 36 years old, a family man. He was only going to work when police opened fire.”
In no time I am surrounded by a large group of people. Everybody wants to talk: the patients and their relatives, nurses, doctors and even the manager of the hospital.
It is still pitch dark when we get back to the street. The fires are burning and we can hear gunshots coming from around the corner.
* * *
A few hours earlier, while I braved my way from Cairo to Post Said, avoiding tanks, armored vehicles, and countless military checkpoints, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, voiced her “alarm” while Amnesty International expressed concern over the deteriorating state of affairs in Egypt.
The latest stage of the conflict in Port Said erupted just a few days ago after death sentences were handed out to 21 local people for their involvement in the riots, which killed 74 people after a football game between the local Al-Masry Club and Al-Ahly S.C. from Cairo on February 1st 2012. On that day, hundreds of local fans attacked visiting supporters of the Cairo-based team. Police allegedly made no attempts to separate the two sides from each other.
The BBC reported that supporters of those condemned to death attacked the prison where they were being held, trying to free them. Blood was spilled, mostly the blood of the protesters, although two policemen were also killed in the confrontation.
Soon after, new and deadly clashes broke out as the coffins of those who died in the confrontation with police were carried through the streets.
The conflict continues.
* * *
I don’t want to analyze the general political situation in Egypt in this report. I don’t want to write about the rule of President Mohamed Morsy, or about what exactly is behind the latest protests in Cairo and in the Suez Canal region. I will get to that later, perhaps next week, in a longer and more detailed essay for this publication.
I did not travel here to support this or that side. The purpose of my unfunded journey to Egypt was to finish collecting footage for one of my documentary films, and to compare the uprising in Egypt to those in Indonesia in 1998 and to victorious revolutions in Latin America.
But as a war correspondent who arrived by chance at the scene of the conflict, I feel obliged to do what I feel is my duty towards my readers all over the world: to inform them, using both words and images, about the terrible ordeal that has befallen the people of Egypt. I feel that is especially important in respect of places like Port Said, because, as I have been told and as I have witnessed for myself, there is absolutely no sign of independent and progressive media there.
* * *
No matter where the responsibility for the present situation lies, it is thoroughly brutal to put an entire city of more than 600,000 people under martial law, and therefore under siege.
What is clear is that, threatened or not, the police force went on a rampage against unarmed civilians. As this essay ‘goes to print’, over 50 people were killed and over 900 injured in a just a few days. These are typical statistics for cities that have become war zones.
The logical question is, then: is Egypt at war? If it is, then who is fighting whom? If it is a war, then the civilians have to be brought to safety, and protected, not shot through their lungs, brains and kidneys by ‘law enforcers’.
To return to the act that sparked the conflict, the sentencing of 21 people to death: No matter what one’s philosophical take on the death penalty is, to sentence 21 people to death in a single city in one day during a volatile time like the time Egypt is experiencing is to pour gasoline onto a fire, maybe worse. Fans of the death penalty – and there are plenty of them in this part of the world – should watch closely what goes on in Port Said, and ask themselves honestly whether executing people really ‘protects society’ or whether it drives it into even worse turmoil.
* * *
As we were driving towards Ismailia and Port Said, the endless number of military cartels and barracks along the road shocked both me and my driver, who happened to be an Indonesian student of philosophy at a local university. No other place that I knew, with the exception of Djibouti, perhaps, can brag about having such a high number of military installations, including airports, bases and who knows what else, along one single road.
There were not only active military bases between Cairo and Ismailia, but also countless monuments and sites of gross military fetish complete with tanks, airplanes and statues of men with wild faces charging against an unidentified enemy. Often it was difficult to make a distinction between the real –and active – equipment and the mock-ups and relics that served as parts of the monuments to local ‘soldier-heroes’. Looking at it all, one would never guess that whenever Egypt has actually gone to war, the outcomes have been far from glorious.
* * *
Now the barracks have opened their gates and the tanks stand along the highway – dozens of them, hundreds of them, maybe more.
On the way we stop at the old ferry to Sinai, right next to the new bridge. I want to cross it and to talk to the people on it about the conflict and about the institution of martial law, but just before I do I am stopped by one of the hundreds of military men who hang aimlessly along the shore of the Suez Canal.
“You cannot cross”, the solider says.
“Why?” I ask. “I crossed at least twice in the old days, on the way to Cairo from Gaza, during the Intifada. Why not now?”
High military brass takes my passport and begins to convey all the data to ‘some general’, as I am told, over the phone. After 10 arduous minutes of spelling every letter on the front page of my passport, the man turns to me with totally defeated face: “What is your name?”
“Is this the ‘new Egypt?” I wonder aloud.
“Perhaps”, he replies through my Indonesian driver and interpreter.
* * *
What I saw in Port Said will stay with me for a long time.
The city, or most of it, is destroyed: not by the fighting but by neglect and misery. Most of the urban sprawl consists of horrific, crumbling, half-collapsed housing blocks, not unlike those of Alexandria (another urban nightmare) and Cairo (not much better). Garbage is everywhere. Some apartment blocks have already collapsed, and some are about to. They look similar, although somehow worse, than those constructed in Phnom Penh during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
There are plenty of empty spaces between the buildings. They are stuffed with rubbish. There seems to be nothing one could enjoy here: both adults and children wander aimlessly back and forth.
Donkeys pull carts. Young kids run around with no supervision, many of them begging.
And Port Said is the richest, or at least one of the richest cities in the country! In 2009 and 2010 Port Said had been ranked the first among the Egyptian cities according to the Human Development Index.
* * *
I approach a young man standing at the corner. “How do things get here at night?” I ask him.
He gives me a blank stare. “Last night there was fighting at the Al Arab neighborhood. One person died. Maybe more.”
Port Said, as well as the entire country of Egypt, appears to be collapsing like those afflicted neighborhoods. But this is not new rot; it did not begin with the Morsy Presidency. Almost all of us who know Egypt saw it coming, for decades. One would have had to be extremely disciplined and have purposefully looked away not to notice.
Now things look much more dramatic, of course, or at least they do in Port Said. Amongst all the decay and rot there are countless roadblocks and tanks sitting in a combat position. Strong young men rest on top of them, aiming machine guns at their own people instead of doing something productive for their country, like building children’s playgrounds, bridges, hospitals and schools.
The Egyptian Armed Forces are the largest in Africa and the Arab World and the 10t largest in the world, while Egypt is very poor country. Its Human Development Index (UNDP, HDI, 2012) is number 113 from total of 187 countries, and falling. It is now below Philippines, and even Mongolia and Gabon.
* * *
I photograph the Stad Būr Sa’īd stadium – the very place that caused so much grief in February 2012. It is locked now, with terrible, eerie graffiti ‘decorating’ its walls.
And then I run into one huge protest at sundown; people marching towards the center of the city.
Some make threatening gestures at me. Others want to talk. Those who want to talk are in the majority.
At one point protesters begin waving flags in front of my lenses, they are posing, and some are even hugging me. It appears that I am the only non-Arab reporter in the city. In theory, I should feel threatened, but I don’t. I am treated well. They trusted me. And I trust them.
A robust man leans on our car and screams: “Port Said is now a closed country; it is a war zone! They killed more than 50 people by now. The police are killing us. The police shot 1.000 people in their legs, and in their eyes! The police have been using tear gas and live ammunition. Come and see! Just show him! We have no ammunition, no weapons. Their media says that we do – but come and check any of us!”
Another protester screams at me: “Five people died today; some were hit by a sniper. Now we – the Egyptians – are like the rest of Arabs, living in fear and agony!”
A girl, agile and soft-spoken, tugs at my sleeve. “Could I be your eye, in Port Said?” She speaks decent English, and her name is Fatimah.
Near her stands her younger brother, who looks embarrassed by his sister’s daring. We all dive into a small, local eatery.
“I cannot go to work, anymore”, Fatimah says. “I work and I study; I want to be a reporter, like you.” She thinks for a while, then continues: “It is horrible what they are doing to us. We were all against the decision of the Egyptian court, against the death sentences. Most of us were not against the present government. Now we are.”
The curfew is at 9PM. We find our way out of the city just in time, but before we leave, Fatimah makes us drive past the police station where two people were recently shot to death. The center of the city is in total darkness. Small fires are burning, illuminating the ghostly wrecks of the burnt out cars. I feel that anything could happen, anytime.
We drive very slowly in order not to hit anybody, in order not to stir emotions. One wrong move could trigger a tragedy. A few hands strike the hood of our car. We can’t see them in the darkness. Just a few drops of gasoline and a match and we could be no more.
Then Fatimah and her brother are leaving. I am trying to push some money on them, so they can take a taxi. “I want you to be safe”, I insist. They proudly refuse. We part ways.
Now we are racing against time. The curfew is fast approaching, but nobody can tell us the way out of the city, as most of the main streets are blocked.
Eventually we make it to the bridge.
My driver and I are exhausted, but ahead of us is another terror – 250 kilometers of the nocturnal Egyptian road, of suicidal driving and terrible accidents. We pass through military and police checkpoints; their tanks are facing us again and again.
The city behind us is literally bleeding, from all its terrible wounds inflicted in the past, stirred once again in the recent months and days.
As we are crossing the bridge I think about the doctor and about Fatimah and her brother – gentle beings, my new friends that I am leaving behind in their besieged city.
“Bere?” I ask my Indonesian driver, the philosophy student.
“Hmmm? Apa? What?”
“What do you think about… what you saw today?”
He thinks for a while. “It’s good that we came.” He mentions the doctor and Fatimah. “We are lucky; we met wonderful people!”
Definitely one legitimate way to summarize the day!
As we are leaving, in Cairo, one of the generals and the Minister of Defense Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi declares: “Current situation will lead to collapse of state.” Why is he saying it? Is he threatening the government?
As we are driving towards Cairo, Doctor Attia and his comrades are bravely defying martial law, marching from 9pm on, and finally achieving at least partial lifting of the curfew.
Staring at the road ahead of me, in my head, by inertia; at least for a while, I try to politicize the entire matter. This time I do not succeed. For once, my story is very simple: I am reporting from a destroyed city. I simply report what I see with my own eyes. I do it because I have to, because I am obliged to do it. And I admit, honestly, that this time I only try to describe what my eyes are capturing, and not what I fully comprehend.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
All photos by Andre Vltchek.