Rabaa: Families still search for the missing and massacred
At around 7am on the morning of 14 August, 2013, engineering student Omar Mohamed Ali was walking with his older sister Mariam to Cairo’s al-Azhar University near Rabaa al-Adaweya square.
About an hour earlier, Egyptian security forces had begun forcibly dismantling demonstrations at Rabaa al-Adaweya and al-Nahda in Giza, where thousands of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi had been holding sit-in protests following the 3 July military coup.
Hundreds, more than a thousand by some counts, were killed that day in what human rights organisations have since declared massacres. Many disappeared, their fates, like Omar’s, remain unknown.
|"The bodies are already buried” - guard to relative
Omar – also known as Kano, an amateur rapper with several YouTube videos to his credit – was going to his university to rehearse for a concert. But on their way, he and Mariam heard gunshots at Rabaa Square. Omar – a member of the liberal Ghad al-Thawra Party of opposition figure Ayman Nour – and his sister changed their route and headed towards the square. Amid the crowds and chaos, they soon lost each other.
Mariam speaks of the hardest moments of her life, moving between the injured and dead trying to find her brother, amid conflicting reports from those who knew him that they had seen him in custody.
Once the violent dispersal of the sit-in ended, Omar’s family embarked on what would prove a fruitless journey to find any trace of him, a journey they shared with relatives of the many dozens who went missing from that day onwards. They searched hospitals and morgues and even DNA tested scorched human remains, but to no avail.
They searched in cemeteries and prisons - military and civilian - but they were met with the intransigence of the army and police, who still refuse to confirm or deny whether or not they ever detained Omar.
Hundreds of Egyptians have disappeared since the army deposed Morsi more than a year ago. Reports issued by human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Monitor, al-Nadeem and al-Karama have put the numbers of missing persons – not dead or injured, just “disappeared” - at anywhere between 200 and 500.
Some have vanished after being arrested in the ongoing crackdown against those seen as supporters of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Others lost their lives during the 14 August violence and could not immediately be identified. A blaze that was started at Rabaa Square on the evening of August 14 burned down the central stage, field hospital, mosque and the first floor of the Rabaa hospital - all areas where the wounded and dead had been brought. Army troops in bulldozers also razed the hospital.
Some corpses have been identified by DNA tests. But many were too degraded for even those to be effective. DNA tests have their limits. If a body is intact and a maximum of three or four days old, it is easy to extract a DNA sample. But if the body starts to putrefy or is disfigured, samples must be taken from muscle tissue. And if the person has been dead for a longer time, DNA is extracted from bones. In cases of extreme disfigurement as a result of burns, it is very difficult to extract testable samples.
Most of the bodies of those killed during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in were severely charred or disfigured, according to a medical examiner at the Forensic Medicine Authority in Cairo who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he had seen more than 40 completely charred bodies. They were all buried last January in Cairo’s state-owned cemeteries without being identified.
As for the rest, families suspect they were either detained and remain alive but behind bars, or they were killed and then buried in secret by security forces in what persistent rumours suggest is a mass grave in or near a police camp on the Cairo-Suez road.
Hopes for closure
Families still persevere in the hope of identifying their loved ones. Some have succeeded, even when the road was long.
It took the family of Mustafa al-Meadaway two months before DNA tests identified his body, and not before Mustafa’s brother Muhammad had followed countless leads and gone down numerous dead-ends.
When Muhammad heard that his brother, a computer engineer, had been killed at Rabaa, he rushed there immediately. He was able to get to the perimeter of Rabaa square at 9pm on 14 August. After several attempts, he managed to enter the back yard of the Rabaa Mosque, where he saw more than 100 partially or fully burnt bodies, too disfigured to identify.
Muhammad continued to al-Iman Mosque, where dozens of bodies had been transferred, and from there to hospitals that were expected to receive the injured and the dead. He returned the next morning to search the Rabaa Mosque, which had almost completely burned down, and then went to search for Mustafa’s body at the nearby Zeinhom Morgue. All to no avail.
Meanwhile, a close friend told him that police and army bulldozers on the night of the attack had moved dozens of bodies out of Cairo to be buried at the “Kilometre 21” camp, a police barracks along the Cairo-Suez road. A friend of Muhammad’s went there but was stopped and warned by security never to come back. “The bodies are already buried,” the man said guards told him.
On 19 October, Mustafa’s disfigured corpse was finally identified by a DNA test among the charred remains found at Rabaa. And as with Mustafa, so with Hassan al-Banna Eid, an engineering student whose family were also driven on a fruitless two-month search that eventually circled back to the charred remains at Rabaa and DNA confirmation.
Omar’s family embarked on what would prove a fruitless journey to find any trace of him
But for relatives of those still missing, there has been no closure. The Khedr family launched a missing person’s campaign for their son Muhammad, a Port Said native and an engineering student at Minufiya University. But no remains have been identified. And as a result of the campaign, Muhammad’s father and brother were arrested by authorities and charged with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, protesting without permit and incitement to violence.
Among such families, rumours of a mass grave on the Cairo-Suez road such as the one described to Muhammad Meadaway abound. That suggestion was first aired publicly in January by al-Jazeera host Ahmad Mansour, who initially attributed the information to the London-based media website, Middle East Monitor (MEMO). The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated MEMO later clarified that it was not the source, but added in a tweet, “that doesn’t negate the occurrence of the crime”.
On March 5, the London-based Human Rights Monitor – a single-issue watchdog focused exclusively on Egypt’s military coup – released a report that asserted, without providing details, that a mass grave for victims of Rabaa was located inside a police camp on the Cairo-Suez road.
The existence of a mass grave is disputed, but if confirmed it would lend weight to the growing number of accusations that the Egyptian regime engaged in crimes against humanity when it sent in security forces to disperse, apparently at any cost, demonstrations on 14 August last year.
There is growing consensus around the number of those missing as a result of that fateful day. Salma Ashraf, a researcher with HRM, said the organisation had documented 140 cases of missing persons, statistics that are almost exactly mirrored by the Wiki Thawra website, which was set up by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
Out of a total count of 924 protesters missing, according to Wiki Thawra, 693 had been identified and their bodies located, 30 unidentified bodies were buried in state-owned cemeteries and 14 completely charred bodies were eventually identified through DNA testing. The rest remain unaccounted for.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition