As one of the protesters who used to camp at Rabaa Al-Adaweya pro-democracy, pro-legitimacy sit-in, I was there on Wednesday morning, when the putschists’ violent crackdown killed and injured thousands.
At about 6:00am (local Cairo time, or 4am GMT), a warning message on a loudspeaker in the square said that everybody should leave their tent and head to the center of the sit-in encampment. Everyone there felt this was a major emergency issue.
At approximately 6:30am, I started to experience some difficulty with the internet signal. I wandered in the vigil area trying to get a better signal.
At about 6:40, I was in the area behind Tiba Mall. There and then, I knew that a vicious attack had just started, as the entry of the sit-in was showered with a barrage of teargas bombs. Only minutes later, I saw the first protester rushing through the encampment, covered with blood that flowed from a severe wound in his right arm where much of the muscle had been blown away.
Being an Anesthesia and Critical Care physician, I decided to go to the field hospital to volunteer for emergency assistance. The hospital there was well organized. It seemed obvious they learnt valuable lessons from the past two massacres. However, with the continuous flow of injured citizens, matters started to get chaotic.
I did not witness the previous massacres of the Republican Guards Officers’ Club and Al-Azhar massacres. So, I was really shocked to see hugely alarming numbers of horrible injuries.
Within less than 3 hours, the hospital’s six-story building as well as the adjacent halls were completely full with corpses and injured protesters. The injuries varied from bird-shots to live bullets.
I noticed that most of the live bullets were in the upper half of the body, mainly in the head and the neck, with consequent lethal wounds.
At about 10:00 to 10:30am, teargas bombs started landing very close to the hospital, and the air inside became impossible to breathe. So, all the hospital staff had to wear gas masks.
As I was not registered with the hospital, I had no such mask. Consequently, being unable to breathe, I left the first floor, where the injured are first received, and went upstairs to try to get a gas mask from the supplies room.
On the second floor, there was a room filled with women carrying their babies and young children, seeking refugee from the dense teargas below.
Eventually, I had to make do with an ordinary face mask, since I could not find a proper tear gas mask. Then, I continued work with injured protesters just coming into the hospital.
The situation got very bad with tremendous numbers of patients flowing in. The severity of cases were far beyond a small filed-hospital’s capacity and resources, especially with the teargas filling the air (I discovered later gas bombs were thrown at us using helicopters flying overhead). Soon, the sounds of live bullets came very close to the hospital building.
At 12:00 (mid-day), an order came through, to evacuate the hospital immediately, as there were fears of an imminent storming of the hospital building. Everybody was ordered to hide their medical-staff identity, scrubs or white coats, fearing arrests or interrogations.
I left the hospital passing through a huge hall which was filled with corpses of massacre victims, then through another hall which was filled with wounded protesters whose cases were not very severe (meaning they can survive for a few hours without close care; but in normal conditions, they would need surgical operations immediately).
What broke my heart was the scene of a women and an old man beside their wounded son, crying quietly as there was no help for them in the middle of that bloody crackdown.
I stayed in a corridor behind the field-hospital and close to Rabaa mosque. There were many injured protesters who sought refuge there, because there was no room for them in the hall I mentioned earlier. one of those injured, who had been shot in his leg, looked to me and said “Dr. why you stand like this? Please go and try to help any patients.
I felt much sympathy for that young man who didn't think about himself, but about others who had been similarly injured by the bloody attack. I did not know where to go after the hospital evacuation. So I stayed in an area close to the mosque where many women were staying, along with old men.
The sound of loathsome live bullets continued relentlessly and thick smoke was filling the air. A few minutes later, I started to see the white smoke of the teargas filling the corridor where I stood earlier. I immediately thought about the injured there and the injured young man who talked to me. I didn't know if they have been evacuated or not.
People used clothes and sheets as make-shift fans in an attempt to clear the air a little, to reduce the terrible smell of the teargas.
After about one hour, I met a person who knew I was in the field hospital. He told me that the hospital of Rabaa Charity Society opened its doors to receive the injured. So, I headed there straightaway.
I started work immediately and felt better here working in a real hospital, especially since some of our colleagues managed to get supplies from the field-hospital. We started to deal with the new cases. The numbers of injured protesters arriving started to decrease.
I thought the security forces perhaps stopped their ferocious attack. However, I continued to work with the cases already in the hospital, doing my best to help.
There was some very terrible cases, the like of which I had never seen. One of those was a foreign reporter (I knew from his colleague that they work for Sky News). He had been shot with a live bullet in his lower chest and lost so much blood that he was very pale. I administered first-aid to him.
I then told his colleague that he needed an urgent surgical operation. Minutes later, I could not find them. I am not sure whether he survived or not. I remember telling one of the Sky News team to try and send a kind of an SOS to the world to urge the putschist forces to stop targeting hospitals with teargas bombs and live bullets.
In a quiet moment, I went to the basement to get some rest, but I found two injured protesters from my hometown. One had an injury in his foot, while the other in his leg. Both were alive and in a great shape by comparison to the cases around them.
Minutes later, I did a CPR (life support) to one victim, but sadly he died. So, I helped the team to move him out. However, we were informed that the hospital’s refrigerator was filled with about 40 bodies. We were told to transfer him to the third floor. I thought he would be the first body there, but was shocked to find a wide hall filled with about 40 corpses.
We put the body we had among the others on the floor, and headed back downstairs to the emergency reception area only to learn that the entry of the hospital was now under the mercy of a sniper who shot anybody coming in or going out of the hospital.
It was heart-breaking to see people carrying supplies or wounded patients running very fast to escape the lethal bullets of that sniper who also targeted anybody who looked out from the hospital’s windows. A short while later a bullet targeted the glass door, smashing it into smithereens.
At about 3:00pm, massive waves of wounded protesters came into the hospital. This time, they were much more than those injured in the morning. The injuries were much more fatal, too.
I saw patients with their heads blown out and their brain matter on the floor. I saw many victims with precise gunshot wounds in their head or neck, who seem to have been shot by snipers.
It was just 4:00pm when all the basement and first floor became completely covered with bodies of dead and injured. I also learnt that the situation in the floors above was similar.
There were ambulances trying to move patients out through the backdoor of the hospital. I think they managed to transfer only 5% of those who needed surgical procedures.
Soon, the situation became a real tragedy, with us failing to deal with all the wounded protesters coming in. We focused on the cases that had any chance of surviving, however small.
All the hospital floors were now packed with injured protesters sitting in pools of thick shiny blood as new patients made their way carefully through the crowded space.
I worked like non-stop. All the while, I just could not believe I lived to see this happening in my country. I volunteered at Tahrir Square field-hospital back in January 2011. But that was nothing like this massacre of Rabaa.
I had no time to take photographs of the patients as I tried to save whatever lives I could. Soon the smell of death was everywhere. My clothes were completely covered in blood.
At 5:00pm, a sniper’s bullets targeted the hospital’s door once again, destroying it completely. Then, the sound of gunfire became very intense and close.
Half an hour later, bullets were shot inside the emergency reception room which was filled with medical teams and injured patients. Terror swept the hospital and everybody became trapped inside.
Ten minutes later, police officers broke into the hospital. They looked huge with black special-unit uniforms, and wielded huge guns that I had never seen before.
They ordered everybody to evacuate the hospital. We wondered what we had to do with hundreds of injured inside who were still alive and whether we could trust those officers. However, soon we were rushed right out of the hospital building.
As I left the hospital, I told one of the officers that there were many injured people inside. He shouted in my face “let them die, let them die”! He then walked towards me with his huge gun with ferocity and intent, trying to attack me. Fortunately, I managed to escape through the hospital’s smashed glass door and the vicious officer got busy with others going outside the opposite section.
Outside the hospital, there was a very horrible scene – corpses littered the streets and fire burnt wildly everywhere. I walked close to walls, with colleagues following behind me. Security forces fired their guns at us. But I was not sure whether anybody was killed.
I walked into nearby streets, worrying I could be shot or arrested. However, the army and police were apparently too busy with some remaining protesters inside the sit-in encampment. I looked behind and saw huge plumes of smoke rising after officers burnt the hospital with everybody still inside: the dead corpses and the injured ones who could not leave the hospital.
I will never forget the last look of a 15-year old nephew of a wounded man, the last case I dealt with: the man had been shot in the head but survived and came into the hospital accompanied this young nephew. I intubated him, leaving his nephew to help him. While going outside, I saw the helpless looks of this young boy beseeching us, seeking any help for his uncle. Most probably the uncle was burnt alive in the hospital. I’m not sure what happened to that young boy.
I walked away wondering whether those attacking us and the hospital were really human. They were shooting to kill, and the massive injuries were beyond imagination. I never thought I would live to see Egyptians killed on the streets and hospitals being burnt down with patients still inside.
If this happened to us by the hands of fellow Egyptians who were supposed to protect us, what would happen to us if a foreign enemy invaded our country?
As I write these lines, I still cannot believe myself. I wish this would be a nightmare from which I could wake up soon.