From the scenes of the Palm Sunday bombings in Tanta and Alexandria
 
 

Palm Sunday began with the promise of religious festivities, communion and jubilation in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox churches, but ended with another kind of service: the funerals for those killed in two explosions in distant Egyptian cities.

The blast in Tanta erupted as hundreds of Copts listened to the Palm Sunday service at the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, the city’s largest and oldest church. While the casualty count still remains somewhat speculative, the latest figures suggest that 28 people were killed and 78 injured.

Three hours later, a man made his way toward the entrance of Alexandria’s St. Mark Church, the former headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox pope. After being turned away by security, the man walked away from the church’s electronic gates and detonated the explosive vest he was wearing. At least 17 people were killed in the blast.

Pope Tawadros II had been inside the St. Mark Church, where he led Palm Sunday morning prayers shortly before the explosion.

The second explosion brought the day’s death toll to 45.

Mada Masr was present in the aftermath of the Palm Sunday bombings to witness the scenes of carnage and despair, which, at times, erupted into anger, violence and division.

Tanta: Death interrupts celebration

Images by Sabry Khaled

Women wearing black sit at the entrance to the St. George Church in Tanta after the blast with distraught looks on their faces. “I saw the torn parts of our brothers when I arrived at the church,” one of them says.

Another woman says she broke down when she saw the insides of someone hanging on a broken chair. She opens her bag and pulls out what is left of a gown worn by one of the altar attendants who died in the blast.

The flow of families and friends of those killed is constant, despite the closing of the church doors to clean up the hall where the blast took place. Workers build tombs beside the church, where a burial service was held later in the day for the victims.

“The papal chair suddenly exploded, and people turned in an instant to see remains scattered everywhere. Priests and altar attendants were among the victims,” says altar attendant at the church Salib Sobhy.

The Interior Ministry did not officially announce how the attack was carried out, but a statement by the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai claimed two suicide bombers were responsible.

Everyone walks cautiously on the floor, so as not to step on the blood covering the broken chairs, the floor, the walls and the ceiling.

Two grief-stricken women are collecting the belongings of the victims, including shoes, torn clothes and tissues covered with blood. They hug and kiss the items they collect.

The injured are transferred to a number of hospitals, including Tanta University Hospital, Menshawy Hospital and the American Hospital. A medical source says their injuries include burns and severe bruises, and many need surgery. 

“We received eight dead bodies, 13 injured, and seven others were transferred to Cairo as they were in a critical condition,” another medical source at Menshawy Hospital says, explaining that most of the injured are suffering from burns and broken bones.

An ambulance transports a 50-year-old injured man. “My husband is a heart patient, he lost consciousness once he saw what happened. Now he is suffering from concussion,” his wife says.

A mother outside Tanta University Hospital hugs her young daughter, who has been married for only a year and a half and, a few hours earlier, became a widow. “Where is he? Is this it? We are not going to see him again? What about his five-month-old daughter? How will she live after him? Oh, Bishoy please come back, we miss you,” she cries out. 

“My cousin’s body is completely unrecognizable, he is 35 years old and has two children,” says Hany Mikhael, the relative of another victim.

Bishoy Samuel is moving the bodies of the victims and the injured from the church. His clothes are stained with blood. Samuel lost his brother-in-law in the bombing, a 40-year-old altar server with two children. “The bombing was in the first row. Two limbs and half a head is what remains of my relative,” he says, accusing the state and police of failure to protect the church, where a bomb was defused 10 days earlier.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced his intention to declare a nationwide state of emergency following the two blasts late on Sunday in a televised speech, after his meeting with the National Defense Council. Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar sacked head of Gharbiya Security Directorate General Hossam al-Din Khalifa in light of the bombing in Tanta.

Images by Ibrahim Ezzat

Celebrations draped in black

Residents of the buildings surrounding the Tanta church tell stories about the startling impact of the blast: “Today is like the day of judgement,” one says, recounting waking up startled by the sound of the explosion and opening her windows to hear people screaming and others running and carrying dismantled bodies.

“I woke up to the bed shaking under me from the effect of the blast. The chandelier was moving and the glass on the balcony door was shaking,” recounts another woman, who lives two blocks away from the church.

One of the wounded at Menshawy Hospital’s orthopedic department whispers, “God has saved us.” Shrapnel penetrates his right arm and leg, and his left shoulder is dislocated. “How long will our celebrations be turned to funerals and darkness?” his wife asks.

Volunteers flood to the neighboring Menshawy Mosque to donate blood. Some stay after donating to guide those from other cities through the process. One of the volunteers estimates that over 1,000 donors have come through the mosque.

Images by Amr Abd El Rahman

Alexandria: Angry chants and altercations with police

Spontaneous marches erupted in parts of Alexandria shortly after the explosion, with young protesters carrying banners and chanting, “Why are you silent?” Security forces dispersed the marches when they reached Manshiya square. A priest joined police in trying to calm the angry youth.

“Officers are dying too,” a policeman yells.

Another young police officer speaks about the guard at the church who was killed in the blast. He was a 50-year-old Muslim who was nearing the end of his shift, he says.

Protests continued in front of the Alexandria church all day, with demonstrators chanting, “We are the pure Egyptians.” Others accuse police of responsibility for terrorism. “As long as Coptic blood is cheap, down with any president,” they yell, demanding the removal of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.

A group of angry protesters force the deputy to Alexandria’s governor out of the church when he arrives. Protests continue, despite attempts by the police to deter them. Some assault police forces who attempt to stop others from reaching the protests.

Images by Sara Younes

Final memories

Twenty-nine-year-old police officer Asmaa Ahmed, from Beheira, was stationed at Alexandria Port and assigned to search women entering the church on Sunday. One of her relatives says they only found shreds of her body and her husband recognized her from her clothes.

A relative of policeman Essam al-Deeb, who also died while guarding the church, remembers the last time he saw him. “He led a group of us in Asr prayer the day before, he never upset anyone.”

Father of military conscript Refaat al-Sherif was handed his son’s body at 10 pm on Sunday, after he acquired a prosecution permit. He was a year and a half into his service and was returning to his post following a vacation two days previously. His father remembers him saying, “I’m leaving and may god compensate me well,” before he left for the church, as though somehow he knew what awaited him.

Note: This article has been amended since it was first published.

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Basma Mostafa 
Mohamed Gamal 
Nahla El Nemr