At the height of the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, a group of 20 friends stood in the field hospital and agreed to take shelter in a side street a few meters away.
Only six of them made it.
Hamza Sarawy remembers running in the midst of showering bullets and seeing his friends drop, one after the other.
“A friend would run, get hit and fall; another would go help him, get hit and fall on top of him,” Sarawy recalls.
They ran until they reached safety, and realized they were still alive.
“There were only six of us left, including me and my cousins,” he says. “Everyone else fell from snipers.”
A year after the bloody dispersal, Sarawy recounts his 14-hour ordeal on the day of the violent siege, as he escaped bullets, carried injured friends and identified bodies.
At around 6 am on August 14, 2013, Interior Ministry and military forces moved to violently disperse two Muslim Brotherhood camps in Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square, leaving more than 1,000 protesters dead. A report by Human Rights Watch issued this week said the dispersal “not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity.”
Harrowing images of bloody scenes, charred corpses and wailing men and women painted a vague picture of how traumatic the day was, images that would stay with those who survived.
Two hours into the dispersal, Sarawy remembers going into the media center that was turned into a field hospital and seeing six rows of stacked bodies.
He says he was able to identify some of the bodies before he passed out from the shock.
As soon as he came to, news started flowing of more fallen friends, one right after the other.
Sarawy says the loss of Habiba Ahmed Abdel Aziz and Asmaa al-Beltagy particularly affected him. He describes them as dear friends.
It was only when he was able to log onto Facebook and Twitter at around 2 pm in the middle of the violence that he found out about their deaths.
“I couldn’t believe the news about Habiba, so I called her phone and a doctor answered me,” Sarawy recounts. “He must’ve gotten a lot of these phone calls, because he told me not to call again and that Habiba is with God now.”
“This was a very painful moment. I can’t explain it.”
Sarawy says that as a result of the number of people he lost that day, he “lost the appetite for life.”
Other raw moments remain etched in his mind.
“I saw a man with his family, he raised his head to the sky and started asking God where he was. He started yelling, ‘If you really exist then why aren’t you protecting us? Why are you letting this happen to us?’”
On another side of the square, a participant in the sit-in, who preferred to go by the name of Sheikh Ali, was in charge of securing one of the entrances when security forces started moving in.
“I expected a confrontation with Central Security Forces, but I didn’t think it would be an act of war,” he says.
Ali remembers seeing people around him crying and screaming, while others were reciting the shehada (the act of recognizing God as the last call before death).
Ali has covered wars in Syria and Gaza in the course of his work as a field producer for journalists.
“In places like these, I was mentally prepared, because they are at war,” Ali explains. “But at Rabea, it was different. I didn’t think someone in my country was capable of this kind of atrocity.”
Ali remembers ducking behind barricades fashioned out of sandbags and metal sheets with other protesters. A Central Security soldier then came near, pushed down the metal sheets and started shooting at close range.
“Around six people died right then and there, then more soldiers came and we were trapped,” he recalls. “In three minutes, 17 people were killed in their place, execution-style.”
Ali remembers shooting coming from overhead planes, with bullets that would penetrate the head and exit through the chin. He also remembers burning tents that forced protesters, including women and children, to run through the crossfire.
“I saw people being burned alive, but I couldn’t do anything about it,” Ali says. “Your mind stops working and only your survival instinct kicks in.”
For Mostafa Gamil, another participant, the scenes an hour before and an hour after the dispersal stay with him the strongest.
“I remember seeing girls of less than 17 years old taking pictures together before the attack happened. I remember seeing Asmaa al-Beltagy among them,” he says. “I also saw children who did not know what the dispersal meant playing with each other in the tents.”
“I was confident that they wouldn’t be able to disperse the sit-in. I knew they would kill a lot of us, but I thought at one point the killing would stop,” Gamil says, recalling the moment when the entrances to the sit-ins were being secured, bracing for the attack.
An hour after the dispersal, he recalls receiving news of friends who died as flocks of surviving protesters tearfully walked away from the square.
He maintains that witnessing the aftermath of the dispersal was tougher than witnessing the dispersal itself, as he went back for the dead bodies.
He remembers blood covering the concrete and counting over 50 charred corpses. He says he shrouded bodies that he later found out were his friends.
The trauma Gamil endured still materializes in his everyday life.
“Anyone I meet, I immediately feel either they endorsed the dispersal or cheered the death of my friends,” he explains. “I realized that the people are more oppressive than the rulers.”
“There have been a series of massacres,” Gamil continues, highlighting the different confrontations with security forces since the January 25 revolution. “Even if we haven’t been physically killed, things within us still died.”
Mona Hamed, a psychiatrist with the Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, says that it is possible that the people who witnessed the dispersal are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
And the trauma is persisting, as those who survived the dispersal are either injured, or have family members who were killed, injured or detained, she explains.
Hamed contends that those who do seek therapy do not necessarily follow through, and are distracted by their injured or detained family members and their needs. Often, one individual is impacted by several tragedies, from deceased to injured family members.
Others feel guilty about seeking therapy, Hamed says, because they know that others did not survive the dispersal.
The violence of August 14 was akin to “a nightmare people haven’t awoken from, but do not want to drown in,” Hamed asserts.
Until this day, Sarawy says that if he hears an armored vehicle siren, “the whole day flashes before my eyes.” The Interior Ministry’s warning message to leave the square also keeps replaying in his head.
“My family thinks I should see a doctor, because no one can witness such a massacre and go on with their lives,” he says.
But Sarawy doesn’t think the cure is to go see a doctor. Rather, “therapy is in remembering my friends and telling their stories.”
Sarawy plans on publishing stories about his friends who lost their lives in the dispersal.
“I want people to know they were normal human beings who went to college with me, who were only defending what they believed in,” he explains.
He plans on spending the dispersal’s first anniversary reflecting on the events, and visiting some of those who lost family members in the violence.
As for Ali, he speaks of recurrent nightmares of the last moments of the dispersal.
“I always have nightmares about being burned alive like the people I saw,” he says, “about being tortured or arrested.”
Ali continues that following the dispersal he got entangled in other protests and events, and was distracted from seeking therapy.
“To receive therapy, you have to be removed from the problem,” explains Ali. “But we are still immersed in it.”