I Escaped Death in an Egyptian Police Van but Witnessed an Attempted Rape
It was a fairly miserable 24 hours.
Randel (left) and I between interrogations at the police station. At this point we still thought the ordeal would be over pretty quickly and were treating it as more of an adventure than a living nightmare. (All photos by Sebastian Backhaus)
It's a relief, realising that you're not going to burn to death in the back of an Egyptian prison van. However, witnessing an attempted rape moments later brings you straight back to the immediate reality of the situation, which – for me – was being held prisoner in Cairo during the bloodiest fighting in Egypt's recent history.
When we'd first arrived, the guy showing us to our apartment had greeted us with, "Welcome to Cairo". He'd quickly followed this up with the kind of sarcastic smile you'd expect from someone welcoming two foreigners to a city on the day the army decided to massacre 600 of its own people.
Not all Egyptians hate the police, but because of their brutal methods they are constantly criticised. Here, a policeman is paraded triumphantly in Tahrir Square one day before the military coup.
Despite the day's events, my friend Randel – who was travelling with me – desperately wanted to take a walk to Tahrir Square before calling it a night. We actually made it to Cairo's de facto mass protest point without a hitch, but weren't quite so lucky on our way home. Just before we were about to reach our beds we were picked up by the police for violating the curfew imposed that day and being in possession of a flak jacket, gas mask and helmet, as well as lacking the requisite press credentials you apparently need to walk the streets of Egypt without being arrested.
On our way to the police station I got a call from someone at the German embassy who assured me that they would check on us the next morning. That's when I realised we probably wouldn't be returning to our flat before the night was over. At the station our phones were taken from us and I managed to negotiate bottled water instead of tap. Then, we were given our rations for the next 20 hours: a minuscule piece of cheese with a side of marmalade. We stayed awake all night chain-smoking, plotting elaborate escape plans and listening to the screams coming from the basement.
Disappointingly, the next morning a representative from the German embassy was nowhere to be seen. After realising that we wouldn't be getting the assistance we'd been promised, Randel asked to go to the bathroom and I was told to join him. However, it quickly transpired that we weren't being led to the toilets, but pushed down some stairs towards the basement and the screams we'd been forced to listen to all night.
We were made to stand in an anteroom, surrounded by four doors that acted as a pretty ineffective barrier between us and the ferocious stench of sweat, rubbish and excrement fusing together in the air. Suddenly three of the doors opened and we were able to glimpse into the 15-square metre cells beyond them, each full of countless prisoners in absolute darkness – none of the cells had any windows.
Prisoners were called upon one by one and shoved into the anteroom, most having great difficulty opening their eyes as they were exposed to the light. Some had large bruises on both their eyes, while others nursed open and festering wounds on their feet and legs. The police aggressively handcuffed us and threw us to our knees, before doing the same to the other 30 people they'd ushered through. We were then extensively screamed at and beaten, before the guards shoved us back up the stairs. On the way, I caught a glimpse into the fourth cell through a little slit in the door; behind it was a woman cradling a baby in her arms.
After being herded outside we were crammed into a prison transport vehicle, where I had a brief chat with a Syrian prisoner. He'd been locked up for 20 days, hadn't been given any food for the first three and was unable to get in touch with his family to inform them of his whereabouts. He told me that, before he'd been arrested by the Egyptian police, he'd travelled to Cairo with his wife and son to shelter them from the war devastating his own country.
At some point our van got stuck in traffic and rocks started banging against its metal sides. Suddenly there was the sound of shots being fired and we threw ourselves onto the floor of our mobile prison, the elderly man next to me beginning to sob and chant the shahada – the confession of faith to Allah. But religion didn't factor into the situation for me; the only thing racing through my mind was that, if somebody managed to hit the van with a Molotov cocktail, we would probably all burn alive.
In a bid to escape the mob, our driver slammed the van into parked cars, and drove over curbstones. The floor began to shake aggressively and we were hurled from one corner to the other while the handcuffs started to penetrate our wrists. I wasn't sure what exactly was happening outside at this point, but we somehow got back onto a smooth surface and managed to slip through the turmoil and head onto another police station.
We were later told by the German embassy that it was a group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had attacked the transporter. They had stormed the van from a nearby morgue, where the bodies of some of their fellow protesters – who'd lost their lives in the eviction – were laid out in rows.
We weren't to stay in the second police station for too long. Randel and I, along with nine others, were quickly loaded into a different prison transporter. Before I was shoved into the back I managed to take a brief look at the attacked vehicle; the front windows were completely smashed in and I saw a policeman tending to a gaping wound in the middle of his face.
A Muslim Brotherhood supporter being thrashed by the mob.
After being thrown on top of each other in the new vehicle, I noticed that a young woman was also among us. As soon as we began to move the young man sitting across from her started trying to grab at her body. Randel and I, still handcuffed, protested loudly, but to no avail. As the time passed he became increasingly aggressive. He groped her legs and breasts, held her face firmly, pressed her against the wall and tried to pull off her burqa, before eventually just starting to hit her in frustration.
I'd half noticed this guy during our first ride; he was wearing bandages on his arms and legs, but he wasn't handcuffed and was the only person allowed to speak to the policemen without being punished afterwards. Another man sitting next to the woman tried to fend off the groping hands, but the bandaged man pulled a small knife he'd been hiding under the gauze on his leg and stabbed the helper right through his hand. Streams of blood started to flow out onto the floor and, understandably, the victim began screaming in distress. This continued until an elderly prisoner begged him to try to relax.
Finally, the car stopped in front of a court building and Randel and I were dragged out. I spotted two friends of ours waiting outside, who yelled out that German diplomats were already in the building. After numerous hearings by the prosecution service our accusations were cleared. The intervention by the German embassy was definitely a crucial factor for our release. None of the other prisoners were German. I have no idea what happened to them.
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