Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘They are dying everyday’

Gihan Shahine examines the ongoing plight and wounded pride of Egypt’s injured revolutionary heroes

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Al-Ahram Weekly

To keep our faces toward change,
And behave like free spirits,
In the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
— Helen Keller, “Let’s Have Faith”

With “strength undefeatable” of this sort, US political activist Helen Keller was able to escape from the double dungeon of darkness and silence — she was born deaf and blind — at the turn of the last century. In much the same way, many of today’s heroes who lost their eyes or limbs to rubber bullets and shotgun pellets in the course of Egypt’s 25 January Revolution are clinging to their inner willpower in an ongoing struggle for change and freedom in a country that has hardly recovered from 30 years of despotism and political apathy.
The eye-patches, now turned into a symbol of Egypt’s 25 January Revolution in which at least 80 people reportedly lost their sight to police gunfire, have lent more power than despair to 24-year-old Badr Al-Bendari, who insists that losing his sight has actually provided him with light.
“Losing his eyesight is perhaps the easiest injury a man can endure because it empowers all the other senses,” insisted Al-Bendari, an economics editor at ONTV. Al-Bendari was shot in the eyes on the “Friday of Anger”, the bloody 28 January 2011 police crackdown on the peaceful protests during the 18-day uprising that toppled the former regime.
“A man cannot be called disabled so long as his brains function and he has a mind to think,” he says.
Al-Bendari has no regrets for having taken part in the 25 January Revolution that put an end to 30 years of despotism. Perhaps the only thing Al-Bendari would regret is “not having died as a martyr in Tahrir”. Otherwise, he insists on delivering positive messages of hope to all those around him, emphasising that “change cannot come overnight” and that “people should not give in to despair at not having a better future, no matter how long it takes.”

A STORY OF PERSISTENCE AND BETRAYAL: Al-Bendari says he went out during the 25 January Revolution in order to protest peacefully against police brutality and despotism. “But the humiliation we received at the hands of the anti-riot police that day made me even more determined that I would not leave the square before toppling that corrupt regime.”
The protesters were suffocating as a result of the tear gas that blurred their sight when police armoured vehicles started to chase them in a humiliating way. “We were crawling on our hands and knees in droves for fear of getting crushed by the vehicles,” Al-Bendari remembered. “It was humiliating.”
That sense of humiliation was the main reason why Al-Bendari decided to go on protesting peacefully on the Friday of Anger, when many, including Al-Bendari, were brutally shot in the face, chest and eyes by anti-riot police.
It was Friday afternoon when Al-Bendari and other protesters were just finishing their afternoon prayers on Qasr Al-Nil bridge that the police started to disperse protesters by raining rubber and live bullets down upon them. Al-Bendari marched with hundreds of other protesters, chanting “peaceful, peaceful” as a signal to the police not to shoot at them, but “the police manoeuvred in a way that made us all stand in one place and then they broke their word that they would not fire at us and started firing in our direction.”
“It was obvious that the anti-riot police had received orders to shoot to kill since all the injuries were in the face, chest and stomach,” Al-Bendari went on. “I felt something sinister was about to happen, and only a few minutes later I had a total blackout and fainted.”
Al-Bendari, who was also shot in the head, neck and legs, woke up in hospital, where, to his shock, he realised he had lost his eyesight. His insurance covered the expenses of his treatment and sent him to Germany, where he underwent a lens transplant in the left eye. Today, Al-Bendari’s left eye can recognise light and shapes, but without any details or features.
Almost two years on, a persistent Al-Bendari is back to work after receiving rehabilitation on how to use computers and manage his life independently. He will soon be starting a family after tying the knot with his fellow-revolutionary-turned-activist Nada Wahid.
“Persistence is like gold,” he insisted.

ANOTHER SIDE TO THE COIN: However, Al-Bendari concedes that he is much luckier than many others who have not received any financial assistance, rehabilitation or proper medical care to date.
Almost everyone who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly about their experiences in the revolution said that the issue of the injured and the martyrs’ families has been abused on all levels, politically and financially, and by all the competing political players, which had employed the issue to make political gains or rally public support.
They all also seemed willing to attest to a tangle of corruption and government bureaucracy that led to thefts and the mismanagement of funds, ultimately leaving those most in need of medical and financial assistance in the throes of negligence and despair.
Despite the help extended to the injured by members of civil society, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were also reportedly plagued with disorganisation, and sometimes even corruption, that again resulted in the waste of funds received from local and foreign donors.
“No one can imagine the amount of hardship and ill-treatment the injured had to endure,” Wahid lamented. Wahid was among 16 volunteers who worked with the Arab Doctors’ Union on collecting lists of the wounded and providing them to individuals, NGOs and volunteer doctors offering to provide free medical services.
Yet, two years on, Wahid is deeply frustrated that despite these efforts “many of those who were badly injured in the 25 January Revolution have not yet received any financial assistance from the state. They have been made jobless and penniless and are having to live with lifelong disabilities that need long treatments that they cannot afford.”
Twenty-three-year-old Amr is a case in point. He was shot in front of the Al-Zawya Al-Hamra police station during the 18-day uprising and has undergone surgery many times to remove bullets from his lungs and stomach. Amr has had to have parts of his intestines removed and he now has to use colostomy bags.
Amr has only received LE20,000 in compensation from the state, an amount that he has already spent on urgently-needed surgery that could not wait for the long bureaucratic procedures needed before he could be treated at the expense of the state. He has now to wade through long bureaucratic procedures to get reimbursed, procedures that are exhausting and sometimes even humiliating. He has not received anything to date.
Amr, who used to make good money working in the furniture industry and is the only breadwinner in his family, has had no other choice but to sell sandwiches from a street cart since he lost his job. However, that has not worked either. He lost the cart in a municipality crackdown on street vendors, and his mother now has to clean houses in order to provide money for bread.
“The martyrs are probably in heaven, but the injured...” Wahid paused in her attempts to hold back her tears, “they are still dying every day.”

FACTS AND FIGURES: More than 8,000 people were injured during the course of Egypt’s revolution. The injuries ranged from losing one or both eyes to different degrees of paralysis or having an amputated limb.
Mervat Moussa, a volunteer who has been extending help to the wounded revolutionaries, says that “most of the injuries were in the eyes, but many also had sustained shotgun injuries in the head, neck and limbs causing them severe, sometimes even complete, paralysis.”
Unofficial sources insist that more than 80 people lost their eyes in the police crackdowns on the protesters. Eye-patches soon became a symbol of the 25 January Revolution, sometimes used by protesters to signify the sacrifices made by the revolutionaries. They have also featured in graffiti adorning many of Egypt’s streets as a symbol of sacrifice.
Ahmed Harara, a 31-year-old dentist who lost both eyes in two different crackdowns, first on 28 January and later on 19 November of the same year, has also become a revolutionary icon. He was chosen last year by Time Magazine for its special “Person of the Year” edition.
Ghada Shahbandar of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said that the high number of eye casualties, as well as of head and neck injuries, was a clear indication that the security forces had “abused their weapons”. Shahbandar had earlier told the media that she had “heard a high-ranking Central Security Forces officer instructing soldiers to aim at the protesters’ heads as she passed through their ranks on 19 November.”
“This is not riot dispersion. This is aiming to kill and to maim,” Shahbandar said.
Many of those who were maimed by police violence not only have to live with their disabilities and economic hardships, but they also have to face the fact that those who killed and maimed them are still free.
The Cairo Criminal Court recently postponed the trial of the so-called “eye sniper”, police officer Mahmoud Al-Shennawi, who is accused of having deliberately shot demonstrators in the eyes during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes in November 2011. Al-Shennawi allegedly killed at least five people and wounded others.
Yet, even if Al-Shennawi is convicted, many will hardly feel satisfied because they believe he will be just a scapegoat for those in higher ranks who gave the orders to kill and maim the protesters.
A fact-finding committee formed by virtue of a presidential decree six months ago to investigate the killings of the demonstrators during the 25 January Revolution has recently finished its still-confidential report that reportedly includes new evidence that should allow for the retrials of those acquitted of killing and injuring the protesters along with former regime officials.
However, whether that will in fact happen remains an open question.

THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY: Wahid contends that although justice would provide some relief for the maimed and disabled, it remains a second priority for those now living under the double onslaught of their new disabilities and economic hardships.
“Justice has not been a high priority for civil society, which has been more concerned with filling the gap left by the government,” Wahid explained.
The injured were ignored by the government in the aftermath of the revolution and thus had to rely on individual efforts and civil society for medical and financial assistance. Almost all of those talking to the Weekly attested to the exceptional efforts made by Heba Al-Sewidi, a well-known society figure dubbed the “mother of the injured”, as a result of the help she extended to the injured in and since the revolution.
According to Moussa, Al-Sewidi not only paid for urgently-needed surgery conducted inside and outside Egypt, but she also provided many with financial assistance, alternative homes and established a rehabilitation centre to help the injured cope with their new disabilities.
Several NGOs and human rights organisations have also provided help, and some of them have grouped together to form the Association of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Revolution to do so. That said, however, both Wahid and Moussa insist that “a large part of the huge donations received by the NGOs were stolen or mismanaged.”
Many of the injured in the revolution who talked to the Weekly concurred. “NGOs only care about publicity. They don’t truly care about the injured,” insisted Menna, an 18-year-old protester who was injured in the revolution.
Yet, the absence of accurate lists of the injured in the revolution was one reason why NGOs were sometimes unable to provide help. The government and its affiliated hospitals were not cooperative in providing information about the number of those injured, and sometimes it even denied members of civil society access to check for themselves.
Many of the injured were also given reports about the injuries, but without any specifics or indication that the injuries had been the results of anti-riot police violence.
“Each organisation gathered its own lists, but they did not cooperate to make a unified database,” Wahid explained.
That lack of coordination, according to Wahid, resulted in the fact that “many of those who could publicise their agonies in the media were able to make a fortune getting compensation from more than one entity, while many others remained unknown and without any kind of help.”

STATE HOSPITAL WOES: Witnesses also claim that the amount of negligence the injured of the revolution suffered in the state-affiliated hospitals to which they were moved was “shocking at best.”
“Many were refused admission to emergency units, some were just neglected and ill-treated at the hands of medical staff, and some were subject to faulty treatments and surgery that resulted in serious medical complications which they are suffering from to date,” Moussa told the Weekly. “The injured of the revolution were literally punished for the sacrifices they made to have a better future. They sometimes even overheard nurses saying that they wished they would die.”
Twenty-three-year-old Ahmed Abdel-Khalek would have had his limbs amputated at the Ain Shams University-affiliated hospital of Al-Demerdash had not Al-Sewidi volunteered to move the young protester to another hospital at her own expense.  
Abdel-Khalek, shot in the thighs during the 18-day uprising, still has paralysis. He has so far undergone 34 operations in his legs due to a transplant that caused him a viral infection that has also needed regular medical intervention. Ahmed, a former worker and the only breadwinner in his family, now cannot even sit down independently. His mother has to clean houses just to make ends meet.
Witnesses reported that hospitals sometimes released victims who needed intensive care, or did not clean wounds properly, resulting in the formation of gangrene.
Such claims of public hospital negligence and ill-treatment have been corroborated in the recent fact-finding report, which urges investigation into these incidents in both the public hospitals and at the Forensic Medicine Authority.
The report also called for “defining responsibility, punishing the culprits and for the need to purge the medical sector”. On a more positive note, Wahid applauded the efforts of the hundreds of “sincere doctors who volunteered their effort, time, clinics and money in the service of the injured of the revolution”.
“Without the help of those doctors and the medical volunteers at the Tahrir makeshift hospitals, the injured would have been left in the throes of despair,” Wahid insisted.

NEGLECTED BY THE STATE: Eighteen-year old Menna, who has had to rely on civil society for her medical treatment after being beaten on the back, neck and left hand and stamped on by anti-riot police on January 28 [the Friday of Anger], is now suffering from paralysis in her legs and left hand as a result of faulty surgery.
Although Menna has been treated at the expense of the state for the past few months, that care has not covered the high costs of her medication, which ranges from LE4,000 to 5,000 a month. She is one of at least 10 cases that have been awaiting a presidential decision to be treated abroad at government expense, but the “state’s promises have not been fulfilled,” she says.
“We have been totally ignored by the government,” Menna lamented, adding that she had depended on the personal help of volunteer doctors to arrange for an urgently needed operation in Germany that promised to get her back standing. “We arranged everything and prepared the papers, and now we have been waiting since October for state approval to cover the expenses of the trip. Yet, all we have received so far have been false promises,” Menna said.
Menna will no longer accept that civil society should cover the costs of her treatment, since “this is the responsibility of the government,” she said. “Governments have changed, but for us nothing has changed. We are simply everybody’s last priority,” a despondent Menna complained.
“My left hand is getting smaller everyday due to a cut in the nerves. My chances of recovery are decreasing every day, but nobody is listening.”
Randa Sami, a senior nurse who was beaten by police while helping a patient in the impromptu field hospital in Tahrir Square on the Friday of Anger, is now suffering from quadriplegia due to surgical failure. Sami, also a member of the fact-finding committee, is now in need of further surgery in Germany that needs governmental approval if it is to be done at the expense of the state.
Sami says that any delay will reduce the chances of the surgery’s success, but she insists that she would rather die than have it done at the expense of private donors.
“We are supposed to be honoured by the state as revolutionary heroes, not treated like beggars,” she insisted. “We are the reason the current regime is in power, and it should feel some responsibility towards us.”

‘COME BY TOMORROW’: “Begging” is indeed how many of the injured describe their plight with regard to the state fund for the care and rehabilitation of the injured and martyrs’ families.
The fund was established in the aftermath of a demonstration in front of the cabinet office in Cairo, where the injured protested against the obliviousness of the government towards their suffering and needs.
Former prime minister Essam Sharaf asked the Ministry of Finance to create a fund to compensate the injured and their families and cover their treatment expenses. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was running the country’s transitional period, also announced the formation of a committee to address the needs of those affected by police violence during Egypt’s revolution. Former prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri issued a formal decree to officially establish the committee.
Compensation for the injured ranges according to the level of disability, and it has been increased several times over the past two years. Compensation for total disability has been raised gradually from an initial LE5,000 to LE30,000 and ultimately to LE100,000. Those enduring less-significant injuries were initially paid LE1,000 in compensation, which was later raised to LE20,000.
The fund also announced that it would provide monthly pensions “in exceptional cases” of about LE1,500 to LE1,700, according to the level of injury. It promised to find suitable jobs, medical care and rehabilitation for those maimed during the revolution.
Yet, almost all those speaking to the Weekly confirmed reports that the majority of the injured revolutionaries have not received, or have received only part, of their compensation. They said that pension payments were still pending and that the government jobs provided to some of the injured were unsuitable and paid very low salaries.
As was the case with the NGOs, Moussa insisted that “only those who received media attention or had connections received compensation. The majority have remained largely neglected.”
“When someone goes on TV and says that he did not receive any attention from the state, those in charge of the government-run fund run to hush him up with a few pounds,” Moussa said. “The injured always have to protest to get any of their rights; otherwise they are totally ignored and forgotten.”
Many activists, including Wahid and Moussa, corroborated reports that the revolutionary victims’ fund had received millions in donations. Yet, they claim that the fund’s former head was corrupt and that he did not use the money to help the victims.
“Nobody knows where the money went,” Wahid lamented.
Many have not found themselves included on the lists of those injured in the revolution and those who have been lucky enough to find their names on the lists have been told to “come by tomorrow,” then having to wade through a maze of bureaucracy to get medical records and approvals from different government offices and hospitals before they could get their dues.
For Sami, receiving compensation is not the end of the story for many of those with permanent disabilities. “The injured also need to be provided with suitable jobs and rehabilitation,” Sami insisted. “We need to feel important and to feel that we can still work and help ourselves and society and not depend on others and beg for help.”
The consensus remains among the injured and their caregivers that in the absence of dignity, social justice and freedom, “nothing will compensate for their loss,” Al-Bendari said.

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