Too Much Tear Gas on Mansour Street, Near Ministry of Interior: Cairo, Egypt Feb 3rd 2012

After the Port Said soccer game tragedy, hundreds of anti SCAF protestors–including both Ahly and Zamalek Ultras–gather in front of the Ministry of Defense to demand the removal of the Egyptian military regime. The incidents at the game were considered a clear move by the military: to punish the involvement of soccer fan groups (Ultras) in protesting against SCAF. It was also clear to everyone that, even if the incident wasn’t arranged by SCAF forces, that SCAF did nothing to stop the incident from continuing and getting worse, either.

I went down with my live stream group to gather some footage of the clashes and rioting. We found that the walls that had previously barricaded the roads leading to Ministry of Interior were now scattered blocks of cement–allowing a short line of exit and entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud street. There were people standing and sitting on the blocks; and many photographing the injured coming out. That is, being carried on motorcycles since the barricades did not really allow any ambulances to enter the area. The transport line of injured and possibly dead people exiting was endless. People were pleading with some protestors, including myself, not to enter, saying that we don’t need any more martyrs. Around 1,000 people had been killed since the revolution started and not one military or government official has been prosecuted yet.

Strangely, when I went beyond the barricades and down all the way to the Ministry of Interior, down to the crossings of Mohamed Mahmound and Mansour street, the scene was a very different one. There was anger of course. But many people were cheering and smiling. Some had nervous smiles–yet still stressing that we have to continue to stay positive.

We would gather in the crossings, yelling anti-SCAF slogans and shielding our heads from any tear gas canisters that might be thrown, until SCAF forces would do exactly that. Then what do we do? we RUN!!! Because we were also being shot at with shotgun shells. What amazes me still is that as soon as the gas would start to disappear, everyone was already on their way back; cheering and smiling and carrying flags. Many people were making jokes. Sometimes there would be false alarms and we would run anyway. There were many children there (without goggles or safety masks) who would grab my hands and others when the tear gas would blind our eyes, leading us to safety or to the volunteer doctors. There were both men and women doctors and nurses; and they never seemed to flinch. Some were standing all the way on the front lines, and as soon a person got injured these ones would run to their aid. Any one in need of more serious medical help would be placed on the volunteer motorcycles to be brought back to a makeshift hospital close to the conflict, or placed in an ambulance to be rushed to a city hospital. There were many of those motorcyclists; and it seemed like one of those completely spontaneous creative solutions to a problem they were dealing with.

This was my first experience in such clashes, photographing and reporting, and I must say I found a few things both very inspiring and very strange. I noticed that on the ground there was no fear. I’m not sure whether it was due to the high spirits or the community I was surrounded by, but I soon realized that fear was the inability to help, and in that situation I felt that I was able to help. When you see an injured person in a photograph or on television, you tend to feel an awful lot of sympathy for that person, and that creates a feeling of defeat and fear towards the fate and future of our fellow beings. However, when actually participating in the action, it was very simple to me. If you see some one injured, you try to carry them–or call people to help. You hear bullets being shot, you hide–not out of fear but out of necessity.

There was an overwhelming amount of tear gas around us and sometimes what seemed like a couple of dozens of canisters being shot at us at the same time. My gas mask usually worked, but when the clouds of smoke engulfed me there was no air to breathe. The lack of oxygen would make me dizzy, and, because I couldn’t see well with the goggles I bought, I preferred to go without them. This meant many moments of my vision blacking out and using other senses to escape. Yet no one was alone there. As soon as I was blinded many would ask if I wanted help getting back to the safe areas.

It was completely clear and proven to me that there were many infiltrators possibly SCAF members who blended in with the crowds or paid the citizens. Earlier that morning there had been people on the roofs of surrounding building, throwing rocks at us. This was before clashes got bad that night. But, the most frightening moment was one of the times we were running on the side street–to escape some military forces who were coming after us. At that point we encountered a group of civilian dressed people making a wall with their bodies, guiding us to what they said was an alley way and escape route. That alley way was a dead-end we realized. If those people were protestors then they would have also gotten beaten and arrested when the military forces arrived. It made no sense. Why would they send us into the alley? Because of my skepticism, I was one of the last to enter that dead-end–leaving me in front, with those suspect “protestors” blocking the way back out from the alley. I asked one man to let me go out, because I had changed my mind and would run elsewhere. He refused.

Right at that moment, I hear the people behind me screaming: “It’s a trap!! It’s a dead-end!” Now, I’m definitely not a big guy, and don’t consider my self one of the strongest, but something took me over at that moment. It was a desperation to survive that night. I found myself somehow, using all my force, successfully pushing three guys onto the ground. After that, everyone followed and it was a flood of people pushing and escaping that dead-end. As I was running one of the guys who had been blocking the rest of us had caught up and was trying to steal my phone while I live-streamed. His hand slipped–he didn’t get a good grasp–but the rest of the group grabbed him anyway and pushed him against a wall. They didn’t hurt him but asked him if he was crazy to be trying to steal a phone while running for his life. The man seemed startled and didn’t respond. And we all continued to run.

In my next edit of photos–photos of my last day in Cairo–I will share an experience of great solidarity. There was a particular group of children running around, joking, asking me to take their pictures while they are being shot at. Those unmasked children saved me several times, including once when I was stuck stepping over barbed wire and being stampeded over by protestors running from shotgun shells.

I will be posting some more photographs of this day’s daytime. soon.

Photos by Zack Helwa

Words by Zack Helwa

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