Sanaa Abdelgawad and her daughter Asmaa Beltagi were in front of Rabaa’s main stage when security forces advanced on the square. The area was immersed in smoke and Sanaa and Asmaa were struggling to breathe.
“I was wiping her face with a towel and trying to calm her down. She was doing the same to me,” says Sanaa, recalling the bloodbath six years ago which has since been labelled the worst state orchestrated massacre in living memory.
Sanaa could smell blood and she could see tanks and bulldozers crushing the camps and security forces setting fire to tents with protesters still inside. Ammunition was being fired non-stop from every direction.
The bodies of protesters fell around them, the smoke was so heavy they could barely see. Asmaa turned to her mother and asked if she could go to the field hospital to help the injured.
“I refused,” recalls Sanaa. “I was afraid of the heavy shelling, but she insisted and left me and went to help the wounded. She could not bear to watch without offering to help.”
Several minutes went by, then Sanaa called her daughter to check she was ok but by that time authorities had shut down communication networks and the line was dead.
Then she saw her son, Asmaa’s younger brother, who delivered the devastating news: “Asmaa’s been shot.” The bullet came from a sniper in one of the helicopters above the square.
After Asmaa kissed her mother goodbye, she never made it to the field hospital and so other protesters carried her the rest of the way. But since morning injured demonstrators had poured in and by 3pm there was barely any medication left.
I saw her in the hospital while she was dying, bleeding. They could not help her because they did not have any medicine. Then they took her to the top floor of the hospital, and after an hour of severe pain, she died.
By 5pm the gunfire had still not let up. Asmaa’s three brothers decided they had no choice but to smuggle their sister’s body out of the square. Their fears that her body would be burnt to cover the crime was very real – security forces later set fire to the hospital and whoever did not make it out burned, dead or alive.
They wrapped her in a blanket and tried to escape from the back of the hospital but almost immediately shots were fired at them from an armoured vehicle. They retreated, then left again but snipers shot at the body and she fell from their hands. A tank rolled into her and broke her skull.
When they eventually carried her out, her brothers tried 15 different hospitals but each refused to take her into their morgues. “They were given instructions to refuse any injured people or corpses,” recalls Sanaa.
Though hospitals around the square were equipped to treat the wounded, authorities were blocking ambulances entering and pharmacies were instructed not to supply medication. “Eventually, after much pleading, they took her to the morgue at the university hospital where her father had worked.”
Mohamed Beltagi, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, a doctor, and Asmaa’s father, made it out alive that day. Amid the sweeping crackdown that followed the massacre, Beltagi went into hiding but he was captured two weeks later in Giza and charged with inciting violence. In 2018 he was sentenced to death in a mass trial alongside 739 people.
Four months after his father’s arrest their eldest son, Anas, was arrested followed by the youngest son, Khaled, who was just 16-years-old. Khaled was later released and four and a half years later Anas was found not guilty, but instead of being released Anas was forcibly disappeared.
Authorities pursued a case against Sanaa and banned her from visiting her husband and two sons. Eventually she made the decision to leave the country to protect the rest of the family and she settled in Turkey where she now lives with Khaled.
“They sought revenge on every member of the family, either by murder or arrest. What did my family do to deserve such torture?” asks Sanaa. “We were living a beautiful and happy life filled with love, understanding and harmony. They destroyed our family and tore it apart.”
Sanaa describes her life before the Rabaa massacre as “full of joy and happiness”. Both parents and children strived to excel in every aspect of their lives, she says. Her children wanted both to please their parents and to contribute to their country.
Now Sanaa lives in exile, is homesick and is far away from her son and husband and cannot even visit her daughter’s grave. Authorities have seized the family properties and destroyed the private clinic her husband set up. Now, she says, there is grief and sadness.
“They have destroyed the future of my family and thousands of Egyptian families who bore the brunt of injustice like us.”
“My husband was opposed to the regime and a member of the Egyptian parliament. He defended the rights of Egyptians, which were not being met, until he was punished for his political opposition and now we are all paying the price.”
Though she paid with her life, since her death Asmaa has become an international symbol of resistance: “Of course, I fear for my husband and son, but Asmaa taught us all to have free will and determination and that we have rights we must obtain, no matter how long it takes.”