Cairo Morgues Turn Battleground for Families Seeking Dead

On Friday morning, before the prayers and the protests and the teargas shells, Hoda Rahman was searching for her brother, Sayed.

He had left his home two days earlier to help with some of the almost 600 people killed in Cairo protests. His sister had roamed the hallways of hospitals and police stations. Now, among the bodies at the Zeinhom morgue, where neither incense nor masks could hide the smell of death, she feared the worst.

“My love,” she wailed, slapping her hands over her head in an Egyptian gesture for catastrophe. “He just said he would take a look, help them. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.”

As mourning turned to protest yesterday, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters poured onto the streets, sparking renewed conflict across the country. At least 12 more people were killed, according to the Ambulance Service, while the Muslim Brotherhood claimed 60 dead. Television images showed Cairo remains in the state of upheaval that worsened when the army ousted President Mohamed Mursi in July.

Protesters took to the streets as neighborhoods like Nasr City, normally crowded, emptied ahead of a 7:00 PM-to-6:00 AM curfew scheduled to last at least a month. The urban standoff continued to divide the city as grief turned to anger.

For hundreds of families, mourning would have to wait. The macabre came first. Loaded stretchers and empty coffins. Charred bodies identified by faintly remembered t-shirts. The dead stacked in the open, weighed down with ice, as the morgue’s drawers overflowed.

Riddled Bodies

In a city cleaved by protest, this is where the bodies were brought: first to a makeshift morgue at El-Imam mosque, where the floor was covered with some 200 corpses and men in bright orange vests called out their names, and then morgues like Zeinhom. At some morgues and hospitals, families say, doctors pressured by the police to keep the death toll low refused death certificates to those undeniably dead, offering “suffocation” as a cause of death to a teenager riddled with shotgun pellets and “suicide” for a man shot in the head.

The death toll from the overnight police assault on Brotherhood supporters camped out in two squares in Cairo and Giza made August 14 the bloodiest day in Egypt’s recent history. And yet, even as news spread through Cairo, congealing individual deaths into a public anger, the private rituals of sorrow repeated themselves every time a name was called out at the morgue, every time a body was identified and carried down to ambulances doubling as hearses.

Four Brothers

“There is no god but God,” the families chanted, as blocks of ice melted on the remains of those still unclaimed. “The martyr is loved by god.”

Until three days ago, Mohsen Sadek, a 30-year old accountant, was one of four brothers. Now, he is one of three. Alaa, 34, a doctor, was killed at the sit-ins that night, Mohsen said. Outside the morgue, he waited for Alaa’s body to be laid into a wooden casket.

His brother died from three bullets, to the chest and throat, the coronary report said. What followed was a horror, too. First Mohsen dragged his brother’s body to the Sayed Galal hospital, where he said police pressured the staff not to take any corpses from the sit-in. Three hours of begging later, Alaa’s body was finally placed in a hospital morgue.

Then Sadek had to move it again, to Zeinhom, where some of the crowds had cleared. There, in the courtyard, he waited until a stretcher appeared with Alaa’s body, washed, ready to be buried. Sadek wept as he lifted the casket, and carried it to the hearse.

Narrow Streets

“Goodbye, martyrs of Egypt,” whispered an old man, standing and watching.

Support for the brotherhood is far from universal. In the narrow streets behind the square, pharmacist Ahmed Anwar, 30, said the police were right to break up the protests. For a month and half, as officials gave repeated warnings to the protesters to disperse, he felt trapped in his own home.

“We were not able to come and go as we want,” he said. “They used to ask us for our IDs and search us. If they want to have a sit-in they should do it in front of a government building.”

He talked of the policemen who had died, and the fact that protesters were armed. The police had to fire back once they were attacked, he said.

And yet, he felt the protesters’ sadness.

“I had pity for them when I saw them carrying their dead and praying over them,” he said.

Paper Fight

At morgues, the search for bodies has turned into a fight for a piece of paper. Burial permits, required by cemetaries and issued by the Health Ministry after an official autopsy, are withheld. In Islam, the dead must be buried quickly, but the paperwork drags on.

The reason, family members and friends say, was political - - the government doesn’t want to create a record of those killed by gunfire. Ali Khaled died of shotgun wounds, his autopsy report finally said. But not before Ihab Saleh, 32, and other friends were asked by a hospital to accept a ruling of suicide.

Hilal Abdel-Hamid, a 45-year-old garment worker, was asked by the El-Sadr Hospital to accept a report that said his friend, Khaled Hammouda, had killed himself. Hammouda’s charred body was identified only after Hamid recognized his t-shirt, made in the same factory where the two worked.

Mursi’s Photograph

“The treatment here is inhuman,” he said at the Zeinhom morgue, his face half-covered with a mask. “We still don’t know what they will write in the report.”

At Rabaa Square, the site of one of the protests, the streets are closed off. Barbed wire blocks the four streets that branch out from the square, and an Egyptian flag flaps from a tank. In the minaret of the charred mosque in the square, a soldier removes a large photograph of Morsi as a few onlookers cheered him along.

“Go ahead and burn it,” shouted one.

The soldier crumpled the photograph instead.

“Is that it,” shouted a veiled woman picking her way through the rubble and waving her arms at the military police. “You burn a mosque? Do you not fear God?”

And then she broke out in tears.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ola Galal in Cairo at ogalal@bloomberg.net Mehul Srivastava in London at msrivastava6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Fraher at jfraher@bloomberg.net

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