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Egypt: Ten years after Rabaa, families still in the dark over fate of missing children

Egyptian forces massacred hundreds at Cairo's Rabaa sit-in, but scores of people, including then-children, still remain unaccounted for
An Egyptian man carries a protestor injured by security forces near Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya square on 14 August 2013 (AFP)

It's 7:30pm and in Egypt's hopelessly gridlocked capital, the cacophonous symphony of honks and beeps ring out from the overcrowded streets.

The sounds drown out the roars of children playing football and the sunset call for prayer.

But inside Badria el-Sayed's home, an eerie silence persists.

This Cairo house, which was once full of raucous laughter, fell silent years ago.

Exactly 10 years ago today, Sayed saw her son Omar Hammad for the last time.

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On the morning of 14 August 2013, Omar, who was then 20, made his way to Cairo's Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square unaware of the violence he was about to witness. 

A protest movement demanding the reinstatement of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was entering its sixth week. As the protests demanding his return swelled, a sprawling tent city emerged. Many of Omar's friends went to lend their voices and support for the ousted leader.

But shortly after sunrise on that fateful day, a convoy of armoured military vehicles jammed the square, one of Cairo's busiest thoroughfares, shutting down all major exits to the sit-in. 

'I want my son, even if he is dead. I have the right to visit his grave'

Sanaa Ahmed, mother of Amr Metwally

Using armoured vehicles, snipers and live ammunition, Egyptian forces would kill at least 817 people at Rabaa and another 87 at al-Nahda Square, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of the protesters were either shot in the head or chest, including many who were in their early teens.

A huge fire also engulfed the sit-in, burning down tents and the nearby Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque.

"It's been a decade-long nightmare," Sayed told Middle East Eye, fighting back the tears as she recounted failed efforts to locate her son. 

"The last words he told me were: 'I'm going [to go] home mom. Don't worry. I'll [just] go there [to the square] to check on my friends'."

Hopeful, despite the odds

Sayed says she initially heard through one of Omar's friends that he had been shot in the shoulder and detained by the army during the crackdown. But after failing to hear any news through the military, she launched a long and exhaustive effort to find him, visiting hospitals, morgues and police stations across the country.

Even DNA analysis was explored in the hope of confirming Omar's whereabouts, she told MEE, which apparently yielded promise nine months later when the results came back negative.

"This was a real hope. Omar has not died yet," she added.

After General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi claimed victory in the presidential election in 2014, which were widely condemned as a sham, Sayed went to Al-Azoly prison after hearing that her son was being held at the military prison in northeastern Cairo.

The notorious facility, widely referred to as "Egypt's Guantanamo", is considered a reserve for the forcibly disappeared, where many are often tortured until coerced into confessing to crimes they have not committed.

Sayed said that while there she heard from an inmate named Abdel Aziz that her son was being detained. But after reaching out to prison officials for help she says she was met with denials and mockery.

She later thought her relentless pursuit had yielded a breakthrough when she received two phone calls from an unknown number.

"I was shocked," Sayed said. The man on the other side identified himself as Major Adham from the National Security headquarters who promised to resolve the matter.

But after extracting information about Omar and his political affiliations she never heard from him again.

Later, an officer with the National Security told Sayed that Omar had gone to Syria, echoing a false claim Sisi told the BBC in 2015 about other protesters.

Still, Sayed remains hopeful. "I have a feeling that my son is alive."

Disappearances are now the norm

Halim Hanish, a lawyer and human rights researcher, says that "there is no accurate count of the number of those forcibly disappeared, whether on the day of the Rabaa massacre or after it."

The London-based Human Rights Monitor has documented more than 400 cases of people who disappeared from both squares, but admits the number is likely much higher.

Hanish, who has been closely following the issue, has equated the situation in Egypt to that in Argentina after the 1976 coup led by General Jorge Videla. 

"The matter in Egypt is much more serious," he told MEE, adding that enforced disappearances were now a standard procedure.

"[More than] 90-95 percent of detainees were subject to the crime of enforced disappearance," Hanish added.

Similar to cases of the Argentinean mothers who rallied for answers only to be abducted themselves, Egyptian parents have also been targeted for probing their children's fate.

Lawyer and human rights defender Ibrahim Metwally, whose son Amr Metwally was forcibly disappeared after the Rabaa massacre, was forcibly disappeared at Cairo airport in 2017 before he was scheduled to board a flight to Geneva.

Sanaa Ahmed says her husband Ibrahim never stopped searching for their son.

"I want my son, even if he is dead. I have the right to visit his grave," said Sanaa, adding that the last conversation she ever had with him regularly brings her to tears.

'I just want my son back'

At 1am on 14 August 2013, Sanaa sat with her son at one of the tents in Rabaa where they had their last meal together. Hours later, the Egyptian army opened fire and since then, Amr's fate has been a mystery.

Just like Sayed, Ahmed has been clinging onto hope that her son is alive.

"I just want my son back," said Sanaa.

The Al-Shehab Foundation for Human Rights says the number of enforced disappearances have surpassed 15,000 since July 2013, a figure that the Egyptian government categorically denies. 

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Hanish said that a major stumbling block for the families was that Egypt had not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and its local laws do not properly define or criminalise enforced disappearances.

Article 54 of the Egyptian Constitution states that "it is not permissible" to arrest or detain individuals without a judicial order. 

The article adds that those detained "shall be immediately enabled to contact his/her relatives and lawyer; and shall be brought before the investigation authority within 24 hours as of the time of restricting his/her freedom".

But incidents still continue. In May, Moaz al-Sharqawy, a former student activist, was forcedly disappeared for 23 days before he was brought before state prosecution. 

Hanish said that while Egypt was a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, "Egypt's signing of the [other] agreement [on enforced disappearances] is a prerequisite for achieving justice".

MEE reached out to the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs and the Egyptian embassy in London for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

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