The last time Omar’s mother saw him was Aug. 14, 2013. Since that day, Badara Sayed, a 46-year-old Egyptian homemaker, says she has tried everything to find her son.
“Morgues, DNA test: negative. Prisons, Ministry of Interior, complaints filed with the prosecution. We keep on repeating the same steps over and over again. I just wish I could see him. Or get official information about where he is. Or know whether he’s dead or alive.”
She both hopes and fears that he is being kept in a secret military prison called Azouli. Those who make it out tell stories of torture. Soldiers force prisoners to confess they’re terrorists, even if they’re just regular people, like Omar Mohamed Ali Ali Hamad, who was 21 when he disappeared.
He woke up one morning nearly two years ago and went to his university in the Cairo suburbs to check his exam scores and practice a rap performance with his classmates. Next to the campus, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dispossessed Islamist political movement, was leading a protest. They had staked out a sprawling tent city at the intersection of two wide streets. The famous Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque is there. Nearby is the Defense Department.
A dispersal was coming, but no one knew when. No one knew the army, with bulldozers and snipers, would massacre as many as 1,000 Egyptians, most of them unarmed, in broad daylight and reportedly light their bodies on fire.
Omar was practicing for “the end-of-the-year concert he was going to do with his classmates,” says his sister, Maryam, now 23. There had been rumors all month the dispersal would be “today,” but it never came. “So we thought it wouldn’t happen on that day, either, and we went anyway. We’re a year apart. We used to do everything together.”
The operation began at 7 a.m. A few hours later, Omar joined friends in the streets to carry the wounded to ambulances. Cellular connection was bad. Maryam called again and again. At 1 p.m., their younger teenage sister got through. Please come home, she said.
“Don’t worry,” he told her, “I’ll come back soon.”
In February 2011, President Hosni Mubarak resigned following weeks of pro-democracy protests. In the summer of 2012, the country held its first free elections, but after all their efforts and the deaths of hundreds, many revolutionaries were disappointed by their options. The runoff pitted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, a conservative Islamist, against Ahmed Shafik, a prime minister from the Mubarak regime.
After Morsi won by a thin margin, a wave of anti-Brotherhood protests culminated in a military coup d’etat on July 3, 2013. That’s when Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets. By August, tens of thousands of people were in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.
Omar’s mother and sister insist he had nothing to do with the protests or the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed and labeled as a terrorist group since December 2013 (despite little evidence of any connection between the group and attacks on soldiers).
It’s difficult to know whether Omar was indeed simply helping or whether he was protesting and fighting back. The mother and sister oppose the regime and often watch pro-Muslim Brotherhood channels. They are conservative. In Badara’s flat, the call to prayer resonates loudly thanks to an amplifier, even though the nearby mosque is quite loud enough. On the walls of their small, homey living room hang a picture of Jerusalem and a quote from the Quran — common Egyptian household décor. On the middle of the Quran poster, there’s a sticker of a tiny, pink dancing doll.
Badara is caring and proud of her children, and her warmth extends to me. She refuses to let me take pictures until I eat the broth and vegetables, rice, cracked wheat and chicken she’s made for 5 p.m. lunch.
Maryam says she could never profess her political opinions openly at the university, for fear of arrest. She is pretty and bright, cares a lot about politics, and less probably about fact-checking.
Yet in family photos, Omar looks more like a rebellious soccer fan — handsome, clean-shaven and wearing sunglasses — than an Islamist. He played goalkeeper at Zamalek club, which hosts one of the two biggest Egyptian soccer teams, studied engineering at the prominent Islamic university Al-Azhar and composed rap songs with friends. His stage name was Omar Kano.
One song, called “Presidential Elections,” released amid the 2012 presidential elections, proclaims, “We want a president, not a new Ramses.” It demonstrates Omar’s intelligence and political awareness, liberally attacking all candidates, including Morsi. But a later one, “Revolution Maker,” in 2013, suggests at least some sympathy for the Brotherhood: “The regime’s dogs are playing a dirty game. The people distrust the Brotherhood, encouraging religious sectarianism and political divisions. They want Islam without Muslims, all of them conspirators in the hands of the Americans.”
“He loved his country,” Maryam says, “didn’t care much for any political affiliation, didn’t make a big deal about the religion. He had many Christian friends, and he would go to their church for their celebrations.”
The military would claim that the Brotherhood protesters were armed and fought back. Journalists saw some civilians with guns, but no more than a few. Most of the dead were shot in the head or the chest. One man was burned alive in his tent.
“Omar is a very sociable person,” Badara says. “He is very sweet and kind and has very good morals.” His sister, a law student, says he was studying to be “a construction engineer to build his country.”
On the morning of his disappearance, Omar and Maryam arrived at the university gates and encountered his musician friends, who said people were injured and needed help.
“I didn’t think it was that terrible,” Maryam said. “I thought they’d be done quickly, so I didn’t come with them. I told him to be careful and stay away from the bullets.”
What happened that morning remains a divisive memory in recent Egyptian history. One side of the political spectrum cites it as proof of the government’s savagery. The other side says the protesters got what they deserved. Multiple reports suggest the Islamists simply refused to negotiate, setting the stage for a bloodbath.
Just after dawn, security forces moved in to disperse the camp. Each side says the other fired first. Before long, medics were overwhelmed. According to a report in The Guardian, a flustered doctor told the friends of a wounded man, “This one isn’t such a big deal. Just try to squeeze his organs back in.” Soldiers pushed in from all sides as sniper fire rained down from above. Exiting the square was as treacherous as sheltering in it. The Muslim Brotherhood and the government both have video evidence of the opposing side firing live ammunition. Protesters killed eight soldiers, however; soldiers killed about 1,000 protesters, rights groups say.
The last time Maryam heard her brother’s voice was on the phone at 11 a.m. She told him she wanted him to come back near the university. He told her he needed to help more injured people to the field hospital. The connection was bad, and she couldn’t hear him very well.
Two hours later, their sister got through to him. “He told her not to worry, that he was coming back soon,” Maryam says. After that, his phone was off.
With no sign of Omar, Maryam set off toward the field hospital in the square. She describes a landscape of blood and chaos.* “I had to look at all the injured, and all the dead bodies, to make sure I didn’t find Omar among them.” When she got to the field hospital, she hunkered down amid a growing number of corpses and fled with a group when the tear gas became too strong.
“We didn’t know how to get out of there alive,” she says. They ducked into a building and ran up to a higher floor. But the building, too, came under siege. They grew fearful the building would catch fire (it never did), and they rushed outside. The first ones out were arrested, but Maryam made it.
She called her parents, and her father drove to Rabaa Square and took her home, where she slumped into despair. “I was so depressed after that,” Maryam says.
“The first day after Omar went missing, we thought he’d come back any time,” Badara says. “The second day as well. Then it was three days, then a week, then a month, and today…”
The first places they checked were the morgues and hospitals. They didn’t find him, and they didn’t find any of his belongings among the effects of unidentified bodies.
At Rabaa, bodies were torched to mounds of cinder. The government has used DNA testing on these remains, but Badara has not found Omar’s DNA on file at any morgue.
There was, however, some indication that he was arrested and not killed in the massacre. “The friends who were with him that day during the sit-in dispersal told us they had seen him being taken by the security forces into their truck,” Badara says. “They said his shoulder looked injured.” (Badara declined to put me in touch with Omar’s friends, saying they were afraid and at greater risk because they are men.)
Badara says she has been to the Ministry of Interior so many times she cannot keep count. “It became my second home,” she says. The Interior Ministry is responsible for telling families whether their relatives are detained. But officially, the ministry has no record of Omar. Every time she visited, the officers sent her away. Discreetly, however, an employee told her otherwise, that his name was in the records. But the employee would not or could not say in which prison he was being held. It’s difficult to know who is reliable and who is trying to take advantage of their desperation.
Omar’s father has visited several civilian prisons, but the authorities refused to allow him to check the registers or simply said, “He’s not here.”
“Once, I explained to a neighbor how my son disappeared,” Badara says. “I said he was caught during the Rabaa sit-in dispersal, and they didn’t want to talk to me anymore. They thought I was a sympathizer of the Brotherhood and that was enough. Why is it foreigners empathize more than our fellow countrymen with us?”
If Badara wasn’t a Brotherhood supporter before the Rabaa massacre, it is obvious where her sympathies lie now, from her Islamic piety to her unconcealed opposition to the regime. She has appeared on Brotherhood television talk shows and has reached out to the mothers of other missing sons on Facebook, emboldened by the belief the military is unlikely to harm a woman. In one TV appearance, she told the interviewer, “We have hope, we have a lot of patience, we won’t stay quiet nor give up on our children.” Badara believes the army’s coup soon will be reversed by a new revolutionary wave.
This is a dangerous attitude in Egypt. The military is waging a war against elusive terrorist groups who have killed hundreds of troops in the desert Sinai Peninsula. The conflict has disrupted civilian life through curfews, raids on villages suspected of harboring terrorists and apparently random arrests. The army is evicting families and laying waste to towns near Gaza as a buffer with Palestine.
In this Egypt, it’s easy to be branded as a terrorist. Even breaking curfew is punishable by 15 years in prison. One NGO estimates as many as 40,000 people have been arrested for political reasons since the 2013 coup.
In July 2014, Badara was sitting in the waiting room of the West Cairo prosecutor’s office when she heard two lawyers talking about a military prison called Azouli. They were saying the facility was holding a number of people who were believed to have disappeared.
A month earlier, an Egyptian human rights activist wrote a blog post for Amnesty International about a prison where political detainees were “being subjected to levels of torture I did not imagine.” While searching for information,“people were too scared to even utter its name,” he wrote. The opposition lawyer Ahmed Helmy has described Azouli as “the Egyptian Guantanamo.”
Badara became convinced Omar was in Azouli, and she decided she needed to get inside. If anyone had seen him alive, this was her best hope of knowing.
Human rights groups say half of Azouli is a normal military prison, for suspected terrorists and prisoners of war. The other half, on the third floor of the building, is for secret prisoners. When civilians disappear, this is where they go.
“It would be difficult to say whether the Azouli inmates are all actually terrorists,” says Mohamed Khedr, a leftist Egyptian lawyer who has clients who were detained there. He and other lawyers estimate some 300 prisoners are held on the third floor at any given time, most of them from Sinai. Lawyers say special forces arrest “suspects” and torture them until they sign confessions. Then they wait until their wounds heal and transfer them to prosecutors. “It is very common to find a detainee accused of an attack that took place after the prisoner was detained,” Khedr says.
Military compounds are forbidden to non-military lawyers. The families of inmates are allowed to visit, but since Omar was technically nowhere, Badara did not qualify. She reached out on Facebook to a pro-Islamist lawyer who lives in self-exile in Turkey and talked with other families through a Facebook group called “Families of the disappeared.” Through the group, she obtained the phone numbers of two lawyers who at the time had access to Azouli.
Early in 2014, she traveled to the prison, in the city of Ismailia, about two hours northeast of Cairo on the Suez Canal. For a small sum of money, the lawyers helped her and other family members pretend they were the relatives of Egyptian soldiers imprisoned in Azouli. As they entered the gates, the guards took their mobile phones. They walked for what felt like miles through the military compound until they finally reached the courtroom.
During recess, they asked the inmates whether they had seen or heard the names of their loved ones. But the “relatives” had only a few moments to query the prisoners, who were often clueless. They are kept isolated from other sections and might only see the other inmates for a fleeting moment at a bathroom or a stairwell or when they collect their food. Guards prevent them from talking.
“No one saw my son,” Badara says. Some had heard his name, stirring a flicker of hope. But she says it’s not an uncommon name.
She went to Azouli twice, and others among her group brought Omar’s name on scraps of paper or a picture of him with them when they went. But the photos of Omar as he was — strong, confident — may as well have been someone else. “The pictures were useless,” she says. After months without a shave, prisoners in Azouli say they all end up looking the same.
While other families gave money to men who claimed they were generals with the power to make people reappear, Badara refused to believe them.
Instead, she just grew louder. She has filed complaints against the police, the army and President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. With the other families, she has petitioned to air their case with the Higher Administrative Court. She has met with the Red Cross, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, human rights group Nadeem and other non-governmental organizations to tell her story. Her efforts have been met with… nothing.
Many Egyptians have never heard of Azouli. Mainstream Egyptian media do not mention secret prisons. “They don’t even want to admit that there are people who have disappeared,” Maryam says.
“We assume he is not dead,” his mother says, “because we haven’t found his body anywhere.”
Badara uses the present tense, “is,” when she talks about Omar.
Maryam uses “was.”
“Omar might be dead,” she says when her mother leaves the room to stir sweet coffee in the kitchen. Sometimes, she says, in the photos of alleged terrorists killed in Sinai, “it looks like the wounds come from torture. Maybe these people are prisoners who died in jail and not terrorists they killed in a fight.” She says Omar may have been killed under torture and his body planted in a war zone.
While no serious human rights groups have documented staged deaths, the theory is not far-fetched. The military has been accused of transporting bodies either to conceal them or to stage atrocities. On the day of the Rabaa massacre, when Omar disappeared, state television showed a pile of bodies stashed deep within the dispersed Islamist camp as proof of their barbarism. But The New York Times reported that several journalists had been in that spot “repeatedly in recent days and found it empty.”
Khedr, the lawyer, recalls a chilling story from one of his clients. The man, arrested in the North Sinai city of Arish in November 2013, claims that as he was flying blindfolded in a helicopter to Azouli, he heard the soldiers dump corpses in the desert. The man is now in a normal prison, awaiting trial on terrorism charges.
Khedr is not optimistic about Omar because the disappeared who survive usually turn up within a few months or a year. Many of the disappeared from the Rabaa massacre have reappeared with terrorism charges. The rest, Khedr presumes, are dead. “Omar might be dead — unless for some reason they’re saving him for charges they haven’t brought up yet.”
Helmy, the lawyer who represents many Islamists facing terror charges, including some previously detained in Azouli, estimates there are still 400 people disappeared since the day of the Rabaa dispersal. “We don’t know where they are, but by now I don’t think they’re in Azouli anymore,” he says. “I’m afraid many have died of torture.”
In May 2014, in a widely known case, a young man named Amr Rabie reappeared after two months incommunicado after his mother made her case in the Egyptian media. Badara is hopeful that if Omar becomes a household name, the government will have to offer some answer, whether he’s alive.
Between her legal complaints, visits to government offices, appearances in Brotherhood media and at conferences, Badara is likely well-known to the government. She believes her phone is tapped, and she says she is waiting for a knock on her door. What comfort that remains is her belief that the military will be toppled soon and she’ll see justice.
When she walked outside the Azouli courtroom for the first time last year, she looked up at the stark prison buildings around her and imagined Omar trapped inside. So close and so out of reach. Maybe my son is there, and I can’t see him, she thought.
“I stood crying,” Badara says.
Editor’s note: It’s impossible to confirm what Maryam saw and what she didn’t see at the Rabaa massacre. Brotherhood supporters have been known to exaggerate graphic imagery or place themselves in situations that happened, but that they themselves did not experience. Based on available evidence, her account is possible.
Sophie Anmuth is a French freelance journalist based in Cairo.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley.