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Mamamia Cares: Cairo is a besieged city, but to millions it is home

The Egyptian capital city, Cairo

By SARA SALEH

My 95 year old grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately. She lives in Egypt, and has for a good 94 of those 95 years.

“Civilisation started here,” she used to say to me proudly, pointing at the mighty Pyramids.

“It’s not called ‘mother of the world’ for no reason,” she would say, repeating the common Arabic saying.

And yet here we are, watching as the world calls civilisation ‘crumbled’.

Seeing the footage of the streets of Cairo on Sunrise was extremely disheartening, but hearing Amnesty International’s researcher Diana Tahawy is what really painted the unforgettable picture.

I have never met Diana, but maybe it was the mixture of genuineness and distress in her voice that made me feel instantly connected as she referred to names and places I knew…I could see present-day Cairo through her eyes.

The colourful city of Cairo

These past few weeks, Cairo has been referred to as total chaos, a battle zone, a besieged city – defeated.

But to millions, including my grandmother, it’s home. And to me, one of the most alive and colourful cities I know.

As Diana described the Cairo streets as once bustling, I worried the Cairo I knew would quickly disappear, along with the memories I have of it.

I remember the crowds that swarmed the streets at all times of day – street vendors selling koshary (a local delicious pasta and rice dish), carts filled with watermelon rolling alongside the old jalopies, the street cafes that lined the alleyways filled with people watching popular Egyptian movies and TV shows (they called it the Hollywood of the Middle East).

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‘People dying all around’

Today, I read these testimonies from people Diana spoke to in Cairo:

“It was non-stop tear gas…and shots were coming from the rooftops and the armoured vehicles…shots were raining down on us…tents around us started burning…I am afraid that those who did not get out of the tents on time burned to death inside…”

One of Sara’s relatives holding the Egyptian flag

“There were so many cases of both killed and injured that we lost count. At that stage all the doctors left to go to the main Rabaa Hospital as the number of patients there was overwhelming, and we had no capacity to deal with them in the field hospital.”

“At around 5pm, I heard noise downstairs…One of the doctors told us that the security forces were attacking the hospital. The doctors ordered us to close the curtains and windows to avoid the tear gas. I saw snipes on the roofs of buildings near the hospital…then another doctor told us that the security forces had got into the first floor and were asking people to leave…The security forces then evacuated people outside of the hospital.”

Hundreds of deaths, sectarian violence, and so many ifs and buts on all sides of the spectrum.

There isn’t a single person I have spoken to, in Egypt and here in Australia, who can pick a side without attaching a disclaimer of some sort.

What is clear however, is that the use of excessive force is never justified, and this continued bloodshed comes at too high a cost.

“It’s never black and white, but this is just too grey.” For the first time, my grandmother doesn’t have any answers for me.

She asks me as she sits not far from Tahrir Square, how many lives must be sacrificed and memories lost before her city is colourful once more.

For the past few years, Sara has been working with many community-based organisations in refugee and youth related areas in Western Sydney. Sara joined Amnesty International as Media and Public Affairs Coordinator in April 2012, focusing on the organisation’s refugee and crisis media work. Earlier this year, she visited the refugee camps in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Visit the Amnesty International website here.

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