Ben Whateley-Harris went to Egypt to see the culture, temples and deserts. He ended up seeing much more than he bargained for
The semi-arid landscape out of the bus window began to show signs of life. The odd tree and house dotted the rocky landscape.
The sporadic buildings began to grow in number as the bus started to get nearer to Cairo and soon the sandy, dusty plastic bag strewn landscape gave way to a bustling metropolis that was in chaos.
The date was February 2011 and I had just arrived back into the Egyptian capital from the isolated White Desert.
What I had just arrived into was the Arab Spring and the full scale violence that were the Cairo riots.
At this time Hosni Mubarak was still President of Egypt and his forces clashed violently with protesters and their blood stained the streets and tear gas filled the air.
I had arrived at what could not have been a worse time. The city was collection of groups marching through the streets and then being forced back by overzealous police wielding batons and riot shields.
I stepped off the bus with my backpack tightly clutched in my hand and took in the scene.
Hotels were closed and guest houses were out of the question. I was now on my own and needed to use my wits to find shelter and a way of getting to the airport. That was if the airport was functioning.
Nothing could have prepared me for what awaited me. The normally bustling streets of the Egyptian capital were completely car free. Thousands of people lined the streets, chanting, praying and burning posters of Mubarak.
Tanks lined the streets, burnt out buses and cars were everywhere. Military checkpoints stopped you at every corner and shops had been looted and the ground was stained with blood.
Tear gas filled the air, lingering from the night before. A local saw my eyes streaming and kindly gave me a mask.
After searching frantically I found some fellow backpackers and we agreed to buy our way into a hotel that was still functioning. We managed to pay for a room between all of us which became a massive locked room to keep bags in. We all resulted afterwards to sleeping in the roof top bar that over looked the city. From this vantage point we could see tanks manoeuvring and swarms of people heading in all directions.
The electricity was sporadic and the building would shake when a nearby explosion would go off.
This was exactly a mile from Tahir square and the scenes of the most brutal violence.
Once my bag was secured I felt the weight off my shoulders. I therefore decided that watching from the closed roof bar wasn’t what I needed and I wanted to see first-hand what it was like at street level.
A I got closer to the square the crowds became more agitated and volatile. I walked past shattered glass shop front and burnt out cars and buses which blocked the bridges across the Nile.
Plumes of smoke filled the air and could be seen for miles around.
One of the government buildings had been torched and the small explosions of the air conditioning unit popped every now and then.
I walked up to the Egyptian Museum and it was a scene of pure carnage.
The fires were burning more frequently in this area. The fire service sat nearby not knowing what to do, they could not get near the buildings because of the sea of debris, cars and people milling about filming the scene on their mobile phones.
Tanks patrolled the square itself and people shouted and ran from the police who would hold a line behind their riot shields and then suddenly storm forward.
I saw news crews in flak jackets and army helmets reporting and ducking every time a shot was fired into the air.
Tear gas canisters suddenly rained down on the crowd and pandemonium exploded as bodies scrambled to get out of the smoke. Eyes filled with tears and hands covered mouths. Panic ensued and people barged past one another to try and get to cleaner air.
People became angrier and I would for moments become the target of their rage as they would scream at me in Arabic and berate me for taking photographs. I would move from area to area to escape the people and what I saw would last with me forever.
Ole people would stand defiantly and then be barged to the ground. An elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered suit was knocked to the ground by a baton leaving him dazed and blooded. He was helped to his feet and rushed down a side street to safety.
Women would holler at the police who would retaliate by a volley of blow from batons.
The blaze from the buildings reflected off the dirty Nile where a lone boat was making its way up river chugging along. The man on board dressed in a vest and tattered shorts looked on as anger and violence ruled the streets of his country’s capital.
I thought to myself it is time to get out. But the airport was another matter.
I discovered that all flights had been cancelled, rearranged or re-directed. Therefore my flight back to London which would have been the following day wasn’t going to go ahead.
I chatted to several people who had tried and failed to reach the airport and they all said that you had to pay a cab driver extra to get you there and go during the curfew to avoid protests. This however ran the risk of military check points. The military at this time were only passive bystanders in the protests and had not chosen sides yet.
I could not get to the airport because of the imposed curfew and the taxi drivers refusal to go there.
Therefore I chatted to a girl in the bar that evening as we watched the violence escalate below us and we hatched a plan.
We decided that early the next morning we would attempt an airport run and had found a cab driver who was willing enough to take us, for a price!
That evening the rioting grew worse and the hotel management were scared that the hotel itself would be attacked. The gathering in the bar had grown to quite a few people all of nationalities and all were either shell-shocked or clutching weapons.
We barricaded the stairwell just in case the lifts were out of action anyway due to the last of electricity.
Employees of the hotel stood outside the main door. One had a gold club and another had a pistol in his belt which he displayed triumphantly.
The crowds came and a few boots were aimed at the doors of the hotel but apart from that the mobs passed on to look at unprotected pickings and less defended areas.
People got whatever weapons they could and protected their property in the area we were in. The hotel staffs were armed with poles, pipes and one even had a rapier!
Finally at 6am still during the curfew we managed to get into a cab to get to the airport.
Makeshift road blocks were everywhere.
I had to get out of the cab several times to moved debris from the road. The driver glancing over his shoulder all the time.
I pushed concrete blocks out of the way and moved poles. People still lined the streets with weapons and gave me the once over while I was doing so. Once the cab moved through I would put the barricades back to their approval. Only then would their stares leave me and the cab.
As we made our way out onto the main roads vigilante groups stood by the road side next to the military checkpoints. Some carried guns and some had automatic weapons stolen from police stations.
All looked agitated and volatile as though any moment they would become trigger happy.
I was glad when I got to the airport. But the fun and games were not over yet.
It was a pure scrum and bundle to try and check in.
The airport was worse than a refugee camp, hoards of people screamed at one another and fights broke out as people tried to push trolleys with their worldly possessions through the melee.
There was not an inch of floor space and the British airways office was swamped with people trying to get on flights or find out information about if there flight was cancelled or departing.
Luckily my name was on the list because I had had a flight booked which was cancelled. Therefore I could try and get through the mass of people and get to the checkout desks.
If anyone has ever been to Cairo airport they will know the silly way with which you have to go through two sets of check in before you are even able to get into the departure lounge. The first set of check in was mayhem.
People pushed and fought to try and get through and the customs officers were shoved opff their feet and onto the floor.
At one point the bundles knocked the lady in uniform looking at the bag x rays off her chair onto the ground. She was swallowed up by a mass of bodies who stormed through resulting in uniformed officers pushing back.
Children screamed; fights broke out. There was no order or anyone taking charge and directing people.
It was hot and noisy and completely disorientating. An elderly Italian man suddenly was swept into the surge and his wife shouted for him. It took all my strength to grab him and pull him back towards her.
It took me an hour to fight my way to immigration, when I got there I was a mess. I glanced back and more fights were erupting. The noise was deafening and a man was walking past with a meat cleaver in his hand.
I was suddenly very glad to be getting out of Egypt!
|Tanks outside the Egyptian museum|
Date of trip – February 2011
Place – Cairo, Egypt