Where’s Esraa Eltaweel?
(Published in Al-masry Al-youm, 10/6/2015)
The picture right above my name in this article was taken by Esraa Eltaweel. All the pictures of my wife’s birthday were taken by Esraa. The ladybird-shaped clock on my bookshelf was a gift to us from Esraa, because she loves the color of that beautiful bug. Esraa is gifted with the ability to make people’s faces look prettier through the lenses of her camera — she sees a prettier world, and this is the way it appears in her pictures.
Esraa is a young girl. Her ID says she’s 23, but her childish lineaments take off several years from that number, while her experience adds a lot more.
Before she came to Egypt in 2010 to join the university, Esraa had lived in the KSA all her life, which is why she still has a hint of the Arabian Gulf accent in her speech, something that she never felt embarrassed by, and has always brought us a lot of laughs.
It was when the Revolution broke out that Esraa, along with our entire generation, rediscovered herself. She joined in and started practicing photography as a hobby, which then turned into a professional activity and an art. As she went to the university, she also worked as an independent photojournalist and occasionally sold her work to different media outlets.
Nigh on a-year-and-a-half ago, precisely on the anniversary of January 25th in 2014, Esraa was taking pictures of a demonstration called for by some revolutionary forces in front of the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in Dokki, when the angry shouts against both the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime were interrupted with the sounds of live bullets. (Lest we forget: that day, 102 people were killed…or martyred, depends on how you see it).
And Esraa took a bullet in the back. She was paralyzed!
For several bleak months Esraa remained bedridden, and after intensive physical therapy that she still needs, she started using a wheelchair. Recently, when she came to my wife’s birthday, she used two canes that hardly helped her walk, and yet she had no difficulty laughing and having fun and being generous as usual.
On last June 1st, Esraa asked her friends Omar Mohammad Ali and Sohayb Sa’ad to take her out for dinner. They used to help her move around, and in return she would buy them a lot of cheesecakes and waffles, which Omar would engorge because he “burns his calories quickly,” as he used to say.
Last contact with them was at 9 PM when they were at the Maadi Corniche, then their phones were switched off, and they simply vanished…
Lately, there have been recurring cases of enforced disappearance. In most cases, the person who had vanished would reappear after having been interrogated by some entity that is not the General Investigation Directorate, and then they would be prosecuted.
Last May, along with other journalist colleagues, I received a message from Ahmad Abu Leila, a student at the Faculty of Medicine in Tanta and a member of the Student Union. The message said: “My father, Mostafa Mohammad Abu Leila, an English teacher, was kidnapped on May 18th from our house at dawn. In the same morning I sent telegraphs to the Attorney General, the Advocate General of the city of Tanta and the Minister of Interior, to prove my father’s kidnapping, and also filed a report at the prosecution office.”
The story was widespread on Facebook, then all of a sudden, on May 28th, the eleventh day of Mr. Mostafa’s disappearance, he finally reappeared at the prosecution office, where he was charged with the usual dozen offenses used with the Brotherhood. The prosecution then gave him 15 days in jail.
That phenomenon had started with similar cases among members of the Brotherhood and their supporters, which nobody heard of because they are a proscribed group, of course.
For example, on May 3rd, Ahmad Ghoneim, a student at the Faculty of Dar al-Uloom of Cairo University, disappeared, and a month later he reappeared at the Appeal Prison on June 1st.
On May 1st, Mohammad Tolba Abdul Shafy, a student at the Faculty of Engineering, disappeared, and then reappeared on May 16th at the prosecution office in Desouk and was bailed out.
The phenomenon then started getting some media attention as it expanded beyond just the Muslim Brotherhood.
On May 24th, Mansour Ashraf, a photographer at Yqeen News Network, disappeared in front of the High Institute of Agriculture where he studies, then on June 3rd, his family finally found him imprisoned at a Central Security camp in Banha.
On May 26th, at dawn, Sheikh Anas al-Sultan was arrested along with his two brothers at the family house in Nasr City, and in spite of his strong connections with insiders in the Al Azhar circles, nobody knew where he was until he reappeared at the prosecution office in Nasr City on May 30th.
On May 31st, activist Dalia Radwan was arrested in Alexandria. She vanished without a trace until she was bailed out on June 3rd.
Al-Masry Al-Youm published a reportage on the disappearance of seven people in the period of just six days!
With the rocket rising of similar cases recently, the National Council for Human Rights (a government entity) held a hearing with the families of those who disappeared, in order to document their cases. The council then stated that they received 55 complaints of enforced disappearance.
It’s really scary that the most these 55 Egyptian families would hope for is to know that their children are alive.
Every day those people spent unaccounted for is utterly illegal, and there are no guarantees that the captives wouldn’t be tortured or pressured one way or another.
Article 54 of the Egyptian Constitution:
“All those whose freedoms have been restricted shall be immediately informed of the causes therefor, notified of their rights in writing, be allowed to immediately contact their family and lawyer.”
The Constitution made no exception to this rule, which applies to all kinds of felonies, to every accursed thief and murderer and rapist and, surprise surprise, to terrorists as well!
If there’s somebody who wants to amend the Constitution and add exceptions to this article or another, they should say that loud and clear, but I myself cannot comprehend the logic of someone who is proud of our “institutional state,” and at the same time applauds those mob-like ways.
According to Sarah, Omar’s sister, who spoke to Al-Watan newspaper, they had heard that police checkpoints in the area had detained some people that night, and so they went to the Maadi Police Station, where two low-ranking officers received them.
“Where are you going?” they asked us, and we answered, “We’re looking for our siblings.”
After they gave them a description of Esraa and her two friends, the two low-ranking officers did remember them and said that the three of them were brought in. However, inside the station, the picture changed drastically: the commissioner and officers denied any knowledge of the three. “They said they didn’t know anything about them. If their names aren’t listed, then they aren’t here.” Disappointed, they left, and on the way out Sarah talked again to the low-ranking officers, who said that if they aren’t listed there, then they’re probably at the National Security building in Maadi, which lies adjacent to the police station.
In the last few days their phones were switched on several times, their families received interrupted calls that made no sense, and then the phones were switched off again. Nobody understands the kind of message the entity who is detaining them wants to deliver, but the only certain thing here is that the anguish has reached its highest point.
Sarah tried to file a report of her brother’s disappearance, so that he doesn’t get fired from his job at Military Production, but the chief of detectives refused at first, “because he asked to see Omar’s WhatsApp account, and found that he was last seen two days before. He said to Mom that her son has either ran away or is detained somewhere, and she should look for him at police stations.” But in the end he succumbed to pressure from the family and lawyers.
Sarah then started the hashtag that translates into “Freedom for Those Who Have Nothing to Do with It,” to tell stories about her brother who never cared about anything other than “food, playing and hanging out.”
Doaa, Esraa’s sister, repeated over and over that her sister has nothing to do with any entity or organization whatsoever, and especially responded to some weird rumor that was spread by a weird website, which claimed that Esraa was an official spokeswoman of Women Against the Coup. Doaa wrote on her Facebook page that “Anybody who knows Esraa would know that if she were an official spokeswoman of anything, it would be Women Against Women Against the Coup, and that she only used the word “freeborn women” to make fun of someone or tease them. ‘You’re a freeborn woman,” she would say.’”
In a phone call with Gaber al-Qarmouty, Major General Abu Bakr Abdul Karim, Spokesman of the Ministry of Interior, denied any knowledge of the whole thing and promised that the police would investigate the matter and announce the results.
As I write this, I keep thinking of the best ways to get people’s sympathy for Esraa.
I met all the usual conditions of writing about such cases: I affirmed that she has nothing to do with the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood and that she doesn’t march in demonstrations, I gave a few details from my personal relationship with her, and mentioned the humanistic side of the case (her ailment) and that she’s a good girl from a good family who goes to university and dresses nicely.
What else can we do to get people’s sympathy?
Should we talk about her cat Woody, whom she always loved?
Mention that she hasn’t been wearing a veil until very recently?
Publish a photo of her and Omar as they play “odd selfies” and make funny faces?
For three days I didn’t know what to write. I was even hesitant to write anything, for I’m not sure whether writing would benefit or harm her.
Nobody can understand our feelings unless they are living through what we’re living through. It’s a whole other thing when the hammer strikes someone close to you, no matter what you think you feel for everyone. Nobody feels for everyone.
Confusion, fear, helplessness. Scary thoughts, from her health condition with no medicine available to her, to the absence of food, to melancholic scenarios we don’t want to mention about the way she is treated.
Esraa, we’re your friends and brothers and sisters. If we could do anything, we would’ve done it. Forgive us.
The stars in our sky are about to touch the very bottom of our well. We had reached a point where we didn’t want to change the world anymore, we stopped dreaming of changing Egypt to the better; we only wanted to keep our families and friends alive in the first place, and then out of prison if at all possible.
We thought we hit rock bottom, until the bottom split apart to reveal another bottom beneath. We only want to know where to find our loved ones who disappeared. Is that too much to ask?