Letter from Cairo: A general’s torture– Nada Zatouna’s story

Middle East
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Nada Zatouna
Nada Zatouna (photo courtesy of Zatouna)

Nada Zatouna is 23 and an independent filmmaker. Originally from Aswan in upper Egypt, she lives in Cairo. She’s been an activist since the Revolution began in January, “involved with Tahrir from the start,” she said, “as an Egyptian citizen, and as an Egyptian woman.”

“I have my work, and my tools as a filmmaker,” she explained, “and I wanted to use them for my country. For my Revolution, to document what was going on – on our side, the victories, and also the things they did against us.

Police arrested Nada on Sunday, November 20, early in a week of steady fighting in downtown Cairo. The battles began when the military junta’s security forces raided a sit-in occupying Midan Tahrir. After that, police kept raiding Tahrir and seizing activists, using nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street (which leads from Lazoghly Square and the Ministry of Interio) as a point of entry. Protesters started confronting them along the street. Days of fighting ensued. Tear gas filled the city. Police snipers fired directly in demonstrators’ faces, and many lost their eyes permanently. More than 40 protesters died.

Nada herself was held for over a day, and tortured. Here is her story.

In the middle of the week, Thursday and Friday and Saturday [November 17-19], I was in a camp near Alexandria — we go there and take a rest from life. After that, I returned to Cairo, and was I shocked by what was happening in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud. I called one of my friends, and he said, “Don’t go, Nada, it’s very dangerous.” But I decided to go, and take a camera, any camera, to document what was going on.

When I got there, I began to go deeper and deeper down Mohamed Mahmoud Street to where the worst of the fighting was. I found a lot of people from different classes, different sects, different identities — anything, everything. But they were falling down right and left from tear gas and from rubber bullets. Everyone was extremely tense. They were shouting: “No SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the ruling junta], no police! We want to see the military go!”

I reached the front lines. Between me and the police and the CSF [Central Security Forces, Amn el-Merkazi, a division of the national police] there were only about twenty meters. There were maybe forty people there. I saw two or three other women there. But there was no talking in the chaos.

Once we got there, I noticed that when guys stopped throwing stones at the CSF and police, the CSF would come forward with police cars and grab them. Or they would fire tear gas directly at them. So I felt we all had to take defensive measures. But at the same time, I was trying to document things with my small camera. And in the middle of that, I found at least six or seven CSF soldiers came on me — in just two seconds, they were very fast; people beside me ran quickly, and I couldn’t run quickly.

And they beat me on the head, grabbed me by the hair — I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do — they broke my camera, they were kicking me, beating me with sticks, everything. One of them, wearing civilian clothes, grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me down the street. I was dizzy, I was a bit unconscious from the beating on my head. He began to ask me: “How much do they pay you to do this?” And things like that.

They marched me to the Ministry of Interior [nearby at Lazoghly Square] on foot. I was alone – they caught each one alone. They put me in a sort of kiosk, a small office in front of the Ministry of Interior, inside the gate. There were officers beating me once we arrived. One of the officers was high rank – there were three stars on his epaulets. He used an electric stick on my arm, and he kept doing this again and again. I was saying “Stop!” – I was trying to get him away.

Then they shoved me in the kiosk. In a while one of the officers [inside], who was a little bit nice, told me to come behind him – to stand behind his back and he wouldn’t let anyone reach in and beat me from outside.

They began to go through my bag and throw everything on the floor. And they began to push other people in the kiosk. Within two or three minutes this space was full of guys – a lot of them teenagers, maximum fourteen years old, just kids. They were all beaten – there was blood everywhere. My head was also bleeding from the injuries, and my lips and mouth too.

They took our mobile phones, and our sim cards and everything. They took my ID. And they kept calling us names. The [CSF] soldiers outside the kiosk acted as if they wanted to grab me and drag me outside again to beat me again. They were saying to the officers, “Let her outside and we’re going to fuck her! We’ll screw her whole life!”

After a while a van came, to deliver us to the police station. The officer who had told me to stay behind him, came to me to prevent anybody from beating me – to prevent the soldiers outside. As I walked out, he was holding me between his arms, to guard me. Then I went inside the car. [The CSF outside] kept on trying to get me, to pull me out. But one of the officers pushed them away: “Enough, she’s a girl and she’s young, stop!”

After this, we went to Abdeen police station [in central Cairo]. The prisoners in the van were something like forty men, and I was the only woman.

I was the first one who got down. I told one of the CSF officers there, “Please don’t let anybody beat me again.” But inside the station, an officer who was standing on the stairs kept looking at me, up at down, and calling me names and threatening me – very bad. He’d say, “Get her upstairs. We’re going to fuck her, we’ll screw her life, do a lot of bad things to her.”

We all had to go upstairs, into an office. And there, they threatened me again: “We are going to hang you on the wall. And we’ll bring a woman in to beat you.” There was blood everywhere on the walls – we kept asking, “What is this?” It’s like psychological war.

We stayed upstairs for something like seven hours. We wanted to go to the bathroom: they told us it’s forbidden. It’s funny, almost – no; it was horrible, really. At 2 A.M. they got all of us downstairs to go to the truck again, and go to the niyaba [the public prosecutor].

We went to a civilian, not a military niyaba – that at least was a relief. But it was 5 A.M. by the time we got there. They put us in a cage, maybe three meters by three meters. And when it was my turn I went in to meet the niyaba. He acted very civil; he told me, “Don’t worry, sit down, how did they arrest you? You are young, you’re a girl, you look peaceful. I have been in Tahrir Square myself; I was calling for change. Don’t worry, I am going to release you.” And so on.

He kept writing, questions. And he was giving the answers instead of me: “No,” “I don’t know,” “It didn’t happen.” As if he were going to help me. I didn’t tell him about the torture. [Prosecutors are required by Egyptian law to include accounts of torture in their reports if prisoners give them, or if they see evidence of torture.] But he could see – I was bruised and bleeding. He didn’t ask me about it. And of course he already knew that the police do this.

I went out. We were all waiting for six hours to know what was going to happen to us. They kept telling us, “After five minutes there will be a decision from the general prosecutor.”

At first we were all in one cell, but after a while another group came, and there were something like 100 of us, or 150—I was still the only woman. They then took me out of the cage, and let me sit on the floor between two cages in the same area. By two or three in the afternoon, we were all starving. This was now Monday. All the guys were screaming, “We’re hungry, we’re human!”

There was a lower-ranking guy who kept harassing me all that day. I was completely terrified of him. While I was waiting between the two cages, I was alone, and he entered the area, and was trying to touch me, stroke me, touch my shoulder, and I was trying to push him away. Another officer entered and scared him, and he went away from me

At 6 P.M., they told me, “We’ll release you — you just have to go back to Abdeen station to process the release.” But the lower-ranking officer came along in the van. And in the van he kept telling me, “I want you.” All this in front of other soldiers, and officers – until finally one of them told him, “Stop, Osama. It’s enough, yanni.”

The car kept taking turns and detours—going in circles. We realized we weren’t going to Abdeen. People were singing at first, but then they started asking, “Where are we going? What’s happening?” Suddenly we saw through the cracks he’d entered a road to the desert. And we reached a military camp, and stopped. We were all so depressed and discouraged — really shocked. They’d tricked us.

We entered this camp. I saw from the little window more soldiers from CSF surround the car, with sticks and everything. The officers inside the car were laughing: they told us “These people will screw your life, motherfuckers, they will beat you to the edge of your life.” They were very happy! I was so down. I told one of the officers, “Please don’t let anyone beat me again.”

And we go down. I told myself, “OK, it’s my destiny, I will stay here forever.” They beat all of them, but this time, not me. The police took off their belts, and used them to beat them, and punched them on their backs, and kicked them.

There were two cages, each about four meters square, with a little distance between them. Ad there were sixty or so men from the van, and me. The officer at the camp asked, “Where are we going to put this girl?” I was so down. I thought, “OK, do whatever you want with me.”

They put me in one cell, alone, with everyone else in another, and they let an army soldier stay with me. I asked him, “Please get me a blanket, it’s too cold for me” — I was sleeping on the floor. I spent two hours asking for a cover, and he finally consented to get me one, this way: He told the other soldier outside to get a cover for him. That soldier asked, “Is it for you or her?” He said, “For me, don’t worry.” So after one or two hours, the other soldier brought the blanket, and this one let me have it. Then I slept. I was telling myself, “Nada, you are going to live here for days. You don’t know what will happen to you. There’s nothing you can do.”

Suddenly at 10 P.M. they open the door, and they tell me they will release us. But seven of us will stay with them. Among those who stayed were people with very serious injuries. Among us was a young guy both of whose arms had been completely broken. They didn’t release him – they didn’t want the injuries to be public. They also kept others from the April 6 Movement [the April 6 Youth Movement is one of the main revolutionary coalitions]. I didn’t want to believe them again. But they took our fingerprints, and then they really released us in front of the camp.

We were outside eastern Cairo, and we had to make our own way back.

Talking and talking is useful for me. Saying what happened, it’s very useful for me. Just now, before we met to talk, when I was in the street after finishing my work, I decided to pass by in front of the Ministry of Interior where I was beaten. I was scared at first, it was heavy: it was not easy, psychologically, for me. But I told myself, “You have to do this, to feel OK.” And I passed in front of cars, and soldiers, and I wasn’t … Well, I thought they might identify me, and I didn’t have an ID on me [Egyptians are legally obliged to carry identity papers]. The street was closed to cars, but they let pedestrians pass, and I walked by. But I wasn’t afraid in the end.

And after this, I felt so proud of myself, and I was so happy that I could do this.

I’ve changed as a person since the Revolution, and because of the Revolution. I feel stronger than before. I can say loudly, “I want this and this and this.” I can be myself more and more, in my personal life, in society. That’s what the Revolution means to me, that strength. Before the Revolution, what they did to me might have broken me. But not now. Not now.

This post originally appeared on Scott Long’s blog, A Paper Bird.

About Scott Long

Scott Long, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, served as founding director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. He has been a human rights activist campaigning for sexual rights for over twenty years, working in countries including Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Jamaica, Romania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the United States. He blogs on human rights issues at www.paper-bird.net.

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2 Responses

  1. Eva Smagacz
    December 5, 2011, 10:12 am

    What a powerful story Nada!

    You are right, of course. Once you experience the terror, and the unknown becomes known and survivable – the oppressors loose their greatest weapon: ability to terrorise.

    Let you be an inspiration to your friends a colleagues..!

  2. dumvitaestspesest
    December 5, 2011, 5:42 pm

    It so easy to destroy a human being. It does not take a lot.
    A shot in head, few solid punches,kicks in the abdomen.
    We have fragile, sensitive bodies, not immune to pain and wounds.
    But it is so much harder to destroy someone’s spirit, will to live, will to fight for the right and just cause.
    Sometimes one has to kill a person, before he kills her/his spirit.
    Thank you Nada, for sharing your story with us.
    You are a gentle, delicate person, but you have a very brave spirit of the Giant, of the Warrior.
    Let God take care of you with all His might.

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