By Hoda Mahmoud
Thursday the 6th of February 2014 was the first time I experienced a prison visit – an experience shared by thousands of Egyptian families. I used to know nothing of their suffering.
Two days after Khaled, Nagi and the rest of the youth with them had been transferred, and after long attempts to find out where they had been taken, we learned that they were being held in Abu Zaabal prison. We got visitors’ permits for myself, Nagi’s wife and their lawyer Yasmin Hossam.
We arrived at the prison at 9.30am and found long queues and hundreds of family members of detainees and convicts waiting. The women’s queue, of course, was the longest and had many children. The women looked very miserable. Many of them had come from outside of Cairo, arriving at dawn carrying with them food for their sons and husbands. I imagined how costly such a trip would be for them. I saw with my own eyes their exhausted bodies and drained psychological states.
On the other hand, I saw the soldiers by the gate and how they humiliated the families with joy in their eyes as they imposed their authority. Every now and then, some woman would break the queue and come forward, bypassing those who were waiting in front of her. When people protested, the soldiers would begin a round of insults and abuse. An elegantly dressed woman said: I could not possibly stand in your midst. You are lowly. And of course, the soldiers let the likes of her go first.
After enduring the torment of waiting and insults and the pains of people sharing the same queue, we reached the gate at 12pm. As women, we entered the personal search room. The search was humiliating to our dignity and our bodies.
We asked, “Where are the political prisoners?”
They told us, “With the students in the high security prison.”
There we asked for Khaled and Nagi. They told us they were there and took our names. An hour later, a soldier came and called the names of those who had a visit. He stood on a table and all the eyes in the room were riveted on the piece of paper he was holding in his hand. But, to him, the cup of tea he was holding in the other hand was much more important. Families gathered around him trying to be patient in this last stage of waiting and humiliation. After every sip of tea, he would call out a name or two, then slowly take another sip. When the families got impatient and requested that he hurry up with the names “the lord” would say: OK, no visits today. And the waiting began again.
In the waiting space where we were, it was obvious that those waiting with us were families of detainees taken after 30 June. To be honest, by their appearance, they seemed to be those who are generally classified as affiliates to political Islam. But my eyes could only see heartbroken mothers, wives and daughters.
A father went to ask about his son. The officer asked him, “Political or criminal?”
The father answered, “What do you mean political or criminal? My son is a student at Al-Azhar University.”
Another father said the officer told him, “We brought your son here only for a short time to teach him a lesson, then he’ll be released.”
The father replied, “Do you think I or anybody else will know how to control the boy after what he has lived through in here?”
Finally, at 4pm, we tried to look for the names of Khaled and Nagi in the registry, and we discovered they were in a different prison called Liman 1.
We ran to make it before visiting time was over. Once there, we asked the officer, “Who is here from the ‘political group‘?” Nagi came first and his wife and his lawyer went in to see him. From afar he looked very tired. It was not the Nagi I know. His head was completely shaven, unlike the criminal detainees. The officers refused to let them enter the visiting room. They had to stand outside with an officer and two informers. They took the food from them and refused to let Nagi stand with his wife or his lawyer, with whom he is legally entitled to a private meeting.
Then Khaled came and I entered. I walked towards him to shake hands, but the officer stopped me. “Come here, have you been searched?”
I said, “Yes, they searched me on my way in.”
He said, “No, you’ll be searched again.”
And I was searched again – the same humiliating search. Then I saw Khaled, and I wish I hadn’t. He looked tired and could not talk. He did not utter a single word.
I asked him, “Did they do anything to you? Do you want to complain of something?”
He did not reply.
I asked him. “Do you need anything? Do you want me to bring you anything?”
Again he did not reply.
The look in his eyes made me feel that he had been through a terrible ordeal in the past 48 hours. I could not see any signs of beatings or obvious injuries in his face, but his condition made me feel sure he had been subjected to pressure and violations.
The officer said, “That is enough. Goodbye.”
I had hardly been there for two minutes. I looked into the bag where I had put his food. Everything was open and torn apart and could not be eaten.
On my way out I heard a wife of one of the criminal detainees say, “I have never seen such a crowded day. It is like three quarters of Egypt are in prison!”
As I left, I could not breathe. It became clear to me what kind of era we are living in. All our lives we have seen injustice surrounding us. We hurt and sympathise with those who have been treated unjustly, whether the person himself or his family. But to see this happen to somebody close to you is different.
The torture I heard about from the families who were there is a torture that does not leave any marks, such as stripping them and drowning them in water and leaving them to sleep in the cold at night. Those who get beaten are photographed as “evidence” that they are thugs. Kahled and Nagi were subjected to psychological torture by being made to attend torture “parties,” where they sat blindfolded, listening as others were tortured. Those people were suffering because of “you revolutionaries”, they were told. As if we had a revolution so that people would get tortured when they protest injustice, and not to liberate us from injustice.
I got to know to Khaled in Tahrir Square. I know his priorities very well. Two months ago we got married and started building a future together. I love Khaled. I am proud of him, his position and his words. My trust in him has no limits.
Khaled is husband and he is also a freedom fighter, whom I respect and from whom I learn. Khaled is the source of my strength. He recharges my hope when I despair.
The Ministry of Interior’s arrest of Khaled is a source of pride for me, as well as a source of pride for him. Whatever they do, he will never stop his struggle, nor will I ever stop loving him and supporting him. I will join his struggle to the extent that I can.
Freedom for all unjustly detained, especially those we know nothing about. May God give patience to every father and mother, every husband and wife, every daughter and son, every friend and every lover. May He give us the strength to continue our path.
Translated from Arabic
Hoda Mahmoud is the wife of Khaled Elsayed . He and Nagi Kamel are two socialist political activists in their twenties. They played a major role in the preparation for the 25 January Revolution, and were leading members in the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. They were arrested on third anniversary of the revolution.