One Woman's Tale Of Protest, Prison And Lost Love in Egypt

Hamdy is out of prison, but still not free
Hamdy is out of prison, but still not free
Mai Shams El-Din

CAIRO — After Asmaa Hamdy's release from prison, where she spent three years, she began the desperate search for her fiancé who had disappeared shortly before she was let out.

A dentistry student at Al-Azhar University, Hamdy was one of the students arrested by police following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. She was arrested with four others in December 2013, and two months later, they were sentenced to five years in prison and fined for charges such as belonging to a banned organization, violence and taking part in illegal protests. Having served three years of the sentence, a successful appeal led to her early release last December. Instead of celebrating her freedom with her fiancé, Ibrahim Ragab, as she had planned, Hamdy embarked on the uncertain journey of trying to locate him.

"He was the only thing that made prison seem bearable," Hamdy says, sitting in her bedroom in the northern city of Zagazig, with a photo of her and Ragab behind her.

Hamdy and Ragab, a journalism student, met just a few months before she was arrested but she says she got to know him better after her imprisonment. She was moved by his unwavering commitment to her. "He didn't miss any of the court hearings even the ones he knew for sure I wouldn't be present," Hamdy says. "When he was sometimes denied visitation rights, he would wait outside the prison walls waiting to hear my news."

"He was the one I saw the most during these three years," she adds.

That was the moment I knew it was real.

During a family visit the week before her release, Ragab did not come. When Hamdy asked her father where her fiancé was, he replied: "Only God knows." Hamdy broke down but it was nothing compared to the pain of the moment when she got out of prison and could not find him, she says.

"I cried in my mother's arms and I said I want to see Ibrahim," she says. "That was the moment I knew it was real."

Hamdy and Ragab had long imagined the moment of her release. "He told me he'll take me in his car to give me my first ride home. He said he wasn't going to wait years to let someone else give me that ride. The first thing I wanted to do when I was free was go to the beach and he had arranged with my mother that he would come too. Everything was planned and he was part of everything I planned for," she says, struggling to hold back her tears.

The pain of Ragab's disappearance was more than what she endured in prison, she says. "During those three years, I had a lot of problems with the government, prison administration, prison guards, prisoners and even with others on the same case. But with time, I was able to deal with it and learned how to deal with these problems. Ibrahim's disappearance is the only thing that I cannot deal with. He gave me the support I needed to cope with prison, he supported me in staying alive."

"During every visit, we'd agree on a nice thing to do for next time. We would have breakfast together, eat something sweet, or sing a song," she recounts, smiling.

Now facing the reality of forced disappearance — a practice that she knew very little about as she was unable to follow much news during her three years in prison — she speaks to Mada Masr three weeks after his disappearance.

While many of those who forcibly disappeared reappeared months after their abductions, others have gone missing for more than a year. Forced disappearance has become a common phenomenon in Egypt since 2013, with hundreds of reports of people missing only to be found later in police custody. A campaign to end forced disappearances documented 916 cases of forced disappearances since 2013, with the practice has been intensifying in 2015.

One moment of hesitation equals three years in prison

Hamdy was 19 when the January 25 revolution took place. She says she never missed any of the major protests. Although she was imprisoned on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, she protested Morsi during his rule. Hamdy says she did not participate in the June 30 protests that called for the removal of the Brotherhood-affiliated president. The violence that ensued following Morsi's ouster pushed her to join the pro-Morsi Rabea al-Adaweya protest camp, she recalls. She witnessed the violent dispersal of the protest camp during which over a thousand people were killed, and which she described as one of the most horrifying experiences of her life.

Students faced security forces in several universities during the academic year that followed the dispersal. Al-Azhar University was a particular flash point, with several violent campus protests and large numbers of students investigated by disciplinary committees. At the time, the Brotherhood were largely in control of the student unions at the university, and alongside the student body and staff who were largely sympathetic, faced off with a state-aligned leadership backed by security forces. The tension increased nationwide, in what was described as the worst period for campus freedom in the last few decades, with almost 20 students killed, hundreds suspended, and thousands jailed.

Recalling the repressive atmosphere, Hamdy says that "any girl who dressed conservatively would be accused of belonging to the Brotherhood. At this time, I decided to take part in demonstrations in support of these students."

When asked if she was participating in one of these protests when she was arrested she answers, "Unfortunately not."

She says the day she was arrested, she should have listened to her fiancé"s advice not to attend class. She went anyway as she had an exam. As she approached the university gate, a friend warned her that students were being rounded up. "I hesitated, I did not know whether to leave or run to hide in my class."

Hamdy paid three years of her life for this moment of hesitation, as she was arrested immediately.

Having participated in major events of the revolution, Hamdy says she had knowingly risked injury and even death but never imagined that she would be imprisoned. She was in a state of disbelief during the two months of pretrial detention believing that she would be released any day. It was when she was given a five-year prison sentence that she understood that "this was real."

Isolation in prison

Hamdy spent the first six months of her sentence in Qanater Women's prison in Cairo until the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president in June 2014.

Hamdy believes that with Sisi's election, there were orders to intimidate political prisoners. One night that month, Hamdy says a prison guard harassed one of the political prisoners. When others gathered to see what had happened, the guard brought in a number of well-built criminal inmates.

"It was like the movies. We were assaulted, beaten, bitten, pulled by the hair, humiliated and insulted," Hamdy says. "Even my engagement ring was thrown on the floor. It ended with riot police storming the prison cell."

I felt like God was consoling me

Following the assault, all political prisoners were sent to different prisons across the country. Hamdy, along with the four other students in her case, were moved to a prison in the Delta city of Damanhour, where they spent the rest of their sentence but did not share a prison cell.

Beaten and humiliated, and with her personal belongings stolen, Hamdy was separated from her colleagues, and settled in a cell with women serving sentences for murder and drug dealing, she says.

Although scared, Hamdy found some consolation when she saw that the inmate in charge of managing the cell was prepared to take care of her. "She enabled me to shower, gave me her shampoo and shower gel, and gave me new clothes. I felt like God was consoling me. This was a woman who did not know me. I had no money and nothing to offer her but she helped me."

Upon her request, Hamdy and her colleagues were moved to another prison cell after submitting a request to the prison administration.

Although they were able to support one another, Hamdy's interaction with them was often tense. "They weren't like me, the only similarity was that we were involved in the same case. They rejected the fact that I protested against Morsi, and they did not like that I had male friends. My lifestyle was unacceptable to them," she explains.

It was around this time that Hamdy met the activist Mahienour al-Massry, who was detained in the same prison in another protest-related case. "She was different, like me, and we got close." Upon her release after serving a 15-month sentence, Massry became Hamdy's lawyer.

Getting back to life

Now out of prison, Hamdy suffers from health problems. "Before prison I barely knew what a headache was like," she says. "Now I know high blood pressure, arthritis, and back pain."

Hamdy is planning to enroll again in the same school where she was arrested, which she doesn't believe will be a problem. "Prison made me not care about many things, it made me better able to handle many problems," she says.

Most of the time, Hamdy speaks about her missing fiancé. She repeatedly writes about him on social media, mentioning their memories together and praying for his release. She published a video of herself after 48 days had passed since his went missing. "Isn't 48 days enough?" she says.

Ragab's family have submitted reports about him to the general prosecutor, the Interior Ministry, and the National Council for Human Rights, to no avail.

Hamdy now does not know how to live the normal life she has long desired.

"I really did not wish for myself that I would be sitting here doing this interview. I wanted to go have a picnic with Ibrahim or sleep in my grandmother's arms," she says.

As part of the final procedures for her release, Hamdy knew she was going to be taken to the National Security office, where officers would instruct her to stop activities that landed her in prison. She had planned to tell the officers she wanted to live a normal life. But this was before she knew her fiancé had gone missing. Now, she planned to tell the officers that she was going to continue searching for her fiancé. Upon entering the office with her colleagues, the officers sarcastically asked the girls not to commit any of the crimes they committed before. When Hamdy's colleagues said they were innocent and had not committed any crime, the officers replied: "Then do not do the things you did not do."

Surprised by their answer, Hamdy remained silent.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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