“You want to see the bodies? Ok then, here!” the man working at the morgue said, holding me and a friend by the arm and practically pushing us into a humid room filled with bodies, lying on slabs or on the floor and in various states of decay. We had been at the morgue for over an hour, coming from the tear gas and shooting in Mohamed Mahmoud Street to Zeinhom, Cairo’s only morgue, because we had heard that medical examiners were refusing to autopsy the bodies of those shot by the police and military in the clashes.
The man was trying to mock us, to frighten us away, and as the overpowering stench of decay hit us he nearly succeeded. Several days and several further visits to this place later, I would sit in the rubbish-strewn courtyard outside the building listening to the mother of martyr Ahmed Sorour, rocking herself back and forth, saying, “Look at what’s being done to Egypt’s youth, look at what they’re doing to them, the ones thrown in the trash, the ones run over and thrown away, the ones that were crushed by the police trucks.”
Ahmed Sorour’s mother was not the only mother that week of November 2011, as countless other families came in, some having heard of their sons’ fates, others seeking a missing loved one and coming to Zeinhom as a place of grim last resort. It seemed the mothers, the sisters, the aunts, the daughters were always there before the men in the family, disconsolate and powerless not just in the face of death, of murder, but also unable to find any dignity or justice for their lost amid the trash, the bureaucracy, the waste of Zeinhom. All too often, once the men arrived, stern and disapproving fathers or uncles, these women were told to keep quiet, that there would be no autopsy or funeral procession, that they would take their troublemaking sons home and bury them quietly. Like a second death.
At times one wonders who could blame these families for refusing autopsy, for wanting to avoid what could only seem, in such a horrid place, like a defiling of their loved ones’ bodies, or for wanting to avoid the possibility and danger of their loved ones’ name becoming a symbol, official evidence of a death by live ammunition or tear gas that would bring threats and harassment by police. Worst of all, who could blame them for wanting to avoid the fact that even this evidence would be covered up, fabricated as “natural causes” or a heart attack, or simply ignored amid a complete lack of accountability for crimes committed by the police and military. It is difficult to blame the families for possibly sparing themselves the heartbreak and crushed hopes that Zeinhom, a perfectly tuned factory of human misery, so repetitively and unfailingly produces.
I found myself at Zeinhom again this week, the sadly familiar walk up the street now met with several large idling trucks, supposedly refrigerated, brought in to store the hundreds of bodies from the August 14 Rabea al-Adaweya massacre that the morgue had no room for. Each day since then more bodies had arrived. A couple of days ago it was at least 36 detainees killed by police as they were being transported to Abu Zaabal prison, likely killed by a tear gas grenade thrown into the transport van, suffocating in the claustrophobic metal box. As we walked up to the doors of the morgue, new reinforced ones made of heavy sheet metal, an argument was already in progress with those inside, who were refusing to allow lawyers, photographers, anyone in. Using my phone’s camera as a makeshift periscope to peer through a grate over the doors, I saw bodies strewn about in the hallway, in various stages of decomposition, some bearing large rough autopsy scars down their chests and abdomens.
A man came up to me, asked to see the few seconds of video I had shot: “I want to know if my brother is there, please, I’ll know him if I see him.” I couldn’t comprehend the possibility of recognition in these figures, their features so distended and warped by rot, not natural decay but the rot produced by a place so neglected and neglectful. He said his brother wasn’t in the video, which likely only bought him a few minutes of relief until he would be confronted by the inevitable moment.
Those who had seen their brother’s, father’s, son’s, or friend’s bodies were broken, confused, angry; seeing the bodies decomposed and cut open for autopsy lying in the hallways, their minds raced with what horrors could have killed them to make them look this way. Were they burned, tortured, gutted? Who can blame them for asking these questions when earlier in the week medical examiners were once again refusing to turn over bodies for burial unless families agreed they had died of suicide? Who can blame them when it was not even their tragic, gruesome deaths that caused them to look this way, but the workings of Zeinhom, woefully under-equipped and underfunded, run with callous cruelty and overseen by a bureaucracy that would paper over the evils of the state even if it meant defiling those it had already killed?
One of the lawyers we spoke to said they wanted to coin the right to burial as a new human right. Well acquainted with Zeinhom, I didn’t need him to explain what he meant by this. I had been here before, and seen this before, only now I was being confronted by a magnitude of death I could not have imagined. This time it was members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had to face Zeinhom, before that it was families of Copts killed in the Maspero massacre, or of revolutionaries or torture victims spat out from police stations, or even of unfortunate victims of car accidents. Zeinhom does not discriminate, it abuses and defiles all equally, it is a perfect metaphor for the persistence of the security regime and a state that will go as far as to desecrate the dead to protect its stranglehold on power.
From January 28, 2011, when journalists and activists were told that there were no bodies there, Zeinhom has been at the center of our revolution, a dark constant casting its shadow on each of the various confrontations with our unreformed, bloodthirsty security forces. Even before this, wasn’t one of the sparks of January 25 Khaled Saeed, who not only was brutally murdered and dumped in the street by police, but then abused again when medical examiners, in two separate investigations, ruled that he had died not of the gory wounds we all saw in his posthumous photo but of asphyxia from swallowing a packet of hashish? The brazen, self-serving nature of this supposedly scientific verdict tore cracks through the facade of the state; it was not enough to kill Khaled, the state had to use his death to try and distort his life, who he was. The same thing happened almost three years later, under President Mohamed Morsi, to Mohamed al-Guindy, who after disappearing from Tahrir Square reappeared four days later in a hospital with his ribs broken, bearing signs of strangulation with a cord. Guindy died from police torture, but in Zeinhom this torture became a car crash. There is no police torture, we are told, but accidents happen all the time in Egypt.
Now that the police feel free to admit that they are using live fire and automatic weapons against civilians in the streets, deaths are not accidents but suicides; the hundreds killed in Rabea, we are told, not only took their lives into their own hands standing up to the police raid but were intending to die, surely hoping the bullet would hit them. The morgue gives “scientific” justification to the official state narrative that the Brotherhood is a cult of death, that killing them is not a crime but is actually what they wanted, strengthening them, and if it was suicide as the medical examiner tells us, who can blame the police for merely facilitating?
Until recently few even knew of the morgue, as the only people who went there were families, lawyers, activists and the dead. Perhaps now, after it has overflown into the street and into those refrigerated trucks, it will receive the attention it needs. Hopefully a struggle for dignity in death will call attention to the fact that we still have not found dignity in our daily lives, that Zeinhom is not an impoverished anomaly but part of a continuous chain of repression, debasement and punishment by the state that begins at birth and ends not in death but in Zeinhom. Of course it is difficult to hope these days, but the same day her son died, Ahmed Sorour’s mother also said that as long as the revolutionaries stand strong and refuse to kneel, “Then my son lives, his blood will not have been spilled in vain. Each one of them is Ahmed, each boy, each girl. All of those in Tahrir are Ahmed, and they’ll find justice for him.” If we can continue now when we feel so outnumbered from all sides, if we can continue to face Zeinhom when its very essence tries to break us, then we have not yet lost.