Asma al Beltagy was just a teenager when she was killed in one of the worst state-organised mass killing of protesters in living memory, but she believed fiercely in the cause she was defending.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Moments before she was shot by a sniper, Asma al Beltagy kissed her mother goodbye. Asma was just a teenager when she was killed in one of the worst state-organised mass killing of protesters in living memory, but she believed fiercely in the cause she was defending.
When Sana Abdul Jawad speaks of her deceased daughter, Asma, a rare moment of joy and peace briefly appears on her otherwise tired and grief-stricken face.
“She was very young, only 17, but she had this foresight, this wisdom,” she says. “I always say that Asma lost her life when she was very young, but it was still a well-lived life, a fulfilled 17 years. Most of us live long lives and we don’t achieve anything.”
Asma al Beltagy was one of more than one thousand women, children and men who were killed on August 14, 2013, when Egyptian armed forces infamously opened fire on crowds gathered to demonstrate against the military coup – Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egypt, had been ousted a month earlier.
Killed at the young age of 17, she has become an international symbol of what became known as the Rabaa massacre. It rivals the bloodshed of Tiananmen as one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in modern history.
“No one thought they would actually start killing protesters,” says Sana, recounting the day that forever changed Egypt’s path. “We were there because our civilian-elected president had been removed. President Morsi had disappeared, no one knew where he was being held. So people came out to protest.”
The family were all natives of Cairo. Asma was influenced by both her parents: her mother’s charity work and her father’s political activism both rubbed off.
Following in her parents' footsteps
Her mother Sana was born in 1967 in the working-class neighbourhood of Shoubra.
“I was working in charity organisations,” she says, “any kind of charity work in my neighbourhood.” Her work included preparing food for the poor in her local mosque.
“I was doing it because I wanted to be a role model for my [future] children; I wanted to show that no matter how busy I became as a woman or as a mother, this [social work] was still a priority.”
After finishing university, Sana married the prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Dr Mohamed al Beltagy, who would later become head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The couple’s five children were born soon after – Asma was middle child and their only daughter.
“In the years leading up to the revolution, I was only involved in charity work and community work … during Mubarak’s regime there was enormous pressure on any Islamist parties or any kind of groups that leaned that way.”
The political climate was rapidly changing as the young family found itself thrust into political life after the revolution. Asma’s father became first an MP and then, after the revolution, head of the FJP.
“I found that I had no choice but to become politically active and play that kind of role,” Sana says, describing herself as the wife of one political prisoner and mother of another, as well as being the mother of a martyr.
“And every woman in Egypt has the right to [be politically active].”
It was the ideals of democracy their teenage daughter took to heart. Asma used to wait until her dad came home, sometimes at one or two in the morning, to speak to him about what was happening, sometimes to try and sway him on certain issues or convince him of her point of view.
Before the 2011 revolution, Asma’s mother explains, women in Egypt were criticised for not being active or interested in politics.
“But after the revolution, a lot of the women who did end up getting involved in politics, and did end up playing more of an active role, ended up paying the price.”
The gathering storm
Protesters had started gathering in the tense days that led to the July 3 coup.
“There were signs that said there was something strange happening in the country –there were tanks in the streets, areas were being closed down, and people were being rounded up from their homes. The Freedom and Justice party had offices everywhere, and now they were being closed. President Morsi had also disappeared.”
The entire family took to the streets.
“We chose [to protest] in Rabaa Square, because it was close to the presidential palace, where we thought he was being kept. And the numbers began to grow, not only here, but in Al Nahda Square, and in squares all over the country.”
The sit-in went on for about 40 days; almost every day, Asma and her family were there.
“There used to be marches that would leave the square and head to other places, often to the presidential palace, and they would return without incident,” Sana recalls. There were two crackdowns on the protesters by Egyptian security forces: on July 8 and July 27, in which 61 and 95 protesters were killed, respectively.
Then came the crackdown in Rabaa.
“For weeks they were threatening to forcefully clear the protest camp. We thought they couldn’t do anything because of the large number of people there. And of course, if all they wanted to do was clear the square, they could’ve used tear gas to disperse people, but the moment they entered the camp, they were using live ammunition.”
Video footage from August 14, 2013 shows scenes of fire and smoke with protesters running, some carrying bodies, and bodies on the ground. The sound of gunfire can be heard in the background.
“It was like a war zone,” says Sana. “There were bodies everywhere. I was standing with Asma, and my sons were with their dad. Immediately I started seeing people mowed down. It was a horrendous sight. I saw one person’s head explode. Another had his intestines hanging out of his stomach. It was a sight I never imagined I would see,” she continues, her voice rising as she remembers the incident.
“People were transferring bodies out on stretchers. The stretchers were coming in and out. There was blood everywhere. There were bodies and injured everywhere. The image of body parts on the ground, it was horrible.”
Human rights reports confirm that hundreds were killed by bullets to their heads, necks, and chests, and that security forces, including professional snipers on rooftops, fired indiscriminately into the crowds of protesters.
“I was scared for Asma to see these things. We’re in the middle of clouds of tear gas, with snipers on the roof firing all around us, tanks closing in and helicopters overhead. Asma and I were choking, we couldn’t breathe. I was wiping her face with a wet towel. She then asked me if she could go to the makeshift hospital to help tend to the injured.”
Sana didn’t want her daughter to separate from her. “I was worried somebody was going to target her because of who her father was, so I held onto her tightly.”
Sana then said her daughter asked to help her perform wudu, ritual Islamic ablutions.
“[Asma] pulled out a water bottle from her bag and asked me to pour it on her. I was confused about why she was asking that. I didn’t understand it then, but maybe she was preparing herself for death ... for when she met God.”
“Then, all of a sudden, she was kissing me and then disappeared, and I didn’t know where she was.”
Sana says she spent a long time trying to find her in square. Moments later, one of Asmaa’s younger brothers came up to her and said Asmaa had been shot.
“When we found her she was bleeding badly. She’d been shot by a sniper in one of the helicopters as soon as she’d arrived at the hospital.”
Sana says she believes that there were informants in the camp that told the police who to target. “It’s as if they were monitoring her and waiting. She was shot from above, the bullet went through her chest and pierced both her lungs, and came out her back.”
“She was bleeding badly, but her face was beautiful,” says Sana, her voice breaking.
“She told me ‘Mom, I’m fine,’ and I was confused. How was she fine with all this blood?”
Human Rights Watch explains how snipers targeted makeshift medical facilities and those trying to enter or exit Rabaa Hospital. The report also says the while there were ambulances at the entrances of the square, police had blocked the passage of the vehicles.
“We tried to donate blood, but we couldn’t. The hospital didn’t have anything to treat her with. If the ambulances were allowed to come in maybe they could have helped her.”
Police had blocked all entries and exits from the square, and Sana’s family had difficulty getting her out of the hospital.
“Eventually they took her up to an operating room upstairs, but by that time she was taking her last breaths. She said her shahada [Islamic declaration of faith] and died.”
Her brother managed to get a car to one of the entrances to the square, and they lifted her body into it.
“She had been dead for some time. As they were lifting her body, they were rammed by a police vehicle and she was dropped to the ground.”
According to Sana, Asma's brothers who had been carrying her had to hide up a tree until a police vehicle passed, leaving her body in front of the hospital.
“Her brother spent five hours going from hospital to hospital trying to find someone that would take her body in, but no one would.”
Finally, they were able to sneak her body into a morgue at a university clinic in Al Hussein, linked to Al Azhar University, where her father had once worked.
The dehumanising way her daughter died left her family traumatised.
“I don’t understand how can a human do this to another human. I could never imagine that anyone would be capable of this, and especially no soldiers in our own army. Egyptians killing Egyptians,” cries Sana with indignation.
“And for what? What crime did we commit to deserve this? What did we do wrong to justify killing Asma? She was 17 years old, what threat did she pose to you?”