By Greg Palkot, ,
Published December 09, 2015
It was Wednesday afternoon. We were covering the clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters near Tahrir or Liberation Square in Cairo.
A short time after we started our shooting, cameraman Olaf Wiig was threatened by a small group of pro-Mubarak thugs.
We ducked down an alley. It turned out to be a dead end, so we dashed into a nearby building.
At first it was a perfect vantage point to cover the street battle. Then it quickly turned into a battle station for the pro-government side.
Olaf, producer Ibrahim Hezbroun, a Canadian journalist, and myself hunkered down in an apartment in the back of the top floor.
The owner of the apartment, first of many kind Egyptians to help us, offered us shelter.
Just outside the door, the goons were breaking up parts of the hallway’s marble to throw off the roof. As night fell, rocks turned to Molotov cocktails. Gas bombs were being lit, also to be thrown off the roof. We could see the silhouettes of the thugs and their projectiles on the apartment’s glass door.
They did not know we were there.
They’d already ransacked a small hotel on the other half of the floor, terrorizing the people there in a search of “traitors.” We anticipated they could knock down our door, and we would be next.
Still we waited for a turn in events. The anti-government protesters started targeted the building. When a Molotov cocktail smashed through the window of the room we were in, spreading gas over the floor, we decided that was it. We weren’t going to go up in flames. We were going to make a run for it. We rushed down the stairs and out on the street.
It was nothing short of a battle zone. Smoke filled the air, fighters scrambled back and forth across the no-man’s land between the two sides, hurling rocks, gas bombs, and other projectiles. Bursts of gun fire crackled through the night.
All the while, Egyptian soldiers stood on their tanks from inside the compound of Cairo’s museum across the street, watching it all, not interceding.
Heads low, with everything whizzing by, we scrambled in the direction of our hotel, straight into the thousands of the pro-government mob.
Ibrahim and the other colleague were able to blend into the crowd and left.
Within seconds Olaf and I were spotted as foreigners and attacked. They hit us with their open hands, their fists, sticks, bars, rocks, whatever was around, especially aiming at our heads. They grabbed us and punched us. Several dug through my pockets. All the while screaming madly in our faces. But still we pushed on.
And again, some kind Egyptians helped. A few guiding us forward and keeping the blood-thirsty mob at bay.
After several minutes of running a human gauntlet, Olaf and I reached an Egyptian Army personnel carrier. The soldiers standing on top didn’t immediately help us.
As they stood by, Olaf and I continued to be pummeled by the crowd. His shirt was off, he was writhing and was knocked to the ground twice. I somehow stayed upright but was losing strength fast and the hits were harder. Unable to make it over the high side of the vehicle, I thought Olaf and I were finished. A few more minutes in the crowd and it would have been all over.
Then there was another turn. Although it is all a mad blur, a combination of instincts, the soldiers relenting, and again someone helping us in the crowd, we made our way to the back of the vehicle where its easier to hop on.
With the angry mob pulling at us we dragged ourselves up and into its cabin. Blood was dripping off, our wounds were open. But we were, for the moment at least, relatively safe. With soldiers finally blasting warning shots into the air to clear away the crowd, the vehicle rolled off, and then stopped again.
The front door of the compartment lowered. I saw the screaming crowd again. I thought we were being sent back into the mob. I resisted and the soldiers started kicking me.
We came through the door and in fact saw an ambulance waiting a few feet away for us. Both of us scrambled to it, another rock whizzing by. With crowds pawing at the door, emergency workers finally slid it closed, and we sped off to the main hospital in Cairo.
There, we were treated by a crew of young, talented doctors and nurses, who mopped us up, sewed us up and revived us. Remarkably, though, the story was not over for us.
Soon after we arrived at the hospital we had an armed soldier watching over us. The nervous authorities said it was for our own “safety,” but at times we felt like prisoners in the hospital.
Our calls and movement were limited, the door to our room was locked from time to time from the outside, my passport was taken and not returned. There was discussion of the possibility we could be spies.
Then when the hospital staff said we were good to go, we were still held by the authorities. We were jammed into the back of a small jeep, driven across town, held blindfolded at the Ministry of Military Security, marched lock-step to a location, then videotaped and photographed as if in a line-up.
We were later to learn other journalists were treated the same way.
When I looked around at the people there, in plain clothes, some with guns, many with angry faces, all of a sudden it came full circle.
I felt I was back in Tahrir Square with the pro-Mubarak thugs.
Still blindfolded, we were thrown back into the jeep and driven to another location. Happily it was not to some jail for political prisoners, but to a car with those working to get us free.
In a half an hour we were with the Fox team set for a later trip home.
The experience we endured filled us with revulsion at those Egyptians who use violence and repression and those in higher places who support those actions. It also filled us with a deep admiration for the good and courageous Egyptians who will be continuing the struggle today and the days to come, who are putting their own lives on the line.
Hopefully they’ll come out on the other side of this with a better country.