First came the tear gas, the bulldozers and the flames. Then came the bullets and the blood.
Egypt’s security forces arrived after dawn yesterday to disperse the camp where thousands of Islamists have held vigil for six weeks. Helicopters roared above. Police fired tear gas. Armoured bulldozers knocked down the makeshift walls made of sandbags and rocks.
Inside, thousands of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi were waking up to panic. Correspondent Yasmine Saleh reached the camp shortly after the assault began, to hear residents reciting Koranic verse and screaming “God help us! God help us!”
Masked police in dark uniforms were pouring out of police vans with sticks in one hand and tear gas bombs in the other. They tore down tents and set others ablaze.
“They smashed through our walls. Police and soldiers, they fired tear gas at children,” said Saleh Abdulaziz, 39, a secondary school teacher clutching a bleeding wound on his head. “We are peaceful, no weapons, we didn’t fire a shot, we threw stones. They continued to fire at protesters even when we begged them to stop.”
After shooting began, wounded and dead lay on the streets near pools of blood. An area of the camp that had been a playground for the children of protesters was turned into a war-zone field hospital. Seven dead bodies were lined up in the street, one of a teenager whose skull was smashed.
At the western entrance to the main sit-in as the assault was under way, reporter Tom Finn saw troops turn away ambulances sent to evacuate the wounded. A woman in a pink hijab stood in front of the soldiers holding up her ID card and screaming: “I’m a doctor, I’m a doctor, let me through!”
There were 50 or so pro-Morsi supporters behind her. Some were crying and had blood on their arms and faces. One man, Yusuf, said he had seen his son injured on TV and was trying to get in to find him. Three ambulances arrived, their sirens wailing. Men began banging on the back of the ambulances shouting “Let them through!” The soldiers turned the ambulances back and fired tear gas canisters at the men.
Later, at the eastern side of the camp, Finn saw tents burning. There was a rattle of machine-gun fire; most of it sounded like it was coming from balconies above.
Morsi supporters were sawing branches of trees and piling them on to a huge fire to counter the effect of tear gas. Men were arranging piles of stones around pools of blood on the ground. Others were trying to reassemble the walls that bulldozers had smashed down.
The injured were ferried out of the camp on stretchers and on motorbikes. One man was bleeding so badly that blood was dripping through the stretcher.
The wounded and dead were brought to a field hospital in a building beside the mosque, hot and chaotic and rammed with people screaming and shouting. Blood was streaked on the white walls. The injured were taken upstairs. The dead were carried in rugs to the basement.
Most of the dead were in one small room, laid out in a line head to toe, their heads wrapped in bandages. Some were stacked on shelves. There was a 12-year-old boy bare-chested with tracksuit trousers laid out in the corridor, a bullet wound through his neck. Young men writhed in agony on shabby mattresses in corridors. One of the nurses was sobbing on her hands and knees as she tried to mop up the blood.
Young Brotherhood supporter Majdi Isam, his hair matted with blood, said it was time for holy war. “Is our blood this cheap? We are waging jihad now. God will have vengeance on these butchers. The streets are full of blood,” he said.
By late afternoon, the campsite where Mr Morsi’s supporters had maintained their vigil for six weeks was empty. One man stood alone in the wreckage reciting the central tenet of Islam: “There is no God but Allah.” He wept, and then his voice broke off into silence.