Serious Stuff

Gunfire, Tear Gas, And Molotov Cocktails: Just A Day In The Life

Because it is April 1, I feel obligated to clarify that this is not any sort of April Fool’s joke. If it were, you would all need to disown me immediately.

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She’s five-foot-two, speaks Arabic, and wears impossibly tiny shoes. If you saw her in person, you would think, “Nah, that girl’s probably never dodged bullets or been clubbed in the middle of a riot.” But you’d be wrong. Oh so wrong.

Today’s post is all about my friend Kristen, a journalist currently living in Cairo, Egypt. I’m insanely proud of her and the reporting she’s done, most recently in Tunisia and Egypt. Unfortunately the Middle East has a bad habit of shutting down their internet during political uprisings, so it is often quite hard to get in touch with her and we – her friends – sometimes go for weeks without hearing anything.

So you can imagine my absolute giddy delight upon seeing that she had updated her blog.

After I read about her experiences in Egypt over the past few months – everything she saw during the Revolution – I begged her to let me post it here.

So although this is quite a digression from my usual musings on Beyonce and the merits of Twitter, I encourage you to stay and read her story.

Believe me when I say that you will not soon forget it.

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I have a hard time remembering the beginning of Jan 25. I do remember phoning my editor to tell him that this was the start of something big. I remember feeling excitement at how many tens of thousands had turned out. Then I remember feeling disbelief when the police began attacking the crowd. The next thing I remember is running from tear gas, overcome by it. I hadn’t worn a scarf that day to protect against gas, because I hadn’t thought it would be necessary. A young man fleeing next to me gave me his.

I remember being in the middle of a protest on January 27, at the moment when the police suddenly set upon the people with truncheons, and the mad panicked crush that ensued trying to get away. There are few things I’ve experienced quite as frightening as a stampede fleeing physical violence. It was all I could do to stay upright. I had no choice but to step on the people who had fallen, because stopping was impossible. A little later, a police armored vehicle sped down the street, a policeman sticking out of the top and firing a mounted gun at the protesters. I took refuge in a little coffee shop, the traditional Egyptian kind where old men sit around smoking sheesha and drinking tea. When a tear gas canister landed outside, the stinging smoke began seeping in, and I have never before in my life heard hacking as disgusting as what these old men were doing. It would have almost been funny if it hadn’t been so bad.

I remember well January 28, the day of the epic march to Tahrir (Liberation) square. I remember looking back from Medan Galaa and seeing the tens of thousands of people filling the street behind me, and knowing that this was truly a revolution. The entire day was a battle with police, and I remember the pure agony, over and over and over again, of the tear gas, and how each time that I recovered, I saw men and women, young people, middle-aged people, rich and poor who were picking themselves up and pressing on. The incredible sight of the people steadily pushing the police back across Qasr El Nil bridge. And later that night, when the tear gas turned into gunshots, they didn’t stop.

Things get blurry again after that. There were days of peaceful protest, and funny signs. There was the day a 16-year-old boy shielded me with his body as bullets whizzed around us. There was the crowd that surrounded me, yelling “Spy! Jew!” that left me physically shaking. There were the tense checkpoints where men with guns looked through all of my things, rifling through my wallet as if they were looking for an ID card that said “Israeli spy.”

But Bloody Wednesday – I remember bloody Wednesday. The day Mubarak unleashed his thugs against the peaceful protesters. A few days ago I was walking downtown. I saw a storefront that looked familiar, and suddenly I realized this was the street where Anne, the photographer I was working with, and I had been trapped on that day. I stopped dead in my tracks as it all came flooding back – the men attacking us, the flying chunks of concrete incoming, wrestling Anne away from the guys trying to drag her off, crouching behind a car for protection, unable to find a way out of the dangerous street because of the fighting going on at both ends. The wounded people, gushing blood, and the dying people. A former Arabic teacher seeing me in the crowd and telling me he had lost his 11-year-old son. And all the while, the Army standing by doing nothing.

It’s the snapshots from that Wednesday that keep popping into my head, filling me with sudden emotion, when I least expect it. Those are the ones I kind of wish were blurry, but they’re the clearest.

I can still hear the steady, deafening clanging from later that night, as the protesters beat on the metal fence in a sort of battle cry. It was a medieval-like battle scene, the front line made from steel fencing, the weapons of rocks and molotov cocktails. Everything was an eery orange, lit by a burning tree and flaming weapons. I remember this gorgeous doctor, a young woman with eyeliner and beautiful long hair who donned a hardhat and was treating the wounded just behind the front line. And further back, in the makeshift hospital, the volunteer doctors slumped, sleeping, exhausted on the floor while others tended to lacerations and crushed skulls. Outside the hospital I bonded with the horses who had been used to attack the crowd and were now tethered to a wall. They were tired, like I was, and seemed to appreciate the love.

When I took a break from all of that in Italy, to see [her husband living in Iraq], it took about three days for me to stop jumping and looking for cover whenever someone slammed a Dumpster lid. About two and a half weeks into our trip, we heard a loud bang and both of us realized that for the first time, neither of us had thought of bombs or bullets. It was a great time of decompression. Now it’s back to the grind, trying to keep the pace until June.

(No kidding: someone just slammed a Dumpster lid. And I jumped. I guess it’s back to the new normal.)

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You can follow Kristen on Twitter by clicking here.

11 thoughts on “Gunfire, Tear Gas, And Molotov Cocktails: Just A Day In The Life

    1. Oh, cool! I didn’t know she was old enough to go to college. Ha. Guess it’s been a while 🙂

  1. What an amazing story. She has been through such a lot and she must have been terrified, but I’m glad she had the courage to share her experiences. Sitting safely at home with our families, we don’t know how lucky we are.

  2. What an amazing story. It makes me feel terrible for people who have to live in that environment, and happy that I live where I do. My heart goes out to the people of Egypt.

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