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Mosque becomes hospital for protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

November 21, 2011 | 12:58 pm

The Omar Makram mosque on Cairo's Tahrir Square has become a hospital for those involved in Egypt's latest uprising
REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- The injured come by foot, in stretchers, on the backs of rusted motorcycles, slumped against the shoulders of hurrying friends.

The Omar Makram mosque on Tahrir Square is their hospital now, a bewildering collision of religious devotion and emergency-room heroics set against the background of an uprising that Egyptian government health officials say has killed at least 22 and injured hundreds more.

"The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police," said Mohamed Fatouh, chief of Tahrir Doctors, a volunteer emergency medical group started after the wintertime uprisings that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak.

At 5 p.m. Monday, as the injured streamed in bleeding and gasping, hundreds of protesters milled around the mosque chanting for the downfall of Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi -- head of the military council leading the interim government -- when the muezzin gave the evening's call to prayer.

Protesters laid down newspaper and cardboard for prayer mats and prayed in the street to the drumbeat of tear gas and rubber bullets popping in the distance on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the location of the uprising's most intense and protracted fighting.

Moments after prayers ended, volunteers carried a middle-aged man, clutching his chest and breathing laboriously, on a stretcher up the mosque's marble stairs -- the victim of tear gas, probably -- followed moments later by another man in his 20s not moving at all.

At the mosque, volunteers in white lab coats -- among them medics, nurses, engineers and journalists -- wear surgical masks that double as protection against the tear gas that never seems to clear away from Tahrir Square. They place their patients on the soiled rugs outside each time the situation reaches calamity, which is often; piles of medicine sit waiting on a brick wall next to the mats, like an open-air pharmacy.

"This is exactly what happened during the revolution," Fatouh said of the violence and uncertainty. "There is too much similarity to Jan. 25."

There are and have been other field hospitals on Tahrir Square, and running each of them has been a perilous affair. Early Sunday morning, volunteers set up in the center of the square and in a quiet corner next to the Mogamma, a large government building, before tear gas finally pushed them back to the mosque. That morning, an imam took to the mosque's loudspeakers to plead with security forces for peace; volunteers told The Times that the military has not respected hospitals set up in mosques in previous protests.

Another field hospital on a sidewalk in front of a KFC restaurant was overrun when the Egyptian military reclaimed the square later that morning, and a physician there, Mohammed Emam, said the soldiers pointed their weapons in doctors' faces.

"They didn't have any injuries," Emam added of the soldiers. "How could they? The protesters have nothing bigger than rocks."

White bandages are a fixture on Tahrir Square, a kind of combat decoration for those who choose to stay instead of leaving. The oft-pitched front line of the clashes features mostly young men throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, some coming back asphyxiated by tear gas or perforated by plastic scatter-shot fired at close range, sometimes at head level, resulting in a loss of eyes.

Times reporters saw security forces fire gas canisters horizontally into crowds, which doctors said had resulted in severe injuries. Footage from local media showed army officials violently assaulting fleeing protesters when they reclaimed the square on Sunday morning.

The results often come hurrying back to Omar Makram mosque, where around 6:30 p.m. Monday, a young man rushed through the crowd with one arm bandaged to his shoulder and carrying five plastic sacks of supplies with his other. A line of men held hands to form a human chain securing the patients' area while others cleared away trash and handed out food. Muslims streamed in the mosque's left door to seek comfort through prayer; the injured entered on the right to cling to life and limb. Here, for a moment, the religious and philosophical divides wracking Egypt seemed to melt away.

"Islamic, liberals, Christians -- we have been treating all the people now, of all ideologies," Fatouh said.


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-- Matt Pearce

Photo: Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square carry a bleeding man toward Omar Makram mosque during clashes with police on Monday afternoon. Credit: Matt Pearce