By Ernesto Londoño, Thursday, September 6, 4:25 PM
CAIRO — Mohamed Sadiq’s last words before walking down the staircase of his family’s modest apartment building on Jan. 25, 2011, gave his mother chills.
“I am not coming back until Mubarak is gone,” she recalls the 25-year-old saying as he set out to join the growing protest movement that 18 days later spelled the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic reign.
Eighteen months later, the fate of Sadiq and scores of others who demonstrated and battled riot police during those dramatic days remains a mystery. Relatives have searched morgues, hospital logs and prisons in a desperate quest for clues. Some of their findings suggest that security officials carried out abuse and unlawful detentions as the embattled regime sought to thwart the revolt, activists say.
“There are people missing who were not at the morgue, not in hospitals and not in prisons,” said Nermeen Yousri, an activist who earlier this year launched a campaign called We Will Find Them. “They didn’t evaporate, so there has to be something.”
Advocates for families say they have been tracking about 60 cases, a figure they believe represents a tiny fraction of the total number of people who vanished during the height of the revolt and the period of military rule that followed.
“I think we’ve just scratched the surface,” said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human rights activist.
A son committed to the cause
Sadiq’s mother began her quest a couple of days after he left home. He was a good son who studied hard, earned a degree in international trade and learned English. Having had no luck finding work in his field, he took menial jobs. It made him bitter about living in a country where getting ahead was next to impossible, she said. He linked up with like-minded Egyptians on the Internet and was thrilled to be on the front lines of the revolt.
“He saw the revolution as an opportunity because he felt the country was ruined,” Sabah Abd el-Fatah said, recalling her son’s disdain for Mubarak and for his son and heir apparent, Gamal. “He would say: ‘We don’t want Gamal to rule us. We don’t want this kingdom to continue.’ ”
As Egyptians battled security forces in the days that followed, Fatah, 47, said she began going to morgues and prisons every day, shoving her way through throngs of people who were also looking for loved ones. She held her breath in anticipation as she raised sheets from dozens of corpses, then ruled out one cadaver after another. And she dialed her son’s cellphone obsessively.
On Feb. 11, the day the country’s generals forced Mubarak out of power, Fatah’s nephew got a text message from Sadiq, asking him to call his phone, which was out of credit.
When Fatah got through, she said, she heard her son whispering. She was able to make out that he was in the custody of state security officials and was among a group of prisoners being moved. The call dropped. The next time she got through, she said, a police officer answered. The man told her he could not help her and hung up.
Weeks later, she got through to a man who said he got the phone from his brother, a soldier. Fatah spent the months of military rule running from prison to prison, traveling across the country. She always got the same answer: He’s not here; we can’t help you.