Egypt boosts aid to wounded protesters, but many still suffer

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2012 

CAIRO — Egypt is stepping up efforts to treat thousands of wounded revolutionaries, but many of the injured say they've yet to receive compensation and feel their sacrifices for democracy are going unnoticed by the transitional government.

Despite a more streamlined registration process and easier access to public hospitals, protesters who were wounded in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year are deeply in debt from medical bills and have suffered complications from the lack of care, according to interviews this month with several victims, volunteers and state health officials.

Around 1,000 Egyptians have died in the uprising, including at least 100 who were killed in clashes since the military took power on Feb. 11, 2011. Those families have received cash compensation payments, officials said, but the government is still struggling to identify and provide for the 12,500 who were injured since anti-Mubarak demonstrations began Jan. 25, 2011.

Doctors say the vast majority of the wounded are young men from poor backgrounds, many with injuries so severe that they'll never work again.

"I realized the real size of the problem when I accepted the post," said Dr. Hosni Saber, a prominent Egyptian-German physician who was appointed by the government last month to lead the National Council for Martyrs and Injured.

"Those furious victims are about to explode," he said.

Take 31-year-old Gaber Sayed, who joined the uprising in protest of the miserable conditions in his neighborhood, Saft el Laban, where Mubarak's heavy-handed police terrorized residents and the lack of employment made it difficult for young men like him to afford to get married.

On Jan. 28, 2011, Sayed stood among thousands of protesters on a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. A government personnel carrier sped across the bridge, striking Sayed and leaving him with "multiple fractures to the right leg and a fracture to the right arm," according to medical records his family provided to McClatchy.

The injuries set in motion a dark journey for Sayed, who would find a lack of government assistance at every turn of his recovery. He's been confined to bed for a year now, battling infections from shoddy care as his family sinks further in debt to the neighborhood pharmacist and private doctors. To help pay the costs, his mother sold the gold wedding band she wore for 35 years.

Saber, the council chairman, and others who've worked on Sayed's case confirmed his account of government negligence that began the night he was struck on the bridge. McClatchy also examined his hospital bills.

No ambulances were near the square the night Sayed was hit, and Mubarak's regime had severed phone lines in a desperate attempt to stop protesters from organizing. A woman fleeing the scene took pity on Sayed and ushered him into her car.

"Her hand was injured and bleeding. She insisted on taking me to the hospital, and she never told me her name," Sayed said.

First he was admitted to Kasr el Eini hospital, the nearest to Tahrir Square, and underwent minor surgery to stabilize the fractures before he and other wounded protesters were abruptly dismissed, on the apparent orders of the then-crumbling Mubarak regime.

"They kicked us out of the hospital and said none of us would receive any further treatment," Sayed recalled. "Most of us were carried out by family members and friends. We were screaming in pain."

He languished, untreated, at home. Every two weeks, his family brought him back to the hospital, and each time he was rejected, Sayed said. By then, the hospital was overwhelmed with fresh victims from the continuing clashes.

The crude metal brace that was inserted into his leg as a temporary measure began to rust, Sayed and his doctors said, and his leg swelled to twice its size from an infection.

"By late March, I started seeing my bones, and the device was falling apart," Sayed said.

In early April, after finally undergoing surgery to remove the brace, Sayed received about $800 in government compensation. It didn't make a dent in his pile of medical bills. Half went to the local pharmacist, and the rest to creditors demanding payment. The family was penniless again only hours after receiving the compensation money.

"I was indebted to the pharmacy next door and to all my friends and relatives," Sayed said. "We had no money to pay bills, and we borrowed more money to buy food."

A few weeks later, Sayed was scheduled for major corrective surgery. But that, too, was scuttled after pro-Mubarak nurses refused to treat a revolutionary.

"They wanted me to apologize to a nurse that insulted me because I supported the revolution," he said. "They were humiliating me for being a protester."

Two more months went by before Sayed underwent the first major surgery since his injury. In June, doctors inserted a steel rod and nine bolts to secure fractures that hadn't been treated in nearly six months. This time, the hospital bills were covered not by the government but by an anonymous donor who was made aware of the case by a 30-year-old architect named Mai Raafat, who volunteers as a victims' advocate.

"It would never have happened without her," Sayed said of Raafat.

Raafat began working with the wounded because she was appalled by what she calls the government's abandonment of "the victims of its brutality." She'd joined other volunteers and nonprofit groups to raise funds to stock field hospitals, set up a victims hotline and connect wounded protesters with doctors who'd offered their services for free.

In June, the caretaker government under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces created the National Council for Martyrs and Injured, promising treatment for the wounded and financial aid for families of the dead. Survivors of slain protesters were the first to receive any form of compensation — $5,000 payments — and even that came a full two months after the council was formed.

In November, that government crumbled amid renewed, bloody protests. Under pressure from victims and their families, the leaders of the martyrs council also resigned. In January, Saber was tapped to revamp the compensation program, and by giving him a great deal of autonomy and making him report directly to the prime minister, it seemed that the government was taking the matter seriously.

Saber said he immediately named medical panels to assess victims' conditions. He announced that 52 hospitals nationwide would offer free medical care for victims and their families from January 2012. The council has now identified more than 3,500 of the wounded, who receive special cards that entitle them to state-sponsored care.

The government set compensation at $5,000 in cases of death, $2,500 in cases of disability, and monthly assistance of $290 for families in both cases. Last month, the military also announced 3,200 jobs reserved for wounded revolutionaries.

Sayed's $2,500 compensation payment covered some of his debts, but the family is still destitute and his full recovery is expected to take years.

To cheer him up, his friends carried him back to Tahrir Square, where fellow protesters heralded him and signed the casts on his leg and arm. One sympathizer scribbled, "The police are thugs." Moved by his story, an Egyptian businesswoman in the square offered to pay for Sayed's operation, which went smoothly on Jan. 12.

"I always find hope in Tahrir Square," Sayed said. "If I hadn't gone, my surgery never would have happened."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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