CAIRO — On Thursday, as the repercussions of Wednesday’s clearing of sit-ins in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi sank in for Egyptians, the unprecedented death toll overwhelmed Cairo’s Zeinhoum morgue.
Thump, thump, thump, came the sound. Outside the morgue, the repeated sound punctuated the passage of scores of ambulances inching up, each gently placing a body on the ground yards from the morgue. There was no more room inside it.
Characterized by the sounds of mourning and the smells of death, the scene in and around the overtaxed morgue marked the day after the Egyptian military stormed two camps of protesters, setting off a bloody melee. On Thursday, the death count officially climbed to 638, with more than 3,000 injured.
At the morgue, thousands of survivors gathered outside, waiting for their dead to get in or for the dead already inside to receive autopsies and be released.
Dozens of Egyptians who once wore surgical masks to block police tear gas at the sit-in wore the same masks Thursday to fend off the smell of death. Truckloads of ice came by, and mourners scurried to break off chunks to put on loved ones’ bodies in a futile effort to slow the decomposition. Crush, crush, crush.
Amid the scorching heat, the smell of death permeated the street. People sprayed air freshener over the bodies in an attempt to cover the odor. Woosh, woosh, woosh.
“Look at that,” said Mohamed Ezzat, a 58-year-old merchant, pointing at dozens of bodies wrapped in white shrouds stained with blood. “Is this humane? . . . Forget about the catastrophe that happened yesterday, this scene is unacceptable.”
Some tried to forcibly push their dead inside the morgue to spare them from the heat. Others fought with fellow grievers and nearby residents, pulling out knives, rocks and bottles. The security forces that had moved into the protest camps were scarce near the morgue.
As Ezzat spoke, a black taxi with a body covered by a bloody shroud in the back seat, lying on the lap of a relative, neared the morgue. As the driver honked his horn, people made space on the already packed road, trying to avoid hitting the head of the body sticking out the window.
When 55 people died at other sit-ins supporting Morsi a month ago, the morgue crafted a makeshift system to handle the dead. They were kept in ambulances that moved forward as each case was handled. On Thursday, however, there were too many people for such a system.
Since the clashes began Wednesday morning, the government has had to increase its count of the dead constantly: 10, 15, 35, 78, 95, 235, 278, 330, 425, 464, 525, 638.
Mourners outside rumors that they could pick up their dead faster if they claimed that their loved ones had committed suicide, so they wouldn’t be counted among those whom government forces had killed. No one was willing to make such a deal.
Long lines of vans snaked up all the streets that led to the morgue. Members of the victims’ families sat around empty coffins reading the Quran while rocking, as they awaited calls from their relatives who accompanied the dead to go help carry them.
In the span of an hour, few heard the call to help move a body inside.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @aminaismail