I find myself writing about Hanan Ezz El-Din, an Egyptian woman who believes in her heart that her husband, who was forcibly disappeared a decade ago, will one day return. Can this sentence be the summary of her entire story? Well, yes, because despite the many details of the story, Hanan’s unwavering faith in the face of enduring misery is truly remarkable. Her belief remains steadfast, even if people around her understand it merely as a form of denial and nostalgia.
Hanan’s story resonates with the most painful chapters endured by hundreds, maybe thousands, of the families of the forcibly disappeared. But the story also has distinct chapters of its own. Khaled Ezz El-Din is not just Hanan’s husband; he is the extraordinary love of her life. This is truly noteworthy and should not be overlooked in a society where cruelty and harshness have become ubiquitous.
I choose to talk about Hanan because I want to talk about women, their struggles, and our country. I do this as a way to resist the pain, and out of appreciation to the value of perseverance against the odds. I write about Hanan who raises the bar for those who hold a metaphorical ax in their hand, ready to shatter barriers and bring down the ceiling over everyone’s heads.
Chapter one: Disappearance
Everything started on 26 July, 2013, almost a decade ago.
“During that first week, I counted the hours. Then a week or two passed, then a year, two, three years. After that, time lost all meaning. It stood still in 2013. I no longer know exactly how old you are, Khaled, or how old I am. Our years were stolen from us, and we’ve stopped caring about them or anything. Our small, simple, innocent dreams were snatched away from us, and I know that we did not deserve all this.”
Hanan writes on one of those nights of longing. I read her words as I tried to piece together the fragments of the story, but I can't find anything that can explain Khaled’s disappearance. If a crime had been committed, where is the perpetrator? If he had died or been murdered, where is his body? And if he had escaped, why do multiple pieces of evidence suggest his possible detention? How could one woman bear the weight of it all, starting from the fact that this entire ordeal began with Hanan witnessing her husband get struck by a bullet on live TV, right before her eyes, as she sat on the sofa in her living room?
That was on the day Khaled traveled from Beni Suef in Upper Egypt to Cairo. His wife, Hanan, is certain that he was never affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood organization. She says that, in fact, he had significant disagreements with the Brotherhood, but that did not stop him from strongly opposing the bloodshed in front of the Republican Guard headquarters. Khaled chose to join the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, demanding the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi, who had been ousted by the military following widespread popular demonstrations calling for early presidential elections.
Hanan bid Khaled farewell, although she was feeling uneasy about his travel, which coincides with Ramadan and their ninth marriage anniversary. The offspring of their marriage was a growing love, but their dream of having a child together was never realised. Hanan sat watching Al-Jazeera Live that evening, as it broadcast the events from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square where the demonstrators were leaving towards the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier on Al-Nasr Road. Just like that, she heard the sound of gunfire on the screen, then saw with her own eyes her husband being carried on a motorcycle while he was bleeding, while others tried to intervene attempting to provide first aid.
Hanan recalls that in the first few moments, shock reigned. “He is fine, the bullet only grazed him. He recovered and left the field hospital after the wound was stitched, but the doctor advised him to go to the nearest hospital for x-rays. We are going there,” a man's voice on the other end of Khaled's cellphone reassured her.
“Going there,” but no one ever figured out where exactly “there” was. All Hanan knows is what she and Khaled’s family have collected from bits of information they’ve heard along the way. Hanan used to share any small updates on her Facebook page, which became my sole source of news about Khaled, as Hanan herself has refrained from speaking to the press for years.
After that phone call, Khaled’s brothers traveled to Cairo to search the hospitals, police stations, and morgues, but they found nothing. Some speculated that he might have been arrested inside a government hospital, but no official information has been provided to confirm these claims.
Hanan’s story resonates with the painful chapters endured by hundreds of families of the forcibly disappeared. But the story also has distinct chapters of its own. Khaled Ezz El-Din is not just Hanan’s husband; he is the extraordinary love of her life. This is truly noteworthy in a society where cruelty and harshness prevail.
Hanan recalls that in the first few moments, shock reigned. “He is fine, the bullet only grazed him. He recovered and left the field hospital after his wound was stitched, but the doctor advised him to go to the nearest hospital for x-rays,” a man's voice on the other end of Khaled's cellphone reassured her.
"I went to every shop downtown on Eid to buy the things he loves and get him a decent white prison suit. I was filled with the excitement of a little child, knowing that I would soon see him. I smiled at anyone I saw at the jail entrance, but then Khaled’s brother emerged from the gate and said that he wasn’t there..."
This was Hanan's first trip to Cairo, two weeks after her husband had vanished without a trace. The family had received an unofficial tip from a security source that Khaled was in Tora’s prison hospital, and that Hanan would be allowed to visit him on Eid. For hours, Hanan and her brother in law stood in queues in front of the Tora prison complex. There was no news of Khaled’s whereabouts, and a security guard advised them to head to the morgue. “Why are they doing this to us? His brothers have already been to the morgue and he wasn’t there. Khaled is alive,” Hanan says. She headed to the morgue in a state of total horror, but she emerged with a sense of relief. Khaled was not among the unidentified bodies.
Hanan's reasoning was logical, especially when considering the possibility of her husband's death. At that time, the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in was ongoing, and the number of casualties resulting from the events at the Republican Guard Square and the Memorial of the Unknown Soldier was relatively final, as the families of the victims had already received their loved ones' bodies. Moreover, it seemed highly improbable that Khaled's injuries had been fatal. So the question remained: Where was Khaled?
A few days later, the streets of Egypt were boiling in the aftermath of the Rabaa sit-in dispersal. According to official records, the tragic event claimed the lives of 1,200 citizens, including 32 individuals whose identities remained unknown. The repercussions were felt nationwide, as thousands of people from Cairo and various governorates were arrested in separate incidents, some of which involved the burning of churches in multiple cities of Upper Egypt. A few days later, Cairo was plunged into another horrifying pit of violence, as 37 prisoners killed inside a deportation vehicle that was set ablaze. Eyewitnesses reported that an officer had purposefully thrown tear gas canisters at the defenseless, trapped inmates.
The situation escalated into a national frenzy, as official and unofficial detention facilities were filled, while the list of missing individuals grew longer by the day. Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed with the sheer number of the wounded and the deceased. In the midst of all this, the family of one 40-year-old man felt helpless. How does one begin to search for a needle in a bloodied haystack? His body was not among the corpses, and his name was not on the lists, so where could he possibly be?
Chapter two: the search
It is the moment of the big flood. Here, one person’s battle for survival can make history, as each one of those struggling attempts to navigate a way out through the dark. Hands interweave, entangled, they lead each other out.
Hanan was inadvertently contributing to uncovering the phenomenon of enforced disappearances that has been escalating in Egypt since 2013. She helped establish a robust database, but just as urgently, she tried to foster a sense of trust among the heavy-hearted families who were searching for their loved ones. One day, Hanan traveled alone to the city of Ismailia in an attempt to reach Al-Azouly military prison, which was still covert at the time. Along the way, she met many treading the same arduous path.
A sphere of human rights and humanitarian crises response was crystallizing, encompassing people from all ages, backgrounds, and affiliations. Lawyers swarmed the prosecution offices and courts, sharing stories of the unconceivable horrors they had heard from those who were held in unofficial places of detention.
From early on, the authorities have denied and condemned the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. On the other hand, it took the human rights movement at least two years to establish connections with the efforts of families and collect their stories. The families, led by figures like Hanan, began organizing themselves in protest gatherings on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate, and they created online platforms under the name “Association of the Families of the Disappeared”.
The situation escalated into a national frenzy as the list of missing individuals grew longer by the day. Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed with the large number of wounded and deceased individuals. In the midst of all this, the family of one 40-year-old man felt helpless. How does one begin to search for a needle in a bloodied haystack?
Inadvertently, Hanan was contributing to uncovering details on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances that has been escalating in Egypt since 2013. She helped establish a robust database, and just as urgently, she tried to foster a sense of trust among the heavy-hearted families who were searching for their loved ones.
A group of human rights organizations was able to launch a campaign titled “Stop Enforced Disappearance” on 30 August 2015, coinciding with the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Meanwhile, the government published its first and only official report on the issue. In July 2016, the National Council for Human Rights stated that 121 cases of disappearance had been documented. 99 persons were found to be detained on charges, 15 were released, while 3 persons were “smuggled” out pending prosecution. One person was said to have been smuggled out of jail with the help of his family members, and the fate of 3 others was found out by their families when the Ministry of Interior did not offer them any help. The fate of 70 other persons remains unknown.
This official report came in response to an earlier report published by the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights (August 2015 and 2016). The report was circulated globally, and stated that 912 cases of enforced disappearance were found, most of which occurred after August 2015. 52 persons were confirmed to still be forcibly disappeared, while 584 other persons emerged, including 41 who were released from detention and 4 who were still detained but whose whereabouts became known. However, it was still not possible to discern whether 276 persons were still in enforced disappearance or not because their data had not been updated. The report indicated that the Commission had received information about 123 additional cases of enforced disappearance that dated back to 2013 until the end of July 2015.
Meanwhile, Hanan persevered. She kept a succinct record of the dozens of stories that unfolded over the course of her journey, stories that deserved to be told. She wrote about how she had successfully found the doctor who had provided her husband with crucial first aid upon his arrival at the field hospital. The doctor assured Hanan said that she had tended to Khaled and had seen that he was able to stand on his feet after his injury. She said Khaled had taken her advice to go to the state hospital for further treatment. On another occasion, Hanan wrote about the rude security officer who was in charge of organizing people’s entry into the Military Prosecutor’s Office.
Since 2015, several survivors have come forward with their stories. However, very few of them have dared to provide legal testimonies before the court about what they have witnessed in the torture chambers. Islam Khalil was one previously disappeared person whose testimony greatly helped paint a picture of those places where people disappear and of what happens inside them.
One day, Hanan bore witness to that officer treating an elderly man with extreme contempt. Torn between intervening, and potentially losing her chance of entry and seeing her husband, or remaining neutral, the escalating situation afforded her little time to contemplate. She stepped forward to the man’s defense, and, as expected, the officer denied her entry.
However, due to the commotion, Hanan received some crucial yet unverified information: a number of prisoners had been secretly transferred to a covert military prison, and her husband might have been among them, she was told. Hanan could not find out more that day, but she realized that fate works in mysterious ways. This strange task that she had been thrust into—searching for her husband, who had seemingly vanished into oblivion—has become her journey for self-discovery and an exploration of life itself.
“Why was I not sucked into that same dark pit where Khaled has been taken?” Hanan asks herself. Along her path, she also discovered the absurdities of Egypt’s political life. She mentions the many kind and supportive people she met along the way, but also some of the pretentious, insincere ones. She acknowledges the importance of networking, but she adamantly rejects the framing of her husband's case as a mere political discourse that certain parties could exploit, believing that such a manipulation could potentially harm, rather than aid, his case.
As the threats of terrorism in Sinai subsided and waves of protests by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood waned, it was expected that the tight security grip in Egypt would gradually ease. Laws prohibiting gatherings of more than five people had been imposed, leading many to believe that the phenomenon of enforced disappearances would diminish, and that the disappeared would finally come to light. However, the reality proved different as the phenomenon persisted, albeit with a decrease in numbers that corresponded to the annual arrests in politically motivated cases.
According to reports spanning four years (since the initial report), the findings revealed 378 new cases in 2016/2017, 230 cases in 2017/2018, and 336 cases in 2018/2019. This brought the total number over the years to a staggering 1,850.
Years went by, and other stories emerged. Since May 2023, Moath Charkawi, a former prisoner, has gone missing. His family and several pieces of evidence attest to his arrest in conjunction with the State’s launch of the National Dialogue with opposition forces.
While the numbers offer important data, the horrors shared in the testimonies provide real insight into the world of forced disappearances. Since 2015, several survivors have come forward with their stories. However, very few of them have dared to make legal testimonies before the court about what they had witnessed in the torture chambers. Islam Khalil was one previously disappeared person who gave a testimony, for which he was sent to a “regular” prison, which is “bearable” to him compared to the hell of enforced disappearance. His testimony greatly helped paint a picture of those places where people disappear and the nature of what happens inside them, despite the fact that Khalil had entered those places blindfolded, just as he left them nearly a year later. The testimonies not only helped understand what happened to the survivors but also shed light on the operations of physical liquidation. There were accusations that a number of those who were found dead were forcibly disappeared, and were not killed in terrorist attacks, as the official statements claim.
The plot thickens, but Hanan remains unwavering in her quest. I had the chance to meet her only once before now, six years ago in 2016, when I was accompanying the family of one my colleagues in prison for their family visit. I didn’t talk to Hanan that day, but I watched her hand out photos of Khaled to all the families of the prisoners, hoping that someone inside would recognize him and lead her to his whereabouts. Her actions, however, did not sit well with the security apparatus, and a short time after that day, Hanan herself was detained.
Chapter three: revelation
“I kept telling them I wanted to see Khaled, but they misunderstood. Now, I long for Khaled to come and visit me. In prison, I have dreamed of you. Oh, how wonderful it would be if you were the first face I saw after one month of solitude behind bars.”
Hanan was engulfed in the darkness of prison for two whole years. After her release, she chronicled her experiences inside. She believed that since she couldn’t save Khaled from where he was, it was God’s plan for her to be with him by sharing a tiny part of his experience. In her notes, a single word keeps coming up: fate. A heavy-hearted Hanan contemplates the workings of fate, how it inflicts tragedy, but also how it unveils profound revelations.
As I leaf through her papers, I think about how an extraordinary spirit like Hanan finds herself emotionally growing around her unusual fate. In our bleak region, exceptional people seem to be destined for exceptional pain.
Perhaps Hanan’s detention fueled her determination rather than faded it. Her prison experience was, in fact, very difficult, as she was placed among criminal prisoners, convicted on accounts of murder, drug trafficking, or prostitution. Her “bed” was a 70 cm wide plank of wood that was screwed on top of a 2 story iron bunk bed. For a week, she had to sleep in front of a doorless, filthy bathroom from which all sorts of insects crawled. That was when she learned not to be startled by anything. In prison, too, Hanan stood up to the cell’s bully and forced others to respect her. In the prison’s court, she was reassured every time that the sun would never stop shining.
That was where she also befriended the girl with the dagger, who used to sell drugs to the prisoners and boasted about having taken part in demonstrations that supported El-Sisi while she wore an army cap. When Hanan was released, she wrote about that girl, and about how life can turn victims into “miserable, defeated monsters”.
It was on a cold night in prison that Hanan reached out into a pot of Mahshi (stuffed vegetables) that one of the inmates had miraculously managed to make using the meager scraps of food products they get inside. And it was in prison that she stroked the hair of a young girl who had been jailed for participating in a student’s protest. The girl rekindled Hanan’s unfulfilled longing for having a child with her husband. Her family of three never materialized, and Hanan felt that she should have only wished that her family of two remained well. She was particularly devastated that now, as a convict or ex-convict, she will not even be allowed to foster an orphaned child. In those dark prison nights, that young girl was her solace, a gift from the heavens. It was very difficult for the tearful Hanan to leave the girl behind when she was released. Sometime later, the girl got released too, and Hanan was there again to greet her with tears of joy.
After her time in prison, Hanan felt compelled to contribute to a project aimed at rehabilitating women ex-convicts. She had been adamant in continuing to tell Khaled’s story, and she even managed to smuggle some pictures of him into her cell. She talked and dreamed about him every day, until life presented her with one of those remarkable moments of revelation.
These figures are all tentative estimates, pending the completion of detailed censuses that include the circumstances surrounding each case, particularly because in several of these countries, kidnappings, assassinations, and mass executions have occurred alongside enforced disappearances, further intensifying the ambiguity that surrounds the horrific circumstances of disappearance.
It was a scorching summer day when Hanan stepped out of the deportation vehicle and entered the courtyard for a routine legal session. Inside the court's detention hall, separated by a metal door designated for men and women, she heard some knocks and her name being called. Initially taken aback, she wondered if the voice was Khaled’s. It was not. As she approached, a young man on the other side told her that he knew who she was. He said that he had been in the same prison with her husband for three years, assuring Hanan that he had seen Khaled and that he was fine.
Reluctant to provide further details, the revelation filled Hanan with a mix of joy and fear. In her cell, she offered prayers of gratitude, for in mid-2017, she had finally received some real news that her husband, who had vanished since mid-2013, might still be alive somewhere.
Did Hanan convince herself on that day that she had endured the hardships of prison only to reach this moment? She probably did. But how would she navigate life after freedom without a definitive truth about her husband?
She probably told herself, in the words of Fatima from Mohammad al-Mansi’s novel, A Cloudy Day on the West Side: “It’s just half a chance in a dimly-lit room.”
Chapter four: slowing down
“Why is Khaled not with us? Why is he just a story I’ve been telling for more years than the ones in which we lived together?”
Hanan asks every single day.
Some people would say that Hanan is going to extreme ends and that the attitudes of the families of the disappeared are absurd. But is anything more absurd than waking up one day to the devastating reality of your loved ones’ vanishing without a trace or explanation, as if they never existed? How could the world possibly accept such madness?
Humanitarian efforts aimed at combating enforced disappearances have achieved significant progress on a global scale. This issue has gained attention since the early 1970s in Eastern Europe when efforts were made to uncover the fate of individuals who vanished under Nazi rule. In South America, similar efforts were made following the military coup in both Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. In Lebanon, too, many had disappeared during the civil war in the 1970s and 1980.s. In Algeria during the "black decade" in the 1990s, it is believed that over 9,000 people were forcibly disappeared. However, local human rights organizations estimate that the actual number may well fall in the range between 12,000 and 20,000 disappeared persons between 1994 and 1996 (1), often at the hands of the army or Islamist militias. Additionally, enforced disappearances were prevalent in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s, as well as in Iraq during the US occupation in 2003, where the practice still persists. The Human Rights Committee has estimated that the number of enforced disappearances in Iraq exceeds 16,000 people.
It was in prison that she stroked the hair of a young girl who had been jailed for participating in a student’s protest. The girl rekindled Hanan’s unfulfilled longing for having a child with her husband. Her family of three never materialized, and Hanan felt that she should have only wished that her family of two remained intact.
After her release from prison, Hanan felt compelled to contribute to a project aimed at rehabilitating women ex-convicts. She had been adamant in telling Khaled’s story in prison, and she even managed to smuggle some pictures of him into her cell. She never stopped talking or dreaming about him, until life presented her with one of those remarkable moments of revelation.
According to both local and international human rights reports, the number of enforced disappearances in Syria since 2011 is estimated to be around 82,000 individuals. The majority of these cases are individuals who vanished in government prisons, although over 2,000 people have disappeared after being detained by armed opposition groups. In Yemen, human rights groups have indicated that the Houthi militia alone has committed 1,401 cases of enforced disappearance in the capital over a span of seven years. Moreover, there are instances of various third parties engaging in similar practices in different parts of Yemen, particularly in the governorate of Aden.
The United Nations established the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) in February 1980 (2), and in August 2014 the work group reported 43,250 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in 88 different countries.
These figures are all tentative estimates, pending the completion of detailed censuses that include the names of the disappeared, the dates of their disappearance, and the circumstances surrounding each case, particularly because in several of these countries, kidnappings, assassinations, and mass executions have occurred alongside enforced disappearances, intensifying the ambiguity that surrounds these horrific circumstances of disappearance.
As I delved into numerous cases, I tried to find and highlight specific cases of forcibly disappeared individuals who have resurfaced after a decade or more, in an attempt to inform the narrative I was constructing about Khaled’s case. However, I asked myself, how can Hanan make practical use of all this data? It is evident that with hundreds of thousands of forced disappearance cases worldwide, it is likely that dozens have eventually come to light. And how could Hanan yield to the voices around her dismissing the possibility that her husband may still be alive, when she has witnessed, in 2021, the reappearance of an entire Egyptian family—a husband, wife, and child—who had been forcibly disappeared in 2019 (3).
Where were they during this period of confinement? What kind of jail cell could they have survived in? Did they occupy the same space? And where exactly was this place of confinement located? Why have they been kidnapped? What was the motive of their abductors? What sort of information did they seek to get from them? Did they really need to make that family disappear? And why that long? How much does it cost to hold an entire family captive for extended periods of time? Who bears the responsibility for these actions? Furthermore, what percentage of the Egyptian tax funds has been allocated to finance the establishment of both known and undisclosed detention sites where people are sent to disappear?
It remains unclear what the future will bring this resilient fighter. Hanan has lived with her husband for ten years before she was forced to live without him for him for another ten. The urgent question remains: can anyone really offer her any definitive answers about what lies ahead for her, and for this country?
Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 01/06/2023