I think maybe I understand war a bit better now.
It starts out with one person throwing a rock or firing a teargas canister or shooting a bullet and the next thing you know, lines are drawn, battle stations are set up, and the adrenaline kicks in. And from then, it’s the adrenaline that decides peoples’ actions, more than anything. It becomes more about the fight than the cause people are fighting for.
At least that’s what it looked like to me when I found myself quite suddenly in the middle of a battle on the streets of Cairo Saturday.
I had been following a peaceful march from one neighborhood in Cairo to the high court building downtown, covering it for my newspaper. We arrived shortly after sunset and joined up with several other marches from around the city to form a group of over a thousand filling the streets surrounding the court. They were chanting for the resignation of all the major government officials, waving banners and beating drums, but by no means acting violently. I met up with my coworkers who had been covering the other marches and we headed to a nearby hotel to send in our pictures from the day. I thought my work was finished and ordered myself a Turkish coffee.
But no sooner had I taken my first sip than I heard four or five loud pops, followed by the sound of masses running. My three coworkers’ heads jerked up from their laptop screens.
“That’s the sound of teargas,” they said. It was a sound I would learn to recognize myself before the night was over.
We threw our computers and cameras back into our bags and ran out into the street. I could hardly believe my eyes (which had begun to sting just a bit). Three bonfires cast an eerie glow on the street that had been teaming with people just moments before. Scattered clusters of angry men gathered around the fires, yelling and occasionally throwing rocks at the building.
Teargas and smoke filled the air, stinging my eyes and burning my lungs. I tried to hold my breath while we bought medical masks (the sort dentists wear) for one Egyptian pound each from a nearby vendor. I quickly tied my scarf around my head in a Bedouin turban, covering my blond hair and shielding my face ever so slightly from the poisonous fumes, and followed my coworkers toward the court (lest you begin to fret, they were all strong, gallant, street-smart men who took excellent care of me the whole time).
I stood there, taking it all in, when suddenly, several loud shots emanated from the upper floors of the building. They’re firing at us! Everyone scattered and I retreated further down the street toward a parked ambulance, my hands over my head. Adrenaline surged through my veins. This is absolutely crazy. All around me, people were running, scrambling, like ants from an anthill. They hardly looked like the same people who had marched in a slow, organized procession earlier that afternoon, chanting in unison for their joint cause. Perhaps they weren’t the same people.
We followed the crowds of protestors as they regrouped down the street, but before the mass could grow too big, another canister of teargas landed just in front of us and the scrambling began again. I breathed in quite a bit of the stuff and began to choke and cough. It left a sharp taste of pepper on my tongue and a fire in my lungs. We sought refuge in a nearby field hospital where they doused my face with some combination of vinegar and water, bringing instant relief to my stinging eyes. Wounded and unconscious people were brought in and laid on the ground. Minutes later, when we had wandered back out into the street a ways, we saw two streams of teargas land right where we had been. They fired teargas into the field hospital. It was so wrong. All of it.
We took up position on a road around the corner from two armored police vehicles. I watched from a distance as a crowd of about 30 or so protestors banded together and charged down the road toward the police, yelling and beating their drums. What could they possibly hope to accomplish? All they had were rocks and sticks; the police had birdshot, teargas and armored vehicles. What is their purpose now? Sure enough, no sooner had they rounded the corner, than the police fired a few rounds of birdshot at them and they were sent running back down the street.
The scene in which I now found myself began to feel like a game of “Capture the Flag” or Paintball. I watched again as the group reconvened, yelled and rushed back down toward the police. It reminded me of the times at summer camp when my team would decide our best strategy for “Capture the Flag” was to form a big group, gather our courage and run across the dividing line into enemy territory all at once, only to be swarmed by the other team immediately after crossing the line, scatter, and scurry back into safety.
It’s not typically a very effective strategy, I wanted to tell them. But then again, one only needs a strategy if one has a goal—and I certainly couldn’t see any sort of goal behind they protestors’ actions. Or the police’s for that matter. The cause that had brought the protestors here originally seemed to be all but forgotten amid the mayhem, and the police were certainly not fulfilling their purpose of defending the people and keeping the peace. No, I saw no purpose to either side; I saw no cause. I saw only a fight.
And in the moment, with the teargas choking my lungs, drums beating the smoke-filled air, and streams of people running around me, I felt it: the rush of excitement mixed with anger and fear, the energy of the crowd pressing around me, our feet hitting the pavement in unison, the surge of rebellion against a clear enemy who wanted my harm. It was enough to make me nearly forget why I was there: to be a journalist. I just wanted to run, to see the chaos, to beat the teargas. And as I watched the pandemonium around me, I could see how the same spirit filled the wild-eyed men setting fire to the streets.
It was the rush that drove their actions more than anything I think; not a love for Egypt or a desire for democracy. It was the thrill of the fight, the tantalizing feeling of hatred and spite. And it began to make sense to me why violence persists past the point of absurdity, why riots will last for days on end here and wars have lasted for years on end not far from here.
Somewhere, in the second it takes to pull a trigger, peoples’ focus can shift from the cause they are fighting for to the fight itself. And when that happens, everyone loses.
P. S. Check out the story we ended up writing about all of this: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/04/06/clashes-mar-6-april-anniversary/