Egypt is bracing itself for another day of protests by supporters of toppled leader Mohamed Morsi, two days after security forces cleared two main Cairo sit-ins, leaving over 600 dead.
There are fears today’s 28 marches, dubbed the “Friday of Rage,” will turn bloody, as the Interior Ministry announced on Thursday night that police will use live ammunition to defend themselves and state institutions.
Meanwhile the military has increased their presence on Tahrir Square, Cairo’s main rallying point, to prevent Morsi supporters from setting up an encampment later.
As the death toll rises, families of missing protesters scour makeshift morgues. The primary one was housed in El-Eman mosque, near the now-gutted square that was the main protest site in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood.
Outside, crowds of people bang on the main door, desperate to get inside. Those managing the dead can only let a few in at a time.
Inside over 200 bodies, swaddled in blood-spattered sheets, were lined up in rows on the floor. Families in medical masks pick their way through the bodies, peering under the sheets at the mutilated faces to look for their missing relatives.
The room is not refrigerated, so volunteers set up dozens of fans and place ingots of ice on the bodies. They spray air freshener and anti-bacterial spray to ward off the stench of the bodies that are starting to decompose.
One elderly man, in shock, sits on a chair by an empty coffin reading a charred copy of the Quran. Above him are lists of the dead that were found with their IDs.
Families that do find their relatives are forced to wait by the bodies, which cannot be removed until the burial paperwork is finished.
“He’s my son, just 16 years old. They say we are terrorists, but if want to know the truth look here, see it for your own eyes,” says distraught housewife Ola Abdel-Fattah, from Shubra, bent double over the tiny frame of her only son Khaled on the floor. “His father was with him when he got shot. He carried him out holding Khaled’s body in one hand, his brain in the other. My son is missing half his head.”
Just to her right lie charred bodies too burnt to be identified after allegedly being torched in their tents during the police raid. Their contorted remains resemble the victims of Pompeii. A volunteer holds up a bundle of cloth; inside are two bloated and scorched feet. The rest of the body was never found.
Local medics move between the lines, scribbling names on the shrouds, or jotting down physical features of the dead who have not been claimed.
“Cairo’s main morgue, Zeinhom, is closed and also full. We’re worried the security forces will doctor the forensic reports so they won’t be listed as having been gunned down by security forces,” explains pharmacy student Aisha Shadla, 21, holding a pile of handwritten notes on the unidentified dead. “Now that Rabaa el-Adawiya mosque was stormed by the police, there was no other place to put them so we took the bodies here.”
Many are trying to file police reports so they can start legal proceedings proving their relative was killed by security forces. An impossible task, they say.
“The body is evidence of the massacre, how can I put it in the ground?” says a man, not wishing to be identified, sitting next to the body of his student nephew.
None of the bodies are included in the official death count, which Friday morning stood at 683. The “Anti-Coup Alliance” behind the pro-Morsi protests later reported that this mosque was stormed by security forces Thursday night, the bodies taken away.
Meanwhile the main sites of the sit-ins that have been cleared by the military. Bulldozers were sent to remove the remains of the tents.
Rabaa El-Adawiya mosque, once the heart of the Nasr City camp, is now a smoldering and blackened skeleton.
The buildings surrounding the mosque, which housed the control room of the protest, have been trashed: posters of Morsi, shoes, blankets and medical supplies lay scattered on the ground.
Wednesday’s bloody crackdown on protesters has been widely condemned by the international community. The UN Security Council, meeting on Thursday, said they “regretted the loss of life” and called on all sides to renounce violence.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier called for UN intervention after what he described as a “massacre” in Egypt, and criticized Western countries for not preventing the bloodshed.
US President Barack Obama, for his part, cancelled a joint military exercise with the Egyptian army set to take place next month, adding that the usual US-Egypt relationship cannot continue in light of the bloody crackdown.
Meanwhile the death toll is still rising, and despite the removal of their camps, the supporters of Morsi say they will keep protesting.
“We cannot back down now,” says Hamdiya Sobhi, 35, by the body of her husband. “We will not let these deaths be in vain.”