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Memories of slaughter in Port Said that refuse to go away

Ultras Ahlawy - 72

Photo: James Montague

One year on, the emotions are still raw, the memories still vivid. They do not forget, those who were there, those who saw the slaughter in Port Said. Those players who were in the dressing room remember the blood on the floor, and the sight of fans dying before their eyes, and hearing the terrified screams of the supporters caught in the carnage. Those in the stands, those who survived, feel the echo of fear pulse through them as they remember the floodlights being switched off, plunging the stadium into darkness. They remember the whispers, the weapons, and the smoke filling the tunnel. They remember learning that 72 of their friends, their colleagues, teenagers, young men, brothers and fathers and sons, had died. They remember how, too: stabbed or beaten, strangled, or, for the majority of victims, the breath being squeezed from their lungs as they were crushed, together with hundreds of others, against a locked, bolted door in a desperate, vain attempt to escape the massacre.

It is 12 months since Al-Ahly, ’s most famous, most decorated club, travelled to Port Said, near the Suez Canal, to play Al-Masry. It is 12 months since Masry’s supporters, armed with knives, metal bars and, reportedly, two guns, swarmed onto the pitch and into the stands at the end of the game. It is 12 months since the police stood and watched a tragedy unfold.

The theory goes that this was the security forces’ revenge for the prominent role played by Ahly’s hardcore fans, Ultras Ahlawy, in Egypt’s revolution. Since their founding in 2007, Ahlawy had battled constantly with the police, with the Mubarak regime; there were reports of beatings, and torture; the difference was that the ultras fought back. When the Arab Spring swept the country, in 2011, the ultras were on Tahrir Square, leading the protests, agitating for change.

It remains unclear whether the police, or elements within it, sanctioned the mayhem; or whether it was simple incompetence, or an attempt to show the ultras that they required police protection that went horribly, tragically wrong. The ultras know who they blame. They know who they hold guilty.

February 1, 2012 started normally enough for Omar Mohsen, a short, stocky student at Cairo’s prestigious American University. He was 21. He would have graduated this spring. That morning, with 900 or so fellow Ahly fans, he walked from Giza to Cairo, from the left to the right bank of the Nile, heading for the train station, beginning his journey north. He struggled to keep up with his friends as he crossed the 6th of October Bridge. As he urged them to slow down, he joked that his frame meant he could not walk and talk at the same time.

“It was a day of firsts,” says a fan, speaking under the pseudonym of Yusuf in order to preserve his anonymity. He is one of seven ultras who travelled to Port Said with Omar. “It was the first time we were taken off the train outside the city and escorted in. It was the first time they showed our buses arriving at the stadium. It was the first time Masry fans who attacked our buses were allowed back into the ground. It was the first time we were not searched.”

To the players, the atmosphere was hostile, but not unexpected. “Games in Port Said are always like a war,” says , Ahly’s goalkeeper. “But then, when we were warming up, the Masry fans were aiming rockets at us, straight at our eyes, like arrows. I said to the referee that we could not play. He said if he cancelled the game, the Masry fans would kill him.”

The game started. A banner was unfurled among the home supportreading: “Your Death Is Here.” Some invaded the pitch at half-time and to celebrate Masry’s second and third goals in a 3-1 win. “They were allowed back into the stands,” says Yusuf. “That is not normal.”

When the final whistle went, thousands swarmed on to the field of play. “For the last few minutes, our players only attacked,” Ekramy says. “The Masry goal was closer to the tunnel, and they could feel that something would happen. I was on my own, far from the exit. The fans surrounded me, punching me, kicking me. I had to fight back. I was really afraid. When I got near the dressing room, the coaches of Masry came out to protect me, to get me inside.” It was then that the floodlights were turned off, and the music turned up. The Masry fans opened the gate into the Ahly end. The police made no attempt to intervene. “In a couple of minutes, there were thousands of them in our end,” says Yusuf, tapping an unlit cigarette against his open palm. “It was dark, it was loud. We could barely see or hear each other. Most people ran to the exit, into the tunnel, but I decided to climb up to the top tier and try to walk down. You could hear the Masry fans saying we were all going to die. I heard people screaming that they were pushing people from the top tier of the stadium, that they had knives.”

The decision to go up, rather than down, may have saved Yusuf’s life. There was only one way out of the Ahly end. That door had been sealed from the outside. There was no escape. Omar died in that tunnel.

“There were so many people in there,” says Yusuf. “And they threw flares in, too, choking them with the gas. The youngest and the quickest, the kids, were the ones pressed against the doors.”

Inside the dressing room, there was terrified, bloody chaos. “It was a mess,” says Ekramy. “We could not leave. We could not help. We could hear the screaming from outside. After a few minutes, our fans started to come in. They had serious injuries. There was blood all over the floor. We had only one doctor and no equipment to deal with these sorts of things.

“We saw one supporter, an old guy, with a very bad head wound. The doctor tried to do whatever he could, but he could not save him. All of the players were gathered round him as he died. [the Ahly midfielder] leant into his ears and whispered some special words, religious words. Two fans died in that dressing room. I could not move, could not speak. There was no police, no army, nobody to hear us. I was waiting for God to save us.” It took 20 minutes for the police to step in. After 40 minutes, the ambulances arrived, followed by two military planes: one to rescue survivors, one to ferry the dead. Yusuf remembers the train journey home; he remembers the silence. Ekramy recalls the faces of parents, contorted by grief, on his arrival in Cairo. Both remember the 72 funerals they attended, the emptiness it brought.

All league football was suspended. It has still not resumed, although it is scheduled to start again today. Ahly refused to play until the 72 had justice. That process started last week, with the verdict that 21 Masry fans would be put to death for their part in the massacre. A further 54, including nine police officers, await their sentence on March 9.

Yusuf and Ekramy both think about that day. When Ahly — despite having no competitive domestic football — won the African Champions League in November, Ekramy was overcome. “It was unexpected, impossible, to win it,” he says. “I cried very much. I am a tough guy. I do not cry often. But it helped me come to terms with Port Said. It was a signal to the families of those who died that we remember them, that we will fight with them, until justice comes.”

Yusuf, most of all, thinks of Omar, of the call he made that morning, before they walked across the bridge. “He was late,” Yusuf says. “I think he overslept. I rang him and said: ‘Get a move on, or we’ll have to go without you.’ ”

is a football reporter for , based in London, covering everything from former Bolton players in Iran to long-forgotten coaching pioneers. His work has appeared in the Telegraph, the Independent, FourFourTwo, the Blizzard, and now on KingFut.

This article was originally published in The Times; reproduced on KingFut with the kind permission of The Times.

(Photo courtesy of James Montague)

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