Tuesday 19 March 2019

Family caught up in Cairo violence

Omaima 21 who is a mosque in Cairo Egypt.
Pictured is Omaima with her father the Imam Hussein Halawa
Collect from Halawa Family
Omaima 21 who is a mosque in Cairo Egypt. Pictured is Omaima with her father the Imam Hussein Halawa Collect from Halawa Family
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Relatives of four Irish citizens who were trapped in a besieged Egyptian mosque said tonight they feared for their safety.

THE family of four Irish citizens who were trapped in a besieged Egyptian mosque have said they fear for their safety.

Nasaybi Halawa, whose three sisters and teenage brother were among hundreds of people who were forced yesterday evening to leave the Al Fateh mosque in Cairo by Egyptian security forces, said her family was trying to stay strong but were extremely concerned.

Speaking from their home in the south Dublin suburb of Firhouse, Ms Halawa said: "The last time I talked to my sister was about 1pm this afternoon [Saturday]. They had taken her mobile phone but she managed to borrow one. All the while they (security forces) were harassing her and she was screaming and crying.

"We are trying to cope. We are trying to be strong so we can do something for them. We have a hope that everything will be fine."

Teargas was fired and heavy gunfire was heard before the mosque was cleared.

It is understood two of the siblings Omaima, 21, and Fatima, 23, have been detained by the Egyptian authorities but the location at which they are being held remains unknown.

The whereabouts of their other sister, Somaia, 27, and 17-year-old brother Ibrihim is also unknown. Their worried relatives are unsure if they were arrested at the mosque or fled.

Ms Halawa added: "We do not know anything about them. We do not know where they have been taken. We do not know if they are in one of the police stations in Cairo or somewhere else. We don't even know where to start looking."

The four siblings are the children of Hussein Halawa, imam of Ireland's biggest mosque in Dublin, and were in Egypt on holiday. They were joined by their mother two weeks ago but their father is still in Dublin.

Ms Halawa said her mother and uncles had already been in contact with a lawyer in Cairo and were beginning a search of the city's police stations.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said embassy staff had been in contact with the group and were working closely with the authorities in Cairo.

He told the Sunday Independent: “We can confirm we have been in touch with the group. We can also confirm that embassy staff have been in touch with the authorities in Egypt.”

At the height of the siege, Omaima Halawa had made a desperate phone call to her sister Nasaybi from inside the Al Fateh mosque as Egyptian security forces closed in, saying: “We are expecting them to come and kill us at any time.”

As a ferocious gun battle raged in the background, media student Omaima did her best to hold her nerve as she dramatically told how soldiers accompanied by a hostile crowd were outside the mosque trying to coax the women and children outside

— telling them to leave the men behind.

But she told her sister: “Even if we die together — we will not leave our brother.”

The phone line went down shortly afterwards.

Omaima, 21, her two sisters Somaia, 27, and Fatima, 23, along with their brother Ibrihim, 17, were trapped in the Al Fath Mosque in the Ramses area of Cairo.

The Halawa siblings travelled to Egypt at the beginning of the summer for a holiday. Their mother Amina Mostafa travelled with her children while their father remained in Dublin.

The Halawa siblings were taking part in a demonstration when violence forced them into the mosque at about 7pm on Friday night.

Ms Halawa described conditions inside the mosque as austere and traumatic.

She said: "They were inside for 18 hours without food and water. They had to drink from a fountain which was not meant for drinking. My brother, who is under 18 years of age was in the same place as dead bodies. They had been running from gunfire and the mosque, as a holy place should be respected. Is that a crime now?"

The Halawa family moved to Ireland about 18 years ago.

Omaima is studying creative digital media at Blanchardstown Institute of Technology, the course her sister Fatima completed last year. Somaia is a trainee Montessori teacher and their brother Ibrihim has just completed his Leaving Cert.

Fatima, told Al Jazeera television from inside the mosque that the women who left had been taken hostage by police forces and those left behind feared for their lives: “Every few seconds we have people trying to attack us. If the security forces were protecting us,” she said, “I would be able to leave now.”

Speaking about the police forces she said: “How can I trust them when they are saying, ‘if you come out I will slaughter you’?”

She also dismissed reports that a woman died in the mosque as a result of a fire extinguisher going off, rather than from a tear-gas bomb thrown inside the building.

“These were tear-gas bombs,” she said, audibly distressed. “I am a live witness”, she said. “She died right in front of my eyes. We just want to leave. We just want to go home. All we want to do is to leave peacefully.

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