“WITH GAS MASKS ON and our determination, we went running in right away in order to break the lock,” says 22-year old Egyptian Hend Ghorab, a student in Cairo.
She wasn’t risking her life to save people. She was saving animals. Forgotten animals of war and conflict.
During times of violent warfare, we usually brace ourselves when we are about to hear the number of people who have been injured or the rapid rise of the dreaded death toll.
Often, it’s the unfairness of the situation that we struggle to come to terms with: people who have had nothing to do with the dispute get caught up in the midst of our battles and pay with their lives.
But the lives that are usually forgotten or overlooked are those of animals. We seldom hear of how many animals have suffered or died as we fight over our differences.
Some people probably just forget. Many probably couldn’t care less. But there’s a handful of individuals who are truly ‘human kind’ enough to remember and courageous enough to act.
During the recent eruption of protests in Tahrir Square, Hend’s close friend, Joumana Gamil, sent her a frenzy of text messages panicking over Ahram Pet Store that had dozens of trapped animals caught in the crossfire of lethal tear gas and mindless bloodshed. The store was located in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which was on the frontline of the fighting.
To the rescue
Hend got the number for the store from directory enquiries, but couldn’t get through as all connections had been cut. She called the store’s elderly owner, Mr Hag Mohsen, on his mobile, who said he had tried to go back to the store five days ago but was blocked by a barrage of fumes and gas. Because of his age, he was struggling to journey to the store.
“When things broke out on Saturday I had to evacuate the store without hesitation,” said the 65-year-old store owner to the Egypt Independent newspaper.
“But then it never stopped, and I knew my pets were dying, without food and with the intense gas, and I was unable to get back there because of allergies and my fitness,” he added.
Hend and her close friend Karim Molyneux-Berry offered their help and led a group of like-minded people along with a team from the Egyptian Society for Mercy To Animals (ESMA) . They made their way to the pet store in a brave attempt to recover the animals.
Playing with fire
Her main fears came from not knowing how the conflict would escalate. “The battle in Mohammed Mahmoud is like a roller coaster,” she says. “It stays low and quiet and all of a sudden the police go in full attack mode.”
When she entered the store, she was met with a mixture of excitement and fear from the vulnerable animals.
“The dog cries and animal reactions were heartbreaking, it was like someone in hostage and finally being saved,” she says.
Hend and the team bundled the animals in a car they had arranged and took them to a farm in Mariuteya, belonging to Mohsen, where they were treated and cared for.
Several dogs, cats, guinea pigs and birds were rescued, many suffering from severe eye damage and skin irritation as well as starvation. The fish sadly died due to high levels of toxicity in the water.
Hend said she was overwhelmed with the number of fellow citizens who expressed their concerns for the animals. She said the news “spread like wildfire” on Twitter and Facebook and she added that despite the bigger issues faced in the country by people dying, “we still didn’t lose our humanity through all this.”
However, according to Hend, because of the problems faced by the country Egyptians generally overlook the welfare of animals. She says that although people do own pets, those individuals mainly belong to the middle or elite classes and people tend to turn a blind eye to the many stray animals that dwell on the streets.
She says: “Even when people drive, they run down animals and don’t even flinch. My university is 45 minutes away, and I always take a highway to it, and daily I see one animal run over. It breaks my heart.”
But she recalls a moving story that is a glimmer of hope:
“I was driving in Zamalek, a district in Cairo, and I was with my friend, Farida Naguib. We found a cat in the street run over, halfway between life and death. My friend is a huge cat lover, and she was taken aback and said to stop the car and do something.
I went and there was blood everywhere and we didn’t know how to carry it. We tried to ask several people from nearby shops to give us a bag or anything to help move the cat off the road. They all dismissed us and were sometimes even sarcastic.
It took a beggar the courage to come and help us. He took a pizza box from the garbage and was able to move cat to the sidewalk. It really broke my heart to see someone so helpless, who has every reason to be bitter but to still have that sense of humanity.”
This is testament to the fact that even in the most barren of lands, there’s a chance of coming across a desert flower. Despite all those who turn their heads, close their eyes or simply forget, there is always one who remembers.
American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
– Monica Sarkar
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