Volume 80, Number 43 | March 24 - 30, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Q. Sakamaki

In Cairo in early February, military officers stood guard as anti-Mubarak protesters demonstrated outside the Interior Ministry’s TV station headquarters after President Mubarak gave a speech but didn’t say he would step down.

Q. Sakamaki.

East Village photog survived Egypt beating, interrogations

By Lincoln Anderson

Among the myriad assaults on journalists covering the Egyptian popular uprising last month, those on Anderson Cooper and Lara Logan were among the most high profile. However, East Village international conflict photographer Q. Sakamaki was, as usual, right in the thick of things, and his story rivals any journalist’s for sheer harrowing terror. Sakamaki was nearly murdered by an angry mob, then held prisoner and interrogated, while blindfolded, in a military prison for more than two days.

In an interview two weeks ago, Sakamaki said that, in fact, several times in Egypt he feared his life was over.

The revolt to oust Hosni Mubarak from the Egyptian presidency started on Jan. 25. Sakamaki — who had been shooting photos in southern Sudan just before then — arrived in Cairo on Feb. 2. At first accompanied by two Scottish writers, he checked out the scene around Tahrir Square that afternoon. Things were “totally escalating,” Sakamaki said.

Later on, no longer with the two other men, he made his way toward a “pro-Mubarak area.” He put his camera inside his jacket, knowing the government had been blaming foreign journalists — specifically, photographers and TV news cameramen — for fomenting the uprising. Fires were burning all around, and Egyptian families were taking shots of the blazes with their cell phones, Sakamaki said.

Suddenly, a gang of about 20 people spotted Sakamaki, and were quickly upon him.

After Mubarak finally stepped down, Egyptians in Tahrir Square celebrated wildly.

“They attacked me by pipe,” he said, “beating, actually tearing my clothes. If I fell down, they probably kill me. I just tried to avoid critical punch.”

Luckily, Sakamaki knows karate, and he used martial-arts technique to try to protect his head with his hands. But 20 blows or more connected with him, he figures, during a beating that lasted from seven to 10 minutes. Two or three people intervened to help him, shouting “La! La! La!” (“No! No! No!”), even while others, gripped by “crazy, mob mentality,” according to Sakamaki, looked at him and drew their fingers across their throats.

A view, with a statue in the foreground, of the burned-out headquarters of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party — of which Mubarak was a longtime member — which was torched by protesters on Jan. 28, the so-called “Friday of Rage.”

An Egyptian military officer appeared and, trying to calm the crowd, took Sakamaki’s camera and smashed it in front of them — “but still they wanted to kill me,” the photographer said.

Left with a fractured rib, his face bloodied and beaten, Sakamaki managed to make it back to a military checkpoint. It wasn’t until four or five days later, that he sought attention for the rib, going to an “open-air doctor” who had set up in a mosque to treat people wounded in the revolt. Initially, he feared he might have lost sight in his right eye, which was so swollen he couldn’t see out of it for several days.

Sakamaki was detained three hours at the military checkpoint, before he decided to sneak off and go to a new hotel. He didn’t return to his previous hotel, since going by that route, he was sure, “Ninety percent [chance], I probably get killed.”

Bruised and battered, yet heading out again early the next morning, Sakamaki was able to get a cab, but soon found himself stopped at another military checkpoint, where he was held two hours. They took his Japanese passport and didn’t return it. The Japanese native decided to go to the Japanese Embassy to get a new passport. He was worried about the 5 p.m. curfew, but they were quickly able to make him a new passport in three hours.

He tried to head back to his hotel, while avoiding pro-Mubarak areas. But, at one point, a young Mubarak supporter asked Sakamaki to show him his passport. Then, in a soft and polite voice, he said to follow him. Sakamaki found himself in a lawyer’s office that was being used as a “temporary secret police station.”

“They took me to the third floor,” Sakamaki recounted. “Thirty people were there waiting in handcuffs. Soon after, I was handcuffed also. People were crying, crying, crying around me.”

He was taken into a room and interrogated. He noticed there was a white powder on the floor.

“They asked me, ‘Do you have any drugs?’” he recounted. He became terrified they were setting him up. “It was a fabrication — it happens in many countries, innocent people jailed for life.”

Sakamaki said he and other international journalists take it as a given that they put their lives on the line in their work. Now, he also feared something almost as bad to him — the loss of his reputation for being framed with drugs.

“It means I lost everything — more than everything,” he said.

Sakamaki was returned to the group and told he was going to be arrested — “They said, ‘You know why.’”

“I said, ‘For being a journalist and taking pictures?’ They said, ‘Yes.’”

After four or five hours at the temporary police station, around midnight, they were all put onto a military bus, hands bound behind their backs with plastic handcuffs, and face down on the seats. For about 15 minutes the bus sat parked, while an angry crowed gathered around it. Sakamaki said people were shouting, “Kill them!” — and, able to see out his window a bit, he saw some once again making the ominous throat-slitting sign. The crowd became frenzied.

“Some people tried to drag us out of the military bus,” Sakamaki said. “There were hundreds of people around the bus. Finally, the bus started to drive.”

After a slow ride through heavy traffic, they arrived at their destination, a military jail.

“When they saw it, some Egyptians started crying,” Sakamaki said, “because they know — military jail means torture.”

At the compound, they were lined up, photographed and videoed, then put back into the bus while still handcuffed — plus now, blindfolded. They were then taken off the bus again and, lined up shoulder to shoulder, marched up to a wall. At this point, Sakamaki feared again his life was over — that the guards would slam the captives’ heads against the wall, killing them. He could hear people around him weeping again.

“I thought, ‘Finished again — my life,’” Sakamaki said.

But instead the captives, still blindfolded, were told to sit down in a large, open courtyard. Using knives, guards cut off their plastic handcuffs. The interrogations recommenced.

“Some people were being beat up, there was the sound of crying,” the East Villager recalled of what he heard. “Two interpreters are speaking English perfectly. It’s a very soft voice — asking, ‘Why here?’ Saying, ‘You don’t have to worry.’ — baba....baba... . It’s a kind of technique.

“I say, ‘I’m a journalist covering the Egyptian turmoil. It’s super-interesting, super-important.’”

Blankets were provided for warmth against the night chill — though each one had to be shared by three people huddled together in a group. In Sakamaki’s trio were two other men, an Egyptian lawyer and an American from Human Rights Watch.

“It’s a freezing night — desert area — at night,” Sakamaki noted. He focused on remembering the lawyer’s phone number, so he could call him after they were released.

They were given naan-style flat bread once a day. “But we don’t have appetite,” he noted, “so tired, so scared. Our first priority was to try to sleep, try to save energy.” They were allowed to go to a bathroom.

A woman, likely a leader of the uprising, Sakamaki figures, was shouting out anti-Mubarak slogans. He occasionally pushed up his blindfold to peek around, but was punched twice in the face for doing this. He saw that the woman’s orange head covering had been wrapped completely around her face and head, no doubt by her captors.

“They beat her up a lot,” he said. “Then — her voice stopped.”

Sakamaki didn’t have to see her to know what had happened. “She fainted,” he said.

Some people were being released, and Sakamaki became hopeful, yet he was still held.

In total, he spent two days and three nights in the military jail’s courtyard. He estimates there were about 120 people in the courtyard at any given time, and that about 300 to 400 people held by police came through it during that time. On the last day, he had to wait in a room another eight hours before he was finally released.

“It’s so bureaucratic,” he said.

He was let out with a group of 15 to 20 others.

During his interrogation, Sakamaki said he was asked why he went to countries like Sudan and Kenya, why he had tried to go to Pakistan — which he got a visa to visit, but ultimately didn’t because he didn’t get the photo assignment.

“I said, ‘This is my life’s work’ — it’s also my vacation.’”

Having a beaten-up and bruised face also made the interrogators suspicious, he said, since they “thought I’m a criminal.”

Once free, Sakamaki went right back to documenting the Egyptian scene, though this time focusing on the revolution’s “root causes,” forging into the slums of Cairo to see the squalid conditions that sparked the uprising. Sakamaki called up the lawyer he’d met in the military prison, who accompanied him along with a few other locals, providing him some safety.

He went to get his rib bandaged.

“They say, ‘Plaster,’ but I say, ‘No plaster, it’s too heavy,’” Sakamaki recalled. “I have experience with rib fracture before — it didn’t seem too bad. Best thing is to rest for week to 10 days, but still I was moving a lot.” When he’d get bumped in the crowd, it would send a stab of pain through his side, but he soldiered on.

As for the Egyptian revolution’s root causes, Sakamaki said, it’s simple: “If someone, or some system, oppresses people, deprives them of their fundamental rights, such as freedom from torture or the right to a fair trial, and keeps unequal opportunity of jobs, naturally, a people’s movement to change happens, in which people even risk their own lives.”

Ultimately, Sakamaki feels it was his experience — what he calls his “immune system” — that allowed him to pull through the ordeal and keep his wits about him, even when he felt he would be killed.

“If I didn’t have ‘immune system,’ I think I’d go crazy,” he said. “I already have similar experiences in Afghanistan, [the slums of] Rio de Janeiro, Israel. If I didn’t have that, I might have gone insane.”

Currently, Sakamaki is in his native Japan, covering the ongoing disaster there from the earthquake, tsunami and critically damaged nuclear power plants.

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