When Rahma Mohamed steps out of her son’s line of sight, he begins to tremble. She rushes to cradle the 23-year-old’s thin frame, kissing his stubbly cheek.
“Relax,” she murmurs. “I’m here next to you; you’re all right. Don’t cry.”
Since Jan. 28, when security forces beat him and ran him over during the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Mahmoud Mohamed has been unable to speak, walk, eat or use the bathroom on his own. His head is a tapestry of scars and bandages, tubes sprout from his neck, and his palsied hands are clasped in front of a now-bony chest.
He was trying to protect two friends. His mother says both were shot to death by security forces.
Images of Mohamed’s former self stare back at him from beside his bed at Kasr El Aini Hospital: flush with youth, embracing a blushing fiancee who has since abandoned him. Behind them rests a framed certificate from fellow protesters pronouncing him a “hero of the revolution.”
But like thousands of other Egyptians seriously injured during the protests, Mohamed is a forgotten hero, his family caught in a medical limbo, feeling betrayed by the government he fought to change.
“I want the government to help him so that when he gets out, he can survive,” his mother says as she prepares to feed him lunch through a tube.
Egypt itself is in limbo, ruled by a transitional military government and awaiting elections in the fall. Government officials have promised to help the 11,000 people they estimate were injured during the revolution, compensate their families and prosecute their attackers.
But so far the government has compensated few, and failed to prosecute many of the police responsible. The first police officer convicted of killing protesters had disappeared before his trial last month and was sentenced to death in absentia.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has sued the government, demanding compensation for the injured. In the meantime, their families have been forced to rely on private donors, and one another.
About 3,500 of the injured have been hospitalized, said Ghada King Osman, a volunteer with the Heroes of Jan. 25, a Cairo-based group coordinating their care.
This month, interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met with Osman, several doctors and youth leaders who appealed for help.
“We’re trying to get the government involved because civil society is doing all the work,” Osman said.
Sharaf promised that the government would create an association to help the injured and the families of the 840 people killed during the protests. But it is not clear how much the government will pay the injured; they are supposed to receive at least a one-time payment of $170, but many have difficulty assembling the required medical and legal paperwork, Osman said.
One of the closest hospitals to Tahrir Square, Kasr El Aini treated at least 750 of those injured during the protests, mostly young men with gunshot wounds. One private donor has paid for the care of about 40 patients. The private university hospital has offered to pay for the rest, as long as patients can prove they were injured during the protests, said Taymour Mostafa, the hospital’s vice director.
From his bed, Mohamed, who was a shoemaker, peers at the world with one eye; the other was crushed by a policeman’s boot. He cannot talk because of the hole in his neck doctors made to help him breathe, now taped shut.
Doctors say Mohamed suffered brain damage, but scans show some activity. His mother hopes that with surgery and rehabilitation, he can recover. She is in the process of transferring him to a nearby military hospital with a pool and better physical therapy equipment.
She had warned him not to join the protest. He sneaked out. When he failed to return by 3 a.m., she searched for him at the nearest hospital and found him unconscious, with doctors saying he would probably die. She has stayed every day since, a familiar figure in the ward in her modest head scarf and abaya gown. Sometimes, she brings her four other children with her and returns home only after Mohamed is sedated at 1 a.m.
Mohamed’s father died in a fire when he was 1. The private donor pays Mohamed’s medical bills. Doctors say he needs surgery to remove scar tissue from his right eye and rebuild his left eyelid and broken left leg. His mother wants him to see a plastic surgeon in France or Germany. But she cannot afford the travel, surgery and follow-up care.
In the meantime, relatives of others injured during the revolution assist her.
Sayed Ahmed takes a break from visiting his brother downstairs in intensive care to help. The burly ironsmith gingerly lifts Mohamed out of his wheelchair and into bed, smoothing his diaper, straightening his rail-thin legs and colostomy bag.
On the same day Mohamed was injured, Ahmed’s older brother, Moustafa, 36, was shot in the head. He was working at a coffee shop, and was struck as police fired at protesters nearby.
Now he is hooked to a ventilator, comatose and unresponsive. No one has been charged in connection with his shooting.
After four surgeries to remove bullet fragments from his brain, Moustafa Ahmed opened his eyes for the first time this month.
“That’s a little bit of progress,” Sayed Ahmed, 27, says after returning to the ICU, wiping his brother’s eyes and whispering his name.
Ahmed walks back upstairs to check on Antar Azim, 26, a protester who was shot in the neck in Alexandria the same day his brother was injured. Bullets shattered five of Azim’s vertebrae, leaving his left side paralyzed.
Both men’s bills are being paid in the short term by the same private donor who is helping Mohamed.
Azim had been looking forward to marrying in a week and had furnished a new apartment. After he was shot, he canceled the wedding. In his absence, the apartment was stripped by thieves.
His fiancee keeps calling. He will not answer. She wants to visit. Azim always refuses. The former delivery man cannot imagine how he would support a family.
“I want to set her free,” he says.
When he is not in physical therapy, Azim begs his doctors for painkillers and tries to distract himself by listening to the radio or watching television. He avoids the news, which he says is dispiriting — more reports that Mubarak has yet to be tried.
“Getting rid of Mubarak was worth it,” he says, grinning briefly. “I felt passionately involved. I had to do it.”
Once in a while, a tribute airs to those who died during the revolution, and he falls silent.
Finally he says, “It’s as if nothing changes. There is no justice.”
Down the hall, Mohamed’s mother brings his liquid diet from home, props him up with her own flowered pillows and drapes him in his old Beastie Boys T-shirt. She sees past her son’s broken body to the man inside, struggling to emerge.
She feels the same wordless connection with him now that she did when he was born.
“Mothers connect with their babies without language,” she says. “I am waiting until he comes back to me.”
Special correspondents Nagham Osman and Ahmed Shawkat contributed to this report.