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Egypt vigilantes protect Children's Cancer Hospital from looters

With police absent, a crudely armed gang descends on the state-of-the art facility but is forced back by guards and then a stronger citizen defense force that makes protecting the pediatric center its top priority.

February 01, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — He's grizzled and stooped, and speaks humbly of his job at Egypt's premier pediatric cancer facility. He's just a mechanic, he says. He fixes the hospital's fleet of vehicles.

But as an epidemic of looting swept the capital over the weekend, Farag Abdul Fatah Ahmed had a far more important role to play: Helping save the hospital he loves from plunderers.

On Saturday, with Egyptian police absent from the streets as the capital was racked by political unrest, a gang of 15 or 20 men armed with crude weapons tried to force its way into Children's Cancer Hospital in the Cairo neighborhood of Dokki. It's a fancy-looking building, with curved glass facades and a wide, bright lobby. The thieves apparently figured there would be things inside worth stealing.

Hospital guards managed to drive the men back, but were panicked at the prospect that the looters would return to the lightly defended facility.

But in Dokki, as in many Cairene neighborhoods, men and boys living nearby had already begun to organize themselves into a vigilante defense force. Alerted by Ahmed, they made protecting the hospital their top priority.

"We have an emergency plan, of course," said Dr. Khalid Noury, the hospital's deputy director for operations. "But it's for things like fire or earthquake. We never expected a threat like this."

With Ahmed's help, the neighborhood watch organized round-the-clock protection for the hospital, which is mainly funded by private donations. It is the only facility of its kind in Egypt, providing chemotherapy and other outpatient treatments for 150 child cancer patients a day, with 186 beds for in-hospital care. The daily comings and goings are a picture of suffering: anguished-looking parents and stoic, often bald young patients.

"Whoever would want to attack a children's cancer hospital?" Noury asked, shaking his head. "We are so lucky we had friends to look out for us."

Egyptian state television — widely suspected of exaggerating accounts of looting — reported that attackers had managed to get inside the hospital and destroy some equipment. Noury said that didn't happen, but it was a close call.

Ahmed said that couldn't have been allowed to take place.

"All of us here," he said, "would lay down our lives to help these children."

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