Cairo (CNN) — Amid the celebrations that greeted the declaration of a winner in Egypt’s first freely elected presidential vote, a British student journalist was being sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square.
Natasha Smith recounted the experience on her blog and in an interview with CNN. Smith, who has since left Egypt, wrote that the moving demonstrations of freedom turned to horror “in a split second” when dozens of frenzied men dragged her away from two male companions and began to grope her “with increasing force and aggression.”
“Men started ripping off all my clothes,” she told CNN. “First of all, it was my skirt, and that just went straight away, and I didn’t even feel my underwear being removed. Then my shoes went and clothes on my upper half were just being ripped off me, and that was quite painful.”
During the assault, “I was just in this weird, detached state of mind, and I just kept saying, ‘Please God, please make it stop. Please, God, make it stop.’ ”
Her experience echoes the assaults faced by two prominent female reporters, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan and Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy, who has said her attackers were officers at a police station. One of Smith’s friends, Callum Paton, told CNN the mob dragged Smith naked across the ground before another group of men stepped in to protect her.
“There were several moments at which I thought she was going to die,” Paton said. “And I think that really the fact that we are still alive, and especially Natasha’s still alive, was because there were so many people who were willing to help us and were willing to risk their own lives and put them in direct danger to get her out of that situation.”
Smith was on her first international assignment, shooting a documentary on women’s rights in Egypt as her final college project. A doctor who treated Smith and a British Embassy official who met her at the hospital corroborrated her account for CNN.
“If there hadn’t been a small group of men around me, I would have been raped and killed,” she said. “That’s just without question, because that’s what the men were trying to do. It was very clear what they were trying to do to me. They weren’t just trying to play around with me, they were gunning for me for whatever reason.”
On her blog, she wrote that an ambulance pulled up at one point, but it was forced to leave when it “was invaded by tens of men.” Even after being escorted to a medical tent by volunteers who formed a cordon around her, her attackers surrounded the tent. Women who assisted her told her the attack “was motivated by rumors spread by troublemaking thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners.”
“Arab women, Muslim women were all around me, just crying, saying ‘This is not Egypt! This is not Egypt! This is not Islam! These are thugs!’ ” she told CNN. She said she responded, “I know, I love Egypt, I know this is not Islam, it’s OK.
“And they were stunned, ’cause they thought I was going to be so full of hate and so full of fear. But from the very beginning, I don’t blame Egypt for this. This is not the workings of the Egyptian people. This is not representative.”
To escape, she said, “I was told I had to put my trust in this Egyptian man. I was disguised in a burqa and let out of this tent with this man, barefoot and I had to pretend to be his wife and walk through the streets and he kept just saying to me, ‘Don’t cry. Do not cry. If you cry, people will know.’ ”
On her blog, she complained about her treatment at the hospital, noting that the doctor’s first question was whether she was married, “which is of course the most important question to be asking a victim of mass sexual abuse.”
“He and a female nurse (who only reluctantly kept me covered up) looked briefly at the damage and just wandered off, saying that because I didn’t have internal bleeding, they couldn’t do anything,” she wrote. “A useful trip, that was.”
But the doctor, Mohammed Meligi, said Smith’s account may be “a misunderstanding, because she was here first time to enter the Egyptian hospital.”
Smith said her case will get attention “because I’m British and I’m young and I’m a girl,” but she said other Egyptian women “will often suffer these attacks and worse attacks and there’ll be no justice done.”
“There’s been an outpouring of support, and I’m so grateful for that,” she said. But she said she wished that support could be shared with “all women, of all nationalities, wherever they are.”
“I’ll be so happy if this could make any difference to other women who are in this situation, not just in Egypt, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere,” she said.