When Janette Samaan left for her month-long trip to visit family in Alexandria, Egypt, at the beginning of January, she never imagined her last few days there would be filled with gunfire, chaos and her homeland turned upside down.
“It was very scary,” she said. “There was no police. The prisoners escaped from jails. The stores were emptied out.
“This isn’t the Egypt I know.”
Finally back in Canada days after setting out for the Cairo airport, Samaan recounts the harrowing journey to get back to her home in Guelph, Ont. amid country-wide protests in Egypt.
Samaan’s flight was set to leave Cairo for Istanbul at noon on Sunday. Usually, a bus ride from Alexandria to Cairo takes about three hours. She normally would have left early Sunday morning.
But because of the country’s strict curfew rules during the recent protests — people can only be out from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. — and not knowing how long the bus ride would take, she decided it would be safer to take the bus on Saturday at 7 a.m.
As the bus left Alexandria, it was fairly quiet on the roads, Samaan said. But as they got closer to Cairo, Samaan and the other passengers started to hear gunfire. At first, they thought they were possibly being shot at or that criminals would hijack the bus. No one had ever experienced anything like this before and it was hard to tell what was going on, she said. She could see tanks and army men outside their windows. Passengers on the bus panicked and got scared. Many people were screaming.
“I had never seen anything like this before except in the movies. Never in real life. Never in Egypt,” she said. “It’s very hard to talk about”.
Bus driver stood up to officials
Samaan hails her bus driver as a hero who never bailed on the passengers. He kept driving despite curfew rules and even stood up to the army officials who pulled the bus over at one point.
“He told them he didn’t want to stop the bus because he needed to get us home,” she said.
When the bus first got pulled over, it scared everyone on board, Samaan said. She only learned after that it was pulled over to be inspected by army officials looking for escaped prisoners. With stress levels high and the sound of gunfire in the background, passengers on the bus started to panic even more.
“It was hard to control yourself in that situation,” she said. “Many of us were crying and we all tried to calm each other down and be there for each other.”
At home, a waiting game
Meanwhile, back home in Guelph, Samaan’s husband George was going through his own range of emotions.
“Because Egypt’s Internet was down, I could only talk to my wife on her family’s landline. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The last time I talked to her was before she left for the airport,” he said. “I was very worried because I knew about the curfew and I knew she couldn’t miss her plane. If she missed it, there would have been no way for us to know, no way for her to tell us so we could help. She had to get on that plane. I was very nervous.”
Due to the curfew, many of the planes leaving Cairo were cancelled, she said. Luckily, Samaan’s plane was scheduled to leave early enough in the day that it did arrive and, after hours of waiting, she finally boarded the plane.
“When the plane left the ground I finally felt safe. I knew I would be okay,” she said.
Samaan said she would like to stick to her original plan and visit her family again in two years. But she hopes things will calm down in Egypt by then.
“It’s such a beautiful country. I don’t know how they are going to recover from this. It’s going to take a long time.”