Terror and Tear Gas on the Streets of Bahrain
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Jihan Kazerooni and I drove past scores of armed riot police on Budaiya highway as her iPhone buzzed non-stop: phone calls, Skype calls and, incessantly, Twitter. I had wondered what the phrase “Twitter revolution” really meant when I heard it used in connection with Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011. Here, in the small Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, I was beginning to grasp the concept.
I was in that country for three weeks as a part of the Witness Bahrain initiative, a group of internationals seeking to document and expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime against protesters and activists. Aside from brief spurts of coverage, the crisis in Bahrain had largely been ignored by the US media.
Perhaps the lack of coverage of the predominantly Shiite uprising against an increasingly repressive Sunni monarchy can be explained, in part, by this: Washington considers that monarchy its close ally; Bahrain is the home of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the beneficiary of US arms sales. Perhaps it has to do with the US-Saudi friendship, and the increasing tension between the United States and Iran. Bahrain has been portrayed as a battleground for influence between neighboring Saudi Arabia (a supporter of the monarchy) and nearby majority Shiite Iran.
Ignoring the revolution underway there and its demands for freedom and democracy is, however, perilous. If activists move from largely peaceful demonstrations toward the use of violence, Bahrain could prove the powder keg that might set the Persian Gulf aflame. Peaceful activists like Jihan currently hold sway, but given the brutality I witnessed, it’s unclear how long the Bahraini revolution will remain nonviolent.
Jihan took me under her wing, introducing me to dozens of Bahrainis who had been directly affected by the regime’s crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. They were not difficult to find. There was someone in nearly every Shiite family, Jihan’s included, who had been fired from his or her job, arrested, injured or killed. Sunni opposition activists (though much fewer in number) had been harshly targeted as well.
Hitting the Road
Jihan, her hair tucked underneath a brown silk scarf and wearing fashionable sunglasses, opened an app on her phone as we tried to reach the march that had been called by a coalition of opposition parties.
“I’ll tweet that I am here in Budaiya Road, and there are no checkpoints in the area, but there are lots of riot police.” A new tweet came through before Jihan could finish composing hers. She scanned it quickly as she skillfully guided her car around a traffic circle. “Okay. The attack started,” she said. “It’s just at the next roundabout. We might be able to see it from the car.” Jihan rolled down the window. “Can you smell the tear gas?” she asked, began coughing, and immediately rolled her window up again.
As we continued our drive, gray clouds of tear gas billowed up from village after village, Jihan constantly checking her Twitter feed and rattling off the names of areas currently under assault: “A protest in Dair has been attacked and in Tashan as well. A’ali, also the same. Now they are attacking the women in the north of Bilad.”
New tweets buzzed. “Lots of injuries, actually, a woman has been injured, I’ll show you the picture…” She turned her phone my way, allowing me to glimpse a photograph of a bloody limb. “It’s her arm,” Jihan said, telling me that she suspected the injury was from “a sound bomb or a tear gas canister.”
The Evolution of an Activist
Jihan had not started out as an activist. She had been an investment banker, shopping in Bahrain’s high-end malls and socializing with friends. Demonstrations erupted at the Pearl Roundabout—with its imposing 300-foot monument of six arches holding a pearl aloft—in the capital city, Manama, on February 14, 2011, and only grew larger by the day as casualties and fatalities mounted. Still, she did not participate.
She had been largely ignorant of the protesters’ complaints: the same prime minister had governed for forty-two years; the majority Shiite community faced discrimination from the ruling Sunnis, evidenced most clearly by the fact that they couldn’t join the country’s military or its police. Instead, the government was importing foreigners from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan and Syria, among other countries, to fill the ranks of the security services, often offering them Bahraini citizenship (which also threatened to alter Sunni-Shiite demographics). The royal family had taken large swathes of public land for private benefit.
Jihan instead believed the version of the uprising being offered on state-controlled television. In that narrative, the protesters were not peaceful but armed and dangerous. They had, the government claimed, stolen blood bags from the hospital and were pouring that blood on themselves to feign injuries for the media. Force was being applied by the regime rarely and only when it was absolutely necessary to disperse those demonstrating. Government spokespeople claimed Shiite doctors at Salmaniya Hospital were taking patients and co-workers hostage.
On the morning of March 13, Jihan received a few text messages on her way to her office, appealing for people’s presence at the Pearl Roundabout because government forces were attacking. She decided to go and see for herself what was taking place.
What she saw shook her to the core: unarmed protesters—women and children among them—chanting for democracy, freedom and equality as riot police fired bullets, birdshot and tear gas canisters directly into the crowd. Jihan stood to the side, crying, as women around her wailed and read aloud from the Koran.
Then, in the distance, she noticed bodies being loaded into cars. She couldn’t tell if they were dead or wounded, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away either as the cars were filled and each drove towards nearby Salmaniya Hospital.
It was there that Jihan drove next, and found more wounded patients than available beds. Protesters who were injured by birdshot or overcome by tear gas were lying on white sheets spread across the parking lot, awaiting treatment from overburdened doctors and nurses.
The following day, 1,000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain at the request of the regime, backed by 500 police from the United Arab Emirates. The troops drove the protesters out of the Pearl Roundabout, destroyed the iconic Pearl Monument, and Bahrain’s King Hamad declared a state of emergency.
Soon after, house raids leading to mass arrests began. Most of the opposition leaders were jailed, along with thousands of protesters. Journalists were targeted, as were teachers, healthcare professionals and star Bahraini athletes. Hundreds of cases of torture (some to the death) were reported, and thousands were fired from government jobs for demonstrating or, in many cases, merely because they were Shiite.
Jihan realized that continuing with her former life was inconceivable. She visited Nabeel Rajab, co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to ask how she could help. Hard as it had been to come to him, Jihan told Nabeel, she could no longer stay silent and on the sidelines.
A colleague of Nabeel’s trained Jihan in how to document human rights violations. Soon, she began doing so in cases involving medical professionals who had been imprisoned and tortured by the regime for treating injured protesters—and for speaking out about the injuries they were seeing.
By the time I met Jihan, she was an experienced activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the founding vice president of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), which seeks to aid in the treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims.
The Battle for the Future of Bahrain
Seasoned as she was, Jihan was thoroughly shaken by the time we left an underground clinic late one night. There, nurses had secretly stitched up the gaping head wound of 13-year-old “Hussein,” shot with a tear gas canister after a march that had, ironically, been called to protest the excessive use of tear gas.
Jihan and I had been to the protest and, at its end, were speaking to bare-chested youths holding Molotov cocktails, their faces wrapped in T-shirts. “This [Molotov] is not violence,” one of them insisted. “What’s violence is what they use against us, live bullets. We are defending ourselves. We’re not attacking. If they attack us, we respond.”
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a shout went up that the riot police were on their way. Jihan and I peeled away in a friend’s Jeep, looking out the back window as arcs of light from tear gas canisters and burning Molotovs streaked across the night sky.
We thought we saw a tear gas canister hit a fleeing child in the head, and when Jihan received a phone call about the injury soon afterwards, we rushed to the underground clinic.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Jihan told me the next morning. “That 13-year-old child we saw was in front of my eyes.”
She reached Hussein’s older brother by phone after several attempts. Hussein, he reported, was vomiting, not eating, and suffering from headaches. In typical fashion, Jihan sprang into action, contacting several doctors and medical professionals for consultation. There might be a serious problem, one that only a CT scan could detect, a specialist told her. Jihan’s worry deepened.
“Doctors with private clinics don’t have CT scan or X-ray machines, so we need to arrange a hospital for him, which is very risky. [Hussein’s family] won’t accept taking him to the hospital. They will be scared that he will be arrested, so, really, I don’t know what to do,” she told me, pressing her iPhone against her forehead. “It’s a very big decision, taking him to the hospital.”
There was good reason for all of them to fear the boy’s arrest. A few days earlier, Jihan and I had visited 11-year-old Ali Hasan, who had just been released after nearly a month in juvenile prison. He had been playing soccer outside, Ali told us, when armed riot police approached. His friends had managed to run away, but frozen in fear, he was arrested and charged with blocking the road in advance of a demonstration. What did he miss most while imprisoned? Ali responded without hesitation: his two little sisters and toddler-aged brother.
We watched Ali romp with his younger siblings, he tussling with and tickling them, they leaping on him with shrieks of laughter. It would have been easy to miss the shadow that crossed his face when he spoke about how frightened he had been, locked up without his mother.
Evidence of trauma was hardly borne by this boy alone.
I saw it when a male medical worker broke down weeping as he described what he had witnessed at Salmaniya hospital during the crackdown on Pearl Roundabout.
I heard it in the voice of Dr. Nabeel Hameed, one of the doctors arrested and tortured by the regime, as he described his struggles with depression, anger and confusion since his release, and detected it in Dr. Zahra Alsammak’s flat affect when she declined to describe the torture that her husband, also a doctor, had endured.
I recognized it in the crayon drawings by the children of prisoners and “martyred” protesters, replete with gun-wielding police, tanks, stick figures behind bars and bodies on stretchers.
I felt it in the mother of Ali Jawad Al-Sheikh, as she buried her face in a pile of her son’s T-shirts and breathed in their scent, as she has done every night since 14-year-old Ali was killed.
“There has been a lot of damage and hurt, the people won’t forget it very soon,” Jihan told me. “Even if we got our freedom tomorrow, the people need time to be healed.”
If the regime did not institute “true reforms,” and soon—which I saw no indication of—Jihan predicted that the government would soon be facing a more aggressive generation. “We don’t want that,” she said forcefully. “We started peacefully and we want to stay peaceful.… We are trying our best to advise [the youth] not to hold these Molotov cocktails. But, at the end, I think if the violence [against them] increases, it will be very difficult to control them.”
The impact of the trauma does not escape the activists. Jihan described documenting the killing of Ahmed Ismail Hassan, a 22-year-old citizen journalist shot in the lower abdomen by live ammunition as he was filming a protest. Jihan had never seen so much blood. For two days, the smell of blood in her nostrils prevented her from eating and for two nights she could not close her eyes.
Every day we’re documenting and seeing these violations, so we’re under a lot of pressure. In the end, we are human beings. We get affected, we get hurt. The leaders and the human rights activists, we can’t show the people that we’re affected and broken from inside. If the people see that we are collapsed internally, what kind of strength will they get from us? Sometimes I get broken from inside, I disappear for a few days, but I try my best to fight depression. I try to keep busy and not think about it.
A Country at a Crossroads
I asked Jihan about the possibility of her own arrest.
“I think that they will target me very soon,” she said. “At any time they might raid my home and arrest me.” She fears most the possibility of torture. She’s documented enough cases to know just what she might be forced to endure. But she adds, “I do believe that getting freedom and democracy for the coming generation is very important, and highlighting the violations that are happening in the country is very important. Freedom is not something easy to get—we have to pay and to sacrifice for it. Fear of arrest won’t stop me from doing my humanitarian job. I won’t give up.”
Jihan’s fellow Bahraini activists are not giving up either. They continue to head out onto the streets night after night, despite the fierce repression they face from the regime and the silent complicity of most of the world. Yet there is reason to worry about where the Bahraini uprising is heading. As Dr. Nabeel Hameed put it, “The situation is getting entrenched, it’s getting stagnated. Nobody sees a solution, and this gives loss of hope. And one of the most dangerous positions you can put a human being in is loss of hope. Because when somebody loses hope, he’s capable of doing anything.”
Juxtaposed with despair, however, is the resilience—or sumud (steadfastness)—that could be seen everywhere I looked. It was in the drawings of the children, who defiantly portrayed hands raised in a “V” for victory sign among images of bloodshed. It was in the graffiti depicting the Pearl Monument on walls all over Bahrain, with the stenciled message “We Will Return.” It was in the youth we secretly filmed in their villages after midnight spray-painting bus stops and light poles with the colors of the Bahraini flag.
And it was reflected in 13-year-old Hussein, who called Jihan two days after being stitched back together without anesthesia to report, to her great relief, that his vomiting had ceased and his appetite had returned.
Hussein tried to thank Jihan for her help, but she would not permit it. “No need to say thanks, habibi [my dear]. I’m only doing my duty.”
For more Nation dispatches from the Middle East, check out Adam Baron’s coverage of the protests in Yemen.