By Radhika Sainath
When I graduated from law school, I never imagined that a few years later I would be defending myself in the small Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain – known for its repressive security apparatus and the torture of political prisoners – after being teargassed, arrested, jailed, hit on the head, handcuffed, forced into a stress position and deported.
And I consider myself lucky.
I got up Saturday morning, exhausted but excited. Today would be the first of a series of ongoing attempts by Bahraini democracy activists to retake Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain’s Tahrir Square. The regime had killed dozens, demolished the Pearl monument and turned the site into a closed military zone last year after thousands had camped out there requesting freedom, democracy and equal rights.
We had just launched Witness Bahrain – an initiative to monitor, document and stand in solidarity with democracy activists – the day before and leading Bahraini human rights activists such as Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja had requested that we attend the peaceful march.
We left early from the outer Shia villages for Bahrain’s capital, Manama, for a house in the old city. Police had already started setting up checkpoints for the afternoon protest. The meeting site for the march was top-secret so that it would not be leaked to the police. At the designated hour, 3 p.m., Nabeel would tweet to his 100,000 plus followers—about 10% of the population of Bahrain—where to go.
But there was a problem. One of the local human rights activists in on the meeting place had mistakenly given the information to the press. The Bahraini activists quickly met and decided on new location. The tweet went out.
Nabeel asked that Witness Bahrain monitors each accompany a different human rights leader. Once at the site, we would each focus on various tasks, photographing, videotaping and tweeting. My job was to tweet from @WitnessBahrain.
Zainab headed out, then Nabeel. I was to accompany Syed Yousif Almuhafda, a handsome young human rights activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who had gone into hiding for two months last year and was fired from his job for participating in democracy protests.
S. Yousif peaked out of the metal door into the alley.
“Back, back,” he said. The police were in the alley! We slipped off our shoes and scurried back into the house.
After a few minutes we head out again, I at S. Yusef’s side, and my colleague Kate Rafael farther back with recently-released Naser Al Raas and others. We head out of the house, turning right, then left, down twisting allies, backing up as the people in the street warned us that the police were near. Indian shopkeepers stood outside of their stores of saris, curries and electronic appliances, faces colored with curiosity as my eyes met theirs.
S. Yousif and I spilled out into one of Manama’s broader streets. We continued walking fast, looking straight forward as we passed modern banks and commercial buildings. I kept my eyes straight ahead and ignored the glitz of downtown Manama.
We had lost Kate, Naser and others, but we did not want to stop. We entered some sort of plaza and saw a few policemen to our left. I wondered if we should turn back—S. Yousif’s face was well-known—but he simply veered around them, walking with the pace of New York City commuter. A Citibank could be seen across the street.
“If they asked us what we are doing we can say you need to go the bank,” he said. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to keep looking back.” I said. He nodded in agreement. It looked suspicious.
We kept on until I saw another bank where ATM machines stood behind a large glass window facing the street.
“Maybe I can go withdraw some money in that bank and you can look out the window,” I said. We entered and I inserted my ATM card. As the machine took me through various menus, I saw Kate and Naser arrive. I quickly head out. There was Nabeel, surrounded by a growing crowd of democracy activists outside the Standard Bank.
I sent out two tweets from @WitnessBahrain and the march towards Pearl started. I tried to stay mostly to the side, so I could see what was going on. The peaceful marchers chanted “Down with [King] Hamad,” while waving red and white Bahraini flags. We were almost immediately met by riot police dressed in blue and white, carrying large automatic weapons.
They fired multiple rounds of teargas canisters, straight at the crowd—one of which flew within inches of my colleague Huwaida Arraf’s face.
“Police teargas nonviolent march now in #manama #BAHRAIN,” I tweeted. I wondered if they would start firing birdshot at us as they had done in the past. But I tried to stay, watch and tweet as the fumes enveloped us and the crowd ran, fumbling with a teargas mask given to me earlier.
It was my first experience with such equipment; at prior visits to villages earlier that week, I had used homemade remedies, inhaling onions, vinegar, wrapping my scarf around my nose and mouth and having milk thrown at my face. Surely this magic alien machine would make me impervious!
Alas it did nothing, and I felt my eyes sear as I gagged on the fumes, gasping for air as burning tears and snot ran down my face. I couldn’t see, but I needed to tweet. I was getting snot on the iPad as I followed the marchers running through the allies as the police chased after them. I paused between the flow of tears and tweeted: Choking on teargas as police chase peaceful protesters #Babrain #ARABSPRAING. My spelling was terrible, iPads and teargas don’t mix.
I followed the people through allies, hoping to escape the teargas until I stumbled upon several Bahraini police surrounding a woman in a black headscarf and flowing black abaya throwing her arms around a young man, perhaps her son, crying out in Arabic as they screamed at her.
Through the tears and the burning I tried to tweet a video of the youth, but the iPad was slipping. Then the police left the boy, and surrounded me. They were all Pakistani, mercenaries brought by the regime to put down protesters.
“You can’t photo,” one said.
“I’m not. I couldn’t get it to work,” I said putting the iPad away. They closed in and my back was against the wall. The women of the alley watched from balconies and corners.
“You are lucky you are Indian,” said one of the policeman. “If you were from Bahrain we would arrest you.”
My mind raced, how would Pakistani Sunni in a Bahraini police force feel towards an Indian Hindu at a mostly-Shia’a democracy march? There did seem to be a common South Asian bond, but I decided to air on the side of caution. “Oh I’m American,” I said. “But my parents are from India.”
They started questioning me about my attendance at the protest how I go there and why I was present. Did I know they were saying bad things about the Bahraini regime, that they were chanting down with Hamad.”
“Do they allow people to say bad things about the government in America?” asked one. The others nodded at his logic, certain that I would now understand the outrageousness of the protesters’ actions.
“Of course. People said bad things about George Bush all the time. They hated Bush. And now lots of people protest against Obama.”
They were quiet, and I pressed on, telling them that I was in their country, Pakistan, a few years ago supporting the lawyer’s democracy movement. “The people hated Musharraf, and they went to the street.” I hoped I played my cards right—what if these guys liked Musharraf? But nobody liked Musharraf. I watched their eyes blink in understanding. They hated their dictatorship, but was supporting another non-democratic regime.
Eventually, they left, taking the youth with them. The woman thanked me, if I had not been there, perhaps they would have taken her too.
I walked back towards where protesters had re-gathered. Little did I know that in the next few minutes, I would not escape so easily.