By Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK
There would have been thousands of people today trying to make their way to the forbidden Pearl Roundabout, marking the first anniversary of the uprising. Thousands had tried, unsuccessfully, to get there the day before. They were turned by overwhelming doses of tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets and concussion grenades.
From early morning on February 14, it was clear that the government had called out all its forces to stop any protests. It was like a state of siege. The police had set up roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere, stopping people from getting near downtown. There were spanking new, armored tanks set up at every major intersection. Police cars were rolling up and down the streets, constantly on the lookout.
In the morning, a group of human rights activists, including a few of us international observers who had managed to slip by the immigration officials to get into the country, were on our way to visit a newly released prisoner. Our vehicles were stopped just three blocks from the house where we were meeting. We were detained for a 30-minutes while our papers were checked.
Then we moved on to visit Hasan Salman, a 28-year-old, extremely gaunt man with a long beard (I was told he shaved it off that evening). Hasan had just been released after three years in prison where he was constantly tortured. He was an articulate, amazingly brave man who, while celebrating his release, was also fearful that he could be picked up again for just talking to us. He had been accused of revealing the names of hundreds of human rights violators in Bahrain. He is the Bradley Manning of Bahrain. We were deeply moved by his conviction and will post the interview soon.
In the afternoon we attempted to make our way to Pearl Roundabout. There was a huge traffic jam because the police had put up roadblocks, and so many people were trying to get downtown. Today there was no permitted march like yesterday. People were simply planning to get as close to the Roundabout as they could. On the highway leading to the center of town, the streets were reverberating with the sounds of Down, Down, Hamad, Down Down, Hamad. Hamad is the King, and it’s illegal to speak against the King, the Prime Minister or the royal family. Some of the cars were just honking their horns to the beat of Down, Down, Hamad. It was a traffic insurrection, an uprising on the highway.
The police didn’t know what to do. One young man in the lane next to us stuck his head out the roof of his car, yelling Down, down, Hamad. The police started running after his car, firing tear gas, as if he were some hardened criminal.
In the car in front of us was the amazing human rights activist/organizer Nabeel Rajab. We saw him and some of his colleague get out of their car and start walking. We were still far away from the roundabout, but we jumped out of our cars to join the group. I put on my sign saying “Observer” and grabbed my gas mask. We, the observers, were declared illegal by the government, who wanted to keep all observers and most journalists out of the country so they wouldn’t see the demonstrations.
We hadn’t walked for more than a few minutes when the police ran towards us. BOOM, BOOM. They started shooting tear gas canisters—not in the air to disperse us, but RIGHT AT US, like bullets. Most of us started running. I ran with Tighe and Billy (two of the other US observers) and others right into the highway, sprinting as fast as we could and hiding behind the cars. BOOM, BOOM. Two of the canisters feel right next to me. People in the cars, perfect strangers, starting opening their car doors and pulling all of us inside. “Get in, get in,” they shouted.
Nabeel did not run. He had stood still, in the middle of the highway, with amazing calm and dignity. His is so famous, and so feared by the regime, that the police didn’t dare shoot at him. Right there, in the middle of the highway, hundreds of people got out of their cars to take photos with him and show support. After about 15 minutes, the police grabbed Nabeel and threw him into the police car.
Surrounded by three Pakistani policemen (mercenaries, as they are called here) and one Bahraini driver, they took Nabeel to the police station. He was kept there until 1:30am, accused of being in an “unauthorized gathering” and then released on bail. They confiscated his phone and tried to take away his most powerful weapon against the regime: his twitter account. Nabeel has over 100,000 twitter followers, the highest in the country and the fourth highest in the Arab world—which is why the regime is so afraid of him. (He was just named one of the 100 most influential Arabs on twitter.) They hacked into Nabeel’s account last night, using his phone. But no worries, he is back tweeting today. Nabeel’s IT hackers, including his 14-year-old son, are smarter than the government hackers.
Our group of American observers had a rough time as well. Two of us, Flo and Kate, were arrested almost immediately. The other seven of us, finding ourselves in different cars, tried to regroup. Unfortunately, when four members of the group got back together and started walking down the street, they, too, were nabbed by the police. At first it seemed they were just going to check their documents, but after hours and hours of waiting, the government decided to deport them all.
The three of us who managed to escape then spent the evening calling the embassy, the state department, lawyers, trying to gather their belongings and getting the bags to the airport. It was all very complicated because of the fear of the government confiscating their things, especially the electronic goods, but in the end we got most of their belongings out with them.
Then we waited at Nabeel’s house, along with Nabeel’s relatives, to make sure he was okay. At 10pm, the nightly ritual protest began, with people on their rooftops shouting God is Great, God is Great. We could hear the shouts coming from all directions. One huge voice, rising up in determination. With just those three words, they were saying “We will not be silenced, we will keep fighting this regime.”
It wasn’t long, perhaps a half-hour later, when we heard other voices rising up from a nearby village and the hooking of cars to the rhythm of “Down, down Hamad”—referring to the King. To punish those who were shouting, the whole village was punished with volley after volley of tear gas that lit up the sky like fireworks. The smoke started billowing up against the black sky. We were worrying about how the villagers, especially the children, were faring, when the breeze started to blow the tear gas our way. Suffering from just a fraction of the gas that was lobbied into the village, we were coughing, spitting, eyes tearing. Poor villagers.
“The government’s actions are working against them,” one of the local people told us. “Last year most people loved the King. Now you hear everyone, even the little kids, shouting “Down, down, Hamad.”
At 3am Nabeel returned home with his wife and children who had been with him at the jail. They brought buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for a midnight snack. “They want to intimidate us,” he said, downing the chicken and rice, “but they just strengthen us and give the people no other option but to keep fighting for freedom.”