Bahrainis suffer from government-created sectarian splits

The peoples call for a change of the system in Bahrain is not a new phenomenon. Every ten years since the 1920′s there has been an uprising. Every uprising had its own form and goals but every time it dealt with the issue of corruption in the country and the lack of influence on the ruling Khalifa family monarchy in power.

This decade’s uprising sparked talk of conspiracies in the media and among every-day Bahrainies. The government claims it is a matter of sectarian issues and the opposition is being paid by the Iranian theocratic Shia regime. The opposition responds that the government is trying to encourage sectarian violence in order to keep people busy fighting each other. The government also wants to make international society believe this conflict is an internal affair, which the Khalifa family is perfectly capable of solving.

No international press or NGO’s are currently allowed in the country unless they can be carefully watched by the government. I have to be discreet about my presence here. It’s impossible for me to meet pro-government supporters to hear their point of view. The best way for me to gain an understanding of the broad public scene is to cover stories of people who have not actively taken part in the revolution, people who watched the drastic changes in the society around them.

You hear stories about how the difference between Shia or Sunni backgrounds matter. You hear about the days when they didn’t even think about what background they came from. Sunni and Shia communities were good friends and neighbors. They sometimes married each other regardless of their religious differences. Government propaganda is being spread that targets the Shia minority, blaming them for destroying the country on religious grounds with help from the Iranian regime. Many Shia Bahrainis have lost their jobs in the public sector only to be replaced by Sunni Bahrainis or people from outside the country. This is helping create tension between the two groups – and it’s increasing. The opposition is clear that the uprising has nothing to do with sectarian conflicts or Iran in any way; this is pure conspiracy theory created to silence the Bahrain’s majority calling for democracy.

Julian Assange interviewed one of the leading figures in the Bahraini human rights activism, president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab. Rajab stated: “[That Iran is fueling the revolution] is what our government is saying. The Americans are maybe trying to buy that as well. … [The revolution has remained absent in big parts of the media] because Al-Jazeera [Arabic] for instance is ruled by a similar ruling family in the same region. A democracy in Bahrain is going to have an impact in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia. … A revolution in Bahrain is the last thing the Saudis want to see a few miles away from their boarder.”

In Jabalat Habshi, a village with a Shia majority, I met some people in a flat to let them share their stories with me. Five people from different families gathered. They had never really been interested in politics and had not participated in any of the demonstrations. However, they strongly felt the tensions in society. It has completely changed their lives and views on their future.

“S” is a dental assistant student. Before the 16th of March 2011 she was living a peaceful life minding her own business and focusing on her studies and social life. On that day her younger brother was randomly captured by military officers in his village and imprisoned. No one heard from him for two weeks. The family had no clue where he was or what happened to him. They received a call stating that their son was having a trial that same day. The officer would not give any information about what the 18-year-old boy was accused of, where he was or about his condition. When the family got to the court room and saw their son his four-year-old brother couldn’t recognize him because he had been badly tortured. He explained that he had been captured on the street on his way home. They military officers had a Saudi logo on their uniforms and they didn’t speak with a Bahraini accent. They took him to a police station where he was beaten and tortured. His body was swollen and the wounds changed his appearance so much that his younger brother didn’t recognize him. At that time even the boy himself did not know what he was accused of and was not given the opportunity to call anyone or to find himself a lawyer.

The first time his case was explained to him was that day in the court room, after two weeks of captivity and beating. There were nine detainees in the courtroom, all accused in the same case. One of the mothers fainted when she saw her son who was also tortured. “S”’s brother knew one of the other detainees, who was someone from the neighborhood. “S” didn’t believe that her brother was being accused of committing organized crime with people he had never met before. The trial was postponed again and again for the first six months. The close family visited him every three weeks. “It has been so hard to say goodbye each time,” “S” said. It was obvious that it was also difficult for her to talk about it. “They don’t allow you to hug him. He is in another room and you have to talk to him through a hole in the wall. He is strong, but it’s hard for us at home.”

There is no evidence against any of the detainees in the case, which appears to be the reason why the case keeps getting postponed. At the first trial, which happened in military court, they were sentenced to twenty years but on the 20th of June 2011 they made an appeal to a higher civil court and the sentence was reduced to fifteen. All nine confessed to the accusations under torture. Two months ago the details of the torture was mentioned in the court which made “S”‘s mother stop coming to see her son at his trials, because she can’t handle the emotions listening to what they are doing to her son. The case was mentioned in the Bassiouni report but still nothing has been done to get the detainees out of prison until they can get a fair trial.

“S” explained that her brother’s absence is especially hard for her mother and the oldest one of her younger brothers, who is now seventeen. The seventeen-year-old brother, who is now the oldest boy in the house, feels a lot of pressure on him and developed a mental paranoia condition towards strangers, especially the police. “S” says that no one in the family ever cared about politics before but that every one of them now supports the opposition. Her thirteen-year-old brother once saw the case mentioned on state television and started crying. Now he doesn’t believe anything he sees or hears from the government. She believes that her brother was captured as a strategy of accusing random Shia Muslims of crimes to have material for anti-revolution propaganda.

The strategy of targeting random Shia Muslims is not always related to a crime. “LB”, another woman in the room, started her story by telling me how her seven-year-old daughter recently asked her when she could have the old Bahrain back. “I almost couldn’t make myself tell her that the old Bahrain might never come back,” she said. By the old Bahrain she is referring to the time when Shia and Sunni Muslims lived in peace and trusted each other. “LB” moved her eleven-year-old son to a different school because many of his Sunni class mates don’t want his friendship since the government propaganda started. “One kid took a knife to school one day and he told people that it was to stab some Shias because they were traitors. They are just kids. Why do they have to worry about if their friends are Sunni or Shia,” she said, clearly frustrated. The kid was suspended from school for a certain period but “LB” still didn’t feel that her son was safe enough in that school anymore.

In April 2011, during the Roundabout days, there was a protest in front of “LB”’s office building, the Ministry of Health. She passed the protest and went to her office as usual but on this day police surrounded the building and took her and most of her Shia-colleagues through a long event of personal insults, humiliation and beatings. The police had a list of names, and her’s was on the list. All the people from the list were later taken to the police station and accused of protesting even though all of them were at work and couldn’t have attended the protest.

In her own office she was first personally insulted with racist remarks and beaten up by the police. “LB” still doesn’t know what the specific meaning of having ones name on that list meant, but the person who reported her was a Sunni-colleague. She found out because that person was in her office laughing at the event of “LB” being beaten, insulted with especially racist remarks and humiliated by the police officers. The employees from her section who had their name on the list were then told to sit on the floor in the hall in front of the chairs because “they did not deserve” to sit on government chairs and then they were asked to sing the national song while the officers were insulting them. A lot of very humiliating events then took place, events that are hard to imagine how anyone would come up with. At one point the officers even had “funny” masks and costumes that they put on to play with her. They also let dogs sniff their bodies as they were handcuffed and unable to protect themselves while laying or still sitting on the floor. In the end they were all suspended from work for 9 months without any letter or anything to clarify any reason for this treatment. Later some of them got a new position in the health sector, but a lower one. “LB” knows about some of the replacements of her and her colleagues in the Ministry of Health. “Young people from outside of the country with much less experience than us who used to work there” she said shaking her head as if she almost just felt sorry for the being Ministry.

“This strategy the government is using about making us hate each other. No matter how stupid it is, it seems to be working.”

“LB” used to have a close friend who was Sunni. They never gave their religious differences a thought, but after the accusations on her about protesting, her friend called only to tell her that she was a traitor and that she didn’t want any contact with her anymore.

“I could just tell my daughter that she can have the old Bahrain back again soon. But I’m afraid I would be lying to her then. … I’m so proud of those Bahraini people who are risking their lives to make a change in this country. I can tell my daughter that they are our hope. I can tell her that she can have a new and better Bahrain instead.”

Note: The author is a human rights volunteer and requested their identity remain anonymous for security purposes.

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