by Jen Marlowe
Roughly 250 people gathered in the street in Sitra, Bahrain. Approximately half were men and boys, some dressed in white flowing thob, others in Western-style jeans and t-shirts. Women and girls made up the other half, predominantly (though not exclusively) clad in traditional black abaya and hijab. Several of the men, women, and children had one eye covered with gauze, fastened with surgical tape. This protest was on behalf of those who lost an eye — or both eyes — to the Bahraini riot police shooting rubber bullets, bird shot, and tear gas canisters directly at the faces and upper bodies of protestors. Approximately one hundred protestors lost an eye since the revolution erupted sixteen months ago, the activists who took me to the demonstration told me, a number I need to confirm.
“Look, there’s Zainab,” my new activist friend J. pointed out. I knew who Zainab was, of course. Her father, Abdulhadi al Khawaja, one of the founders of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was probably the best known political prisoner in the country. He had recently launched a hunger strike with the hopes of winning his freedom and drawing international attention to the human rights violations that has characterized the ongoing political crisis in Bahrain. Zainab became a fierce activist in her own right who has been detained and jailed multiple times, and is known for an uncompromising insistence on exposing the abuses in Bahrain and has a Twitter following of over 43,000. I had been following Zainab on twitter for months and had had phone contact with her since my arrival in Bahrain, but we had not yet met.
Zainab was standing off to the side of the protest, sending a tweet. She greeted me brusquely when I introduced myself to her. “It’s hard to tweet with this thing on,” she said, referring to her eye patch. “It’s hard to even keep my balance walking. I had no idea how hard it is to see out of only one eye.” Then, “do you have something to cover your face with?”
I held up the gas mask that the pro-democracy activists had provided me with. There was every reason to expect that the demonstration would eventually be met with a barrage of tear gas.
Sitra is considered the heart of the Bahraini revolution. Sitra is one of five inhabited islands in the thirty-three island archipelago that comprises the small Gulf country of Bahrain. Demonstrations against the Al-Khalifa monarchy occur nearly daily in Sitra, I’m told, and a copious amount of tear gas is used routinely to suppress them.
In fact, the previous day, I had accompanied two young, female Bahraini doctors from Physicians for Human Rights as they began a process of documenting the long-term effect that continuous tear gas exposure is having on the people of Bahrain. We went to three randomly selected houses in one neighborhood in Sitra, explained the mission and were invited inside so the doctors could conduct their survey with the residing family.
The families in the first two houses reported being exposed to tear gas inside their own homes four to five nights each week for the past fifteen months; the third family reported daily exposure the last six months. Most times it was due to tear gas from the outside streets seeping into the houses, but, not infrequently, we were told, tear gas canisters were shot directly inside the houses.
“Because the shabab (youth, used to refer to the young men on the front lines of the protests) take refuge inside the houses in the village,” the activist translating for me explained in a whisper. A tear gas grenade had been thrown inside the third home we visited two nights prior.
“We don’t know what to do when it’s shot inside the house,” the mother told us. “If we open the window to let out the fumes, the tear gas that is outside comes in.” They were trapped in the tear gas and had no choice but to endure it. Once, this happened when the six year old boy was in the house alone. He was terrified and didn’t know what to do. In another house, the mother told us how her small daughter wakes up in the middle of the night, scared. She often scratched at her face even when there was no gas.
Symptoms we heard about from the regular, prolonged exposure included rashes, eye, abdominal, chest and stomach pain, dry cough, diarrhea, nasal blockage, headaches, and eye infection—symptoms which often persisted long after the tear gas itself dissipated. I was told that there had been four miscarriages in one highly-exposed neighborhood—PHR is investigating this claim as well. No one goes to Salmaniyya, the government hospital, for treatment. The fear of being arrested at the hospital is prevalent, and real. A teenaged boy is the third house told us that is uncle had gone to the hospital with a burn wound and was arrested, under the assumption that the burn was related to throwing Molotov cocktails.
Evidence of high usage of tear gas is all over Sitra. The sandy streets are littered with remnants of black plastic unmarked tear gas canisters of unknown origin, especially where the shabab had set up crude barricades out of mounds of broken chunks of cement, plywood, bed frames and broken furniture to keep the police out of the village. Pinkish/orange round, hard rubber bullets can be found in high concentration as well, as can the pellet-sized black rubber balls I was told were discharged when stun grenades were launched.
The family hosting me in Sitra have two beautiful canaries in a wire cage in their garden. There used to be six, the mother—a gentle woman with light brown hair and soft brown eyes—told me, but a tear gas grenade had been lobbed over the garden wall right next to the bird cage, and four of the birds were found lying stiff on the bottom of the cage, feet up.
I will be getting statistics about how many people have died from exposure to tear gas, but the activists are quick to remind me that tear gas-related casualities and fatalities are not just due to the impact of breathing the noxious fumes. The day before I arrived, a protestor’s skull was shattered by a tear-gas canister, one of many examples of riot police using the canisters themselves as ammunition and shooting them directly at protestors, often at close range. Amongst Sitra’s anti-government graffiti of “Down, down, Hamad!” (the king) and “We will never stop defending our rights!” one can find a stenciled spray-painted boyish face of fourteen-year old Ali Jawad Sheikh. Ali was killed in September, 2001, during Eid, by a tear gas canister shot into the back of his head. Ali’s stenciled image can be found all over Sitra, sometimes smeared over with a thick, gray painted X. Every day, I was told, the police try to cross out the graffiti and every night the shabab re-paint it.
The march moved towards the main road. The majority of them women melt away—they didn’t want to be there for the presumed forthcoming attack by the police. Surprisingly, the anticipated attack never happened. It was the final night of a three-day festival, and there were scores of small children out on the streets playing, eating sweets from booths that were draped with festive colored lights and playing music. The protest organizers decided to end the demonstration early, before marching to the main road, in order not to risk the children being hurt in a police attack.
The entrance to Sitra was choked with black clad helmeted riot police stopping cars in order to prevent them from reaching the demonstration that they did not realize had already ended.
“How often is it that a protest is not attacked by the police?” I asked one of the pro-democracy activists.
“In this neighborhood? Almost never,” he answered, shaking his head in disbelief that the evening had started and ended peacefully.
After all, I was reminded, this was Sitra, known as the heart of the Bahraini revolution.
Note: The author is a human rights volunteer and requested their identity remain anonymous for security purposes.