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.

Interview with Maryam Abu Deeb

Interview with Maryam Abu Deeb, whose father Mahdi Abu Deeb is in prison in Bahrain. He is president of the Bahrain Teachers Association and was punished for organizing teachers to join in the peaceful protests at Pearl Square in Bahrain in February and March 2011.

Accompanying a volunteer medic to Boori Village

4 May 2012

The day we had chosen to go with a medic to Boori village was a special religious day for Shia Muslims; 13th Jamada Thani 1428 A.H. – the anniversary of the death of Hazrat Fatima bint-e-Hazm bin Khalid (also known as Umm-ul-Baneen) – the wife of Imam Ali (a.s.) and mother of Hazrat Abbas (a.s.) which meant than the streets were fairly quiet in comparison to a regular night in a Manama village since 14th of February 2011. The streets were still blocked around the village to slow down possible riot police troops entering the village, but there was no night protest as usual, only an earlier one that took place at 4 pm. People in the streets were singing a traditional song for funerals while synchronically clapping their chest with one hand.

We drove to one of the homes in the village were the medic would later show up. At first there were three injured people and a group of very young guys waiting with their injured friend. As the rumor spread that there was an international in the house documenting cases of injury from protests, more people came; but there was no way I could cover all of the stories and cases of those who came in one night.

As we waited for the medic, I began speaking to 15-year-old Ali. He had been shot all over his body with birdshot pellets while attending a peaceful protest the day before (see photo). When the medic later showed up he told me that when demonstrators had brought the boy to the house the day before, he had been completely covered in blood and almost unconscious.

I used to be a substitute school teacher in primary and secondary schools and young Ali really reminded me of the boys I used to teach, who having done something really cool or special, are excited to tell the rest of the class about it. He was a bit shy at first, being the only one speaking in a room full of his friends and other much older protesters, as well as the family of the house. He didn’t give out any details except for the ones I specifically asked for. But then he opened up more.

The protest involved a little over 100 people, both woman and men, old and young. After the march around the village ended, about 60 people remained outside; that’s when the riot police attacked. They began shooting teargas, aiming directly at the villagers. Some protesters grabbed the teargas canisters with their hands just after they hit the ground and threw them back in the direction of the riot police. The whole center of the village became covered in teargas the boy told me, lifting his eyebrows and his brown eyes wide open, indicating that he was overwhelmed by the details of his own story.

Ali was one of the people picking up teargas canisters to throw them back at the police who were dressed in full riot gear, with helmets, masks and padding protecting their entire bodies.

Then the riot police began shooting birdshot at the crowd of people. They seemed to be randomly firing at the whole crowd, but of course Ali couldn’t tell what their exact strategy was. At least five police officers dressed as civilians also entered the crowd with shotguns and started chasing and shooting at people. He was one of the worst injured people in Boori that night. His body was completely covered in wounds from shots when I spoke to him. In total there were 38 people reportedly injured from birdshot pellets that night throughout Bahrain. Ali was shot around 12:15 at night and taken to a private home in the village were a medic could treat him shortly afterwards.

As I have asked injured protesters before, I asked Ali what the goal from protesting was and if he had changed his views or if his enthusiasm had waned after being injured? He replied (translated from Arabic): “I want a complete change of the regime; I’m not afraid of anything; I’m just proud to serve my country.”

When the medic had arrived Ali got up and sat down in a chair next to him ready to start the process of extracting more bullets from his body. It looked extremely painful and a lot of blood came out while the medic was digging for the bullets. Sometimes small peeps of pain escaped the young boy’s mouth, but in general he bravely endured the process remaining calm and quiet.

Next I spoke to 27-year-old Ammar. He had been shot with birdshot pellets all over his back and his scalp. Some of the bullets were lodged in very dangerous places in his head, the medic told me, and he could not tell if it was possible to remove them due to the swelling.

Ammar was injured on the 1st of May, also in Boori Village. Around 300 people had attended the protest on that evening. At first the riot police fired tear gas all over the center of Boori, just like the night Ali was injured. Then, when the demonstrators dispersed, the police chased people into the village, hiding in different places in an attempt to catch protesters, either to arrest them or hurt them. Ammar and another young man were both being chased when the other guy tried to jump a wall. As he was doing so, he was directly hit with a teargas canister and fell to the ground. After he was down, the police turned their attention on Ammar, shooting him in his back and head, then leaving him wounded on the ground. Covered in blood, Ammar managed to get up and walk to a random private home from where the family helped him get to the house that was serving as a makeshift clinic. A total of 16 bullets were found in his body and at the time of this interview, nine bullets still remained.

Salman, another wounded protester, has been injured several times within the past month. He came to the house only able to walk on one foot, and with scars from tear gas canisters and a sound bomb on one hand and one ear. Another was 21-year-old Abdallah, who was now completely blind in his left eye from a birdshot pellet fired directly into a protesting crowd.

As I didn’t have time to go through all the injured people who had gathered at the house, I only did a couple more short interviews, but made sure to thank everyone for coming to share their experiences. The last person I spoke to was another young man named Ali, 17-years-old. The other guys pushed him towards the chair next to me where the other interviewed people had been sitting and I realized there was something about this case that everyone in the room thought was extremely funny. My translator had to try hard to pull himself together so as to not burst out laughing. Even Ali himself had a big smile on his face and his voice was almost cracking while he explained what happened. When my translator relayed the story I found out that what everyone thought was so funny was that Ali was shot in his butt cheeks. Normally I wouldn’t consider someone getting shot anywhere as a funny story, but the light atmosphere and positive vibrations that filled the room while he was telling his story put me in a good mood, even under these rather sad circumstances. Ali allowed me to photograph part of his back but obviously not the more private parts of his injured body.

After I completed the interviews, the host family brought in a very nice meal with soft drinks for everyone and the whole evening strangely turned into a very nice local gathering with a lot of chatter & laughter. All the while the medic kept removing the bullets from the injured protesters’ bodies. What a night.

Day and Night in a Bahraini jail – Part One

By Radhika Sainath

Radhika Sainath
Radhika Sainath in Gaza City, December 2011

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-Khawajahad 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.


After attempting yesterday to march with a few hundred people to Freedom Square, only to be blocked by scores of riot police, today Nabeel Rajab decided to try another approach. He set out with only his immediate family — his wife and two children, with a few supporters nearby — to walk to Pearl (Lulu) Roundabout. Near the entrance to the blocked roundabout, they were attacked with tear gas. Listen as Nabeel explains what he is trying to accomplish with this simple walk.


Journey to the Revolution

By Radhika Sainath

Grafitti On Wall Near Shia Village Read Down Hamad Feb 14

It all started with a simple New Year’s Eve email. I had recently quit my job as a civil rights attorney in California, moved to New York, was finally getting settled in the City and had emailed a friend about the February Bar Exam.

“How wedded are you to being in New York in February?” Adam asked. He explained that democracy activists in Bahrain, where he had spent some time filming in December, were requesting the presence of foreigners with experience getting teargassed, shot at and otherwise attacked, to stand with them at nonviolent protests in the lead-up to the first year anniversary of the revolution.

I had just such experience.

A small group of us were on the initial Skype call with human rights activists from Bahrain. A doctor who I only knew by the name of A* explained how security forces would attack Shia villages with teargas and birdshot on a daily basis, break into houses at night and toss teargas canisters into tightly packed homes, arresting anyone suspected of involvement in the democracy movement.

Would we come and stay in these villages? Surely, the government would behave differently if Americans and Europeans were watching.

I was shocked to hear that things were still so bad and intrigued at his proposal.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island of only 1.2 million people, nearly 700,000 of whom are foreign nationals. Its name means “two seas” in Arabic. My uncle, aunt and cousin had lived there in the 1980s. I had long heard of the county’s repressive security apparatus, beautiful beaches and tasty biryanis.

Last year, as most of the world was focused on Arab Spring Movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, my eyes were turned to the protesters in Pearl Roundabout. These people had guts. What were they thinking? A democracy movement in the Gulf?

Indeed, the government acted with force, teargassing and shooting at protesters sleeping at Pearl Roundabout, killing dozens and arresting the doctors who operated on the injured. Neighboring Saudi Arabia sent in its army; a democracy next door might give their own population ideas. The United Arab Emirates helped out with 500 police. Marital law was implemented and hundreds of people accused of being active with democracy movement were arrested and tortured.

But for a full year, the people have continued to take the street, demanding justice.

Our team came together: attorneys, human rights activists, social workers, journalists and others who had experience with nonviolent resistance and democracy movements in Mexico, Palestine, Pakistan and the United States.

But would the government of Bahrain let us in? Our contacts in Bahrain, which included prominent human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, was sure their phones were bugged. Perhaps their email was being watched too.

I bought my ticket, and six days later found myself on an 18 hour journey to the Gulf. We were nervous. Our first people were denied after lengthy questioning. In January, the government had told human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch that they would not be allowed to enter in January, and a number of journalists and other human rights workers were denied entry into the country.

Would they let me in? The anniversary of the revolution was a week away. All foreigners were suspect. I got my hair done, and my nails too. I memorized Dr. Mohamed and Zaynab’s phone numbers. I had never looked so good walking off a plane, or really anywhere else, except maybe my wedding.

They let me in, no questions asked.

When we got out of customs in the middle of the night, no one was there to pick us up. I looked around. I waited. Two young men were sitting near the Dairy Queen with no luggage. Could it be them? I called Dr. A.

“Wait there,” he said. We waited. We exchanged money. Finally, our contacts found us. Dr. A had not told them our names, nationalities or ethnicities for risk of exposure.

We got on the freeway. Bahrain, even by night, reminded me of Los Angeles of another era, with its slender palm trees and coastal highways, but without the traffic, congestion and urban sprawl.

We left Manama for the infamous Costa Coffee of the Budaiya highway, meeting place of young revolutionaries and the government spies that watch them. Dr. A’s car pulled up in the parking garage and followed our car to a Shia village where we would be spending the night.

The village walls were covered in Arabic graffiti.

“What does that say?” I asked, attempting to sound out the letters of the words.

“Yascot Hamad,” they said. Down with Hamad. As in King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, of the Al Khalifa family which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Those words were treason.

Our car passed through the winding village streets until we arrived at a walled-off house. I got out of the car and there was Dr. A in a hoodie and jeans, tall and skinny with large intelligent eyes.

“I’m so glad you made it,” he said. We were in.