Khadija Al-Mousawi (@tublani2010), wife of Bahraini hunger striker Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and mother of leading activist Zainab Al-Khawaja (@angryarabiya) gives press conference to discuss her visit to her husband in hospital and daughter in prison. Additionally, Ms. Al-Mousawi discusses the latest legal developments in Abdulhadi’s case in which the Bahraini court declared a retrial without releasing her husband.
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.
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.