by Jen Marlowe
“Everyone here has a story,” I’ve been told repeatedly. “There are too many stories.”
Here is one.
L. came to meet me in the evening; an effusive woman with a round face, warm eyes and soft brown hair, covered by a scarf of shades of brown.
“Where can we sit?” she asked me, looking around the house for a private corner. She did not want to tell me her story in front of her young children.
L. worked for the Ministry of Health, in Human Resources. On April 18, 2011, a month after what is known as “the crackdown” began, hundreds of armed “special forces” surrounded the Ministry of Health compound. It was difficult know who comprised this armed force, L. told me, it seemed to be a mixture of army and police, some uniformed, some in civilian clothing, and almost all wearing masks. L. had never seen such a collection of various weapons outside of an American action flick. The armed operatives went from floor to floor. They knew precisely which employees they were looking for, and where their offices were located.
“They must have had help from the Sunni employees to have this much information,” L. said, then hesitated. “I feel bad talking about Sunni/Shi’a,” she added. “But that’s what happened.”
Several of the armed forces identified L. in her office, with the assistance of her manager, who observed all that ensued. Whatever comments she had made about the situation to her colleagues in the past months was documented on a sheet that her assailants read from.
The first punishment facing L. and her colleagues was humiliation. Prayer mats were thrown into the garbage. Insults were liberally slung. “You’re a bunch of stupid Shi’a.”
Insinuations of support for Hezbollah were made. “Who is Hassan Nasrallah?” they asked. “Do you like him?”
They demanded that L. hand over her iPhone — they knew that she had one. Fortunately, L., having a premonition that the attack might happen, had left it at home.
One man took her to her manager’s office and led the questioning. “I’m just like your father, and you are my daughter,” he began, gently. “Tell me what you know and I’ll try to help you.” He began to ask about her party affiliations and whether she supported the opposition.
“I’m a mother, an employee, and I’m not political,” L. insisted resolutely. “The only thing I care about is my kids.”
He questioned her about her family – where did her husband, father and brothers work? She told her interrogator that they were all small business owners.
“I don’t like you,” he said, beginning to turn nasty. “I don’t like you at all.”
L. thought she understood the subtext of the man’s comment: You have money — why are you against the government?
L. tried not to focus on the sounds of her colleagues being beaten and crying on the other side of the room, as her questioning continued.
“Did you go to Pearl Roundabout at all?”
“No,” L. lied.
He asked her next about her educational background.
“The more educated you are, the more trouble we get from you,” her interrogator sneered. L. remained silent. “I don’t like you at all, and because you’re not cooperating, I’ll get someone to beat you.”
Two dark-skinned women security forces, Bahrainis but perhaps of African descent L. thought, were brought in. Blows from their fists rained down on L.’s face, shoulders and back. Sharp kicks were delivered, and face-slapping to further humiliate. They dragged her back to her office, and several people began to open her office drawers, and opened her emails on her computer.
“We want to see how much is your salary,” one of them demanded. L. showed them a document on her computer. “You receive three times our wage, and you still hate your government?” They began to hit L. again, repeatedly, pulling her out in front of her colleagues as they punched her in the mouth, neck and shoulders. She could hear cries coming from every corner of the office, but L. was in too deep a state of shock to cry.
Two of her assailants grabbed her from under her arms and began to drag her down the steps to the 2nd floor.
“Stop hitting this cute girl, I like her,” one masked man leered. He put his arm around her to lead her downstairs himself, fondling her breast as he did.
On the 2nd floor, L. saw one of her fellow employees pushed against the wall as a large woman in a mask ripped off her abaya and tore her clothes so that her skin was exposed. “Come here and look at the white Shi’a meat!” the masked woman called out.
L. watched in horror as another fellow employee was dragged in front of her and pushed down the flight of stairs to the first floor — rolling the whole way down — and then pushed down another flight to the ground floor. When L. made it down to the ground floor herself, her colleague’s face was swollen and bloody beyond recognition.
Eleven women employees were gathered on one side of the entry foyer and around 35 men on the other — all Shi’a, most of whom worked in the Human Resources department. L. surmised that Shi’a in the HR department were specifically targeted because they had access to information about all the ministry departments.
The women sat on the ground of the entry way — “You don’t deserve to sit on government chairs!” – while the men on the other end of the foyer were forced to sit facing the wall, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Dogs were brought in to sniff everybody. L. could see blood seeping through the white thobes of some of her male colleagues.
One man’s ghetra (the white head covering worn in traditional Gulf dress) was wrapped around his neck and used as a leash, forcing the man to crawl on all fours like a dog. “Stand up and dance!” he was ordered. He did so.
The assailants commanded the men to hang photos of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on the wall and to kiss them. The women were forced to hold photos of the king, prime minister and crown prince above their heads while shouting “Aash!”, long live the king.
“Sing the national anthem!” they were commanded, as they stood with the pictures above their heads. Anyone who stumbled over the words or forgot them was slapped or punched in the face.
I had a meeting to run to, so L. was not able to finish the story, though I knew it involved spending the night at the police station, and being sacked from her job along with half of the Ministry of Health’s Human Resources department.
As I packed up my notebook, L. related one more detail of her ordeal. One policewoman had approached her repeatedly in the foyer of the Ministry of Health. “Why don’t you love the king?” she asked L. “If you loved him, nothing bad would happen to you.”