Cafe’s, coasters, tear gas and police

by Jen Marlowe

The crack of the rifle was loud — the policeman must be nearby.

“Quick, come in here!” H. led me into an apartment building into which a handful of other protestors had ducked to take refuge. “It’s very dangerous now.”

Inside the hallway, debate swirled as to whether the shot was live ammunition or bird shot (most likely the latter, they all agreed) and then H. went with the men to an apartment upstairs and the women, all wearing black abayas and headscarves, ushered me into the apartment on the ground floor.

“You are journalist?” one woman asked me, noticing the video camera.

In my broken Arabic I answered, “Aiwa, ana sahafiyeh mustakillah.” – Yes, I am an independent journalist, a phrase my colleague Adam taught me when we filmed in Darfur.

Immediately the women began telling me what they had been enduring, the ones with some English translating for the others.

I held up my video camera. “Would anyone like to speak about this on the camera?”

“No, no!” at first, and then, one woman asked if she could speak in Arabic, covered her face in ghishwa (a black gauze used to cover the face) in order not to be identifiable, and began to talk about the children in the village who had suffered from the continuous tear gas inhalation, providing the names and ages of children who had died, when her mobile rang. It was an update on the police attack outside. A young man taking photographs had been shot in his upper arm with a tear gas canister, two shabab (youth) had been arrested and there had been more rifle shots.

Soon, we could hear the shabab chanting—the police had left and the villagers were gathering to try and march again. The women slipped on their shoes and rushed to join.

Shebab protesting in Bahrain

We were in the village of Karraneh, but similar protests were taking part simultaneously in fifteen different villages. This particular day of protest was lodging an objection to the regime’s use of torture, and, I suspect, a reaction to the king’s proclamation the previous day that there was to be no more protests. H. and I joined the gathering spot and waited for awhile to see what would happen, and then decided to leave. Ten minutes later we were on the highway when H. pointed out thick, dark grey smoke rising in the distance.

“That’s Karraneh,” H. said. The demonstration had been attacked again.

We drove past the coffee shop where all the activists hang out. The place is also crawling with undercover government agents and informers, making it off-limits for me. Their presence doesn’t seem to bother the activists, who are all well-known to the government. But if I get caught, I’ll be immediately deported. The activists gathered on the café’s outside terrace all seemed to be watching a white minibus with steel grates covering its windows, parked in a roundabout directly across from the café and guarded by several armed riot police. I had seen similar minibuses parked all along the side of Budaiya road (an area known as a hot spot.)

“They’re called Coasters,” H. explained to me. “Look, someone is being arrested now.”

Tear gas canisters
Tear gas canisters

The policemen hustled a young man into the Coaster. When the demonstration was over, I presumed, he and any other young men arrested in the nearby villages would be driven to the nearest police station. If the Coaster rocked slightly back and forth, H. told me, the activists knew that the detainees were being beaten.

Later that night, we ate dinner with L., I., S., M. and A, other pro-democracy activists, at a Indian restaurant on Budaiya road. There was a faint trace of tear gas in the parking lot when we left. S. fell to her knees and began retching as everyone gathered around her, guiding her into her car where she would be safe from the fumes. S. has sickle cell anemia, making her particularly susceptible to tear gas.

After making sure that S. got home safely, M., H. and I drove around, trying to figure out where I would stay for the night. I was supposed to go to W.’s house, but her building was raided twice that day, and was not safe.

We were driving through a village close to midnight, calling various activists to see who might take me in, when M. skillfully guided his car around a crude barricade that the shabab had just set up, preparing for the night’s clashes.

“It may feel a little hot, but don’t worry, I’m used to this,” M. reassured me as he inched his car between a chunk of concrete and a burning tire spewing thick black smoke.

From the orange glow, I saw a handful of shabab standing by, t-shirts wrapped over their faces and Molotov cocktails held loosely in their teenaged hands. Zainab had explained to me a few days ago one reason that Molotov cocktails had recently made an appearance in the Bahrain conflict: If the police are afraid to enter the villages, then maybe there will be fewer night-time raids.

“Can we stop for a moment so I can film them?” I asked M.

“Better not,” M. said as we drove towards the entrance of the village. “The police are already on their way.”

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