Protests in Bahrain, which had remained relatively peaceful in the last week or so, turned deadly in late hours of March 15th and 16th. Around 500 protesters who had been camping at Pearl Roundabout (basically a smaller version Tahrir Sq.) were woken up with not just gunfire, but helicopters, tanks, and a huge police presence readily assembled. As the makeshift city burned to the ground, women, children, and men were both shot at and beaten. Embedded journalists have not given their names, doctors fear going outside, and it is only 24 hours on that we are seeing just how brutal their use of force was. I warn you now, many of the links in this article will all contain graphic images so click at your own discretion.
First, there is a little bit of back story that is crucial to understanding part of what’s going on. The small island of Bahrain is made up of mostly Shia Muslims. However, the ruling party is part of the minority Sunni community. Think of it as Protestant and Catholic. Similar in general theory, but miles apart in terms of allegiance. Most of the Shia population have felt that their beliefs, and their needs are not being met by the Sunni leadership. It’s commonplace for the leadership to keep Shi’ites from crucial roles inside the government. But that’s not all: because Bahrain has very few Sunnis, the king actually imports them to make up the bulk of Bahrain’s army. That’s right. Serving the kingdom is off-limits to the Shi’ite population.
This is important because recently Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops and police personnel to Bahrain to aid the government in the takedown of protesters. So, unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the army could not bring itself to fire on their neighbors and compatriots, the army and police force of Bahrain has very few of these same qualms. This makes the situation doubly precarious for the protesters.
Then there are the videos. Things are about to get gory, so if you would rather steer clear of violence and bloodshed please do not click the links. I am only adding them because I do believe it is important that people have access to what is going on so they can understand the level of atrocity that is sometimes difficult to convey in print. I am not being hyperbolic when I tell you some of this stuff will be impossible to unsee. There is the heart-wrenching video of a protester being shot by a group of police. Then there is this extremely gory video of a man shot with a high calibre ammunition in the back of the head. Another incriminating video of forces shooting protesters at close range with a tear gas canister (which is often deadly — although word is he survived) can also be found here. These are currently being heralded as the videos that could change the way the media is focusing on the country. Similarly there are news reports of the military commandeering ambulances and using them to trick protesters into dropping their guard, then firing on them.
Yet incrimination of Bahrain’s government has been light in the U.S. and Europe, thanks to the number of ties they have, including a military base. While Western governments are urging their own citizens to get out of the country, there has been no mass condemnation like we’ve seen with Libya and Muammar Gaddafi.
In an amazing (not graphic) article on the conflict in Bahrain, Nicholas Kristof tells of his colleague, Michael Slackman, being caught by police forces. They had their guns trained on him until he took out his American passport and shouted that he was a journalist: “Then, he says, the mood changed abruptly and the leader of the group came over and took Mr. Slackman’s hand, saying warmly: “Don’t worry! We love Americans!”
“We’re not after you. We’re after Shia,” the policeman added. Mr. Slackman recalls, “It sounded like they were hunting rats.”
Numerous sources are also highlighting the toll that this has taken on doctors. On a number of graphic video clips linked above, you can see the hospital staff and their reactions to some of this violence. These are trained personnel who simply cannot fathom what has happened on their streets. Yet one of the most touching videos as of yet comes from Al Jazeera. This footage is disturbing but not gory. In it a doctor breaks down, struggling to hold back his tears, about the recent influx of Saudi, UAE and Kuwaiti forces and what it will do to the people. It also reports on numerous doctors who have been living in the hospital since crackdowns.
Although what has happened is brutal and terrifying, it is unlikely that it will quell protesters for very long. The biggest hold back, it seems, is the lack of Western action. Bahrain is a Western ally and therefore should abide by certain humanitarian rules. Yet the al Khalifa family (the rulers of the country) have seen little more than a slap on the wrist. After the 17th of February, also a violent ousting of protesters from Pearl Roundabout, the pro-democracy got up the next morning and marched again towards the symbolic center. They were shot at by security forces in this (graphic) but very popular video. It remains to be seen if the protesters will march again. But one thing is certain: the desperate necessity to get rid of this murderous despot seems more solidified than ever.