Bahrain 1st-Hand: The Deported Irish Activist's Week on the Island "They Are Slowly Killing These People"
The women's march in Bahrain today
Two activists, Elaine Masons (née Murtagh) of Ireland and Medea Benjamin of the US, were arrested in Bahrain today after leading a women's march, calling for an end to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children in Bahrain. The demonstration left Qaddam Roundabout at 3 p.m. heading for Pearl Roundabout. It was soon attacked by police with tear gas and stun grenades.
This evening, Masons and Benjamin were deported to their home countries.
Elaine, who arrived last Saturday, never came to Bahrain to lead a march. Having campaigned for Bahraini rights across the past twelve months, she wanted to see and feel for herself what life is like for citizens there, particularly outside the capital Manama, whilst observing the one-year anniversary of the uprising.
Elaine almost could not believe that she had bought a ticket. Watching the recent footage from villages across Bahrain showing police with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets --- and youths and young men fighting back with Molotov cocktails --- she had been troubled, and her visit took on even more significance when so many journalists were denied visas by the regime. To be blunt, she was scared of going outside. However, what she saw and heard first-hand in just five days deeply upset her, compelling her to act today.
When I spoke with Elaine last night, she knew that she would likely be arrested and deported if she was involved in leading a march. Several American activists belonging to a group called Witness Bahrain had already received similar treatment by the regime. However, she knew that if deported, she would create media interest, and when she did, she could tell the world about all that she experienced and observed.
Today, Elaine was feeling exhausted --- mentally and physically --- and above all, wanted to get back to her home to her husband. She was especially concerned about the consequence of all the tear gas she had inhaled across the week. "I'm a fit person! I run marathons," she said, "but now I'm finding it a struggle to get up stairs." Her throat was also causing great distress. A doctor told her yesterday that it was actually burnt, as a likely consequence of the quantity of tear gas she suddenly inhaled when a peaceful protest was attacked on Monday. "I felt like I was dying," she said. "Then a man came over and gave me his gas mask. I realised it was Nabeel Rajab", the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. On her return to Ireland, she intends to get a full medical checkup and chest X-ray and make the results known.
The situation Elaine described to me in villages such as Sitra, Sanabis, Bani Jamra, and Bilad Al Qadeem was one of constant terror. People were scared of doing anything --- even seeking medical treatment --- for fear of repercussions by the regime. Police make daily incursions into the villages and routinely shoot tear gas into neighbourhoods and houses. A checkpoint has now been set up in Sanabis through which everybody entering or leaving must pass.
One family she visited told her of their constant harassment by police. Their home has no roof and on a regular, even daily, basis tear gas is fired inside. And it wasn't just Bahrainis who spoke of the humanitarian crisis. Elaine met two Western journalists yesterday who told her that they have "never seen anything like it in all their days of reporting".
All week, Elaine has been told about plainclothes men in unmarked cars, in the company of regular police, who allegedly "kidnapped" youths and took them into detention centres where they were harassed and tortured before being released. It was an encounter with one of these youths which led her to decide that she needed to do something --- anything --- for the people who had shown her such grace and hospitality, despite themselves receiving no such civility from the regime under they live.
Elaine met with a young teenager who had been "kidnapped", "cut on his chest with a razor", and sexually abused. This was the third time he had been "arrested" in such circumstances. One time, his name was put on Twitter by regime loyalists and circulated, intensifying his shame. The teenager was terrified as he told his story and showed Elaine his scars. He wanted to forget the whole incident, but Elaine could not.
Visiting Nabeel Rajab's house, the decision was made to call for a women's march to say "no more". Elaine told me, "I'm marching to call for an end to the kidnapping and the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of Bahrain children."
"The Real Story is in the Villages..."
THe Capital Manama is increasingly becoming a bubble. For those living there --- and those who visit --- stories from the villages can sound like they are coming from another country. Citizens have been protesting every day, sometimes several times a day, in those villages, yet these marches and rallies typically go unreported. The regular tear gassing routinely escapes media attention, and the police abuses and beatings, as documented by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, fail to make the news. Instead, what is shown on State media and discussed repeatedly is the rising tide of violence by youths against police.
The first thing Elaine wanted to tell me when we spoke yesterday was that she had just been through Sitra and Bilad Al Qadeem and they were "like a warzone". The anger in her voice rising, she spoke of obscene amounts of tear gas. Today, video surfaced from Sitra which catalogues this: tear gas grenades fired by police explode over houses, whilst citizens on rooftops chant "Allahu Akbar (God is Great)" and "Yasqot Hamad (Down with Hamad)".
"The real story is in the villages," Elaine told me. However, with people there so scared and terrified of repercussions for speaking out, their stories are rarely, if ever, told.
An ugly sectarian divide is solidifying. The population of the villages are majority Shia, and have faced escalating and structural discrimination since long before last 14 February. Despite what many regime and media voices say, however, the daily village protests are not calling for a Shia state, but rather for basic respect and human rights. The events of last year --- where thousands of Shia found themselves arrested, detained, tortured, and sacked from their jobs on political and religious grounds --- has entrenched a climate of fear. Many who lost their jobs describe being blacklisted by employers. The struggle is in large part simply a wish to return to a status quo where people can provide for their families.
A deeply troubling aspect of this climate of fear --- and one which has been described to me by several people --- is the absence of proper medical care. Both protesters injured by police and civilians suffering everyday health problems are petrified of seeking official medical treatment, for fear they will be reported as disloyal and arrested. Instead they depend upon local nurses and doctors who work with the meagre resources they have to hand. Elaine gave the example of a young man who was allegedly thrown off a third-floor roof by police on Monday, breaking his foot (Picture: warning extremely graphic). Three days later, he remains in agony, with an open fracture and extreme inflammation.
"Someone like the UN needs to come and set up health clinics where Bahrainis can feel safe," Elaine said, shocked and distressed by the state of some of the injuries she had seen. "These people need pain killers and basic medical supplies urgently," she adds, saying that all they have access to is over-the-counter medicine.
I asked about the clashes in the villages. Whilst up until December, protests mostly remained peaceful and non-violent, there are a growing number of youths who are fighting back against police with Molotov cocktails and other homemade weapons. This has become even more pronounced since 24 January, when "BahrainFist" called for a day of offensive action against security forces in defence of villages. Since then there have been growing concerns by many in the opposition movement, inside and outside Bahrain, that the peaceful revolution is turning violent. These concerns have been amplified greatly by regime supporters and many outside commentators, who cite the escalating Molotov attacks as evidence that this is a violent Shia uprising, trained by Hezbollah and backed by Iran, intent on the destruction of Bahrain and its ruling Sunni minority.
As a pacifist, Elaine was concerned by what she saw. She described it as "a cat and mouse game". She observed, as she had been told, that the protesters reacted defensively to police incursions. People try to drive the seucrity force out of the villages, to prevent further indiscriminate tear gassing, not to mention the arrests, beatings and sexual assaults. In some villages, Elaine heard, there are watchtowers set up to keep an eye of any police presence, such is the mistrust in the security forces.Many villagers feel they have no recourse to a justice system at all, feeling instead that they are struggling against a system that seeks to imprison them in their homes. With daily raids and arrests, which often lead to beatings and worse, coupled with the constant tear gassing and other harassment, there is little faith that the police are there to protect them.
The "kidnapping" of citizens by plainclothes security forces in unmarked cars reinforces this. The men, who exude authority, are apparently unknown to many who work in local police stations, and they deal with detainees away from formal policing or legal structures. Typically, those held are threatened and roughed up, with possible and sometimes actual sexual abuse. After a few hours or a day or two, they are released back into the village.
Why did Elaine not just observe but act? She had learned first-hand of the kidnappings and the abuses. And the suffering of the children was getting to her.
On one of Elaine's first days in Bahrain, she was in a house which was hit by tear gas, breaking the toes of a woman standing by the front door at the time. As thegas spilled into the house, a small child, seeing Elaine's concern, gave her advice on how to deal with the sting and bitterness.
That somebody so young was so experienced and calm in the face of tear gas being shot into her home stuck with Elaine, who struggled to articulate her anger at a world which can let such a situation go by unnoticed.
"They are slowly killing these people," she said, helpless.