“Arab Spring isn’t over in Bahrain.”
In Bahrain, it is blowing up a strong tempest of anti-government protest every day. Approximately seventy percent of people are Shiite Muslims in Bahrain; however, the governmental officers including the police, military, cabinet and the king mainly consist of Sunni Muslims. In February 2011, inspired by Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Bahrain also experienced the uprising. Although Shiite people demanded greater political freedom, equal rights and respected human rights in peaceful protests, the police reacted to it by forcible means. Nearly 100 protesters were killed and at least 2,900 people were wounded through the uprising and the Formula 1 race at the Bahrain International Circuit planned on 18 and 19 February was cancelled.
This Sunni-based governmental power discriminates Shiite Muslims in many fields such as politics, military and employment even now; therefore the majority of the Bahraini nation is against its government. Over all, most Shiite district clearly looks poorer than Sunni district and some Shiite people even live from hand to mouth and they do not even know where their next meal is coming from.
On 26th December 2014, the general election of al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite political party in Bahrain, was held. In this election, Sheikh Ali Salman, the former leader of al-Wefaq, was re-elected as the leader. On the next day, the police arrested him on suspicion for instigation which caused a number of mass demonstrations and political rallies against it throughout the end of the year all over Bahrain. Some extremist youth blocked highways by burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails. The outrage against the government well up around the Shiite districts in Bahrain.
On the New Year’s Eve in 2014, I visited a village called Bilad al-Qadeem. This village is located next to Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, and has the headquarters of al-Wefaq. Therefore, this place is one of the Shiite districts where the most aggressive anti-government movement is being carried on.
When I arrived at the meeting place of anti-government rally, there have been already many people and the flags of Bahrain and “14 February Coalition” (the largest anti-government group in Bahrain. The name stands for the day when the Arab Spring in Bahrain started; 14 February 2011.) were flying. The barricades using logs, steel bins and even sofa blocked the roundabout next to the plaza so that armoured vehicles of police cannot enter the road.
The participants of the rally friendly welcomed me and treated me sandwiches and some cups of tea. I asked them how they feel and what made them participate this rally.
“Your country’s government is good, so this won’t happen. But here, government is very bad. All the Arab countries are like this.”
“They (police) treat us like animals.”
“Sunni people call themselves ‘Bahraini (ba-ha-ray-ni)’; on the other hand, they call us ‘Baharoni (ba-ha-roh-ni)’ and discriminate the citizens.”
“Pakistani, Indian, Baloch… They don’t speak Arabic but the government gives them jobs instead of us.”
“Also Jordanians and Syrians steal our job only because they are Sunni Muslims.”
“Police shoot small steel bullets. Well, you’ll see.”
The clock said it was three thirty and the rally began with a tense and unusual atmosphere—while the neighbouring roundabout was blockaded by an armoured vehicle and police officers with shields. The number of participants was about 200 which made the small plaza quite crowded.
Every participant lined up nine to ten across and faced the police. One leader yells slogans followed by the crowds. “Release Sheikh Ali Salman now!” “Down down Hamad!” “Allahu akbar (Allah is the greatest)!” The plaza was filled with excitement. When the police called the dismissal of the assembly, their anger exploded. “You go home first!” “Allahu akbar!” The voices gradually gathered up in one choir and several youth were slowly advancing towards the police as flying their flags. Then tear gas bullets were suddenly shot without any prelude.
Originally, tear gas canisters have to be fired at more than forty-five-degree angle and yet they were firing them at less than ten degrees; at most twenty degrees. Some canisters among them were intentionally shot at minus degrees so that the canisters bound to the protesters directly. This kind of horizontal shot is forbidden because tear gas canisters are shot with the power of gunpowder as same as live ammunitions and would become lethal weapons.
A part of participants such as women and children took sanctuary in their homes but most people still remained there hiding behind the shade or walls. Police armoured vehicle advanced to them and stopped in front of the plaza. “Down down Hamad!” Every slogan the police hear, they fired one tear gas canisters after another. I was hiding behind the flower bed and watching the situation, but suddenly one tear gas bullet skimmed one metre above my head. It bounced the wall behind me and bounded again to the next flower bed; and then it stopped right next to me. I kicked it back and had to withdraw from there.
Now this is not the time to take a photo. I was wearing mask and kufiya to avoid the smoke of tear gas, but not about goggles. I could not help but cry and see anything at that time. CS gas which is used in tear gas has little effective duration; nonetheless, they continuously shot so many tear gas canisters that I could never open my eyes. Even though the armoured vehicles cannot enter any streets thanks to barricades set on the roundabout, they shot a large number of tear gas canisters like they are addicted to them. All the people in the frontline including press reporters wore gasmasks which are essential for being there. It is safe to say that you certainly need gasmask if you would like to see what is going on at the forefront, no exaggerating.
Police helicopter is making circle above head and there are more than five armoured vehicles both big and small ones on the streets. One small armoured vehicle succeeded to break through the blockade and slowly enters arcade while shooting tear gas canisters. Countering it, the youth crush concrete blocks and aimed volleys of stones at the armoured vehicle. As throwing rocks started, the armoured vehicle stopped shooting tear gas canisters maybe because its loopholes cannot be opened. It stayed inside arcade for a while and watching over the people there, but it eventually retreated into the roundabout because six to seven people continuously threw rocks.
The resistances advanced a little to the roundabout; however, they were suppressed by a bus-sized armoured vehicle which appeared shortly after small armoured vehicle fell back. It fired approximately twenty to thirty tear gas canisters and the situation reached a deadlock. After sporadic rock-throw and teargas attack, it became the time for praying. The clash continued for one and a half hours. The resistances dissolved for that moment but it does not mean this is the end of resistance. After one-hour break of prayer, the next part is the demonstration.
During the respite until the beginning of demonstration, the participants were trying to rebuild the barricades and cleaning up many scattered empty canisters on the road. Watching them, I was having a dinner which one of the participants gave me. Japanese eat the buckwheat noodles on New Year’s Eve out of custom and he gave me a sup of instant noodles without asking. “What a coincidence!” We enjoyed small talks.
Here is something you can never ignore: they are normal people like us even if they live under fire. Once the clash ends, they go home and have dinners and put their children to sleep and go to bed. Speaking of Middle East, many people tend to think there are full of bullets and blood; however, you should never forget the fact that there are people who keep their daily lives even though they live in the battlefields. Look at here. These people were running about this way and that way from tear gas and now they are giving some food to a strange Japanese guy and chatting with him, aren’t they? Ordinary life exists in the battleground. This moment impressed me with that fact.
At six o’clock, gathered protesters slowly started demonstrating in the dark. In less than a few minutes, the number of demonstrators grew more than 250 and this big crowd marched in a small street of Bilad al-Qadeem. Putting their fists up in the sky, the protesters shouted “Release Sheikh Ali Salman now!” “Down down Hamad!” These choruses of yells like a rumble of the earth shook my body. As far as I saw, about thirty percent of protesters were female and there were also small children and elderly people in the crowd.
Ten minutes after the demonstration was started, the demonstrators came across with the police. The people get in high spirit and the voice rose louder and louder. Then a bunch of tear gas canisters unexpectedly flew straight to the protesters with the smoke and sparks. As the facts mentioned above, police has to fire tear gas canisters horizontally at the ground and they are supposed to rain upon the targets, not fly towards the people. We had to escape out of the tear gas smoke; an elderly person coughing and covering his mouth with clothes, a woman pulling her child’s hand, a boy wearing his gasmask, a young man kicking back teargas bullet—the scene was tossed into the confusion. I, too, wore a mask and kufiya, and then ran away to the spot where the smoke would not come. As I running away, some tear gas bullets are passing me right next to my arms and feet. “They are aiming at people!” I ran for my life.
Demonstrators finally reorganised their rank and started to go back to the meeting place. The place is the same as the one they used for the rally, where is next to the roundabout. Like today’s afternoon, the neighbouring roundabout was closed by police and watching over the protesters. Without regard to that unusual tension, the participants started laying a carpet on the ground and loosening up in the plaza. This is because it was nearly time of prayer. Once they hear the call for the prayer, they sit down on the carpet and started praying. It is also their daily routine to pray for Allah disregarding the police.
After the prayer, the demonstrators began rustling and chorusing “Allahu akbar.” Needless to say, the police also started firing tear gas canisters. Most women went back to homes and men were kicking back tear gas bullets. Some of them were wearing cotton work gloves and throwing back at the police. After being shot, tear gas bullets have high temperature you cannot touch it with bear hands. I even saw a tear gas bullet emitting fire. Now I am hearing slogans such as “Allahu akbar” and “Down down Hamad” everywhere. One large armoured vehicle is advancing towards the plaza firing tear gas canisters without break. The roundabout and plaza are filled with tear gas smoke as if a dense fog lied all around. Those who remain there are flying the flag, yelling slogans, throwing rocks or shooting picture and video—they were all amateurs; no one was from press agency. I wrote “most women went back to homes,” but this does not mean all the women went back to their homes. I saw one brave woman shooting video of what the police doing on the street; and even though most of them returned their home, I heard a woman’s voice shouting “Down Hamad!” from inside her home.
Since the police was firing tear gas crazily, a moment of silence prevailed in the scene. Nevertheless, the moment would never last forever. A group of youth came out of nowhere and started throwing rocks. It was difficult to define whether they threw rocks as often as the police fires tear gas or the police fires tear gas as often as they throw rocks. The police definitely aimed tear gas canisters at the youth directly.
It is now night time. The darkness and smoke veil the faces. The members of a group of youth also grabbed Molotov cocktails other than rocks at this time. Although the opposition societies, including Alwefaq, condemn any use of violence from any side, some youth cannot help showing their antipathy to the regime, in this case the police. I began to hear the sound of breaking glasses with bouncing rocks. Every time they throw Molotov cocktails at the armoured vehicle, it roared its engine and avoided the fire on the ground which was ignited by Molotov cocktails; however, one of the Molotov cocktails finally hit the tail of the armoured vehicle. The fire engulfed a part of the vehicle and it desperately making circle along the roundabout with loud engine noise to extinguish the fire with the wind. The protesters cheered over the burning enemy from every direction they were hiding and the yell of “Down Hamad!” got even stronger.
Eventually the armoured vehicle succeeded to extinguish the fire and indignantly shot twenty to thirty tear gas canisters in the direction where the Molotov cocktails were thrown. After that, rock-throw and chorusing slogan continued for hours, but the protest action gradually died down and one of protesters finally said “that’s it” to me at 10:20. After the police withdrew, the protesters moved barricades to the original places and cleaned the empty teargas canisters out of the roads.
I detoured around police checkpoints and went to home. Returning to my home, I saw many police cars in the different areas being alerted. Today is New Year’s Eve! Indeed, Islamic culture does not celebrate the Gregorian calendar’s New Year, but it gave me too strange impression.
I visited four demonstrations and protests including Bilad all-Qadeem for one week and I can tell that people in each Shiite district have a lot in common. They would show their friendly attitudes in any circumstances even in clash. I have never told to show my pictures at all; rather, they asked me to take their pictures. They were all like that—even when I encountered an extremist group who blockaded the highway with burning tyres and Molotov cocktails, they cooperated with me in my interview and allowed me to take pictures; what is more, they did not even check my photographs.
However, police’s attitude was quite opposite. I was caught by the police when I was at the peaceful demonstration in another place and made to delete all the pictures. Their manners to me were also magisterial and they even pressed me physically. After that, I found an empty cartridge case of shotgun for bird-hunting. It is clear that which side is doing something guilty; in fact, many international human rights organisations are blaming Bahraini government for human rights violations. These experiences let me realise the importance of hearing the actual voice and putting my own body at the actual scene to not only support the knowledge which are gained with news reports but also add something new to them.
The majority is oppressed by the minority in Bahrain. In this unbalanced country, how long could the king maintain the power with the force? Bahrain is a small, and yet intriguing country in the Gulf.