Al Jazeera's Sara Hassan got caught up in the violent police crackdown of the the pro-reform demonstrators in Manama
I had flown to Bahrain to meet a friend for a couple of days to attend Mawlid an-Nabi celebrations, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, in a country that actually recognised it as a national holiday. What made this year special was that it coincided with my own. But I was aware of the fact that protests were planned for the 14th of February, not unlike the recent ones in Tunisia and Egypt that had forced both respective leaders from power through popular uprisings.
Whether or not the Bahrainis intended to topple their own government, they were definitely calling for major reforms in the way it operates. All the people I spoke to said they wanted economic reforms, better employment opportunities, and an end to discrimination of the nation’s majority Shia population governed by a Sunni minority.
My taxi driver, Ali, narrated to me his attempt to find a decent job as we drove to the souq. He said his potential bosses had outright asked each person’s sect, separated the two groups, and given the jobs to the Sunni applicants.
However, “this is not a sectarian fight,” clarified Nabeel Rajab, the vice president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. “An end to discrimination of Shias is only one of the many reforms we are asking for. We are asking for better rights for all Bahrainis. It is not a Shia-Sunni dispute.”
As I walked around the souq, I bought a few things to blend in as a tourist and to have a shopping bag in which to hide my massive camera. I took one quick photo of half a dozen police officers sitting around the inside of the souq’s main gate, and immediately hopped into a nearby shop for cover. There I asked the owner about the protests. He assured me there was nothing to worry about, not understanding my subtle hints at trying to get more information, rather than inquiring about my own safety. It turned out that a few skirmishes had broken out the night before between protesters and police.
As I walked back to the main gate and sat on a bench to wait for the taxi, I came up with a plan. Steering clear of the police officers, I went up to a security guard and asked him if I could photograph the entrance of the souq, praying that my halo wouldn’t slip to the side as I strained a touristy smile. He gave me the green light at which the police officer with the tear gas gun immediately slid behind a nearby van, sensing that my intentions were not quite as innocent. I used the opportunity to take a dozen pictures of the front of the souq and snap a few photos of the police vans in between, each packed to maximum capacity with officers waiting for anything to happen.
Ali then drove me around the city during which time I captured many more scenes, with him advising when to snap and when to hide the camera.
A couple of hours later, I met up with Rajab and other protesters and activists in Bani Jamrah. By the time I arrived, the group which included women and children, had finished marching and was milling about in front of neatly lined houses. Some held flags, others tried to walk to the roundabout that lie ahead, myself included, but none were actively demonstrating. This, however, did not stop the police from firing tear gas rounds at us. The first couple of times I choked a bit and my eyes burned, and I was given onions and rags dipped in vinegar to lessen the effects of the tear gas.
As we attempted to walk towards the roundabout a second time, the police shot rubber bullets in our direction without warning. The cylindrical objects came flying at us from medium range about 15 at a time. We ducked to the side just in time so as not to get hit. We then decided to stay where we were.
The children showed me tear gas canisters and rubber bullet casings strewn across the ground. As we chatted, with women and children still present, one of the police officers approached us without warning and fired several tear gas rounds in the spot where we stood before running back. Not expecting the sudden attack, I held my breath and tried to run back in the house. The entrance seemed too far away and one of the young women motioned for me to follow her in the opposite direction as I was forced to inhale large amounts of tear gas as we tried to stumble away. For the next 10 minutes, I tried to heave in as much fresh air as I could into my lungs, my stomach trying to vomit, and my eyes stinging severely.
I was taken into a house where the women gave me onions and poured rose water on my face to reduce the stinging. One woman shouted, “They will kill us! They will kill us! And nobody outside knows what is happening to us. Nobody sees what is happening here.”
I was then driven around the city again, this time with Rajab and Said Yousif, a Public Relations Officer also at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Yousif related that the government had given 1,000 Dinars ($2,650) to each Bahraini family several days ago as a gift to appease disgruntled citizens. Yousif explained that the move was taken as an insult. “We want rights, not [conciliatory] gifts,” he said. “We want an end to discrimination, an end to torture, the release of political prisoners.” He said the country has a lot of money, but none of it is seen by average citizens.
We drove to another neighborhood nearby where a group of youth was experiencing similar tear gas attacks. At one point after the police fired some rounds and ran away, the young men sarcastically called after them, “Come! Come!” Basically saying, kill us for holding peaceful protests. As we drove further we saw black smoke rising among the white plumes of tear gas. Some youth were burning tires in defiance of the police.
As I posted updates of the day’s events on Twitter, I made my way to the airport to pick up my friend. As soon as we returned to the hotel, I received an SMS message informing me of the first fatality. Apologizing profusely to my friend for having to put our vacation on hold, I made my way to Sulamaniya Hospital where I saw scores of people following an ambulance carrying the dead body. The men helped me get closer to the vehicle where I snapped photos of the body wrapped in sheets through the window of the ambulance and of family members sobbing in the front seat. The crowd chanted slogans in support of the martyr.
As I followed the body itself from the ambulance to the hospital, I shouted that I was a journalist, and the crowds made way for me. I let the current push me forward towards the hospital’s entrance where I made my way to the mortuary and was allowed to take photos of the body riddled with ammunition and still bleeding. I had no time to let the trauma sink in as I made my way back to the hotel to file the photos. More protests ensued that night.
The following day, I tried to take my friend to the souq, but as I saw a group of people running towards us, I pushed her into a nearby shop and closed the door. I told her; “When people run like that, it either means police or tear gas.” The store owners closed shop, turned off the lights, and let us wait inside until the situation calmed down. Feeling responsible for her safety, I took her straight back to the hotel. We then discussed the turn of events at a nearby restaurant.
The next morning, as we rode to the airport, we could see people gathering at the Pearl Roundabout to stage a sit-in - a replica of Egypt’s Tahrir Square. A couple of days later, those remaining in the roundabout overnight would be tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets in a surprise attack by police, killing four people and critically injuring scores, a use of force the Bahraini foreign minister would later deny.