Despite the killings after the army fired live ammunition at the crowds, the mood in Manama is one of staunch defiance
Ali Ismail had helped wash the body of a dead protester for burial and he was already talking of more blood. “We will go to them and they will attack us,” he said of Bahrain’s riot police. Within hours he was proved correct. Just after 5.30pm on Friday, central Manama again erupted in gunfire and screaming. Up to 200 demonstrators had attempted to march on Pearl Square, the scene of Thursday morning’s savage assault that left three dead. Just over a mile from the central Bahrain landmark, soldiers and police opened fire, killing at least one more protester and leaving 50 others wounded. “We don’t care if they kill 5,000 of us,” a protester screamed inside the forecourt of the Salmaniya hospital, which has become a staging point for Bahrain’s raging youth. “The regime must fall and we will make sure it does.”
Just before dusk, riot police advanced on the hospital, apparently chasing protesters who had attempted to link up with the group bound for Pearl Square. Sound grenades cracked in the distance, gradually getting closer as protesters beat a retreat to the only place in Manama where they now feel safe to gather in numbers. Within minutes, the bitter scent of tear-gas had wafted into the hospital grounds, sparking panic that the riot police were coming for them there as well. The police backed off and the crowd in the hospital swelled to at least 7,000 people, all of them chanting anti-regime slogans that they would not have dared to utter a month ago. “Down with the king, down with the Khalifas,” they cried, referring to the kingdom’s ruling family. Anger among the overwhelmingly Shia Muslim demonstrators towards the Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years is now virulent.
“They have done nothing for us in the past except discriminate against us,” said one nurse, sobbing against a hospital gurney. “Now their new trick is to kill us.” Inside the hospital I saw a young man being wheeled into a makeshift trauma room, which is usually used to conduct angiograms. The gurney was soaked in blood and he had been shot in the head. “There are at least two bullets. I don’t think he will live,” said a young doctor as he left the room. He didn’t. The man’s death takes to at least five the number killed during clashes with police since Wednesday. Scores more have been injured. Most of those brought to the emergency ward had wounds from rubber bullets, although at least one youth had a gaping wound to his calf that specialists said was caused by a live round.
The early evening clashes brought a dramatic end to a day that had started off with three large funeral rallies through the suburbs of Manama. More than 50,000 demonstrators attended – between 5% and 10% of the tiny kingdom’s population. They were among the biggest public rallies the Arab world’s smallest state has ever seen. At the largest of them, in the suburb of Sitra, around 25,000 mourners marched in a long looping column to a graveyard, demanding that the regime be changed. “No to Sunni; no to Shia,” they cried at one point. “We are all Bahraini.” Mahmoud Muhim, the father of one of the dead protesters, took the microphone during the march and said: “Not one person has offered me commiserations. Everyone has said congratulations, because I now have a martyred son. He died for Bahrain.”
MANAMA, Bahrain — At exactly 5:18 p.m. Friday, the pro-democracy demonstrators, mostly young men, came to a fork in the road. Turn right, and they would head to a hospital that has cared for protesters. Turn left, and into Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the nation, where the army was waiting. The crowd paused, just briefly, to let out a cheer, and turned left. Within minutes they were screaming, “Live fire, live fire,” as the military began shooting — from a high-rise building, from a helicopter and from the road in front of the demonstrators. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s government had warned them: march and you will be shot. The opposition had warned the king that it would never give up.
Both sides held fast in a confrontation that continued to escalate by the day as the king, a Sunni, showed his increasing willingness to use lethal force to preserve his absolute authority, and the opposition, mostly from the majority Shiite community, showed that it was increasingly galvanized by that use of force. “My friend, my brother, he just got shot in the head,” said Mazen Al Smeh, 27, as he struggled to catch his breath on the side of the road, his face covered in tears, his hands painted with blood. “I tried to take him, but they kept firing. He’s dead, he’s dead now. We were just here to demand our rights.”
When ambulances arrived for the injured, the army opened fire. When the shooting seemed to stop, a few young men dropped to their knees to pray on the bloodstained road, and the army started to shoot at them, again. There are many details that remained unclear on Friday night, including how many died, how many were injured, and what kind of munitions were fired: live ammunition, rubber bullets or both. Doctors at Salmaniya Medical Complex said at least one young man was dead and four or five critically wounded with head and chest injuries.
What was clear though, was that if the king’s goal was to intimidate his critics into staying home, he appears to have miscalculated, at least so far. The politics of the Shiite community — which already felt disenfranchised — are deeply and inextricably linked with a faith that reveres martyrdom and holds social justice as a principal value. With each outrage this week, more people turned to the streets, perpetuating the cycle Bahrain now seems caught in, with no obvious way out. Friday night, thousands of angry demonstrators gathered outside the hospital, chanting “Death to Khalifa,” referring to the king.
“We are not going to stop and we are not scared at any time,’ said Raed Aman, 31, one of the demonstrators who escaped uninjured and was at the hospital checking on his friends. “If anybody in my family dies, I will have more power. Even if I lose my life, I will be there every time.” This small Persian Gulf nation, a strategic ally of the United States, has long strained against the pressure of the political tensions between a Shiite majority and a king and ruling class of the Sunni minority. That tension has been supercharged in recent weeks as demands for democracy, rule of law and social justice have rocked the Middle East with popular movements that have forced the resignation of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.
By Friday night, the royal family appeared to be trying to find a more peaceful solution, with the king authorizing the crown prince, his son, to begin a dialogue with the opposition, but it was unclear if the protesters would accept talks. In an appearance on Bahraini TV, the prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, pleaded for calm and offered “condolences to the people of Bahrain for the painful days they are living.”
New York, February 18, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities today in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya to cease their attempts to prevent media from reporting on anti-government demonstrations. Bahraini authorities used live ammunition–including fire from a helicopter–against peaceful protesters and journalists, according to news reports. Pro-government thugs attacked at least two journalists in Yemen, and the Libyan government appeared to be shutting down Facebook, Twitter, and Al-Jazeera’s website as a means of silencing reporting on protests. “Security forces firing on journalists from a helicopter is a dangerous escalation in Bahrain’s attempt to censor media coverage of the political turmoil,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The authorities must cease all hostile acts against journalists immediately and allow the press to work freely and securely. “
* According to the New York Times, “forces in a helicopter that had been shooting at the crowds opened fire at a Western reporter and videographer who were filming a sequence on the latest violence.” The targeted journalists were Times reporter Michael and Times video producer Sean Patrick Farrell, the paper reported.
* Sixteen foreign journalists from BBC, CNN, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS, and other media outlets were detained at the airport and not allowed to enter the country for several hours, according to local journalists and news reports.