Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bahrain, We Hardly Knew Ye

It just began, and now it is over.  Yesterday morning, I was sitting in a cafĂ© in Manama, Bahrain, working on a blog called “Bahrain: First Impressions.”  Now I am sitting at home in Oakland, trying to process what happened.

On February 14, I woke after only a couple hours’ sleep and couldn’t go back to sleep.  I was trembling with excitement and tension.  #Feb14, the anniversary of the start of the ongoing revolution in Bahrain, was to be the Day of Return to Pearl (Lulu) Roundabout, the huge vacant lot in the center of Manama where protesters camped out for a month last year, until March 16, when 1,000 troops from across the bridge in Saudi Arabia and 500 police from the United Arab Emirates joined thousands of mercenaries working for the Bahraini police in evacuating the camp, destroying the monument at the center of the Roundabout, killing at least 6 and injuring hundreds.  Since then, at least 60 people have died in the ongoing revolution.

Read the story of my arrest and deportation from Bahrain on the Witness Bahrain blog.

Read the BBC account of what happened on the anniversary.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Two Fellow Activists Deported

No sooner did the Bahraini government find out we were here than they launched a full-scale effort to whisk us out of the country prior to the planned massive demonstrations on February 14, the one-year anniversary of what the Shia majority here call their ongoing revolution.

I've been working at breakneck speed, going to protests day and night, meeting with local activists, coming home and cutting video late into the night.

And that was before two of my fellow Witness Bahrain team members were arrested at yesterday's demonstration, which was entirely nonviolent (from the side of the protesters), even after police attacked with tear gas and sound grenades.  The crowd was small because all roads into the center of Manama, the capital city, were blocked by heavy police presence, and even many of the alleyways were guarded by lines of police.  But people were resolute in their determination to hold the planned march.  When police grabbed one young man out of the crowd, women surged forward to grab him back.  Huwaida, a Palestinian American well-known for her fearlessness in confronting the Israeli occupiers, ran forward, camera in hand, and demanded to know why this young man was being taken.  When police challenged her right to film and tried to take her camera, she walked away quickly, but the police ran after her and eventually she was surrounded by a group of heavily armed riot police.

Women crowded around to protect her, attempting to hold onto her while the police tried to push them away.  Local activists remarked that the brutality was far less than it would have been if we were not there, but it was brutal enough for me.  I filmed the confrontation, which ended with Huwaida being thrown into a van while police tossed sound bomb after sound bomb directly at the people.

Radhika was arrested when she tried to find out what had happened to Radhika.  A reporter tweeted last night that the government is looking for me too, hoping to remove all witnesses to their repression of the planned demonstrations on February 14.

Please go to our website (it's blocked in Bahrain -when I try to call it up it says "This web site has been blocked for violating laws and regulations of the Kingdom of Bahrain.") to read reports and see lots more video and also take a moment to sign the petition demanding Obama end US military aid to the Bahraini regime.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Kate in Bahrain: Attack in Samaheej, 2/9/2012

The other day I landed in Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom with a bold and energetic democracy movement we hear very little about.  In fact, the Shia majority call what they have been doing for the last year a revolution.  Please go to (after you read my first blog below) and sign up for our email updates.  A lot of people who are much more internet savvy than I are part of this project, and they'll be tweeting and facebooking, so if you're that type of person, please be sure to follow us on twitter, like us on Facebook, retweet and tell all your friends so we amplify the voices of the brave activists here.

The people of Samaheej knew they would be attacked today.  It was the final day of mourning for Ali Issa Abdullah Hayki, who died on Monday from teargas inhalation.  The villagers would march to the cemetery, as custom demands, and the police, who keep a close eye on the Shia village just meters from the airport, would punish the villagers for holding a funeral for someone killed in a protest.
Before the evening was over, a sixteen-year-old girl would have been shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and a boy the same age would be taken away by police.  Villagers, including small children, would be breathing air saturated with tear gas, and the police would be searching house to house for people they suspect of being protest leaders.

Today’s events were not unique in Samaheej.  According to villagers, they experience daily, or nightly, assaults by police and other security forces.

The only difference today is that we were there – four American women from the newly created Witness Bahrain.  We were there to document the abuse faced by this village, like so many others, which refuses to accept second-class citizenship and autocracy.  We are not credentialed journalists, but we are the closest there was at this protest.  Even those in western media who know what is happening in Bahrain have a hard time covering it – numerous prominent reporters have been denied entry to the country in recent weeks.  The best known are Nick Kristof from the New York Times and Kristen Chick of Christian Science Monitor.  Our local hosts have warned us that if we give out our local telephone numbers to journalists, the police will probably track our phones and deport us.  These folks aren’t messing around: even the Israeli government is not that vigilant.

So today we got to the village just in time for the march to the cemetery.  At first it seemed the people’s fears were wrong; the police were nowhere to be found.  The men prayed, the women chanted, men and boys sat quietly around the grave site and mouthed prayers.  Just as everyone had drifted back into the village, we heard the horns announcing that the police were on their way.  I saw young men covering their faces with bandanas or ski masks.  A few swung Molotov cocktails.  Minutes later I heard a series of cracks and saw gas and smoke rising in the distance.

Before long, the air was filled with gas.  I stopped to change the batteries in my little video camera – uselessly, as it turns out since I didn’t really know how to work it – and got separated from the rest of our little group.  I was having trouble breathing, and knew that it would get worse as the gas drifted into the village.  I followed a group of young men – shabab -- down a narrow street and suddenly realized that the entire area was deserted except for me and the shabab and the rapidly advancing police lines.  I was concerned that they would notice me, and maybe decide that this random foreigner with a camera was someone they should worry about.  I headed up into the village, and when I could see again, people of course started inviting me into their homes.  Some were quite insistent, wanting to keep me from harm’s way.  I kept insisting I needed to go back to the demonstration to find my friends.   

One woman said if we wanted to come to her house later, we were welcome to come in whether she was home or not; the door would be unlocked.

Eventually I was “adopted” by a man named Ali, who started calling around to find out where the rest of my group had gone.  At one point he led me into a house where a group of women was gathered around a teenage girl who was pressing her sleeve to her lip.  As I tried to figure out what was happening, Ali said something to one of the women and she held out something that looked like a malted milk ball, but was in fact a hard rubber bullet.  It had ricocheted off of a woman’s arm and hit the girl in her lip, which was already swelling.
My colleagues on the other side of the village, meanwhile, had made their way onto a roof from which they could watch the police go house to house, banging on doors.  People said they were looking for people to arrest.  If so, they did not find any in houses today, but they did arrest someone.  A 16-year-old named Ali Ibrahim Khalil Quraise, who was standing on the street with a group of younger boys.  Because he was the oldest, the cops took him and said his father should come to the police station to get him.  People were afraid that if they went, they would be taken as well, and the boy would not be released. 

We offered to go to the police station to ask, but the guy who had brought us was sure that if we did, we would be arrested and deported, so instead we came home and got a journalist we know to call the police station to ask why the boy had been arrested and what his status was.  After three tries, she finally got someone who spoke English and didn’t hang up on her.  He told her he could not discuss the arrest because it was a military matter, and gave her a non-working number for the Ministry of Interior media office to call instead.  When she reached the media office, they said she had to email them her question.  As of now – six hours later – she hasn’t received an answer.