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.