Protestors in Bahrain's capital last February.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Jihan Kazerooni and I drove past scores of armed riot police on Budaiya highway as her iPhone buzzed non-stop: phone calls, Skype calls and, incessantly, Twitter. I had wondered what the phrase "Twitter revolution" really meant when I heard it used in connection with Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011. Here, in the small Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, I was beginning to grasp the concept.
I was in that country for three weeks as a part of the Witness Bahrain initiative, a group of internationals seeking to document and expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime against protesters and activists. Aside from brief spurts of coverage, the crisis in Bahrain had largely been ignored by the US media.
Perhaps the lack of coverage of the predominantly Shi'a uprising against an increasingly repressive Sunni monarchy can be explained, in part, by this: Washington considers that monarchy its close ally; Bahrain is the home of the Navy's 5th Fleet, and the beneficiary of US arms sales. Perhaps it has to do with the US-Saudi friendship, and the increasing tension between the US and Iran. Bahrain has been portrayed as a battleground for influence between neighboring Saudi Arabia (a supporter of the monarchy) and nearby majority Shi'a Iran.
Ignoring the revolution underway there and its demands for freedom and democracy is, however, perilous. If activists move from largely peaceful demonstrations toward the use of violence, Bahrain could prove the powder keg that might set the Persian Gulf aflame. Peaceful activists like Jihan currently hold sway, but given the brutality I witnessed, it's unclear how long the Bahraini revolution will remain nonviolent.
Jihan took me under her wing, introducing me to dozens of Bahrainis who had been directly affected by the regime's crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. They were not difficult to find. There was someone in nearly every Shi'a family, Jihan's included, who had been fired from his or her job, arrested, injured, or killed. Sunni opposition activists (though much fewer in number) had been harshly targeted as well.
Hitting the Road
Jihan, her hair tucked underneath a brown silk scarf and wearing fashionable sunglasses, opened an app on her phone as we tried to reach the march that had been called by a coalition of opposition parties.
"I'll tweet that I am here in Budaiya Road, and there are no checkpoints in the area, but there are lots of riot police." A new tweet came through before Jihan could finish composing hers. She scanned it quickly as she skillfully guided her car around a traffic circle. "Okay. The attack started," she said. "It's just at the next roundabout. We might be able to see it from the car." Jihan rolled down the window. "Can you smell the tear gas?" she asked, began coughing, and immediately rolled her window up again.
As we continued our drive, grey clouds of tear gas billowed up from village after village, Jihan constantly checking her Twitter feed and rattling off the names of areas currently under assault: "A protest in Dair has been attacked and in Tashan as well. A'ali, also the same. Now they are attacking the women in the north of Bilad."
New tweets buzzed. "Lots of injuries, actually, a woman has been injured, I'll show you the picture…" She turned her phone my way, allowing me to glimpse a photograph of a bloody limb. "It's her arm," Jihan said, telling me that she suspected the injury was from "a sound bomb or a tear gas canister."
The Evolution of an Activist
Jihan had not started out as an activist. She had been an investment banker, shopping in Bahrain's high-end malls and socializing with friends. Demonstrations erupted at the Pearl Roundabout—with its imposing 300-foot monument of six arches holding a pearl aloft—in the capital city, Manama, on February 14, 2011, and only grew larger by the day as casualties and fatalities mounted. Still, she did not participate.
She had been largely ignorant of the protesters' complaints: the same prime minister had governed for 42 years; the majority Shi'a community faced discrimination from the ruling Sunnis, evidenced most clearly by the fact that they couldn't join the country's military or its police. Instead, the government was importing foreigners from Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, among other countries, to fill the ranks of the security services, often offering them Bahraini citizenship (which also threatened to alter Sunni-Shi'a demographics). The royal family had taken large swathes of public land for private benefit.
Jihan instead believed the version of the uprising being offered on state-controlled television. In that narrative, the protesters were not peaceful, but armed and dangerous. They had, the government claimed, stolen blood-bags from the hospital and were pouring that blood on themselves to feign injuries for the media. Force was being applied by the regime rarely and only when it was absolutely necessary to disperse those demonstrating. Government spokespeople claimed Shi'a doctors at Salmaniya Hospital were taking patients and co-workers hostage.
On the morning of March 13th, Jihan received a few text messages on her way to her office, appealing for people's presence at the Pearl Roundabout because government forces were attacking. She decided to go and see for herself what was taking place.
What she saw shook her to the core: unarmed protesters—women and children among them—chanting for democracy, freedom, and equality as riot police fired bullets, birdshot, and tear gas canisters directly into the crowd. Jihan stood to the side, crying, as women around her wailed and read aloud from Qur'an.
Then, in the distance, she noticed bodies being loaded into cars. She couldn't tell if they were dead or wounded, but she couldn't tear her eyes away either as the cars were filled and each drove towards nearby Salmaniya Hospital.
It was there that Jihan drove next, and found more wounded patients than available beds. Protesters who were injured by birdshot or overcome by tear gas were lying on white sheets spread across the parking lot, awaiting treatment from overburdened doctors and nurses.
The following day, 1,000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain at the request of the regime, backed by 500 police from the United Arab Emirates. The troops drove the protesters out of the Pearl Roundabout, destroyed the iconic Pearl Monument, and Bahrain's King Hamad declared a state of emergency.
Soon after, house raids leading to mass arrests began. Most of the opposition leaders were jailed, along with thousands of protesters. Journalists were targeted, as were teachers, health-care professionals, and star Bahraini athletes. Hundreds of cases of torture (some to the death) were reported, and thousands were fired from government jobs for demonstrating, or, in many cases, merely because they were Shi'a.
Jihan realized that continuing with her former life was inconceivable. She visited Nabeel Rajab, co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to ask how she could help. Hard as it had been to come to him, Jihan told Nabeel, she could no longer stay silent and on the sidelines.
A colleague of Nabeel's trained Jihan in how to document human rights violations. Soon, she began doing so in cases involving medical professionals who had been imprisoned and tortured by the regime for treating injured protesters—and for speaking out about the injuries they were seeing.