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Terror and Teargas on the Streets of Bahrain

The revolution will not be televised (in the US at least).

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:47 PM EDT

By the time I met Jihan, she was an experienced activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and the founding vice president of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), which seeks to aid in the treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims.

The Battle for the Future of Bahrain

Seasoned as she was, Jihan was thoroughly shaken by the time we left an underground clinic late one night. There, nurses had secretly stitched up the gaping head wound of 13-year-old "Hussein," shot with a tear gas canister after a march that had, ironically, been called to protest the excessive use of tear gas.

Jihan and I had been to the protest and, at its end, were speaking to bare-chested youths holding Molotov cocktails, their faces wrapped in t-shirts. "This [Molotov] is not violence," one of them insisted. "What's violence is what they use against us, live bullets. We are defending ourselves. We're not attacking. If they attack us, we respond."

The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a shout went up that the riot police were on their way. Jihan and I peeled away in a friend's jeep, looking out the back window as arcs of light from tear gas canisters and burning Molotovs streaked across the night sky.

We thought we saw a tear gas canister hit a fleeing child in the head, and when Jihan received a phone call about the injury soon afterwards, we rushed to the underground clinic.

"I couldn't sleep last night," Jihan told me the next morning. "That thirteen-year old child we saw was in front of my eyes."

She reached Hussein's older brother by phone after several attempts. Hussein, he reported, was vomiting, not eating, and suffering from headaches. In typical fashion, Jihan sprang into action, contacting several doctors and medical professionals for consultation. There might be a serious problem, one that only a CT scan could detect, a specialist told her. Jihan's worry deepened.

"Doctors with private clinics don't have CT scan or X-ray machines, so we need to arrange a hospital for him, which is very risky. [Hussein's family] won't accept taking him to the hospital. They will be scared that he will be arrested, so, really, I don't know what to do," she told me, pressing her iPhone against her forehead. "It's a very big decision, taking him to the hospital."

There was good reason for all of them to fear the boy's arrest. A few days earlier, Jihan and I had visited 11-year-old Ali Hasan, who had just been released after nearly a month in juvenile prison. He had been playing soccer outside, Ali told us, when armed riot police approached. His friends had managed to run away, but frozen in fear, he was arrested and charged with blocking the road in advance of a demonstration. What did he miss most while imprisoned? Ali responded without hesitation: his two little sisters and toddler-aged brother.

We watched Ali romp with his younger siblings, he tussling with and tickling them, they leaping on him with shrieks of laughter. It would have been easy to miss the shadow that crossed his face when he spoke about how frightened he had been, locked up without his mother.

Evidence of trauma was hardly borne by this boy alone.

I saw it when a male medical worker broke down weeping as he described what he had witnessed at Salmaniya hospital during the crackdown on Pearl Roundabout.

I heard it in the voice of Dr. Nabeel Hameed, one of the doctors arrested and tortured by the regime, as he described his struggles with depression, anger, and confusion since his release, and detected it in Dr. Zahra Alsammak's flat affect when she declined to describe the torture that her husband, also a doctor, had endured.

I recognized it in the crayon drawings by the children of prisoners and "martyred" protesters, replete with gun-wielding police, tanks, stick figures behind bars, and bodies on stretchers.

I felt it in the mother of Ali Jawad Al-Sheikh, as she buried her face in a pile of her son's t-shirts and breathed in their scent, as she has done every night since 14-year-old Ali was killed.

"There has been a lot of damage and hurt, the people won't forget it very soon," Jihan told me. "Even if we got our freedom tomorrow, the people need time to be healed."

If the regime did not institute "true reforms," and soon—which I saw no indication of—Jihan predicted that the government would soon be facing a more aggressive generation. "We don't want that," she said forcefully. "We started peacefully and we want to stay peaceful… We are trying our best to advise [the youth] not to hold these Molotov cocktails. But, at the end, I think if the violence [against them] increases, it will be very difficult to control them."

The impact of the trauma does not escape the activists. Jihan described documenting the killing of Ahmed Ismail Hassan, a 22-year old citizen-journalist shot in the lower abdomen by live ammunition as he was filming a protest. Jihan had never seen so much blood. For two days, the smell of blood in her nostrils prevented her from eating and for two nights she could not close her eyes.

"Every day we're documenting and seeing these violations, so we're under a lot of pressure. In the end, we are human beings. We get affected, we get hurt. The leaders and the human rights activists, we can't show the people that we're affected and broken from inside. If the people see that we are collapsed internally, what kind of strength will they get from us? Sometimes I get broken from inside, I disappear for a few days, but I try my best to fight depression. I try to keep busy and not think about it."

A Country at a Crossroads

I asked Jihan about the possibility of her own arrest.

"I think that they will target me very soon," she said. "At any time they might raid my home and arrest me." She fears most the possibility of torture. She's documented enough cases to know just what she might be forced to endure. But she adds, "I do believe that getting freedom and democracy for the coming generation is very important, and highlighting the violations that are happening in the country is very important. Freedom is not something easy to get—we have to pay and to sacrifice for it. Fear of arrest won't stop me from doing my humanitarian job. I won't give up."

Jihan's fellow Bahraini activists are not giving up either. They continue to head out onto the streets night after night, despite the fierce repression they face from the regime and the silent complicity of most of the world. Yet there is reason to worry about where the Bahraini uprising is heading. As Dr. Nabeel Hameed put it, "The situation is getting entrenched, it's getting stagnated. Nobody sees a solution, and this gives loss of hope. And one of the most dangerous positions you can put a human being in is loss of hope. Because when somebody loses hope, he's capable of doing anything."

Juxtaposed with despair, however, is the resilience—or sumud (steadfastness)—that could be seen everywhere I looked. It was in the drawings of the children, who defiantly portrayed hands raised in a "V" for victory sign among images of bloodshed. It was in the graffiti depicting the Pearl Monument on walls all over Bahrain, with the stenciled message "We Will Return." It was in the youth we secretly filmed in their villages after midnight spray-painting bus stops and light poles with the colors of the Bahraini flag.

And it was reflected in 13-year old Hussein, who called Jihan two days after being stitched back together without anesthesia to report, to her great relief, that his vomiting had ceased and his appetite had returned.

Hussein tried to thank Jihan for her help, but she would not permit it. "No need to say thanks, habibi [my dear]. I'm only doing my duty."

Jen Marlowe is an author, documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. Her latest book (written with Sami Al Jundi) is The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey From Prisoner to Peacemaker and her most recent film is One Family in Gaza.She is the founder of donkeysaddle projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @donkeysaddleorg.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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