Witness to an Uprising: Caught Up in Bahrain's Crackdown

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What happened when an Australian teacher living in Manama tried to document a would-be revolution brutally repressed outside his window

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Riot police pull out as Bahraini protesters rush to celebrate at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on February 19 / AP

This is part two of a four-part series. Read the whole series here.

Although I didn't know it at the time, Bahrain was full of behind-the-scenes political activity in mid-February to end the unrest that had begun on February 14. The Crown Prince was trying to broker an agreement and began by allowing the protesters back to Pearl Roundabout. But all I knew about was what I could see from my apartment complex, which was a lot: just across the street, Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout had been the center of a massive protest and brutal police response a few days earlier. My students -- I was an English instructor at Bahrain Polytechnic University -- had applauded me for filming the crackdown and uploading it to YouTube, but staff workers in the building had warned me to stop.

On Saturday, February 19, I was still keenly watching what was happening around our complex, moving between the car park in the lower levels of our building and our apartment windows, trying to see if anything was happening. But the military seemed relaxed and staying in their positions, securing the roundabout. Messages on Facebook indicated that their presence would be withdrawn but, from my vantage point, it looked to me that they would be there for some time. After nothing seemed to happen for a while, my wife and I managed to drive away from the area for some much needed distraction at the British Club, which was nearby but felt a million miles from what we had witnessed.

We returned safely to our apartment later in the afternoon and the first thing we did was to check the situation in the roundabout and to report to others what was happening, which was nothing. Later, my wife went downstairs to check and quickly rushed back up to tell me that the army had left and the police were shooting protesters again. I once again raced downstairs with my camcorder. On the way down, I struggled to understand why the army would leave and yet the police would remain to shoot the protesters. It didn't make any sense.

We didn't know it then, but palace politics were responsible for the military and police working at apparent cross-purposes. The police fall under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister who, it was later revealed, had opposed the earlier decision to re-open the roundabout to the people.

"We know everything about you"

We ran to the edge of the car park walls, the best vantage point for seeing the roundabout, and began filming. Despite my wife's alarmed report we saw jubilant protesters running with Bahrain flags around the grassed area of the roundabout, stopping to bend down and pray, hugging each other, clapping, and chanting. I saw no police and looked quizzically at my wife when, once again, the loud bangs from the earlier crackdown returned. A group of white-helmeted police sprang out from behind the garden on one side of the roundabout and began to chase away the celebrators (they weren't protesting) and even managed to grab a few of them.

One of the men broke away from the police and ran. We watched, helpless, as a policeman raised his shotgun and calmly shot him in the back. The man disappeared behind a tree so we could not see what had happened to him. The whole exercise looked like it was simply an elaborate trap. Remove the army, allow the people back in, and then send in the police to cut them down. Still recording, I began planning to show the world what I had seen, when a man who I had never seen before came up to me and asked me to stop filming. He was well-dressed and held a walkie-talkie. Angered by what I had seen and upset at being told what to do, I told the man that I had ever right to keep filming, using quite a few words beginning with "f". He appeared shocked by my outburst (as was my wife) and immediately spoke Arabic into his walkie-talkie and hurried away. I took that as my cue to leave and, after a quick look at the roundabout (the police were now leaving, being taunted by the protesters as they did so) we went to the relative safety of our apartment.

My students had warned me about the dangers of being arrested in Bahrain. The police here, they told me, are not like the police in Australia. Now, some even advised me to leave our apartment. But we stayed and, soon, heard men's voices outside our door followed by a loud knock. Unsure how they had figured out who we were and located us so quickly, I refused to answer the door. I had done nothing wrong (except some swearing) and they could knock all day for all I cared. Eventually it stopped and the voices left our floor. My wife and I were whispering about what we should do when my landlord called. She told me that I was in big trouble and I needed to go and see the security men immediately. She warned, ominously, that Bahraini prisons were not nice places to be.

My wife and I found the walkie-talkie man in the parking garage talking to two other men. I immediately apologized for my outburst earlier, when the largest of the men introduced himself as the "security manager for the apartment complex." I had never seen any of the three men in the 14 months that I had been living there. The security manager told me that I had put him in a very difficult position by filming the protests because he was under orders from the Bahrain Ministry of Interior (responsible for law enforcement and public safety) not to allow any resident from the apartments to document anything taking place around us. He said that if it was discovered that a lot of filming had taken place he had the right to go through every apartment searching for cameras and inspecting computers -- and he did not want to do that. He said the best thing I could do was to delete all the film I had taken. I told him that I had already uploaded it all to YouTube; the walkie-talkie man said, "Oh no."

The security manager said I needed to assure him that I would stop videotaping. "We know you work for the Polytechnic as an English teacher, we know your CPR [Civil Personal Record] number, we know that is your car over there, we know everything about you," he said. I knew he was trying to intimidate me; most of this information would have been given to him by my landlady and the guy who operates the boom gate on the car park. But I had no wish to make things any worse and so I agreed to delete my videos and not to take any more.

Looking back, I am now convinced that the three men I spoke to were all connected to the Ministry of Interior. I only ever saw the third member of the trio again after this day. I am sure that my filming was either noticed by the Ministry staff or was referred to them and the men were sent to the apartment towers to put a stop to it.

The walkie-talkie man, at his insistence, accompanied me and my wife back to our apartment and watched as I sat at the dining table and deleted all the video I had downloaded onto my computer and then did the same in front of him with my camcorder. He asked if I had any other film stored anywhere else, to which I said "no" and then I offered to give him my camcorder to prove I would stop filming. He took it and said I could collect it from him, probably in a few weeks. He was polite the whole time and my wife indeed was able to get our camcorder back.

I was relieved to be out of the hot seat but disappointed that I could no longer help spread the truth if any further outbreaks of brutality were to occur at the roundabout. It was early in Bahrain's protests still -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down just a week earlier -- and no one was sure what would happen next. I still watched closely and even visited the proceedings outside to see for myself just how peaceful it really was. My "reporting" days were over but little did I realize that my real problems were only just beginning.

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Tony Mitchell is an Australian English instructor who has taught in Thailand, Oman, and most recently Bahrain.

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