Witness to an Uprising: What I Saw in Bahrain

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An English instructor living in Manama saw a would-be revolution brutally repressed outside his window, so he tried to document it on video, and that's when his troubles started

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Bahraini protesters gather at Pearl Roundabout on February 19 / AP

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

It all started for me on Valentine's Day, 2011. Monday, February 14.

On a normal Monday, I would have been at work at Bahrain Polytechnic, where I was employed as an English tutor. This day, however, I was on mid-semester break and planned to relax with my wife in our apartment on the 10th floor of the Abraj Al Lulu (Pearl Towers) apartment complex, which overlooked Pearl Roundabout, an unofficial city center. Since then, Pearl Roundabout has been destroyed. But the protests that began there almost a year ago are still going, still challenging the regime of King Hamad Al Khalifa, who is Sunni in a majority Shia country. It's still not clear where the uprising will go, but during my time in Bahrain it changed the country. This is what I saw.

In the weeks leading up to this day there had been much political activity in Tunisia and Egypt, where outdated rulers had been overthrown. I had discovered on Facebook that a protest was set to take place at Pearl Roundabout and I was looking forward to seeing what would happen. The roundabout was named for the impressive, large "Pearl Monument" right next to us. Our apartment overlooked Dana Mall and the Lulu Hypermarket contained within. I thought that the protest was to take place at the small roundabout at the entrance to Dana Mall and so I kept looking out our window to see if anything happened.

After a while I noticed that several police four-wheel-drive vehicles had gathered on the large vacant area opposite Dana Mall. Not long after I heard many loud bangs and saw a lot of white smoke. It appeared that the police had cornered a group of people in a side street near the roundabout next to Dana Mall. I assumed that these were the same protesters who were often setting fire to tires around the Sanabis area (the area closest to Dana Mall and the Pearl Roundabout). To me, it looked like they had set off some smoke bombs and had quickly ran away. Pretty harmless stuff, it seemed. By the time the smoke had cleared there was no one remaining and the police vehicles soon left the area. I later learned that there were many other similar skirmishes throughout Bahrain that day, including the death of one protester, which explained the rather small police presence near us.

Later that day from my apartment window I counted at least 80 police vehicles positioned in the vacant lot opposite Dana Mall. The Pearl Roundabout, much larger than the one near Dana Mall, which I had assumed would be the center of protest, had been completely blocked off and surrounded by police. I was able to see from the open car park in the bottom three floors of the Abraj Al Lulu complex that no one could get in or out of the roundabout. Police were turning back cars that had exited from the Seef highway and there was a lot of traffic held up in the surrounding streets. It was obvious that the police did not want anyone anywhere near the roundabout. The police cars on the vacant lot separated into groups of about 10 and all sped off in different directions off to various Shia villages, I later learned, to fight with protesters. Apart from the traffic disruption the rest of the day around us was quite peaceful.

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My apartment building, left, looks over the Pearl Roundabout, right

The next day, Tuesday February 15, was quite strange. I watched hundreds of people stream towards the Pearl Roundabout, parking their cars on the vacant lot and walking, carrying Bahraini flags. I ventured downstairs to the parking lot and looked out over the roundabout. The police had all gone and it was teeming with people. The mood was one of gaiety. People seemed happy to be there and within a short time there were tents, microphones, a stage, and even sofas. I later found out that a popcorn machine had been installed. I was fascinated to see many women, all dressed in their black abayas standing shoulder to shoulder with men chanting and singing songs. Soon there were so many people that cars could not use the surrounding streets. Despite this, the mood was still peaceful and calm and although I did not fully understand what was happening I felt quite safe and not threatened at all. As more public address systems were installed we were able to hear the singing, the chanting, and the speeches from our apartment and in the evening more and more people arrived, especially families. The sounds (I don't like to call it noise) continued late into the evening and I was surprised to see that many younger men were spending the night there.

The "occupation" of Pearl Roundabout continued into the following day, when the number of people swelled considerably. Every inch of the roundabout was occupied by people; a small city of tents had sprung up. A stage was erected and the day was once again taken up with speeches, singing, and chanting. Food and drinks were handed out and once again the number of women involved was quite interesting. The evening brought the most visitors, as many families arrived at the roundabout to join in the peaceful protests. Eventually the whole area was quiet as they bedded down for another evening.

At 3 AM on Thursday, February 17th, I was woken by my wife. She was very animated, telling me that she thought something was happening at the roundabout. Even with our windows closed we could hear many loud bangs (the same as I had heard a few days earlier) and cars hurriedly leaving the vacant lots. The sound of many people running away was distinct. I dressed quickly, grabbed my video camcorder, and rushed to the elevator. I don't know why but I had a strange and certain sense that something bad was happening. I have lived in Australia, Thailand, and Oman and had never been exposed to any kind of uprising or protests before, much less witnessed tear gas being used in person, so I supposed I wanted to record this. But something told me that this was not going to be a simple situation of nicely asking people to pack up and move away from the roundabout. It was going to be bad.

When I reached the third-floor parking garage of our tower, I was immediately hit with the strange smell of tear gas. It was not strong enough to affect me (or my wife, who was with me) and I began filming. I saw a large group of white-helmeted police moving in packs and people (all men, as far as I could see) trying to stand their ground. I saw the tear gas fired and then glow when the canister hit the ground, releasing its smoke. Other loud explosions were going off, too. I later found out that these were "sound bombs," meant to frighten the protesters. I also later discovered that shotguns were fired and that four men had been found dead. Despite the clouds of smoke and the general mayhem of the scene, I did not see a single protester carrying anything or fighting with the police in any way.

We moved to another part of the car park, where I filmed the protesters hurrying away to their cars from the roundabout toward the direction of Dana Mall. The police were chasing them and still firing teargas. A few defiant protesters tried to stand their ground but were overcome by the fumes and eventually retreated. Soon the fumes wafted up to our position and our eyes began to sting, forcing us to return to our apartment. It was my first ever contact with tear gas and I don't recommend it. Closing and rubbing your eyes has no effect; the only thing to do is seek refuge.

Back in our apartment, as I uploaded the video footage to YouTube, I had to wonder, Why did I do this? Only later did I realize the reason: I was mightily pissed off. I had not expected such actions from a Bahraini government that I had been led to believe was focused on progress, with a vision for the future. The tactics I saw were as is from the communist Europe I had heard about as a kid. It confirmed what I briefly saw on Valentine's Day: that the security forces looked upon the protesters as something that needed to be subdued as quickly as possible, with little regard for what it took.

My wife and I watched the last of the protesters flee the vacant lot on foot; the security forces were pursuing them too aggressively for them to have time to get into cars and drive away. It was obvious that the police were not content on merely clearing the area; they seemed hell-bent on injuring as many of the protesters as possible. Even after the last of the protesters retreated to the surrounding streets of Sanabis, the bangs continued, even though the primary aim of clearing the roundabout had been achieved.

I had trouble sleeping after witnessing such brutality as I was still upset and angry at what I had seen. I tried to monitor the events by viewing comments on Facebook and was surprised to learn that many of my friends (most of them students from Bahrain Polytechnic) had already viewed the YouTube videos. I was also surprised at all the messages of thanks I was receiving, with many students also passing on gratitude from their parents. At the time I did not understand the significance of what I had done -- I also received warnings to be careful. I assured my friends that I was safe and that the violence had stopped, but the warnings continued, telling me that I may be arrested if I was not careful. In my eyes I had done nothing wrong and, if anything, I had merely captured video of a successful (albeit brutal) police operation.

During that Thursday, the roundabout was quickly cleared of anything that the protesters had left there. The many cars that had been left by their owners were simply dragged away by a fleet of tow-trucks. Most of the cars still had their handbrakes on or were engaged in gear and so there was the regular sound of car tires screeching as they were being taken away. This process lasted all day and into the night.

In the days that followed the "crackdown" at the roundabout I was contacted by CNN and the BBC by e-mail, asking me for permission to use my YouTube videos. I immediately said yes; the more people who saw them the better. Later, my wife and I got a buzz from seeing my videos on TV as part of the excellent BBC reports. Meanwhile, the entire area around us was surrounded by police, sending a clear signal that the protesters were not welcome back. I received a message from one of my students, very upset and afraid after she saw several "tanks" being transported on the backs of trucks past her house, headed towards Manama. The next morning, I saw them: a line of armored personnel carriers slowly making their way towards us along the main highway.

Soon there was a large military as well as police presence. The soldiers set up camp -- ironically, just as the protesters had done, with tents -- as well as generators and water tanks. They were digging in. Several large tanks were placed in the large vacant lot that had previously been filled with protesters' cars. The lot was also fenced in with razor wire, as if the police, soldiers, and tanks were not quite enough of a deterrent. It all served as a powerful message to anyone thinking of returning to the roundabout. Despite this, my wife and I decided to walk to Dana Mall, as we needed to buy some food. Several cars belonging to the protesters were still parked on the sides of the footpath, the owners having abandoned them in their haste to leave. Every single one of them had had their windows smashed.

In the afternoon on Friday February 18, I discovered from messages on Facebook that a large procession of protesters were marching from Salmanya Hospital to Pearl Roundabout. Salmanya had become a refuge for the many injured protesters and their families and friends. Later, dedicated doctors and medical staff there would be arrested for allegedly assisting the protesters at the expense of pro-government patients.

Men and a few vehicles approaching the roundabout, which by this time was manned by armored vehicles and a ridiculous number of police vehicles. Armed soldiers were crouched behind hedges close to the armored vehicles. None of the marchers were armed. Suddenly there was an almost deafening volley of shots fired from the roundabout, sending the protesters fleeing back towards Salmanya Hospital. I later learned that several unarmed protesters had been shot in this volley. Some of my pro-government students tried to convince me that the protesters' injuries had actually been faked, which was nonsense. The police fired teargas canisters and eventually chased the protesters away from the area, chasing after the protesters in their police cars to harass them further.

I'd watched this all again from the open-air parking garage and with my camcorder out, using its viewfinder zoom to better see. This is when I was first asked by the apartment staff not to use camcorders or cameras and to please go inside "for your own safety." The staff (mainly cleaners) said they had been told to ask people not to film and not to be in the car park. I ignored them, naturally.

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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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