A Crackdown in Crayon: Bahrain's Children Draw Their Country's Crisis

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As security forces continue to repress this Arab Spring protest movement, young children are losing family members and bearing scars that could last a lifetime.

An endless cycle of peaceful protest and violent crackdown has endured for now 15 months in Bahrain, the tiny Arab island nation where a U.S.-backed Sunni minority rules over a Shia-majority population. Less visible than the geopolitics (Saudi Arabia has sent troops in support of the monarchy, which it sees as a bulwark against Shia Iran), the complicated dilemma for the Obama administration, or the lives and struggles of the democracy activists who refuse to give up, are the children of Bahrain.

Human Rights First, a U.S.-based NGO that has worked heavily in Bahrain since the Arab Spring began over a year ago, recently launched a project called Through Children's Eyes to check in with Bahrain's children and attempt to understand how the country's conflict is affecting them. Two local activists who work with Human Rights First -- and who are now both in prison on political charges -- "asked some children who had been directly affected by the crackdown to draw whatever was in their minds," according to Brian Dooley, who as director of the NGO's human rights defenders program has traveled frequently to Bahrain in the last year.

"The genesis of it was the end of last year," Dooley told me over the phone. "I was in Bahrain, and the Bahraini government has been trying for months now to present a picture of some return to normalcy from what everyone agrees was a terrible Human rights crisis." They hoped to "counter the notion that things are OK now" (Bahrain insisted on holding the Formula One race in April despite ongoing violence and protester deaths) and show "the side of Bahrain that the government was keeping quiet about."

Several dozen civilians have been killed in Bahrain since protests began, though the country of 1.2 million is only the size of a small city and is relatively wealthy. But those deaths, and the many more political prisoners who have been locked up, have been felt deeply within the community of Shia who make up the national majority. That trauma, the emotional scars of the still-roiling violence, can be seen in these children's drawings, which show repeated themes of violence, sadness, and loss.

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department announced that the Obama administration would resume selling arms to Bahrain. Though the statement acknowledged "unresolved human rights issues" in the country, where the U.S. Navy bases its Fifth Fleet, the U.S. has mostly dropped any publicly visible efforts to find a peaceful resolution.

Bahraini protesters, painfully aware of American influence in their country and of U.S. concerns for Iran's influence there, have frequently appealed to the U.S. to mediate as it did in Egypt, another close American ally. Increasingly, Dooley says, they see "little encouragement" and "feel they've been abandoned" by the outside world.

Flipping through the dozen or so drawings above (there are more on the project page), it's hard not to perceive some sense loneliness as these children struggle with their grief, their loss, and the question, which must seem infuriatingly unanswerable to such young minds, of why their father or brother or uncle had to go away.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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