Maryam al Khawaja's Perilous Journey Home

I still think that the people who are using Molotov cocktails or stones are a minority. The majority of the people in Bahrain are not violent. But the approach to this situation is: you don't condemn the victim. You condemn the act that made the victim react this way. As human right defenders we're not violent; we don't support the use of violence for any reason. But we know this is coming as a result of and as a response to the systematic state use of excessive force and violence.

"The government calls for dialogue and then they start arresting people arbitrarily during peaceful protests."

Now what we saw in the 1990s during that uprising [see here] was that when the state-run systematic violence stopped, street violence stopped almost immediately with it. One of them was the result of the other. The way to stop violence in Bahrain isn't through condemning the protestors. It's through holding the Bahraini government accountable. Once the violence on the part of the Bahraini government stops the violence on the streets will stop. We've seen this before.

I've also been saying during these two years is that as human right defenders who are promoting nonviolence, and who are speaking out against the use of violence in all forms, we lose our footing when there is no international reaction to the situation. A year ago when I came out and said to people in Bahrain don't use violence for all these reasons: one because it's wrong to begin with, two because it's not good for your cause, three, four, five, you know -- people listened.

Now when I say that, the responses I get sometimes are things like, what have you been able to do for us for the last past two years? What have you been able to do for us at the time we were completely peaceful and we were being shot on the streets? What has anyone done for us?

That's a huge part of the problem. When people like Abulhadi al Khawajah [see here] and Zainab [al Khawaja. See here.] and others who are some of the most avid supporters of nonviolence, and who can actually influence people on the streets, are put in prison, how are they supposed to keep promoting nonviolence? And I don't think it's a coincidence. I think that the government does this on purpose. They put away people who promote nonviolence because they can feed off of the violence. They can use it to excuse what they are doing. And that is a huge part of the problem.

When you were in Bahrain a few weeks ago, how frequent were protests?

There are protests almost every single night. It varies from one area to another. In certain areas you'll have 20 to 30 to 50 people coming out, and in other areas you might see up to 500 or 600 people coming out. The last morning I was in Bahrain there was a massive protest in Manama and 45 people were arrested. And this was after the government called for dialogue.

You know, this is one of the reasons why calls for dialogue are never taken seriously in Bahrain. The government calls for dialogue and then they start arresting people arbitrarily during peaceful protests. They attack people with pellets and tear gas and so on.

When I was driving in Bahrain I had my window open, and I got hit with this whiff of tear gas. And it felt like I was dying. I had to close my window; I had to leave really quickly.

And the first thing that came to my mind is that I was sitting in a car. I didn't even see the tear gas -- this was just the aftermath; you can't even see it in the air. And I still felt like it still had such a strong effect. For a second all I could think about was how do the families deal with this? When tear gas is shot inside their homes and they have little children -- and it's not like it's something you can protect them from -- what do they do?

This is something that is still happening in Bahrain. Just yesterday my colleague was documenting a case where two tear gas canisters were shot inside someone's house. And that's why people don't take the government seriously when they say "dialogue."

Do you think it would be more dangerous for you to go back to Bahrain now, after having gone back once before?

I know that just because they let me in this time and I wasn't subjected to harassment or arrest, it is in no way an indication that that is going to be the situation if I go again. I believe that the fact that I was not subjected to anything was a political decision that made by the government. All it takes is for them to make another political decision -- of arresting me.


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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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