A 'time for martyrs' in Bahrain

Demonstrators rally in the island kingdom, demanding political change at protests, funeral processions and hospitals.


    Manama, Bahrain - His death certificate says Ali Ahmed Abdulla Ali. He was known to everyone as Ali Ahmed Mu'amin. Nationality: Bahraini.

    His funeral was the largest of the three held on Friday. For his family, it was the death of a dream. Despite high unemployment in the Sitra area, they had high hopes for him. He was studying engineering and was due to graduate this year.

    Instead of an engineer, they just have a dusty plot to visit in their neighbourhood. His broken body was wrapped tightly in a white sheet. He was lowered into the ground amid screams and sobs.

    One mourner would not let him go. He sat inside the grave, caressing Ali's face through the sheet, rocking back and forth. A young friend slumped against another mourner on the edge of his grave, his wails louder than the others, as the men of the community piled earth onto his tomb.

    Ali Ahmed was only 22 when he died. The primary cause of death listed on his certificate is extensive bleeding leading to intractable hypovolemic shock. He bled to death from a projectile that had torn into his thigh.

    His body - displayed for visitors Thursday night at the Salmaniya Hospital Mortuary - bore the signs of doctors' attempts to save him. Four large surgical slices ran up his calves and thigh, another at his groin. Also listed on his death certificate as a contributing factor: metal pellets and plastic embedded in his chest. A representative of Human Rights Watch visited him at the morgue and is still trying to investigate exactly how Ali Ahmed ended up there.

    This young Bahraini did not seek out martyrdom, unlike many protesters who actively speak about sacrificing themselves. He was not supposed to be at the Pearl Roundabout early Thursday morning. He heard security forces had attacked and that women and children were left behind. There was a stampede, people were trapped. So he ran towards the Pearl to help. He did not make it. Another friend at his funeral said Ali Ahmed was shot in the street and merely left to die.

    "I'm Bahraini, and I'm 42 years-old. But I've never seen such evil," Mohammed, a businessman, told Al Jazeera at Ali Ahmed's funeral on Friday. All three victims buried that day were from Sitra.

    Ali Ahmed's uncle, Jaffar, said his nephew was well-known for helping people in windswept Sitra, a predominantly Shia island on the east side of Bahrain where grievances against the state run high.

    "When I think of him, I see his smile. I can't forget that." Jaffar was resigned to his nephew's fate. But on Friday afternoon, he was not happy to describe Ali as a martyr.

    Salmaniya Hospital rallying point

    At noon on Saturday, the military remained at Pearl Roundabout. And police had amassed there too, blocking all of the main arteries leading to Manama’s symbolic heart.

    Due south of Pearl roundabout at Salmaniya Hospital, thousands rallied at the place that had become the primary gathering spot for protesters after they were forcibly removed from the Pearl in Thursday morning's pre-dawn raid, which some doctors refer to as Black Thursday.

    An orthopaedic surgeon, Ali Al Akri, has been heading up the emergency management operation and organising the hospital's preparedness for a high number of casualties. The hospital had put in place on Saturday a "mass disaster plan", expecting the worst after Friday's live firing on marchers. Protesters aimed to walk to Pearl Roundabout and retake it from the military.

    "If [the security forces] attack, we're expecting three times the casualties as before. It will be a massacre," said Akri.

    When security forces attacked demonstrators on both the prior days, ambulances were prevented from picking up the casualties. They were stopped at roadblocks, and furious doctors like Akri say the health minister, Faisal Yaqoob al Hamar, did not make them available.

    "Today [Saturday], the ambulance drivers, nurses, everyone, are going to take responsibility if anything happens, we don’t care what the government says or does."

    Akri's colleague, Dr Saeed, said al Hamar, the health minister, does not represent health employees anymore.

    Yet Akri said he did not want him to resign just yet. "We want to use him for dialogue with the higher authorities. Those below him, he can't talk to. But the people above, he can," Dr Saeed said.

    The ministry has praised the conduct of health staff during the crisis, but that's an affront according to Akri, who says his cousin, a doctor, was beaten within an inch of his life at Pearl Roundabout's medical station.

    "We don't want him to take the credit for the work of staff and volunteers. Black Thursday was a test … it took four to five hours to get ambulances to the Pearl, so it shows he is part of the crime."

    Dr Saeed cut in, "Where is he? Usually in a situation like this, the minister comes to see what is happening".

    Staff have been working around the clock and emotions are high. "I've not seen my wife and children in two days, I haven’t slept either. This is my day off," Dr Saeed said, rubbing his eyes.

    On Saturday morning, medical staff had a meeting with hospital administrators. They said the ministry had finally made arrangements to allow ambulances free passage to the wounded. All hospitals, including private ones, were on stand-by.

    Salmaniya has 1000 beds, but staff were trying to relocate non-emergency patients. In the intensive care unit, staff vacated five beds in anticipation of major casualties.

    "I don't know what will happen if we see something like [Black Thursday] again," Nehad Al Shiwari, head of Salmaniya’s ICU, told Al Jazeera, pointing toward the likely brain dead Abdulridha Mohamed Hasan Buhamid behind her.

    Right of return

    By 3pm on Saturday, protesters did what they had been promising. Thousands started marching to Pearl Roundabout from the hospital.

    Sheikh Ali Saleem stood in the middle, talking to other protesters and welcoming ambulances.

    "The Roundabout belongs to us," he said, with the rage of God in his eyes. "Our people were killed there, and I'm willing to die too. I said my prayers before I came here and asked to be a martyr."

    The men surrounding him put up their hands and said they wanted to do that too. Hassan Youssef, a 29-year-old mechanical technician, added, "We want to live in a better situation. If not, we may as well die."

    In the ambulance bay, female volunteers and nursing staff, dressed in white, formed a human chain to keep the path clear. Women protesters, clad in black abayas, prepared emotionally to accept incoming martyrs.

    On the other side, a sea of men chanted, "B'rouh, b'dam, nafdeeq ya shahid" (In spirit and in blood, we sacrifice our martyrs). Others were silent and pensive.

    Suddenly, a man started yelling for everyone to clear the way. The first ambulance sped through the area, carrying the first casualty. Police had fired tear gas and a protester had been caught in the middle. And so it began, waves of ambulances, some carrying two people, wailed to the hospital.

    First, people at Salmaniya were shocked, but by the end, the people were joyous. Word reached the hospital that  protesters had retaken Pearl Roundabout and that the police had fled.

    The crowds of hospital workers and protesters clapped and cheered for each ambulance and greeted the battered protesters like war heroes. And beyond all else, staff were happy that Saturday's new victims sustained mostly minor injuries.

    As the fourth ambulance's doors opened, one protester, a middle-aged man, sat on the stretcher grinning ear to ear. His arms were raised triumphantly, waving peace signs.

    People re-occupy the Pearl

    For Fadel, a protester, the Pearl was not new territory. He had been sleeping there on Thursday morning when security forces attacked. This time he felt different. "I’m very happy, I feel like we will not be harmed. Starting today [Saturday], the women and children feel safe. International attention is on us here now."

    The Pearl, also known as Lulu Roundabout, has new a meaning to the masses. It is sacred ground, for blood was spilled there. The feeling is so strong that protesters want to re-christen it Doar ash-Shuhada, or Martyrs’ Roundabout.

    Although there was joy at their victory, people were also nervous. Maryam Al Khawaja, a representative of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said she was there to document any crackdown.

    "I hope they don't make the same mistake again of using violence against peaceful protesters," said Al Khawaja, who narrowly escaped Thursday morning's attack.

    Behind her was brand new graffiti on the base of giant Pearl sculpture in the centre of the roundabout. Arabic writing expressed the same slogan that has reverberated across the Middle East, from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Bahrain: "Ash-sha'ab, yurid, isqat an-nizam" (the people want the regime to fall).

    "If they don't accept the calls for reform, perhaps in 10 years we will be seeing the same thing as today. We want freedom, human rights that will benefit all Bahrain - not just the Shia," said Al Khawaja.

    The victory made the protesters feel a little more emboldened. Throngs of women sit in a group, forming a sea of black in the faint light of dusk. Amina, sat with her four-year-old niece on her lap. They were both smiling.

    "I'm so happy, I can feel freedom. I don't care if it's not safe; I'll stay here. I won't leave like last time," she said.

    Her friend Fatma added: "We don’t know what will happen. Last time I brought my children, but not today. Then I trusted the King, but not this time."

    "Don't worry, we'll stay," responded Amina, "Here we have a message for the Shuhada: we're here, we're back. You gave your lives, and they killed you. But we're here, and we will stay."

    Another protester, Noor, her face veiled, was just as defiant.

    "There is no fear. That's the most important thing now in Bahrain. No matter what the government tries, even if it brings in foreign troops, we won't be beaten. This will be a victory for us, I'm sure."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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