It all started for me on Valentine’s Day, 2011. Monday, February 14.
Normally on a Monday I would have been at work at Bahrain Polytechnic where I was employed as an English tutor. This day, however, was during the mid-semester break and I planned to spend a quiet day relaxing with my wife in our apartment on the 10th floor of the Abraj Al Lulu (Pearl Towers) apartment complex.
In the months leading up to this day there had been much political activity in Tunisia and Egypt, where outdated rulers had been overthrown.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 “Lulu Roundabout” and I was looking forward to seeing what would happen. I’m rather ashamed to admit it now but at the time I did not realise that Lulu Roundabout meant the impressive, large “Pearl Monument” roundabout 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 (I know!) and so I kept looking out our window to see if anything happened.
After a while I noticed that several Police 4WD 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 and I assumed that the people were the same ones who had always set fire to tyres 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 learnt that there were many other similar protests 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 4WD vehicles positioned in the vacant lot opposite Dana Mall. The Pearl Roundabout (not the one at Dana Mall!) 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 who 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 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 (I later learnt that these went to various Shia villages and fought with protesters). Apart from the traffic disruption the rest of the day around us was quite peaceful.
[The picture above shows the close proximity of my apartment building to the Pearl Roundabout. My building was the one on the left and I lived on the 10th floor. The first three levels of the complex was a carpark, from where I filmed my videos.]
The next day, Tuesday 15th, was quite strange. Still on my break from work I was now greeted by the sight of hundreds of people streaming towards the Pearl Roundabout, parking their cars on the vacant lot and walking, carrying Bahraini flags. I ventured downstairs to the carpark and looked out over the roundabout. The police had all gone and it was teeming with people. The mood was one of gaeity. People seemed happy to be there and within a short time there were tents, microphones, a stage and even sofas! I later learnt 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 (all in Arabic, of course) 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 had actually set up camp and were spending the night there.
The “occupation” of Pearl Roundabout continued into the following day, Wednesday, and the number of people swelled considerably. Every square inch of the roundabout was occupied by people and 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 drink was handed out to all the people 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 the people, much more than the previous day, bedded down for another evening.
3.00 am, Thursday 17th February. I was woken by my wife who 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 on the 14th) and cars hurriedly leaving the vacant lots followed by many people running away. I dressed quickly and grabbed my video camcorder and rushed to the elevator. I don’t have any real recollection why I took my camcorder other than I wanted to obviously film what happened because, for some strange reason, I knew that something bad was happening. While living in Australia, Thailand and Oman I had never been exposed to any kind of uprising or protests before and had never witnessed tear gas being used in person, so I guess 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. I knew it was going to be bad.
When I reached the level M3 carpark of our Gold Tower at Abraj Al Lulu I was immediately hit with the strange smell of tear gas. It was not strong enough to affect me (or my wife, who had also accompanied 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 being fired and glowing when they hit the ground, then releasing their smoke. Other loud explosions were going off, too. I later found out that these were “sound bombs”, which were much louder than those of the tear gas being shot. Tragically, I also discovered that shotguns were fired and that four men were later found dead. Despite the clouds of smoke and the general mahem 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 and I filmed more of the people hurrying away to their cars from the roundabout in 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. I thought the sensation would pass but even in the open carpark the fumes lingered and we left the area to return to our apartment. 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 somewhere.
By the time we were inside our apartment our eyes were pretty much back to normal and I immediately began uploading my video footage to YouTube. Why did I do this? At the time I was not aware but now I know the reason: I was mightily pissed off. I had not expected such actions from a government that I had been lead to believe were focused on progress, with a vision for the future. The tactics I saw I had only heard about in communist Europe when I was 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.
I uploaded all I had taken and then my wife and I watched the last of the protesters leave the vacant lot on foot as it was impossible for them to have time to get into cars and drive away without being set upon by the police. It was obvious that the police were not content on merely clearing the area; they seemed hellbent on trying to injure as many of the protesters as possible. The last of the protesters retreated to the surrounding streets of Sanabis and yet the bangs continued, even though the primary aim of clearing the roundabout had been achieved.
It was difficult to sleep after witnessing such brutality and I was still quite 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, many students passing on thanks from their parents to me. At the time I did not understand the significance of what I had done and 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 vision of a successful (albeit brutal) police operation. The government should be supportive, shouldn’t they? Unless, of course, they did not want others to see what had really happened.
During that Thursday the roundabout was quickly cleared of anything that the protesters had taken 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 tyres screeching as they were being taken away. The cars that had been parked on streets were the first priority and 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 videos on YouTube. I immediately allowed them to do so, the more people who saw them the better as far as I was concerned. One “newsagency” in America wanted me to give them exclusive rights to use them, which I refused. 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 message 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 pass her house, headed towards Manama (the capital, right next to the Pearl Roundabout). She was adamant at what she saw and, sure enough, later the next morning there was a line of armoured personnel carriers slowly making their way towards us along the main highway (my video of this also made its way on to BBC shortly afterwards).
Soon there was a large military as well as police presence in the vicinity of the roundabout. The soldiers that had arrived had set up camp (ironically just as the protesters had done, with tents) with generators and water tanks. It appeared that they were prepared to be there for some time. Strangely, several large tanks were placed in the large vacant lot that was previously filled with protesters cars. Also, the lot was completed 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 abandoning them in their haste to leave. Every single one of them had had their windows smashed. We made our way to the mall and back without any problems and we continued to monitor the situation from our apartment windows and also from regular visits down to our carpark.
In the afternoon on Friday the 18th 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 and where dedicated doctors and medical staff were later accused and arrested for assisting the protesters at the expense of pro-government patients. I anticipated more violence so I ventured down to the vantage point of our carpark but my view of the protesters was obscured by trees. I zoomed in with my camcorder and could see men and a few vehicles approaching the roundabout which by this time was manned by armoured vehicles and a ridiculous amount of police vehicles. Armed soldiers were crouched behind hedges close to the armoured vehicles. From my zoomed view I once again saw that none of the marchers were armed in any way at all. Suddenly there was an almost deafening volley of shots fired from the roundabout and without my camcorder I could see the protesters fleeing away back towards Salmanya Hospital. I later learnt that several unarmed protesters had been shot by this volley and I was also “reliable” informed by pro-government students that the injuries they suffered had actually been faked, which was nonsense. The police then embarked on their tactics of teargas and eventually chased the protesters away from the area again. The armoured vehicles stayed where they were and the police vehicles all raced away after the protesters.
It was during this incident that I was first asked by the staff of the apartment not to use camcorders or cameras and to please go inside “for your own safety”. The staff (mainly cleaners) told me they had been told to ask people not to film and not to be in the carpark. I ignored them, naturally.