11 February in Budiyia, Bahrain. Thousands of people are taking to the streets for a peaceful political rally. An aura of collective hope reverberates through the crowd as men march ahead, women walking behind them clothed in burkas. Flags and banners trail in the air above the masses as they chant in unison, demanding democracy, the restoration of their rights and an end to the Al Khalifia government’s brutality.
As the excitement builds to crescendo, the crowd is confronted by a wall of armed Bahraini police in riot helmets and shields. Tear gas missiles are launched into the throng, spewing toxic fumes into demonstrators’ faces. The sky is shredded by rubber bullets. Sound bombs deafen them as they scatter, running blindly to avoid police gunfire. One woman refuses to run. She stands in the firing line, her hand raised in a defiant victory sign, allowing the clouds of stinging tear gas to engulf her. She will not surrender her beliefs under threat of violence. She will not stop fighting.
This is one of many harrowing images that haunts Elaine Murtagh, an Irish national deported from Bahrain in February for participating in anti-government protests. This rally would be the first of several public events Elaine witnessed during her week in the country, most of which descended into chaos at the hands of government authorities. While most Western women may have spent Valentines’ Day at home being treated by their partners, Elaine spent it escaping tear gas attacks and attending the wounded civilians littering Bahrain.
“I got shot at with tear gas and my eyes went blind – like getting a bottle of perfume poured in them,” recalls the 40 year old of her first protest. “My skin was on fire and I couldn’t breathe - I started to cry and shout. I will never forget how I felt. When I reached safety I wanted to ring my husband, but with the shock I could not even remember his name, or his number.”
The February 14 protests marked the first anniversary of the Bahrain uprising, a revolutionary movement triggered by the Arab Spring. In this initial revolt, protesters set up camp in Lulu Square to demonstrate against the Al Khalifia government. They occupied the square until March 16, peacefully protesting for democracy, before a 1500-strong collective of troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahraini police mercenaries stormed the camp and tore down the Lulu Square monument. Protestors were rewarded for their uprising with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets. Hundreds were wounded and four killed.
Since then, the people of Bahrain have protested peacefully on a daily basis to campaign for democracy and the preservation of their rights. The authorities continue to punish protesters through imprisonment, censorship, harassment and torture. The Bahrain Human Rights Centre report that, in less than a year, 20 innocent people have asphyxiated as a result of tear gas being shot into their homes by government forces.
Elaine Murtagh has been involved in the Bahrain human rights movement from afar for over a year, despite not being affiliated with any particular organisation. From her home in Ireland, she uses social media to engage with people suffering in Bahrain and chat to those whose rights are being repeatedly breached by the government.
“Last year when the protests started I was horrified at the killings and abuses that the people suffered, just because they had the strength to speak out for themselves,” she says. “I got to know people personally and listened to many horrifying stories. I spoke with mothers, fathers, doctors, teachers - all who have really suffered at the hands of the Al Khalifia family.”
Elaine was given the opportunity to visit the nation for a week in February. Using a false address on her visa application so as not to arouse government suspicion, she entered the country and stayed with locals in the villages observing the daily protests and struggles of the people:
“While I was there the police tear gassed us while we were having dinner, and a few houses down they broke into a house and stabbed up to 7 young men. It was a bloody scene”
14 February was to be the ‘Day of Return’ to LuLu Square for Bahraini protesters. The square itself is now a baron area cordoned off with barbed wire. At 6am Elaine awoke to the sound of helicopters and shots of tear gas overhead. Government forces were prepared to quell a fresh wave of protest and were already responding to potential civilian demonstrations with violence. She moved from house to house when the streets were safe, avoiding the large police presence within the village.
Accompanied by a local Bahraini woman, Elaine began tending to injured civilians with the little medical equipment available. Amongst the victims was an elderly woman with a broken and bloodied foot – a casualty of a tear gas attack within her own home. One young man had been beaten so violently that Elaine vomited when she saw him. None of these victims were willing to go to hospital, for fear of retribution from government forces.
“On the Thursday of my visit I met 16-year old Ali, who had been kidnapped that day for the third time in his life,” she remembers sadly. “His upper body had been slashed repeatedly with a knife, he’d been sexually assaulted and then dumped back on the streets. The perpetrators then tweeted his name and what they’d done to him to shame him.”
On Elaine’s advice, Ali sought solace in the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), reporting his experiences to its leader Nabeel Rajab. The following day, Murtagh led a women’s protest against the abuse of Bahraini children to fight for the rights of Ali and others like him.
“I felt I was releasing all my anger,” she says of her protest for the children. “I knew I would be arrested but I didn’t care. I got arrested and deported but I made my point.”
As human rights abuses rapidly escalate, the Bahraini government has imposed restrictions limiting journalists and UN officials from visiting the country to investigate these issues. Human rights activists within the country are frequently punished, individually and collectively.
Founder of The Gulf Centre for Human Rights Abdulhadi Alkhgwaja has been imprisoned for 25 years for criticising the government’s slaughter of civilians in Lulu Square. He is now on hunger strike to demand his release, announcing that ‘freedom or death’are his only options. The BCHR remains dedicated to ensuring that he is freed.
“I participate in many protests that call for democracy, justice and respect for human rights, including the campaign to free Abdulhadi Alkhgwaja,” says Said Yousif Almuhafdah, Head of Monitoring & Follow Up at BCHR. “Until last year I was working in an insurance company, but I lost my job because of my work in human rights. 3000 others were also dismissed from their jobs, because they were part of the LuLu protests and because they are Shia Muslims.”
Despite the brutal crackdown on its people and the human rights abuses that plague the country, the Western world do little to intervene. As Western politicians demonise Russia for their support of Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, the daily atrocities in Bahrain go unheeded. America’s long-standing relationship with the Al Khalifia government gives them more influence over events in Bahrain, and yet the US do not endeavour to prevent the horrors suffered there. This appears to mirror Russia's ties with Syria, highlighting an abhorrent hypocrisy in Western politics.
America’s Naval Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and despite the ‘pause’ of a $53million arms deal between the two nations, the US still plan to sell $1million worth of equipment to Bahrain’s defence force. The US has not published a full list of the arms involved in the deal, but issued a statement in January saying that no weaponry that could be used against protesters would be involved in the sale.
Britain continues to arm the oppressive regime in Bahrain. In the year following the February 2011 uprising, the UK government approved a £1million sale including rifles, gun silencers and weapon sights to the Al Khalifia regime. When it was exposed that Britain had been selling crowd control equipment and weaponry to dictatorships in Libya, Egypt and Bahrain last year, Britain revoked many of its arms export licences. Once the media glare subsided, the UK renewed their arms trade with Bahrain and proceeded to export further military equipment to the Al Khalifia government. This British weaponry is likely to be used to control, maim and in some instances kill innocent Bahraini civilians.
“I urge people to write about Bahrain and bring this to the attention of world leaders,” says Elaine Murtagh, now continuing her campaign at home in Ireland. “I know I am meant to speak for the people of Bahrain, and I will return.”