It just began, and now it is over. Yesterday morning, I was sitting in a café in Manama, Bahrain, working on a blog called “Bahrain: First Impressions.” Now I am sitting at home in Oakland, trying to process what happened.
On February 14, I woke after only a couple hours’ sleep and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was trembling with excitement and tension. #Feb14, the anniversary of the start of the ongoing revolution in Bahrain, was to be the Day of Return to Pearl (Lulu) Roundabout, the huge vacant lot in the center of Manama where protesters camped out for a month last year, until March 16, when 1,000 troops from across the bridge in Saudi Arabia and 500 police from the United Arab Emirates joined thousands of mercenaries working for the Bahraini police in evacuating the camp, destroying the monument at the center of the Roundabout, killing at least 6 and injuring hundreds. Since then, at least 60 people have died in the ongoing revolution.
They celebrate Valentine’s Day in Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, human rights leader, said the day I first met him, “People asked me why I chose February 14 for the start of the uprising. I said so my wife will stop asking me to take her to an expensive restaurant.” Nabeel’s wife spent this Valentine’s Day evening in the Na’eem police station, trying to get Nabeel out of detention.
I spent much of the day there myself. Right around the time Nabeel was being released on bail, I and five of my fellow Witness Bahrain team members were being escorted by police onto a plane to London, our visas cancelled for such crimes as not spending all our nights in the country in the same hotel, and engaging in “nontourist” activities while on a tourist visa.
The “nontourist activity” in question was an “illegal” march on Saturday. I found it very interesting that they were so focused on that march, which was completely peaceful on the part of the protesters, and was attacked by police with the ubiquitous gas and sound bombs, rather than the clashes I documented earlier in the week, in which riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at youths hurling Molotov Cocktails. I think that tells us a lot about what the government is trying to hide by whisking us out of the country.
At 3:30, our group of about two dozen internationals and Bahrainis set out from Nabeel’s house in a caravan to city center. On the way, we counted police vehicles.
“Nine jeeps and six buses,” announced one young man.
“Look at the tanks!” a woman gasped. “We never saw these before.”
> photo: Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Her voice was trembling, and so was I. They were not tanks, but shiny blue Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), dozens of them lined up in each block. I instinctively thought back to the first demonstration I was at during the Second Intifada in Palestine, in which six people were shot out of an APC.
Our plan was to rendezvous at a coffee shop and go from there to a place near the city center, where we would converge with others and attempt to march to Lulu to reoccupy it. People have, of course, been attempting to march to Lulu for weeks now, but it was all building up to today, the final push.
At the entrance to every village, we could see a line of police in riot gear – helmet, shield, armored vest. Again, it was eerily reminiscent of Palestine, where the day of a major demonstration, you can count on there to be curfews enforced by soldiers at the entrance to every village in the district.
“Will people be able to make it to the city?” I asked Nabeel.
“They will come,” he said confidently. “They cannot control the entire country.”
I wasn’t so sure of that, given the massive numbers of police on the street. (Good thing Bahrain is a low-crime country.) But I would not argue with Nabeel, who is probably the most respected protest leader in the country.
The coffee shop is in a mall, and when we drove into the parking lot, the smell of tear gas made it clear that the police were already there. We quickly drove off and headed to the next mall, but traffic was so backed up on the freeway overpass, we would never even be able to get there. We inched along towards the glittering highrise hotels in the center, and suddenly Nabeel, who was driving, opened the door and stepped out into the road. The woman next to me ran around and took the wheel, while the rest of us to out behind Nabeel. I had no idea what we were doing, but whatever it was, I was going to hang back and try to film without being too noticeable.
Medea, Tighe and Billy, on the other hand, were our Target Team. They wore white vests over their shirts with the words “International Observer” painted in bright pink. They stood on either side of Nabeel and held up their fingers in peace/victory signs. On the roadway, people rolled down their windows and yelled “Yasqot Hamad,” “Down with [King] Hamad.” They tapped out the rhythm of the chant on their horns, which has become a ritual, a way of saying without saying, since it is illegal to say the words. Of course, plenty of people have been arrested for honking the horns. But people do it persistently.
I could see the riot police lined up across the freeway, shouldering their tear gas guns.
“Sumoud, sumoud,” steadfast, steadfast, people yelled. Here and there a few people got out of their cars and ran to join our tiny march. Most did not, just sat there honking or chanting or giving thumbs up or victory signs. Perhaps Nabeel for once overestimated people’s willingness to risk their lives, or maybe they just didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. Either way, the march never grew to more than 20.
I saw a German reporter and his Bahraini photographer up in front. The photographer wore a vest with the word “PRESS” emblazoned on front and back in letters six inches high. I decided hanging with him was my best bet, and made my way up to where he was facing the group walking among the cars. Just as I reached him, the gas started to fly. I heard shot after shot, and they were very near me. I looked at the photographer and he looked scared. I tend to think of those guys as fearless. His fear made mine greater. He hunkered down trying to stay behind the metal barrier and I did the same, but I couldn’t get that low. A canister landed right at my feet. I feared the next one would land on my head.
Nabeel had bought boxes of respirators, and we had all been encouraged to bring one for ourselves and a few more to give to people who needed them. I put mine over my face and tried to breathe. The day before, it had worked perfectly, and the time before that as well. I had barely even noticed the gas, except for the burning in my eyes. But this time it seemed to have no impact at all. I wondered if the filter could have been worn out already. I could not breathe at all. I couldn’t even see the group any more, all I could see was clouds and clouds of gas. To my right, more gas, as well as more police aiming their weapons at us, and the cars zooming along. I could hardly see, but I had to get across the busy street to get out of the gas.
Finally I made it to the other side. I looked for somewhere that didn’t seem too saturated with gas, and saw a side street that looked clear. I ran towards it. There was a bank or some other kind of commercial building on my right and I headed for it.
“No, no,” someone said. “Go this way.” I looked up. There was a group of men around me. They gestured to go a different way. I ignored them. I knew what I needed to do. I would recover and rest up and then call Flo and find out where the others were and hopefully be able to catch up with them. Hopefully they would be okay. I felt foolish and weak, they were all marching straight into the gas and I couldn’t take it. But if I passed out or got shot, it wasn’t going to do anyone any good. I headed for the building. This group of guys was staying with me, and one of them touched my arm – something Muslim men do not usually do. I think that’s what clued me in that they were not trying to help me, they were police. I was caught and I was going to be deported.
I never had any doubts about that. I knew I was wanted. It had been in the papers. I had a faint hope that I might be saved because the name I use is not what my passport says, but that was dashed when a guy showed up and said in Arabic, “Her name is Kate Raphael.” There were two different guys filming me the entire time. (You can actually watch all of our arrests on YouTube courtesy of the Bahraini police; my part starts around 3:00 mins and is a lot like watching paint dry.)
There were five guys with me, then there were ten, then there were twenty, then there were two, suddenly there were twenty again. People came and went. I tried to act nonchalant, just asking them periodically what was going on. People in business clothes came and got into their cars, in the perpendicular parking spots where the police were lounging. I thought about asking one of them for a ride to the Sheraton, but I didn’t have the nerve. They seemed not at all curious what was going on.
I texted Flo that I was busted, and a couple minutes later got a text saying she was too. I texted various people outside the country. I was surprised that no one tried to stop me. When I tried to talk on the phone, though, they moved to grab it. I put it in my purse. A guy who reminded me of Claude Raines in “Casablanca” marched up.
“Give me your phone,” he said.
“No,” I said. He insisted, and I refused again.
He called some policewomen over and I thought they would search me and take my phones. They did not. They put me in a police van, turned on the siren and drove like maniacs to the police station. By that time Flo was there, but they didn’t want us to see each other. They didn’t think I knew Arabic, so I heard the captain tell someone not to let me know that “the other American” was there.
I was waiting in the hall and a small, young woman police officer suddenly slapped my hand.
“Don’t hold your hand here,” she gestured to where it sat on my hip, “hold it down here,” by my leg.
“Why?” I asked.
She slapped me again, this time on the face. She had to reach up to do it. “Be quiet. Stop talking.”
That was the only violence I experienced, thanks to my special status. They led me into a room where a bunch of policewomen sat in cubicles in the center. A couple distressed foreign workers slouched along one wall. In the far corner, a group of Shi’a girls was bouncing and chatting. They had obviously been taken at a demonstration – I had heard that there had been some arrests earlier. They grinned at me, flashed the Victory sign and mouthed “Sumoud.” I mouthed it back and got more big smiles. They were in high spirits and I couldn’t help thinking that they were probably going to be black and blue by morning. I did not meet one Bahraini who has been arrested who was not beaten. I thought of my new friend, Zainab al Khawaja, who was arrested Sunday and has been sent for seven days’ interrogation. Interrogation, which always means torture.
I was left alone for hours, punctuated by various people asking me the same questions over and over. What did I do for a living? I tried to explain word processing to them, and we ended up agreeing that I’m a secretary. Why was I in Bahrain? To visit. Are you a human rights activists? Yes, but it’s not my job. Where do I come from? California, America. Why did I come to Bahrain? To visit. What is my job? Secretary. Where did I get the gas mask? Someone gave it to me. What was his name? I don’t know. Where did I live? California, America. What was my job? Secretary.
“What did you do on February 11?”
“I have no idea.”
“What is your job?”
“I’m a secretary.”
“Where were you on February 11?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What is your job?”
“I’m a secretary.”
I told the captain I didn’t want to answer any more questions. She said I didn’t have that right, that the Bahraini legal system is not like ours, I didn’t have a right to a lawyer because I had only been brought in for questioning, not investigation.
A couple of the cops were friendly and willing to talk to me. I chitchatted with them about their families, marriage, divorce, children, various places in the U.S. they had heard of or seen on television, Palestine, anything except the political situation in Bahrain, which they refused to discuss.
Many hours later, I was taken to talk to someone from the Ministry of Information. On the way up, I ran into Brian, Linda, Mike and Paki, who had just arrived from another police station. The man from the Ministry explained in a soft voice that I had broken the law by not staying at the Sheraton – despite the fact that I did, in fact, stay there my first night, at great expense, and had the receipt to prove it – and by going to an illegal demonstration on the 11th, so my visa would be cancelled.
“Okay, I understand,” I said.
“I apparently broke your laws, and I can’t stay here. That’s okay. I just want to clarify a few things.”
He was visibly shocked; his mouth nearly dropped open when he realized I was not going to resist. My main concern was that I didn’t want to be handcuffed on the plane. He kept assuring me that it wouldn’t happen, that that was only done to Huwaida and Radhika because they made trouble. I suspected it was because they weren’t white, but I also didn’t believe his assurances. I kept demanding to speak with someone from the Embassy.
When we finally met up with the Embassy guy, hours later at the airport, he was less than comforting.
“All I can do is ask them,” he said. I suggested that wasn’t actually all he could do, and he suggested I not tell him what his job was.
Perhaps it was his presence, perhaps it was that we had all concluded there was no premium in resisting, or perhaps it was because we were all white. One way or the other, we had a very pleasant flight to London, sans cuffs. Linda and I were lucky to be able to sit together all the way to San Francisco. I watched “The Ides of March” and “Jane Eyre,” but the movie I was seeing in my mind was those APCs all lined up to kill the resistance.
I had and continue to have waves of sadness. Sadness at not being able to say goodbye to my new friends. Sadness at not getting to do some of the touristy and social things we had put off until “after the 14th.” But mostly sadness at what I feel sure is the coming bloodshed, the Bahraini monarchy feeling secure that they have rid themselves of the world’s scant attention.
On Tuesday afternoon I did a phone interview with an Arabic television station in England (I will die if anyone I know ever hears it). The reporter asked me what message I had for the Bahraini government. In my less than second-grade Arabic, I said “It is impossible to stop the people when they want freedom.”
This I believe.
Kate Raphael is a Bay Area journalist, social justice activist and office worker.