As a heavy moon rose above Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout, the locus of the island nation's protest this week, the army opened fire on a group of men who had just sat down for evening prayer. The military fired live ammunition from nearby buildings or from tanks it was hard to tell because of the ensuing melee. Canisters of tear gas rained down.
The men scattered as they tried to outrun the billowing wave of tear gas. They squatted in the wing of a small mosque nearby, where another reporter and I joined them, seeking refuge. The wails of sirens rent the air. "We were peaceful," said Hussein Mashkoor, 25, a technical consultant. "Can you see any armed people here? We want a kingdom with a King but where the people have the right to choose their government."
The crowd at the mosque gave way as other men rushed a limp body into the mosque. A few minutes later, an old man with the white, tightly wrapped turban of a cleric emerged, his hands covered with blood. "It came out like a fountain, the blood," said Ahmad Hassan. "I helped as much as I could."
Another round of gunfire crackled through the square, and more tear gas enveloped the mosque. The men fled the advancing menace and jumped into strangers' cars on the nearby highway for protection. Mohammed, 26, a laborer, leaped into a car with a McClatchy reporter and me. He said he'd arrived at 4:30 p.m. for a nonviolent protest. "We were peaceful," he said. "We had no rocks, no knives. We are Bahrainis. We are scared at the sight of blood."
But there was more blood to be shed that night. The protest Friday, Feb. 18, was organized around the ninth anniversary of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's declaring Bahrain a constitutional monarchy, the result of a 2001 referendum. In fact, the island state continues to be run along autocratic lines by the Khalifa family. The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who is the King's uncle, has ruled since 1971. (The King took the throne in 1999, succeeding his father.) The country's rulers are Sunni Muslims, while the majority of native Bahrainis are Shi'ites, who are the most aggrieved about the failure of the Khalifa dynasty to deliver on its promises. Protests, inspired in part by the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, have taken place in Manama, the capital, since Monday, Feb. 14, with the mostly Sunni and substantially non-Bahraini military confronting demonstrators with violence. Friday's clash appeared to be the bloodiest so far.
At the nearby Salmaniya hospital was a scene of mayhem. As we arrived, we were grabbed by orderlies and rushed into emergency rooms to see people on gurneys. "Put this in your newspaper," they said. "Write about how the government is killing our citizens." Scores of doctors and nurses took us around, showing us the wounded, the burned. Furious and frightened, they had gathered earlier that day at the hospital to protest against the Health Minister, who had refused to allow ambulances to enter the site of an earlier attack on the square. Now they were back to work, taking care of the freshly wounded.
"This is a battlefield," says Dr. Umm Haicham, who asked to be named by her honorific rather than her name because she no longer trusts her government. "No one wants to see this. This is an overreaction. The protesters want simple things. They are asking for what the King has already offered."
Earlier in the day, a group of journalists attempting to enter Bahrain had been detained at the airport. Technically, it is a requirement by the government that journalists apply to the Information Ministry before arriving. However, that restriction has always been waived in the past. Seven hours after my arrival, a Press Ministry official arrived to apologize, explaining that the "situation" made things difficult. He allowed us to pass through immigration and graciously offered us a ride to our hotel.
It was a public-relations ambush. We realized it as soon as our convoy turned a corner and headed straight into a progovernment protest of honking cars, with flags flying from windows and men and women standing and waving from the sunroofs of their vehicles. Amal Abdul Kareem, whose bright red lipstick matched the flag she waved from her window, said, "We are here supporting our King, our country. We are here hand in hand to show our loyalty." I asked her what she thought of the antigovernment protests; lifting her crystal-studded Gucci sunglasses, she replied, "They have no clear demands. It is unbelievable. The things that they want will take years, and they want them in two days."
Embedded among the loyalists, it took us three hours to reach our hotel along a road that is only a few kilometers long. As we reached the end of the parade, Ahmed, a banker, leaned over to tell me over the din of honking horns, "The claims of discrimination [by the demonstrators, who are generally Shi'ites] is made up. It is unfair on the others when the government is blackmailed by other sects. They are taking advantage." He added, "If there were no freedoms here in Bahrain, I wouldn't be able to talk to you. It is the same for the protesters. They have the same freedom to express their views."
The scene at the hospital told a different story, as the injured were brought in from where they had gathered in the area of the Pearl Roundabout expressing their views. Many of the victims were young men. The women were recovering from inhaling tear gas. A young child who had been burned by a tear-gas canister wailed, attended to by several nurses. Orderlies attended to a man whose leg was shattered into pulp by a bullet. Another victim was rushed into trauma surgery. The hospital was so overrun with patients that men crowded the women's wing.
As I spoke to Dr. Haicham, I heard a shout through the hallway: "CPR team! CPR team!" I told her about the progovernment rally I'd seen earlier that day. Her face fell. "They don't know the truth. They only listen to Bahrain TV. The government says, 'We are protecting you from the Shi'ites. If they take over, they will kill you.' " The doctor, who is half-Sunni and half-Shi'ite, said, "The biggest danger is not [the people] here in the hospital. But if the government succeeds in dividing the Sunni from the Shi'a, that will be the real disaster."
Outside the hospital, a large crowd gathered, chanting, "Down with the government" and "Sunni and Shi'a are together. We are all Bahrainis." Then, as another victim was rushed in, the crowd fell quiet, allowed the injured in, and then resumed chanting with vigor. An orderly then appeared at the sliding glass doors at the entrance and held up a piece of cardboard on which was scrolled the phrase O-Negative. He was immediately surrounded by blood-donor volunteers.
Among a group of perhaps 100 clad in the black headscarves and gowns of conservative Shi'ite women was Sawsan Mendeel, 24, an engineer. Her group had been calling for the downfall of the Prime Minister, who is deeply loathed by many. "We have seen enough killing," she said. "Before, we only wanted the Prime Minister out. Now, after all this killing, we want the King gone too. Pray for us."