It was supposed to be a routine trip from Sitra, a poor Shi'ite neighborhood here in Bahrain. On Tuesday an ambulance loaded with two paramedics, a doctor and critical patients was on its way to Salmaniya Medical Center, the island-nation's largest hospital, when it was stopped by a group of 20 government soldiers. According to one of the paramedics, all passengers were ordered out of the car, the injured thrown onto the street. The paramedic was forced to kneel on all fours while they took turns kicking his head from side to side. The female doctor was commanded to strip, "so that we all may see your body." When she refused, they beat her.
The confrontation between the predominantly Shi'ite protesters and Sunni King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa has taken a turn for the worst. On Wednesday, the government used Cobra helicopters to strike at protesters in Manama's Pearl Roundabout, the most violent crackdown yet. Bahraini security forces backed since March 13 by armed forces from the Joint Peninsula Shield, the military coalition established to protect members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has suddenly and dramatically escalated its confontation with demonstrators and Shi'ites. More than 100 Saudi tanks are now in Manama, the first time an outside country has intervened in a protest since the wave of unrest began in the Arab world in January.
The last three days have seen medical personnel, particularly those associated with Salmaniya, increasingly targeted. The country's most sophisticated medical facility, by dint of the huge number of injured protesters tended to in its emergency centers, has become a gathering place for dissidents with much of the staff sympathetic to the cause. Ambulance personnel had come under sporadic attack the past month, but the instances have increased dramatically. Nurses and patients at Salaminaya claimed that the perpetrators of recent attacks were Saudi, though the official line from government officials has been that GCC forces are in Manama to protect government resources and not to subdue protesters.
Beginning on Wednesday, ambulances have been forbidden to drive to Salmaniya, which was under military control. They were forced instead to take critical patients to smaller local health centers which lacked the necessary surgical equipment and personnel. The streets around Salmaniya remained closed off on Thursday, guarded by masked, rifle-toting militiamen.The emergency room was blocked by tanks.
Inside, every member of the medical staff that I talked to had not been able to leave work for home since Monday. They said they were afraid to leave, having been accused by the King of aiding the anti-government movement by treating wounded protesters. Fearing retribution, they all refused to be identified. The head of one department said he and other managers had been forced by the military to make lists of the people who worked for them. The lists were given to the guards blocking the exits. "If your name is on the list," he claimed, "they will hit you." A nurse said they were being "held hostage." If people attempted to leave, she said, they would be severely beaten at the exits and their patients would be left without care.
I visited men shot by pellet guns, one with hundreds of tiny balls buried in his abdomen. Another had the pellets embedded in the side of his head, the top sporting a long thick surgical scar. Patients who had come from Sitra and neighboring Shi'ite areas sported eyes swollen shut by rubber bullet injuries. The eyeball of one patient had been completely pulled out of its socket. The patients told me that government forces had burst into their homes, firing at whoever they found. One man with a gunshot wound to the knee and a sealed eye said he had never attended a protest, but that that would change when he was well enough to walk. "I'm angry at the government," he said.
"We always knew the regime was willing to use this kind of force," says Barak Barfi, researcher and Middle East specialist at the New America Foundation, who was on the ground in Bahrain during the initial stages of the demonstrations. "They tried to negotiate and make concessions, but they saw they were hitting a dead end. They had had enough with these protests that were crippling society."
On Thursday, Sheikh Ali Salman, head of opposition party, Al Wefaq, called on the U.N. to investigate the violence and told Al Jazeera that the Saudis "should withdraw from Bahrain... and this is a call to the Saudi king, King Abdullah." Shi'a in Saudi Arabia are increasingly restive in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province, where they make up 33% of the population. In Bahrain, Shi'a account for 70% of the people. "There was massive pressure on the Bahraini regime to crack down by the Saudis," Barfi says. The government in the oil-rich Kingdom, he adds, "is afraid that all these protests in Bahrain are going to influence their own domestic population. The Saudis went into Bahrain to send a signal to their population, and that's, 'if you guys try to do this, we're going to crack down with force.' By cracking down abroad, they're able to send a message to their citizens that domestic turmoil will not be tolerated."
The U.S., which also has a vested interest in stability in Bahrain which hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet has condemned the violence. On her visit to Cairo on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Manama government was "on the wrong track" and urged peaceful dialogue instead of violence. "There is no security answer to this," she said, "and the sooner they get back to the negotiating table and start trying to answer the legitimate needs of the people, the sooner there can be a resolution." White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama had called Saudi King Abdullah to express his "deep concern" over the situation and stressed the need for "maximum restraint."
The government has responded by taking back one of their earlier concessions. Two weeks ago, it had released political dissidents, including Dr. Abduljalil Al Singace, who had been serving a six-month sentence for seven counts of trying to overthrow the regime and terrorist actions. Singace is among the protesters unwilling to negotiate with the government until the King has abdicated. On Thursday morning, Singace and at least four others were re-arrested in a pre-dawn raid. A family member said he suspected Al Singace had been taken to Saudi Arabia, though that allegation could not be confirmed. "We will accept nothing less," Al Singace had told me over the weekend during a protest, before everyone was caught in a hail of tear gas and pellets. He said that he was expecting the government to kill him. His son had dispatched four friends to serve as bodyguards.
On Thursday, with a 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. curfew in effect, clouds of smoke were billowing from Pearl Square as police searched vehicles at various checkpoints, beating anyone carrying anti-government paraphernalia and even, in some cases, the Bahraini flag. The crackdown is expected to continue. The protesters, said Barfi, "don't have the firepower to match the government and very few cards to play unless they're willing to go onto the streets and have hundreds or even thousands massacred."