White flags with the word 'peace' fluttered in Pearl Square
The pro-democracy uprising is the most determined yet, writes FINIAN CUNNINGHAMin Manama
THERE WAS a sea of jubilant faces as up to 50,000 Bahraini citizens retook the Pearl Monument in the capital, Manama, on Saturday afternoon in defiance of state security forces who had only hours earlier unleashed a massacre against their own people.
On Thursday, in a pre-dawn raid, Bahraini army and police, supported by tanks, launched a no-warning attack on thousands of peaceful pro-democracy citizens and their families who had set up a protest camp at the Pearl. Four people were killed by security forces and hundreds were injured. Up to 70 people are still missing.
But last night the Pearl was back in the hands of the demonstrators after they chased armed police from the landmark site on Saturday afternoon – with nothing but their bare hands and determination to win democracy and freedom in the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom.
Within minutes, tens of thousands of people made their way to the Pearl at about 4pm local time on Saturday to celebrate “victory” over the regime, which is headed by US-backed King Hamad and his al-Khalifa royal family.
Speaker after speaker addressed the crowds with a hurriedly assembled PA system, proclaiming “victory to the people” from the summit at the Pearl.
“Today is a day of freedom for all Bahraini people,” said Ebrahim al-Sharif, leader of the National Democratic Action Society.
“Shia, Sunni, we come here as one. We are now one hand,” he announced.
Each declaration was met with ecstatic waves of support from the mass of people who have been inspired by recent similar popular uprisings in the Middle East against other western-backed autocratic rulers.
Qassim, a young teacher, said: “I have come here to win freedom for my children and all my people. We don’t care what religion you are. This day is for all our people.”
Another man, Alaa, an engineer, said: “We face a choice: death or freedom. And we are choosing freedom; we are no longer afraid of this regime. We want what is rightfully ours – democracy and freedom.”
A young woman wearing the Muslim hijab held a banner that read: “I am Sunni and I am here to defend my people.”
Nearby, a group of youths were helping to redirect traffic that had become gridlocked at the Pearl roundabout.
Asked if they were afraid that the army might return to disperse the crowd, the young men pulled their shirts open and said: “We will show them our chests.”
Under a clear-blue evening sky, the people were festooned with countless flags bearing the national Bahraini red and white colours. Below the 30m-high Pearl Monument, white flags with the word “peace” fluttered.
There was a kaleidoscope of emotions among the men, women and children. People were realising that they had just won a memorable victory over the regime after they succeeded in facing down armed riot police to retake the site that is now being dubbed Pearl Square – in deliberate association with Tahrir Square in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Tears of joy came as people knelt and kissed the ground.
There was also immense anger, defiance and indignation towards the ruling al-Khalifa royal family, whose armed forces have killed eight civilians and wounded more than 200, including women and children, since the latest anti-government protests began on February 14th.
The Bahraini pro-democracy movement dates back more than a century, with several generations of families having suffered at the hands of the regime. There are more than 400 political prisoners being held by the state, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
But the recent uprising has been the most determined yet.
Gesturing towards the heaving mass of people, one man said: “This is the true Bahrain. And these are the true Bahrainis – not those buildings.” He pointed dismissively towards the gleaming skyscrapers that overlook Manama’s financial district which have come to symbolise – in the eyes of many citizens – the ill-divided wealth of the country’s ruling elite and the impoverished conditions for up to 80 per cent of the indigenous population.
As the sun began to set, there was a sense of colossal people power and noble serenity. People were mindful of the loss of friends, the sacrifice of compatriots who had been cut down with machine guns. People were still shocked by the brutality of the regime that tried to terrorise them into submission. But there was an abiding feeling of solidarity and determination to push on with their demands for full democracy.
However, there was also a sense of deep caution. “We don’t believe anything that this regime says,” said one man.
There were widespread angry denunciations of the US and British governments, who are closely allied to the Bahraini regime. Last year, Washington approved $20 million (€14.6 million) in military aid to Bahrain – a huge figure for this tiny island state of fewer than 700,000 indigenous people.
Britain is also a top exporter of military equipment to Bahrain, which was formerly a British protectorate until its nominal independence in 1971. Protesters showed boxes of tear gas canisters, plastic bullets and stun grenades that they had collected as proof. The markings clearly indicated they were made in the US and Britain.
There were also urgent pleas for international solidarity. One man said: “Tell the Irish people to stand by us. Tell the British people to stand by us. The British government is supplying this regime with weapons that are being used to kill the Bahraini people.”