A column of peaceful, unarmed pro-democracy protesters marched through the streets here in modern, cosmopolitan Bahrain on Friday. They threatened no one, but their 21st-century aspirations collided with a medieval ruler — and the authorities opened fire without warning.
Michael Slackman and Sean Patrick Farrell of The New York Times were recording video, and a helicopter began firing in their direction. It was another example of Bahrain targeting journalists, as King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa attempts to intimidate or keep out witnesses to his repression.
The main hospital here was already in chaos because a police attack nearby was sending protesters rushing inside for refuge, along with tear gas fumes. On top of that, casualties from the shootings suddenly began pouring in. A few patients were screaming or sobbing, but most were unconscious or shocked into silence that their government should shoot them.
A man was rushed in on a stretcher with a shattered skull and a bullet lodged in his brain, bleeding profusely. A teenage girl lay writhing on a stretcher; doctors later said she had suffered a heavy blow or kick to her chest. A middle-age man was motionless on a stretcher. A young man had bullet wounds to both legs. A young man trying to escape had been run over by a car said to have government license plates.
Different doctors had different views (and perhaps not much expertise) about whether the bullets were metal or rubber, but there seemed to be some of each. Two X-rays that I saw both seemed to show metal bullets, according to doctors familiar with reading X-rays, and a surgeon told me that the wound he had treated had probably been caused by a metal bullet rather than a rubber one.
Several large emergency wards quickly filled up completely. Patients with lesser injuries or who had merely been overcome with tear gas lay outside.
It turns out that members of Bahrain’s medical community have been reading my Twitter postings, and doctors and nurses rushed me from patient to patient so I could see and photograph the injuries and write messages to the world and get the news out right away. They knew that King Hamad’s government would wrap its brutality in lies.
The doctors spoke in enormous frustration about what they termed butchery or massacres, but they encountered evidence of the danger of speaking publicly. In the midst of the crisis, a democracy activist staggered in for treatment from a fresh beating by security forces. He had made public statements about police brutality he had witnessed, and so, he said, the police had just kidnapped him and brutalized him all over again.
The hospital’s ambulance drivers had been beaten on Thursday morning by Bahrain’s army and police for attempting to rescue the dead and injured, and some had been warned that they would be executed if they tried again to help protesters. But they showed enormous courage in rushing to the scene of the carnage once again.
One ambulance paramedic, Yasser, was still recovering in the hospital from the beating he suffered the last time. But when he heard the call for all hands in the emergency room, he staggered over to the ambulance bay and went out to pick up the wounded.
“Those people needed help, and I had to go,” he told me. “But when we got there, the police blocked us and wouldn’t let us through.”
Indeed, the army temporarily seized four ambulances and their crews, hospital staff said, although this time it apparently spared them beatings. The first ambulances on the scene had reported many, many casualties, and doctors were aghast at the idea that there were many injured who were not being treated. So a group of them decided to drive out to army lines and beg to be allowed to collect the dead or wounded. This was considered an extremely perilous mission, so they decided that only male doctors would participate. But several female doctors immediately clamored to go as well.
When our close ally behaves in such a way, America finds itself in a tough position, and that probably explains President Obama’s very cautious statement saying that he is “deeply concerned.” We value Bahrain as the host of the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, we worry (probably too much) about Iranian influence, and it’s not clear how much leverage we have. King Hamad has strong Saudi support and has so outraged his subjects that he may feel that his best hope for staying in power is to shoot his subjects.
But we should signal more clearly that we align ourselves with the 21st-century aspirations for freedom of Bahrainis rather than the brutality of their medieval monarch. I’m not just deeply “concerned” by what I’ve seen here. I’m outraged.