Joyful protesters control Bahraini square after police retreat

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Jesse McLean
Staff Reporter

Bharain protesters

MANAMA, BAHRAIN—Syed Abas Yousef sprinted towards the square, dropped to his knees and kissed the earth, crying uncontrollably. A group of youth climbed the towering pearl monument and proudly waved the Bahraini flag. Others just hugged friends, still in disbelief that their peaceful stand ended with tanks and riot police backing down.

“The flowers have beaten the guns,” said Yousef, 22, kneeling on the ground and convulsing with joy. “They took us out of here with force and we took it back with peace.”

After several throngs of protesters marched towards the Pearl Square roundabout, at least one contingent being peppered with rubber bullets and a barrage of tear gas, riot police retreated and left the square to the protesters.

By nightfall on Saturday, as many as 40,000 elated demonstrators filled the square, celebrating and erecting tents as they prepared to stay for the long haul.

“This is victory,” bellowed Ali Hussain, 51. “We have won freedom. We have won dignity.”

Their protests are far from over. Still, many here consider this a major symbolic victory — and perhaps a turning point in the Shiite majority’s struggle against the ruling Sunni dynasty. They reclaimed the roundabout, a landmark in Bahrain’s capital, emulating the anti-government protests that swept Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The protesters no longer call it the Pearl roundabout.

To them, it’s Martyrs’ Square.

“There was tragedy here. Our brothers, our fathers were killed here. But this is more than a field. It is symbolizing our freedom,” said Fatimah Sherrif, a 23-year-old student.

She held a candle, like hundreds of others, to honour the seven people killed and several dozen others who have gone missing since protests began on Feb. 14.

Reminders of the horrors that occurred here still littered the grounds. Demonstrators collected empty tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and other projectiles. One found a single child’s shoe, presumably lost in the panic of the police attack.

“They treated us as animals,” said Ebrahim Al-Mezal, a 30-year-old finance manager. “This land is soaked with our blood. This is our glory. We will stay here until the government resigns or they shoot us.”

Bahrain’s crown prince ordered tanks and officers to withdraw from the site they had blockaded since Thursday morning, when riot police attacked the camp while most demonstrators were still sleeping.

Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa declared a day of mourning for the demonstrators who had been killed since protests began in the Gulf island kingdom.

“I stress, once more, that our duty is to preserve security and stability, to ensure that there is no discord and that the situation does not worsen,” the prince said.

Few thought they would be standing again in the square so soon. But Saturday morning, their cellphones and Twitter accounts were abuzz with reports that the tanks were rumbling out of the square, and the calls came to march to the Pearl.

The protesters’ anger had been inflamed after soldiers opened fire on a peaceful march, injuring about 100 people, including one man who was shot in the head.

On Saturday morning, Abdulridha Mohammed Hasan Buhmaid lay in Salmaniya hospital’s intensive care unit, a ventilator breathing for him. A high-velocity bullet tore into his skull and lodged itself in his brain, snapping his neck in the process, Dr. Nehad Al-Shirawi said.

His face was swollen from the fluid doctors had pumped into his body. At the foot of the bed was his medical sheet, filled with the names of different drugs helping to keep him alive: sedatives, antibiotics, blood pressure medication.

“The policemen didn’t just kill my brother. (King) Hamad killed my brother,” said Ahmed Mohammed Buhmaid, choking back tears beside his brother’s hospital bed.

One woman carried a picture of Buhmaid’s bloody face as a mass marched towards the square. They were stopped at an intersection more than 100 metres away. Behind four rolls of barbed wire stood a squadron of riot police in a dusty parking lot.

Two young women, fake flowers clenched in their hands, passed through the wire and walked towards the armed officers. Just metres from the feet of the riot police, the women placed the flowers on the ground, then kneeled down to pray. The police just watched, guns at their side.

“I was not afraid. I am ready to die for peace in Bahrain,” said Noor Abdullah, 17, sobbing between breaths after she returned to the crowd.

After 30 minutes, the police climbed into their vehicles and drove away. The crowd sprinted towards the vacated square.

Once inside, Abdulaziz Mussah grabbed a friend in a hug, swinging him around in the air. He was jubilant, but said the withdrawal didn’t mean he believed the police violence was over.

“They hit us before here. Maybe they will do it again tonight,” he said, gesturing to the highway overpass from which police had launched a salvo of tear gas.

“But we won’t leave. This is our land.”