Doctors go underground to treat protesters in Bahrain

Most demonstrators hurt in clashes with police refuse to go to hospitals, no matter how grave their wounds, fearing they will be arrested there.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Residents of the village of Karzakan, Bahrain, wave national flags and a banner reading, "we will die for our women's honor," during a demonstration Saturday against a recent police raid in which a woman allegedly was assaulted. Demonstrators often refuse to go to the hospital in Bahrain, forcing doctors to treat them on the side.

It is Friday night and Dr. Mohamed is on standby.

“It’s always the busiest day of the week for us,” he says as he holds out his cell phone to show a photo he received seconds earlier. The image is of a young man with birdshot embedded in his leg. It is a call for help.

“The government has been using a lot of birdshot on demonstrators lately,” he explains, “and the wounded come to us for treatment.”

Dr. Mohamed, who asked to have his full name withheld, is part of an underground network of medics in Bahrain who provide illegal care for anti-government protesters injured in nightly clashes with security forces. Most of those hurt refuse to go to either public or private hospitals, no matter how grave their wounds, fearing they will be arrested there.

“We still have very severe cases,” the doctor says, “I’ve seen amputations in the previous month of limbs and they’re not going to the hospital.”

The medics say the government is monitoring hospital admissions to track down protesters. It has stationed soldiers at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex and, according to activists, sent a letter to private clinics telling them they must report anyone whose injuries appear to be the result of illegal activity, such as unauthorized protesting. 

Unrest in Bahrain has dragged on for nearly a year and a half and the number of victims has grown along with it. Makeshift clinics in living rooms across the country treat patients every day. Doctors have even been teaching members of the community first-aid skills in a bid to keep up with the mounting casualties.

“People are getting hurt all the time,” said a young protester who was hit in the face with birdshot and risks losing sight in his left eye. He wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons. “I didn’t want to go (to hospital) because I was afraid,” he admitted. “Nobody is safe in this country.”

But the underground medics say homemade emergency rooms can only do so much. According to them, at least four Bahrainis have died because they refused to get adequate treatment at Salmaniya, the only full-service public health facility in the country, and they say if the current situation persists, the death toll will certainly rise.

“This is a really serious issue in Bahrain, which isn’t getting the type of media attention that it deserves,” says Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights. The group has been highly critical of what it calls the “militarization of Bahrain’s public health system”. 

According to human rights groups, soldiers interrogate everyone who enters Salmaniya as part of their efforts to identify injured protesters. Once discovered, the groups claim, protesters are sometimes taken to secret locations and tortured. In the eyes of the opposition, Salmaniya is more a military base than a hospital.

Shiite Muslims make up the majority of opposition supporters in Bahrain. In February 2011, fueled by a belief that they are treated like second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni minority, they took to the streets to demand more rights and political reform. The Pearl Roundabout in Manama became the focal point of the demonstrations, but after authorities cordoned off the site, the rallies shifted to Salmaniya, where participants demanded the downfall of the regime and prevented some Sunni patients from getting treatment. A crackdown by security forces ensued, as did growing sectarianism.

A report by the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) later confirmed officers had made unlawful arrests. It also stipulates detainees throughout the country were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody.

However, Abdul-Aziz al-Khalifa, a spokesman for the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority and member of the large royal family of Bahrain, vehemently denies that torture is still happening and insists soldiers currently stationed at Salmaniya abide by the law.

“Nobody will be refused treatment if they go to a hospital,” he affirmed, “but if an injury is sustained in a manner that one feels they need to call in the police, then they have to do that. That is the norm around the world. That can’t be held against us.”

Mr. Al-Khalifa says the government is committed to moving beyond the “unfortunate events” of last year, but implied that increasingly violent behavior by opposition protesters is holding the country back. According to him, the number of young Shiites attacking police with Molotov cocktails is on the rise and officers have responded by using more birdshot, teargas, and other weapons.

“We are obliged to maintain law and order,” says Al Khalifa, who also stresses the “rioters” must face the consequences of their actions.

With no easing of the situation in sight, many analysts have begun to describe the unrest in Bahrain as a frozen conflict. Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, says the term is an understatement. “The situation is worse than a stalemate – it’s a slow deterioration,” she says.

And that deterioration is being seen in hospital halls as well as in the streets.

“There is this feeling of mistrust between doctors and doctors, doctors and patients – a division between sects and families,” says Dr. Nabeel Hameed, who works at Salmaniya. “If you solve the political problem tomorrow, if you solve the economic problem tomorrow you’ll have the social problem of sectarianism. That will continue for another 50 years. The problem now is this mistrust between neighbors.”

Dr. Hameed is among 28 medics who were arrested at Salmaniya during last year’s crackdown after they treated wounded protesters. They are facing misdemeanour charges of joining illegal gatherings and protesting against the government. Their verdicts, which are expected in September, come after nine of their colleagues were sentenced last month to up to five years in jail for assisting the anti-government uprising.  All the medics claim they were tortured by authorities and insist the cases against them are politically motivated.    

Activists say trying health workers is yet another example of how Bahrain is breaching medical neutrality and insist medical care should be free from political influence. They also argue that if the government is truly committed to reform and reconciliation, it should dismiss the cases and overturn the verdicts already handed down.

Dr. Mohamed agrees. He also says if more effort was put into eliminating fears surrounding public health care in Bahrain, not only would it allow for a growing number of citizens to receive the desperate care they need, but it would also help the nation itself heal.

“The government has to separate the medical field from politics,” he says. “The hospitals are places for people who are injured to get medical care. It’s their right to live.”

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