x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An uneasy calm in Bahrain as protests end

lAmost one month since Bahraini security forces broke up pro-democracy protests, a semblance of uneasy calm has returned to the Gulf kingdom.

Some people say they cannot reach their jobs because of government checkpoints, such as this one in Riffa, where they fear being stopped, beaten or arrested.Hasan Jamali / AP Photo
Some people say they cannot reach their jobs because of government checkpoints, such as this one in Riffa, where they fear being stopped, beaten or arrested.Hasan Jamali / AP Photo

MANAMA // After three weeks at home, Bushra and her family are getting restless and increasingly worried.

During the day, Bushra's BlackBerry beeps with updates on what is happening around the country: another funeral march, more arrests, photos of clashes between opposition supporters and police. At night, they listen for the sound of police cars patrolling their mainly Shiite neighbourhood on the Bahraini island of Sitra.

Not far away, across the bridge that connects Sitra to Bahrain's main island, the feeling is shared in the mainly Sunni district of Riffa. While the western part of the suburb is home to wealthy Bahrainis and members of the ruling family, the eastern quarters of the district live predominantly Sunni, working-class families in modest housing.

After the government announced a state of emergency last month, Hamad, 40, had to pass at least three police checkpoints to reach his family home in East Riffa. Fearful that angry Shiites might take revenge, he said he and other residents of the district appreciated the extra security.

Standing in the narrow, sandy path leading to the house his parents have lived in for 24 years, Hamad said he felt like his less affluent neighbourhood had just "woken up".

"We've been asleep for 40 years," he said. "We didn't have any vision, but now we have a mission to save our country from those who want to do something to Bahrain. We also want reforms, we have poor and old areas. Not only the Shia are poor. We are requesting the government for salaries and houses."

Almost one month since Bahraini security forces broke up pro-democracy protests, a semblance of uneasy calm has returned to the Gulf kingdom. Underlying it, however, is a lingering atmosphere of fear in maNY predominantly Shiite and Sunni neighbourhoods, as sectarian division and fears of further violence and tension appear to have hardened attitudes.

"It's not safe for us to go outside Sitra," said Bushra, 25, who lives with her parents, four brothers and one of her sisters in a mainly Shiite district.

"We are afraid everyday. From morning until night we are just here as a family, checking our BlackBerrys for information about what's going on."

The family, which did not want its last name published because of the ongoing sensitivity of the situation, had been among the protesters who gathered at Pearl Roundabout last month. They wanted political reforms and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, they said.

Since the crackdown, however, they have been afraid to leave home. Three of Bushra's elder brothers say they cannot reach their jobs because of government checkpoints, where they fear being stopped, beaten or arrested.

"At the checkpoints they check your CPR [identity cards] and ask if you are supporting the police or the others. They ask where you live," said Bushra's brother Mustapha. "People are afraid to go to their jobs. In the Shiite villages, we feel like it's the same as a siege."

The family says police continue to patrol its neighbourhood most nights. Bushra's mother, Umm Ibrahim, frets when her sons go outside for a cigarette after dark.

"My mum just wants them inside the house," said Bushra, who for the time being has given up her search for a job in a human resources department.

Across town, Hamad and his brothers were able to reach their workplaces during the height of the unrest, but his mother and sisters - including Saeeda, a student nurse - were mostly holed up at home, reluctant to leave out of fear that they would get swept up in a demonstration and clashes between police and protesters.

Last week, Saeeda's college reopened - a sign, she said, that life was returning to normal.

"The people are starting to go out to the malls and the public places, so its better than before," said Saeed, 21. "But, there are still some police checkpoints around the towns, not only Riffa. It's so the people feel more secure. But, al hamdillah things have become so much better."

It is an uneasy calm, Hamad observed.

"Our situation is very quiet at the moment, but we don't know what will happen tomorrow. We are still waiting," he said. "I don't think the Shia got what they are looking for. If it is getting rid of the government, then we are not with them. But if it is just improving their lives, we are with them."

Close relationships have been torn apart by the upheaval, too.

"I have some Sunni friends, but they deleted me from their BBM [BlackBerry messenger], except for one. I don't know why. It's up to them," said Bushra, shrugging her shoulders and feigning indifference. "After all of this is finished, they'll feel ashamed for deleting me."

In the day-to-day lives of most Bahrainis, differences between Sunni and Shiite had little import before the latest crisis, said Bushra's father Abu Ibrahim, reclining on a cushion in the family's majlis, fingering his masbaha, or worry beads.

Now, he said, authorities were less afraid of Shiites than they were of political and economic reform that sttood to benefit the majorities of both communities alike. "They [the government] want to make a division because if Sunni and Shia are all in one hand, we will be very strong."

Still, his speculation is taking a backseat to worries about his family. Right now I'm just afraid for my children," he said.

Just like Bushra, Saeeda's BlackBerry is her main connection to her friends. Last month, all but one of her Shiite friends have deleted her from their contacts.

"I cried because it's the first time I saw people fighting and dying," she said. "I am willing to go back to my university and be friends with everybody. Students shouldn't blame each other for this situation. We have to be together."