Salmaniya Medical Centre, one of the largest and busiest hospitals in Bahrain, has become a focal point in efforts by the government to regain control in a country racked by clashes.
Hospital at centre of clashes between government and protesters
MANAMA // Tanks guarded the gates of the Salmaniya Medical Complex yesterday and at the entrances, armed soldiers, their faces covered by balaclavas, checked entering cars and their passengers.
Salmaniya, one of the largest and busiest medical centres in Bahrain, has become a focal point in efforts by the government to regain control in a country that has been beset by clashes between security forces and protesters.
The government has accused some staff at Salmaniya of providing shelter to what state-media described as "saboteurs" and vigorously defended itself against allegations by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the government's takeover of the hospital was a "blatant violation of international law".
Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign affairs minister, said over the weekend that it was "organised gangs", not the security forces, that "prevented citizens and residents from accessing hospitals and their workplaces … violating the rights of children, occupying hospitals, destroying educational institutions".
Whatever the case, the result is a hospital whose corridors over the weekend were mostly empty and eerily silent, as patients, visitors and staff stayed away. In one emergency ward, the beds were empty and the lights were off. At the door of the accident and emergency department, a policeman in riot gear kept watch. For most of the weekend, ambulances were prevented from responding to calls and there were concerns about dwindling blood supplies.
On Friday a nurse who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals from security men said: "When I arrived this morning, I saw the ER section - it was empty. It is normally crowded. Maybe people are scared to come to the hospital."
His father, the nurse said, urged him not to return to work at Salmaniya. "He is proud of me, but I am going against his will," said the nurse. "The only work I know how to do is to be a nurse, so I had to come to serve anyone in need."
The death toll from the violence that broke out on February 14 now stands at around 25. The dead include at least 15 pro-reform demonstrators and six policemen, along with four expatriate residents from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Hundreds more have been injured, many of whom have been unable to obtain treatment at Salmaniya.
Yesterday, more doctors and nurses returned to work and more patients were receiving treatment, as the hospital returned to what some staff described as "normal." Police and soldiers armed with automatic weapons remained in the vast medical complex, but they were notably less wary.
However, those wounded in clashes with government troops are believed to have been moved to the sixth floor of the hospital, which is off-limits to visitors and even some medical staff. Masked gunmen guard the floor and staff say they do not know what sort of treatment is being given to those being being held there, some of whom are seriously injured.
The door to the hospital administration is locked and guarded by a masked policeman. When asked for comment on who is in control of the hospital, an administration official said any questions should be submitted in writing and checked by the military.
Despite the presence of security forces inside the hospital, where two armed police were seen escorting a patient on a stretcher, Dr Jassim al Mehza, the chairman of the accident and emergency department, said the medical staff were still "in charge" of the hospital.
"The military are just here to facilitate things and their presence, particularly in the first few days was very useful," he said. "They acted as a liaison and solved many problems. Things are getting much better."
Security forces seized control of Salmaniya on Wednesday morning after uprooting protesters from their encampment at the Pearl Roundabout. During an earlier attempt to clear the Roundabout, demonstrators had fled to the medical centre compound, where they camped and waited for news of wounded and the dead. Bahraini authorities were apparently keen to prevent that from occurring again.
The nurse, describing how troops stormed the medical complex at around 8am, blocking the entrances and surrounding it with military vehicles, said: "After the massive attack [on Wednesday], we expected many casualties, but we didn't expect that they would close off the hospital."
Police also forcibly removed Dr Ali al Ekri, a senior physician at Salmaniya, who became a vocal critic of the government's use of force after violence broke out last month. A family member said they still had no information about Dr al Ekri's whereabouts.
Now, Bahraini soldiers monitor who comes and goes from Salmaniya. Ambulances are lined up outside the accident and emergency department, flanked by police jeeps and security forces.
Some patients said they welcome the presence of the military and police. One Bahraini man walking through Salmaniya on Friday with his elderly mother said he felt safer with the presence of troops outside. "It's better this way," he said.
The deployment of security forces at Salmaniya has been condemned. Nizar Baharna, the recently appointed minister of health, resigned after last week's violence at Salmaniya and in protest of the government's violent tactics against protesters.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, "expressed his deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel".
Salmaniya Hospital has not been the only medical facility caught up in Bahrain's conflict.
Across town in the village of Jidhafs, gunmen shot at the private International Hospital last Wednesday. By the weekend, it was quiet but staff said they feared the return of the armed men who had earlier roamed the corridors.
A senior member of the International's staff, who would not be named, held up bags of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets that had been fired at the hospital shortly after wounded protesters were brought in for treatment. Three were later pronounced dead.
"One of the biggest crimes is that they stopped patients from coming to the hospital - these people are not going to get away with it," the senior staff member said. "This is criminal. I want to know the people who did this. I have to know."