His death certificate says Ali Ahmed Abdulla Ali. He was known to everyone as Ali Ahmed Mu’amin. Nationality: Bahraini. His funeral was the largest of the three held on Friday. For his family, it was the death of a dream. Despite high unemployment in Sitra, they had high hopes for him. He was studying engineering and was due to graduate this year.

Instead of an engineer, they have a dusty plot to visit in their neighbourhood. His broken body was wrapped tightly in a white sheet and lowered into the earth. Screams and sobs resounded through the cemetery. One mourner would not let him go. He sat inside the grave, caressing Ali’s face through the sheet, rocking back and forth. A young friend slumped against another on the edge of his grave, his wails louder than the others. They watched as his body was covered with dirt.

Ali Ahmed was only 22 when he died. The primary cause listed on his death certificate is extensive bleeding leading to intractable hypovolemic shock. He bled to death from a projectile that had torn into his thigh.

The night before, at Salmaniya Hospital morgue, his body bore the signs of doctors’ attempts to save him. Four large surgical slices ran up his calves and thigh, another at his groin. Also listed on his death certificate as a contributing factor: metal pellets and plastic embedded in his chest. A Human Rights Watch representative visited him at the morgue and is still trying to investigate exactly how Ali Ahmed ended up there.

This young man did not seek out martyrdom. He was not supposed to be at the Pearl Roundabout early Thursday morning. He ran there when he heard security forces had attacked people as they slept. Women and children were left behind. There was a stampede, people were trapped. But Ali Ahmed didn’t make it. Mourners say he was shot in the street and left to die.

“I’m Bahraini, I’m 42 years old. I’ve never seen such evil,” Mohammed, a businessman, said after Ali Ahmed’s funeral on Friday. Three of the four men killed on Thursday morning were from Sitra.

Ali Ahmed’s uncle, Jaffar, was resigned to his nephew’s fate: “When I think of him, I see his smile. I can’t forget that.” But on Friday afternoon, he was not happy to describe Ali as a martyr. Jaffar said his nephew was well-known for helping people in the windswept town, a predominantly Shia island on the east side of Bahrain. There, grievances against the state run high.

The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, listed Bahrain as the freest economy in the Middle East and North Africa region. It is listed 10th overall in the world.

Unlike many other Gulf States, Bahrain’s economy is not entirely driven by the petroleum industry. The government has fashioned Bahrain as a business and commercial hub, which attracts a steady flow of foreign investment.

The main demand of protesters has been fair access to employment opportunities. According the US State Department, Shias account for close to 70% of Bahrain’s native population. They paint a stark contrast between themselves and their Sunni rulers.

A middle-aged broker summarised at the funeral for Ali Ahmed: “It’s hard to get access to the system … to opportunities. The people here,” he said, pointing to the tens of thousands of mourners, “most are educated, with degrees, but because they come from another sect they can’t get jobs.”

Fatimeh Jaffer, an English teacher, also emphasised the point that Bahrain’s crisis is based on sectarian differences. She spent the day walking in funeral processions and could not contain her rage.

“The [ruling] Al Khalifa family have a lot of money, but it’s all for them. People are dying, look around you,” she added, “look at the old houses, we don’t have jobs. The government just wants to increase the Sunni population by bringing in Sunni workers, when we, the real Bahrainis, are living in poverty.”

In a televised address, the country’s crown prince countered this claim: “Youths are going out on the street believing that they have no future in the country, while others are going out to express their love and loyalty. But this country is for you all, for the Shiites and Sunnis.”

Despite the prince’s claim, they say the situation on the ground is very different; take the army and police force as a example. The Bahraini security forces are mostly made up of Sunnis from countries such as Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan. Allegedly, the people who opened fired on Bahraini’s in their own capital.

Emad, a 21-year-old student, has been arrested three times since 2008 for political activism. He is a supporter of the Shiia opposition, including the banned al Huq party. He says he was tortured in prison, hung by his hands for extended periods, given electric shock and sleep deprived. The primary torturer was Jordanian, he says, the others Yemeni.

“They are given money, houses and job when they come to Bahrain. We Bahraini can’t even get jobs, especially in the army and police force, they don’t trust us,” he said.

Protesters say the fight is for Bahrain. They want a free and fair political system that represents all of them, not just some. They want freedom of the press, human rights and the release of political prisoners. At the beginning of the protests they wanted the prime minister to quit and a real constitutional monarchy. Now they want the entire Al Khalifa family gone.

“Down, down Khalifa” was the cry on Saturday afternoon at Salmaniya Hospital. Thousands gathered there, a place as synonymous with the uprising as the Pearl. It was where they vented their anger when they were removed from the Pearl on Thursday morning, as streams of wounded and at least four dead were brought. That day is now known as “Black Thursday” to staff at the hospital.

There, orthopaedic surgeon Ali Al Akri, has been heading up the hospital’s “mass disaster plan”. Salmaniya has 1000 beds and staff were trying to empty the hospital of non-emergency patients, expecting the worst. Just the evening prior, on Friday, security forces fired on protesters for a second time, wounding dozens and critically injuring two.

“If [the security forces] attack, we’re expecting three times the casualties as before. It will be a massacre,” said Akri.

They opened fire on demonstrators in the previous days, but ambulances were prevented from picking up the casualties. They were stopped at roadblocks, and furious doctors such as Akri say the health minister, Faisal Yaqoob al Hamar, did not make them available.

“Today [Saturday], the ambulance drivers, nurses, everyone, are going to take responsibility if anything happens, we don’t care what the government says or does,” he said.

Akri’s colleague, Dr Saeed, said the health minister does not represent health employees any more: “Where is he? Usually in a situation like this, the minister comes to see what is happening, but where is he?”

Yet Akri said he did not want the minister to resign just yet: “We want to use him for dialogue with the higher authorities. Those below him, he can’t talk to, but the people above, he can.”

The ministry has praised the conduct of health staff during the crisis. But that’s an affront according to Akri, who says his cousin, a doctor, was beaten within an inch of his life at Pearl Roundabout’s medical station. “We don’t want him to take the credit for the work of staff and volunteers,” he said. “Black Thursday was a test … it took four to five hours to get ambulances to the Pearl, so it shows he is part of the crime.”

Staff have been working around the clock and emotions are high. “I’ve not seen my wife and children in two days, I haven’t slept either. This is my day off,” Dr Saeed said, rubbing his eyes.

By 3pm on Saturday, protesters did what they had been promising. Thousands started marching to Pearl Roundabout from the hospital. Before they left, Sheikh Ali Saleem stood in the middle talking to other protesters.

“The roundabout belongs to us,” he said defiantly, “our people were killed there and I’m willing to die too. I said my prayers before I came here and asked to be a martyr.”

The men surrounding him put up their hands and said they were willing to become martyrs too. Hassan Youssef, a 29-year-old mechanical technician, added: “We want to live in a better situation. If not, we may as well die.”

In the ambulance bay, female volunteers and nursing staff, dressed in white, formed a human chain to keep the path clear. On the other side, a sea of men chanted: “In spirit and in blood, we sacrifice our martyrs.” Others were silent and pensive.

Suddenly, a man started yelling to clear the way. The first ambulance sped past, carrying the first casualty. Police had fired tear gas and rubber bullets and protesters were caught in the middle. And so it began, waves of ambulances, some carrying two people, wailed to the hospital.

First, people at Salmaniya were shocked, but by the end, they were joyous. Word reached the hospital that protesters had retaken Pearl Roundabout and that the police had fled. The crowds of hospital workers and protesters clapped and cheered as each ambulance pulled in. They greeted the battered occupants like war heroes.

As the fourth ambulance’s doors opened, one protester, a middle-aged man, sat on the stretcher grinning ear to ear. His arms were raised triumphantly, waving peace signs.

For Fadel, a protester, the Pearl was not new territory. He had been sleeping there on Thursday morning when security forces attacked. But this time he felt different: “I’m very happy, I feel like we will not be harmed. Starting today [Saturday], the women and children feel safe. International attention is on us here, now.”

The Pearl has new meaning for the masses. It is sacred ground, for blood was spilled there. The feeling is so strong that protesters want to rename it Doar ash-Shohada, or Martyrs’ Roundabout.

But though there was joy at their victory, there were also nerves about what comes next. Maryam Al Khawaja, a representative of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said she was there to document any crackdown.

“I hope they don’t make the same mistake again of using violence against peaceful protesters,” said Al Khawaja, who narrowly escaped Thursday morning’s attack. Behind her was new graffiti on the base of the Pearl sculpture, including one slogan that has reverberated across the Middle East and North Africa: the people want the regime to fall.

“If they don’t accept the calls for reform, perhaps in 10 years we will be seeing the same thing as today. We want freedom, human rights that will benefit all Bahrain — not just the Shia,” said Al Khawaja.

The victory made the protesters feel a little more emboldened. Throngs of women sat in a group, forming a sea of black. Amina sat with her four-year-old niece on her lap. They were both smiling. “I’m so happy, I can feel freedom,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s not safe; I’ll stay here. I won’t leave like last time.”

Her friend Fatma added pensively: “But we don’t know what will happen. Last time I brought my children, but not today. Then, I trusted the King, but not this time.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll stay,” responded Amina, “here we have a message for the Shohada: we’re here, we’re back. You gave your lives, and they killed you. But we’re here, and we will stay.”

Another protester, Noor, her face veiled, was just as defiant: “There is no fear. That’s the most important thing now in Bahrain. No matter what the government tries, even if it brings in foreign troops, we won’t be beaten. This will be a victory for us, I’m sure.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey