MANAMA, BAHRAIN—The protesters were bringing flowers to the soldiers.
But government forces opened fire on hundreds marching towards Pearl Square on Friday evening, sending protesters scattering, some with bouquets of white flowers clenched in their hands, as live ammunition whizzed overhead.
At least five people were shot, one in the head, and 71 others injured from rubber bullets, tear gas and being trampled in the chaos. As ambulances tried to rescue the wounded, the army opened fire on them too, witnesses said.
“We shouted, ‘Peaceful, Peaceful,’ but the soldiers continued shooting,” said Mohammed Khalil Sham, lying on a gurney. One bullet tore through the flesh of the 30-year-old man’s left calf, while another was buried in his right thigh. He had been shot as he tried to run away, he said.
“There was no warning. Just shooting.” At one point, a military helicopter sprayed bullets at two reporters covering the protest. Pairs of shoes littered the road, abandoned as people fled for safety. But some said they were ready to die. After the first shots rang out, Ahmad Ali moved forward and sat down.
“I am ready to die for my country, to show the evil, the violence this government does on their people.” The atmosphere at Salmaniya hospital was chaotic as doctors shouted for gauze and sedatives while civilians, desperate to see if a loved one had been injured, pounded on the emergency room door.
Doctors said all of the 76 injured that arrived at the hospital by 10 p.m. Friday night had been carried to safety by fellow protesters. There were no confirmed deaths at the hospital, but doctors said they believed there were injured and dead that hadn’t reached the medical complex.
The bloody assault happened just hours after protesters buried four of their own. The men were killed Thursday after riot police stormed a protester-occupied Pearl Square as thousands of demonstrators were sleeping. One of the men, Mahmood Makki Abutakki, had been peppered with 200 birdshot pellets.
At least six protesters had been killed since demonstrations began in the tiny Gulf kingdom on Feb. 14.
The protests began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy’s power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority. They have ramped up demands to bring down the whole ruling monarchy.
At the Salmaniya hospital, where the protesters have sought refuge Friday night, a doctor stared at the X-rays from the men who had been shot. In one, a large caliber bullet sits just millimetres from Sham’s right femur. In another, a bullet is lodged in a man’s brain and ripping through his left temple.
“These are not birdshot pellets. These are bullets,” said one doctor, shouting over the screams from across the room. “These are bullets meant to kill.” Sayed Mohammed Al-Khamel, who witnessed the attack, straightened his blood-stained index finger in demonstration.
“The bullets were big,” he said.
Al-Khamel was standing a few rows back when the first men were shot. As the wounded stumbled in retreat, he grabbed one and carried him back to safety. He dropped him off at an ambulance, but said the man was later driven to hospital by civilians. “I wanted to go back but I was scared,” he said in Arabic. “We stayed behind an ambulance and they shot at us.”
In response Friday, Bahrain’s king appointed Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to lead a dialogue “with all parties,” though it was unclear whether furious protesters would respond to the overture. Speaking on Bahrain’s state TV, Salman expressed condolences for “these painful days” and called for unity.
“We are at a crossroads,” Salman said. “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.” But the time for diplomacy has passed, demonstrators say.
“It is too late for dialogue,” said protester Sayed Mohammed, 27, an auditor. “The royal family are just trying to protect themselves now. But we are past talking. It is time for change.”
Outside the hospital, the calls to take down the regime hit a fever pitch when a Ministry of the Interior security officer told the crowd he had quit his job to join their cause.
“I see what they did, now I quit,” said Ali Jassem, 25. “He fiddled with his security badge in his right hand. “I am proud of this but I am ashamed of the action (the government has taken against protesters).” The security officer was hoisted on protesters’ shoulders and joined a march around the hospital’s parking lot — the only safe place to be as tanks and soldiers patrolled the streets.
Pro-government supporters held their own rally in the capital, where thousands of Sunni Bahrainis and foreign workers took the streets, many draped in the country’s red-and-white zigzagged flag. Hanging from the back of a yellow Jeep, Abdullah Abdullah said that the protesters were bad for Bahrain’s economy and international reputation.
“We love the king,” he said. “Anybody who wants to throw out the government or the king must be stopped.”