The unsolved killing of a photographer in Bahrain's forgotten Arab Spring.
- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist and former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
In February of 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings that had swept through Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen in the preceding months arrived on the streets of the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, nestled off the coasts of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, home to just over 1 million people. On Feb. 14, tens of thousands took to the streets, many of them from the country’s Shiite majority, which has long felt marginalized in political and economic life. At the central Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, they demanded reforms that appeared modest by regional standards: broader powers for the parliament, new electoral districts, and an elected government under the monarchy. But after wavering over whether to allow the protests, Bahrain’s leaders cracked down. The optimism that had given rise to the protests faded fast. At least seven died in clashes with the security forces in the first week; many more were arrested and tried in special security courts that left them little recourse. Three years on, the government has made some reforms, but the daily reality in many opposition-stronghold neighborhoods has only deteriorated.
As the buoyancy of the protests ground into routine, a 22-year-old store clerk named Ahmed Ismail Hassan al Samadi from a Shiite family living in one of the many villages just outside of Manama became a regular at the protests, documenting the clashes. Camera in hand, his pictures and videos became a window into a conflict that the international media covered only in bursts. By the first anniversary of the protests, there had been more than 60 deaths. Before the second, Ahmed would famously be one more.
A few days after he was killed, nearly a dozen witnesses to the murder gathered in a small, windowless room in a private home just outside of town. It was an informal, but still clandestine, meeting just a stone’s throw from the place near Salmabad village, Bahrain, where the bullet hit Ahmed. Teenagers and young fathers, the witnesses formed a neat square along the edges of an Iranian carpet, where tea steamed in glass mugs. Many of these young men knew each other from protests, if only by sight. Only a handful had known Ahmed before his last night, March 31, 2012.
They had left their shoes at the door, and now many pulled their legs protectively toward their bodies. At first, the formality of fear meant that no one sipped their tea or took a date from the metal plate in the middle of the circle. No one wanted to be the first to speak, not knowing if they could they trust everyone in this room. These were neighbors, all dressed in the same casual jeans and t-shirt uniform, but several had already been called in to the police station for questioning, and the station wagon they used to drive Ahmed to the hospital had been confiscated. The men and boys who tried to save Ahmed were now suddenly suspects in his death.
Finally, one man began to speak: "He was the first of us to be called in," he said pointing to another, whose gaze sunk to the floor. "On Saturday, the police patrol came around asking for him by name, asking for his address."
"It’s only a matter of time before they start arresting us all," someone else added.
Now everyone was eager to share. One man who had been questioned by police leapt into details of his time in the station: He was brought in at 1:30 p.m. and didn’t leave until 2 the next morning. Four officers interrogated him for two hours, then he was taken away, only to be brought back before the police again and again.
Most of the questions had been not about Ahmed, he said, but about the location of his camera. "They just kept insisting. They want to know, ‘Where is the video? Where are the pictures he took?’"
Another man said he was held for so many hours he could scarcely keep track, and was also questioned about the camera — now back in the hands of the family, apparently unbeknownst to the police. He was shuffled in and out of interrogation before finally being let go. The man had only met Ahmed when he helped carry his wounded body to safety after the shooting. He kept insisting that it wasn’t he who had dropped Ahmed at the hospital.
Then the talk shifted to that night.
It had begun as a faceoff — a common scene in Bahrain. Anti-government protesters mark their territory on one side of the highway, piling palm trees, old fences, bricks, anything they can find into a makeshift barricade. Then they stare down the security forces on the other side, often shouting and throwing stones or even Molotov cocktails — a game of chicken to see who moves first.
Down the road from where the demonstrators massed, one of the men gathered at the meeting that night said he remembered seeing three unmarked SUVs. The same cars had prowled through the village earlier that night, driving in ominous circles as if birds circling their prey. Now another car, a sedan, pulled up to join them now as they eyed the crowd.
"We heard shooting and we thought someone was attacking us from the back," one of the men recalled. There were five or six shots in all. Others nodded. They had darted sideways into the village, trying to get off the main road.
As the sun was setting on the night he died, Ahmed had taken his camera and slipped out of his family’s modest home in the village of Salmabad to a protest along a dark highway just around the corner. After close to a year filming and photographing the clashes, the chaos of the standoffs wasn’t new anymore. But that night, when the bullets started, and the usual defiance of the protests turned to panic, Ahmed ran — until he couldn’t anymore. He was hit. Slowing with each step as blood rushed from his hip, he could muster just one thing: "Carry me!"
If only it had been someone else that night in Salmabad, Ahmed’s camera would have recorded every bit. Instead, on the night of March 30, 2012, they shot the cameraman.
By 2012, the media’s coverage of the ongoing protests in Bahrain had thinned considerably. The reporters who remembered were often kept away, either by the need to chase other regional crises or by strict visa policies for NGOs and press. Ahmed knew that his work as a citizen journalist was risky — two journalists had already been killed in 2011 — but he and others like him, through their YouTube channels and Twitter accounts, had become a crucial way to see inside the troubled island kingdom.
As elsewhere in the Middle East, thousands of Bahrainis had viewed the Arab Spring of 2011 as a chance to demand change. Throughout mid-February, protesters flocked to the center of Manama and called for reform — not the regime’s downfall. Many of them were from Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which has long felt marginalized by the ruling Sunni monarchy. When security forces cracked down, dispersing the protests, the movement didn’t disappear; it splintered. Demonstrations erupted in Shiite villages daily, consuming everyday life. The more people took to the streets, the more security forces tightened their grip. In the two years between February 2011 and 2013, more than 90 people have died in clashes, according to the country’s public prosecution. It is difficult to find any updated toll, but Shiite leaders put the figure well above 100.
Fear of arrest has crippled investigations into more than a few of those deaths. The Ministry of Interior insists that tips are treated anonymously, but witnesses who have come forward say talking to the police only leads to trouble. More than a year after Ahmed’s death, his family says Salmabad has been drained of their son’s former friends, including some of the witnesses. They are in and out of jail or in hiding to avoid being scooped up. Particularly for young men who have faced previous charges, like throwing a Molotov cocktail or illegal gathering (a charge levied for participating in protests that the government hasn’t explicitly authorized), being around when a protester is killed is just another way to find themselves in jail.
In the dozens of Shiite villages surrounding Manama — opposition neighborhoods like Salmabad, where Ahmed lived with his family — the protests have become entwined with the daily rhythm of life. Morning is a time for work, lunch is a time for rest, and then the afternoon and evening offer two windows for defiance, just after noon and evening prayers. Every day at least one village rises to the streets, whether by the dozens or the hundreds. They march and revive, however briefly, the moment of ecstasy at the outset of the Arab Spring, when demonstrators enveloped the city’s central Pearl Roundabout and it seemed possible that things might change. Then the protesters go to war, burning tires and hurling Molotovs as the police arrive. Pearl Roundabout exists only in their memories; in March of 2011, the government demolished the monument there and sealed off the area with barbed wire and tanks.
The men who gathered so tentatively that afternoon after his death were a hunted breed: Young, male, and Shiite, they were prime targets for arrest, and many changed households every few nights to avoid ending up in jail. Others simply hid their identities behind the ski masks and t-shirts they wore to the protests. In the streets, when they chanted for the end of the regime, it was hard to say just what that meant aside from an end to the arrests, the police raids, the tear gas, and the humiliation of daily life. A leaderless group called the Coalition Youth of the Revolution of February 14 — or simply "February 14," the day of the first 2011 uprising — has become a home for these discontents, and uses Twitter, Facebook, and a host of online applications and websites to coordinate protests and "operations": tire-burning, road-blocking, Molotovs. The mainstream opposition politicians can’t condone much of what these young activists do, but they also cannot dismiss that it arises from a justified, undeniable anger.
Not that all Shiite men are willing revolutionaries. Maybe they have children, or steady jobs, or they just aren’t political. Maybe they disagree with the methods of resistance. Maybe they just want peace. They scrub the sides of their houses, trying to remove the graffiti now so dominant in the opposition landscape. They stay home during protest hours, or better yet, they stay out of the neighborhoods, and yet are often just as much at risk of arrest if they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many more fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters had been converted to the opposition ranks by seeing one of their own swept up by the police — as had happened to a few of the men who witnessed Ahmed’s murder.
As for Ahmed’s family, they’ve channeled their grief into a search for answers. At the urging of their lawyer, a well-known advocate named Mohammed al-Tajer, they have focused their efforts internationally, sending letters, photos, and case files about Ahmed’s death to NGOs and U.N. bodies they hope can apply pressure from afar. At home, they make montages of his life and death, carry his photo in demonstrations, and hold events to salute the opposition-linked journalists of Bahrain. Ahmed’s face is a familiar symbol now, amidst the growing constellation of martyrs across the tiny country.
There was an uproar when Ahmed was shot. Clashes between protesters and police flared, and the director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, called for an investigation of the killing. He was the third journalist killed during the demonstrations.
Ahmed’s case has become emblematic of the risks for citizen journalists reporting on Bahrain, a country ranked in the bottom 20 in world for press freedom since 2011. At least six bloggers and photographers were arrested in 2013 facing charges such as "managing [electronic] accounts calling for the government’s overthrow" and calling for others to disobey the law, according to Reporters Without Borders. While some of the journalists have since been released, other cases are ongoing. One freelance photographer, Qassim Zain AlDeen, has been sentenced separately to three months and six months in prison, and faces a further charge on Feb. 16.
Still, Ahmed’s case stands out. His family believes he may have been killed by a plainclothes member of the security forces, or someone associated with them — a suspicion shared by many members of the opposition. Tajer has focused some of his own digging on the license plate of the unmarked cars parked in the direction the bullet came from. He says they were linked to the security forces. Ismail Moussa, Ahmed’s father and a former military man, suspects based on the wound that the gun used was an American weapon common in the Bahrain Defense Forces.
But a more sinister theory has also loomed over the case. If a civilian shot Ahmed, it would be an act of sectarian violence yet unseen on the island.
By and large, the lack of intersectarian violence in Bahrain has been striking from day one. Unlike the conflicts in Iraq or Syria, Bahrain’s pro- and anti-government camps — corresponding largely to sectarian lines — have allowed security forces to mediate the worlds between them. Protesters might attack police, but they don’t attack Sunni villages. Meanwhile, Sunnis might call for a harsher crackdown against the Shiite demonstrators, but they have avoided getting personally involved. The two sects simply avoid one another, frequenting different malls and coffee shops, following different accounts on Twitter, reading different newspapers. They even have different names for national holidays: What loyalists call National Day has been dubbed Martyr’s Day by the opposition.
Yet the uncertainty around Ahmed’s death foreshadows something darker. Three years of political détente, punctuated by daily clashes and unrest, has played into the extremes across society. There are those who want another crackdown against demonstrators. And there are those willing to unleash chaos to cripple the regime. The crisis has become increasingly cyclical, as each moment of humiliation, fear, or injustice feeds into an equal and opposite reaction, and like a band stretched from both ends, even the centrists feel the tension of something about to snap.
In recent months, the government has arrested top members of the moderate opposition, scooped up hundreds of men and boys in house raids, the opposition says, and passed harsh new anti-terrorism laws. Meanwhile, homemade bombs, likely planted by February 14 members, have moved closer to Sunni neighborhoods. In late July, a car bomb exploded in a mosque parking lot in the Riffa neighborhood, not far from royal family residences. Every weekend, cars are set ablaze, Molotovs thrown, and police confront mobs of angry young men. Violence started from the state, but now it has infected parts of society once thought to be immune.
There have been missed opportunities to pull out of this spiral. A political dialogue in the early days of the crisis was neglected and allowed to essentially collapse. There was an independent investigation into the uprising, ordered by the king in July 2011, but the government and opposition disagree as to whether its recommendations, such as police reform and an end to torture, were ever fully implemented. Though countless government reforms and opposition concessions were made, none proved enough to break the deadlock.
Hope has resurfaced again in recent weeks, against the odds. Bahrain’s so-called National Dialogue talks were resurrected in February 2013, and had dragged on without agreement — even on an agenda — for almost a year, before ending in the fall. Now, a hopeful crown prince is looking to re-start them with an expanded set of issues up for negotiation, though the difficulty of getting both sides to the table is demonstrative of just how hard a breakthrough will be. The opposition’s more-extreme elements are in no mood for discussion, and Sunni-led groups threatened not to participate in talks in January, feeling left out of the initial conversations between the crown prince’s court and the opposition. The talks do look likely to happen, if only because the status quo is the only plan B.
Many analysts believe there are elements in the ruling family who blocked the exits to the crisis when they became clear. One theory blames a faction of disgruntled family hard-liners who control certain ministries and have silently blocked the reformist intentions of those like the crown prince and even perhaps the king. The security forces should surely also take blame for the hard-handed response. Pro-government supporters will also argue some blame falls to the powerful Shiite cleric, Isa Qassim, for promoting a culture of resistance and martyrdom. February 14, meanwhile, is fueling the conflict by instilling fear in the Sunni population and refusing political compromise.
Though courage is visible in the eyes of the young men on the streets every day, it is nowhere to be found in the country’s political life. Perhaps that’s what is to blame for Ahmed’s death.
And not just Ahmed. Across Bahrain, thousands of lives have been upended by the events of the last two years. In January, in an incident eerily similar to Ahmed’s death, 19-year-old Fadhil Abbas Muslim died of a gunshot wound to the head. The opposition says he was shot by police in the village of Markh. Tajer, the lawyer, in 2012 represented clients in 274 legal cases — everything from prosecuting protester deaths to defending against charges like illegal gathering. Many of his colleagues are so overloaded that they have simply stopped taking new cases.
Meanwhile, almost two years after the investigation into Ahmed’s death officially began, there are no announced leads or suspects in the case. The only good news, in fact, is that the case is still open. "It’s a good thing that they haven’t decided, like other cases, to simply announce that it’s a closed file," Tajer said in late 2012. "Most victims’ families never know who the killer is."
And so Ahmed’s case is trapped, caught just like the young man himself, in a fight not wholly his. Ahmed’s future was Bahrain’s future; he hoped both would be bright. He wanted to contribute to it — to bear witness. But the story was bigger than he could have captured through his camera lens.
Today, everyone in Salmabad knows the place Ahmed lived. His home is famous, not for what is there, but for what isn’t. It is famous for a simple question that no one can answer: Who shot Ahmed?
Elizabeth Dickinson is author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed? A Mystery Unravels in Bahrain’s Botched Arab Spring, from which this excerpt was adapted. She is a former FP assistant managing editor.