Bahrain hospital on the front line

By Bill Law
Crossing Continents, BBC News

  • Published
GCC troops guard an entrance to Salmaniya Hospital in Manama, 18 March
Image caption,
Troops guard an entrance to Salmaniya Hospital earlier this month

The leading hospital in the Bahraini capital, Manama, has found itself on the front line of the clashes between pro-reform protesters and the security forces sent in to crack down on opposition supporters in the kingdom.

Salmaniya Hospital, in the Bahraini capital Manama, is one of the leading medical facilities in the Gulf, a jewel in the crown of Bahrain's public healthcare system.

It attracts doctors and healthcare workers from all over the region and the world.

But Salmaniya is close to Pearl Roundabout and when protesters based themselves there, the hospital found itself on the front lines of what began as a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration that soon turned violent.

Image caption,
Dozens of people were wounded when the military opened fire at Pearl Roundabout on 18 February

When security police stormed the roundabout in the early hours of 17 February, doctors, nurses and paramedics went to the aid of people who had been shot, beaten and tear-gassed.

This seemed to anger security forces. At least one doctor was attacked by baton-wielding officers while tending to an injured demonstrator.

Doctors staged a protest after word spread that security forces were preventing the wounded from being brought to hospital.

They blocked the entrance to the hospital, demanding the resignation of the health minister. Other hospital workers, including nurses, joined in the protests.

The state-controlled media began to spread allegations that doctors at the hospital were refusing to treat injured police. There were even suggestions that the only patients they would treat were Shia Muslims.

"That is completely untrue," one doctor at the hospital told me. "We are doctors, we treat patients, we don't ask if you are Sunni or Shia."

The doctors who have spoken out have all requested anonymity for fear of repercussions for themselves and their families.

As the government crackdown intensified, doctors from Salmaniya found themselves caught at the sharp end of an increasingly bitter and angry battle between protesters and the police.

On 16 March, the government sent the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) into the hospital.

The move prompted the UN rights chief Navi Pillay to voice alarm at what she called the illegal "military takeover of hospitals" in the kingdom.

The government said it was forced to take the step because armed protesters were threatening staff and patients.

But a doctor who was there called that claim "a complete fabrication".

Another doctor who tried to get to the hospital said he was turned away.

Image caption,
A wounded protester lies draped in the Bahraini national flag

Then he got a call from a private hospital to treat a young man with a serious gunshot wound, but was stopped at a checkpoint and told to go home.

"I don't know what happened to that boy," he said. "Without specialist treatment, he was going to lose a leg."

Savage attack

It is not just doctors who say they were stopped from treating patients.

Abdulrazal al-Hujiri, who worked in a lab at the hospital sterilising surgical instruments, was arrested on 19 March, witnesses say.

Two days later his family was told to come and collect his badly beaten body.

Photographs appear to confirm that he was the victim of a savage attack.

That weekend, five senior consultants were arrested.

A friend described one such arrest: "He was taken by security police. He didn't know why. We don't know why. He is not political in any way. He was just helping to care for people."

Dozens of officers arrested doctors in front of their terrified families, their relatives have said. Computers, mobile phones and discs were taken, as well as family cars.

"Forget about your husband," one woman says she was told.

The government has refused to confirm or deny the arrests of the doctors.

It has been more than a week since they were seized and still the families have no word of their whereabouts.

Thus far no investigation has been undertaken into the death of Mr Hujiri, the lab technician.

Image caption,
Protesters form a human chain at Salmaniya fearing an attack by riot police on 15 March

And in another development, sources say that wounded protesters have been moved to a military hospital and to King Hamed Hospital, a new and not yet fully operational facility on an island in the north of the country.

Many wounded and injured are not seeking treatment at Salmaniya for fear of arrest. But even those who had nothing to do with the protests won't go there.

"Patients are afraid to come to the main hospital on the island because of security checks. Even patients for dialysis are afraid to come for their weekly dialysis," one doctor said.

The government has dismissed the claims as baseless.

"At no point [other than for one hour when the hospital was secured] were any patients or staff prevented from accessing the hospital although since the operation there have been delays on exit as a result of checks," it said in a statement.

So what could be behind the government's treatment of staff at its prized medical facility?

"The government wants to hide the facts," says Sayed Hadi al-Mosawa of the opposition Wefaq party.

"They don't want the world to know that they were using live ammunition, tear gas, batons and shotguns against peaceful protesters, against their own people."

He told me there are hundreds of injured, but because so many are afraid to seek treatment, it is impossible to get an accurate count.

Independent sources confirm 20 dead protesters. The government says four security officers have died.

Doctors at Salmaniya can bear expert witness to what they have seen since the demonstrations began.

Critics suggest that is the real reason the government of Bahrain has embarked on a campaign to silence them.

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