Photo: Anti-government protesters' reflections are seen on a car that was hit by bullets during an operation by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military forces to remove protesters from Pearl Square in Bahrain, March 17, 2011. (REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan)
Bahrain awoke to a violent crackdown by police on demonstrators camped out at the country's iconic Lulu (Pearl) roundabout on Wednesday. That afternoon, I boarded a flight from Doha, Qatar to Bahrain, to see for myself what was unfolding in the island nation I once called home.
Hours later, I found myself on a flight back to Doha, without having been allowed to set foot out of Bahrain's airport in Muharraq.
The flight itself was quite uneventful. The plane – an Airbus A321, with a listed 177 passenger capacity – carried less than 30 people. A short line to immigration meant I was at the desk in minutes. Immigration officer asks, "Where are you coming from? Qatar? OK, 5 Bahraini Dinars."
Thumbing through my passport, he suddenly stops and looks me in the eye. "Wait, where are you from? Who do you work for? … Please have a seat – over there." I can't be sure if it was the Iraq visa, the India visa, or the numerous Qatar & Saudi visas in my American passport he found suspicious. Or perhaps it was my telling him in Arabic that "my origin" is half Indian, half Hispanic.
So my wait began. There were quite a number of other people on the benches too. Anyone who'd arrived with the intention of driving across the King Fahad causeway into Saudi Arabia was being told they'd have to fly. There is a curfew in effect on Bahrain's main highway from 4pm-4am, and last I heard, the bridge to Saudi was closed indefinitely. This of course, due to the month-long protests against the government by opposition groups calling for democratic reforms, a constitutional monarchy and basic human rights.
After about an hour of waiting, and checking in a couple times to see if there was any problems, one of the immigration officers asked, "You used to work for Al Jazeera, right?"
Yes, but I left in November. Now, I actually lecture at Northwestern University in Qatar, and report freelance. "Please, wait."
At one point, I was joined on the immigration benches by journalists from Radio France, UK's Channel 4, and a Japanese photographer. A Ministry of Information officer eventually arrived to check their credentials, and after an hour or so, let them through.
"And what channel are you with?" he asked me. I'm not with a channel, I freelance and teach at a university… "Oh, OK, please wait."
Checking back in at three hours, I asked immigration what the story was. "Please accept our apology," the officer says. "It is too dangerous for you to go to Manama, there is a curfew there, so we cannot allow you for now". Look guys, I really don't work for Al Jazeera (they're banned from working in Bahrain). When will I be able to go? "It will be fine in two or three days, please come back then".
Disappointing for sure, but others had more on the line in Bahrain than I. It was about 5 hours in total until I was actually handed back my passport, alongside a boarding pass for a flight back to Qatar. How they add it up – who gets in, who doesn't – I have no idea. Apparently journalists from the BBC, CNN & the US-funded Arabic-language network Al Hurrah were also turned back.
The Doha return flight – aboard a huge Boeing 777-300, with 335 passenger capacity – was packed. The Russian fellow next to me told me he'd been dogged by the protests, having first stayed at a hotel near Lulu Roundabout when things first got started on February 14, then near the Financial Harbour when that was the scene of demonstrations, then finally at a hotel in the current curfew zone.
Throughout the trip, I didn't have access to the Internet, so kept in touch – and tweeted – via SMS. Upon arriving in Doha, I found I'd missed a complete outpouring of support on Twitter and elsewhere. So to all those who tweeted at me, retweeted me, emailed, Facebooked and more, thanks!