SITRA, Bahrain (Reuters) - The windswept Bahraini island of Sitra, a mainly Shi’ite enclave in the Sunni-led Gulf Arab kingdom, has paid a high price in blood for anti-government protests that have rocked the country.
On Friday, in a succession of funerals, Sitra buried three of its sons, all killed on Thursday when Bahraini police stormed a central Manama square to end three days of protests inspired by upheavals that toppled the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.
Thousands turned out for the funeral processions on the island, waving black and red flags symbolizing martyrdom, and chanting anti-government slogans that seem to harden by the day.
“I am ready to die. All of these people are ready to die,” said Ahmed Abu Taki, speaking to Reuters in a small room where men washed his 22-year-old brother Mahmoud’s body for burial.
“If he could talk, he would tell you we don’t want this prime minister,” said Ahmed of his brother, an engineering student, echoing demands by protesters that Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has held the post since 1971, step down.
As the funerals got under way in the town, sprinkled with palm trees and sandy lots, mourners waved red and white Bahraini flags and sang: “These martyrs are for Bahrain.” Women in black abaya cloaks watched from doorways or on the fringes.
“Justice, freedom and constitutional monarchy,” the men yelled, pumping their fists as separate funerals took place for two men in their early 20s and a 58-year-old seaman.
Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is allied to the United States and Saudi Arabia, which see it as an outpost against Shi’ite Iran. Protesters say Bahrain’s strategic importance makes it important for them to keep their cool.
Protesters chanted “Revolution until victory.” But a brief attempt to start a chant of “Death to al-Khalifa” petered out.
The protests in Bahrain, where widespread Shi’ite unrest in the 1990s prompted the king to introduce a new constitution, appear to be driven by familiar complaints of economic hardship, lack of political freedom and sectarian discrimination.
Many feel marginalized in Sitra, where low-rise cinderblock and concrete apartment blocks and houses rising from sandy lots contrast with the glass and steel skyscrapers of central Manama.
“I have an MBA from the UK. My boss only has an intermediate certificate. But he is Sunni,” said Hussein, 52, who works for an aluminum company. “I can find a job in Qatar or Saudi for maybe double the salary, but I want to be in my country.”
Another man, Salah Issa, said he often worked 14-hour days for a meager monthly salary of $500. The only work he can find, he says, is as a driver despite having “many certificates.”
The family of Ali Mansour Khodeir, the seaman who was the oldest of the three Sitra fatalities, faces a tougher future.
They have moved from rented home to rented home for the past few years since their own home was flooded, awaiting overdue municipal help for repairs, Khodeir’s sister Khadija said.
The loss of even his meager income will be a further blow.
“He has four children. The rental house is very small. They are very poor,” said Ashour Issa, 60, a family friend. “Who will take care of them?”
Writing by Cynthia Johnston, editing by Alistair Lyon and Tim Pearce