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Doctors go underground to treat protesters in Bahrain

Most demonstrators hurt in clashes with police refuse to go to hospitals, no matter how grave their wounds, fearing they will be arrested there.

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Residents of the village of Karzakan, Bahrain, wave national flags and a banner reading, "we will die for our women's honor," during a demonstration Saturday against a recent police raid in which a woman allegedly was assaulted. Demonstrators often refuse to go to the hospital in Bahrain, forcing doctors to treat them on the side.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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It is Friday night and Dr. Mohamed is on standby.

“It’s always the busiest day of the week for us,” he says as he holds out his cell phone to show a photo he received seconds earlier. The image is of a young man with birdshot embedded in his leg. It is a call for help.

“The government has been using a lot of birdshot on demonstrators lately,” he explains, “and the wounded come to us for treatment.”

Dr. Mohamed, who asked to have his full name withheld, is part of an underground network of medics in Bahrain who provide illegal care for anti-government protesters injured in nightly clashes with security forces. Most of those hurt refuse to go to either public or private hospitals, no matter how grave their wounds, fearing they will be arrested there.

“We still have very severe cases,” the doctor says, “I’ve seen amputations in the previous month of limbs and they’re not going to the hospital.”

The medics say the government is monitoring hospital admissions to track down protesters. It has stationed soldiers at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex and, according to activists, sent a letter to private clinics telling them they must report anyone whose injuries appear to be the result of illegal activity, such as unauthorized protesting. 

Unrest in Bahrain has dragged on for nearly a year and a half and the number of victims has grown along with it. Makeshift clinics in living rooms across the country treat patients every day. Doctors have even been teaching members of the community first-aid skills in a bid to keep up with the mounting casualties.

“People are getting hurt all the time,” said a young protester who was hit in the face with birdshot and risks losing sight in his left eye. He wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons. “I didn’t want to go (to hospital) because I was afraid,” he admitted. “Nobody is safe in this country.”

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