Bahrain’s children in conflict

The involvement of children in Bahrain’s opposition unrest has set off a firestorm of debate about the politicization of the next generation.

al-monitor Children sit on a roadblock set up by protesters to prevent riot police from entering the village of Shakhoora, west of Manama, Aug. 14, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed.

Topics covered

protests, human rights, exploitation, children's rights, children, bahrain, arab spring

Mar 17, 2014

Earlier this month, two children were hospitalized after a bomb they were trying to plant exploded near the Bahraini village of Daih. According to the Interior Minstry, the boys were just 10 and 11 years of age and were following someone's instructions. They were the foot soldiers.

The growing presence of children like the two injured boys in street clashes and violent unrest has unsettled Bahrain, opening a broad debate over who or what is to blame. On March 9, Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa decried the “exploitation of children in terrorism” and called for stricter implementation of child protection laws. Parliamentarians have accused the opposition of using children for political purposes and said those who encourage them onto the streets should face punishment. Human rights and opposition groups, meanwhile, argue that minors have become involved after watching their friends and family members being arrested or suffering.

Whoever is at fault, the children of Bahrain are demonstrative of just how deeply entrenched in society the current crisis has become. They also portend how long it might take to resolve it. Whether politicized by conflict, traumatized by violence or simply distracted from their schoolwork, large numbers of youths are growing up marked by the turmoil around them.

“There is a new generation, and they are growing up with all these bad experiences,” asserted Sayed Hadi al-Mosawi, head of human rights documentation for the Shiite opposition bloc al-Wefaq, in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We can contribute values [for the children] between us and the authorities, but we cannot prevent them from developing anger.”

Hundreds if not thousands of Bahraini children are today involved in or otherwise affected by unrest. Minors are not simply at the forefront of clashes, they are also facing the consequences. Said Yousif al-Muhafda from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights told Al-Monitor that 60 have been arrested thus far in 2014.

Since the Arab Spring-inspired protests kicked off in 2011, children have been a constant presence. The demonstrators who gathered at the central Pearl Roundabout took their families with them; at first, the mood was jovial. After the initial demonstrations were dispersed, protests grew more localized. By sheer geography, children watched and experienced the near-daily rallies in opposition villages that were often broken up with waves of tear gas and amid violent clashes with security forces.

As the protests have disaggregated, youths and children have assumed a larger role. The Coalition Youth of the February 14 Revolution movement, or simply February 14, organized numerous smaller rallies. Today, at the entrances to opposition villages, it is often young boys who stack bricks and tree branches to block access by police vehicles. When protests descend into clashes, teens can be spotted among those charging the police. Demonstrators, including children, have increasingly used makeshift weapons, Molotov cocktails and firebombs to counter the security forces.

When more sophisticated bomb attacks began in summer 2013, scrutiny turned to parents and community leaders. In August, the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, founded by two former Shura Council members, wrote to UNICEF calling for “procedures against terrorist groups that are proven to be using children and exposing them to violence.” Shortly thereafter, Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, issued a series of decrees that included procedures to hold guardians accountable for their children’s crimes.

The authorities are “applying the law to the people in the street, who are using whatever they can use to vandalize, but they are not going to the leaders or the people who are pushing those kids,” charged the parliamentarian Sawsan al-Taqawi in an interview with Al-Monitor following a bomb attack earlier this month.

Ahmed al-Saati, chairman of the parliament’s Human Rights Committee, had echoed such calls in February, telling local media that the opposition bears the blame. “The opposition in the country must initiate efforts to educate their followers on the dire consequences of inciting such thoughts and feelings in children,” he said.

Opposition groups counterargue that it is the experience of conflict that has pushed children to the streets, and there is little they can do to pull them back. “Some of the children, they are not fighting for political change, they are angry at the police,” said Muhafda, with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “Their father or brother was arrested, and in [their] mind is the fact that the one who arrested the family member was a policeman.”

Minors’ increasing role has also revealed a growing divide within the opposition, between a mainstream that seeks to remain peaceful and a fractious youth-driven movement turning to more violent measures.

With three years of protests having achieved few political concessions, the mainstream opposition is struggling to maintain influence. “These children and the youths, they will say, 'You are doing nothing for us. You are not bringing about any results,'” said Mosawi. “No one can control these children’s anger. … This is a very big dilemma, really, for us.”

Meanwhile, more radical factions are appealing to a less patient, more aggrieved audience. February 14 is a creature of youth, and many of its rallies are organized using a web of online apps connecting a wired generation of activists.

Reflecting their growing participation in the unrest, Bahraini children face serious jail time, a fact that may add to their politicization. Mosawi estimated that there are at least 100 minors currently in prison. An exact figure is unavailable. International human rights groups including Amnesty International have raised concerns about minors as young as 15 being tried as adults, forced to confess under duress or subjected to poor conditions in prison. When they emerge, few are likely to halt their political participation.

Security measures and arrests may well increase in the coming months as the government faces growing pressure to stop violent attacks. After a bomb left three police officers dead on March 4, Bahraini authorities added February 14, along with several other splinter opposition groups, to its official list of terrorist organizations. That designation will increase the penalties for crimes committed under the groups’ purview.

Meanwhile, a conundrum remains concerning how to shelter Bahrain’s children from absorbing the wrong lessons from the unrest. Looming large is the example of a generation of opposition supporters who came of age in the early 1990s, when similar bouts of turmoil rocked the island nation. Young men at the time, many of them today have stagnate careers; they lost precious years of education, and their names were tarnished by criminal records. Opposition stronghold villages across Bahrain are now home to a wandering cadre of young men and boys who face similar alienation. 

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