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In Bahrain, Pakistani Immigrants Targeted In Shiite-Sunni Clash

As Shiite-led protests against the Sunni royal family are met with a violent crackdown, some in the Shiite majority have started to lash out at Pakistani immigrants, who are Sunni.

Shiite worshipers in Manama's Pearl Square last month before the government crackdown}
Shiite worshipers in Manama's Pearl Square last month before the government crackdown}
Laure Stephan

MANAMA - His blue pickup truck is piled up with mattresses, suitcases and a refrigerator. Mohammad returned to the Momin Mosque neighborhood, in the heart of Bahrain's cosmopolitan capital Manama, only to collect his belongings. Of Pakistani origin, Mohammad fled the neighborhood a week earlier. He now starts the car, which he will drive to Al-Muharraq, a town in the northern part of the capital that he considers more secure.

Just a few steps from his former home, traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez (baggy trousers and long shirts) are still hanging along the walls of a house that must have been hurriedly abandoned. All the doors of the nearby houses are tightly locked. Momin Mosque is slowly losing all its Pakistani residents.

In this neighborhood where mostly Sunni immigrants tend to rub elbows with the majority Shiite Bahrainis, witnesses say that beginning on the evening of March 14, the homes of Pakistani workers have repeatedly been ransacked by masked men armed with iron bars and wooden sticks.

"The men were shouting ‘Go away, Pakistanis!"" says Ihlaq Ahmad, a receptionist. The 21-year-old, who comes from Punjab, cut his right foot on broken pieces of his bedroom's smashed window.

Attacks against Pakistani workers have exacerbated the already growing fear within the sizeable immigrant community. Overall, foreigners -- who mostly come from South Asia to do manual labor in this wealthy, oil-producing nation -- represent 54 percent of the Bahraini population of some 1.2 million.

Dozens of injuries, and at least one death, have been reported in this and other districts where Shiite families and foreign immigrants have lived peacefully together for years. But who would want to do harm to these workers? And why?

Migrants blame their neighbors, Shiite supporters of the protests against the royal family, which started on February 14 and prompted a deadly crackdown over the past two weeks. Muhammad Bakar, a 20-year-old Pakistani painter, was burned on his left arm and his face, which he tries to hide under a scarf to hide the lesions. "Shiites do not like us because there are many Pakistanis among the security forces," Bakar says. "So they are now attacking us. But we have nothing to do with that!"

Among the Shiite residents, very few are comfortable speaking about the subject. But one young man, Adnan Abdallah, 20, defends the actions as self-defense. "Armed men suddenly came into the neighborhood. So we went into the streets to defend ourselves."

Clashes opposing baltagis (thugs paid by the regime) and residents have indeed taken place on several occasions in the narrow streets of Momin Mosque. But what about the houses of Pakistani workers? The young man repeats the story told by other residents, that the houses were attacked by the same baltagis, and it was all a "set up" put in place by the authorities.

There are reasons to doubt this version of events. If the violence certainly serves the government's anti-protesters rhetoric, hostility towards Pakistani immigrants is quite palpable among Shiites, the main force behind the demonstrations in Bahrain. Seen as actors of the repression, migrants are also considered ultra-loyal to the royal family. There is indeed no doubt that Pakistanis living in Bahrain tend to agree with the regime's official discourse, which depicts protesters as "terrorists' and "pro-Iranian."

A member of the Shiite opposition refuses to confirm the events in Momia Mosque, or mention any collective animosity. He prefers to speak about "a sense of confusion among the young people, angered by the death of demonstrators' during the crackdown.

Tension also arises from the fact that Shiites believe that authorities have been secretly naturalizing foreigners such as Pakistanis, who are Sunni, as the regime allegedly tries to reverse the population balance in its favor (according to a 1981 census, 30 percent of Bahrainis are Sunni, 70 percent Shiite).

In the courtyard of the Pakistan Club, a game of cricket is about to start. For the players who have left their homes in Momin Mosque, friendly games such as this have become a refuge. In an auditorium-turned-dormitory, a man makes a list of the people present. The list is to be sent to the Pakistani Embassy in order to facilitate the return to Islamabad of those who wish to leave. "Just until things calm down," says Qamar Zaman, a driver living in Bahrain for the past 11 years.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera

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