Tortured for giving care

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Rula Al’Saffar, president of the Bahrain Nursing Society, was recently named the 11th most influential person in the Middle East. Last year she was incarcerated and tortured by the Bahraini government after treating protestors injured during an anti-government rally. She speaks exclusively to The Lamp.

Rula Al’ Saffar became a nurse because of her mother.

“When I was a little girl my mum was sick, she had cancer and she was dying and I used to be at her bedside all the time. That was one thing that made me think of going into nursing, that I need to help people,” she told The Lamp.

Now president of the Bahrain Nursing Society (BNS), Rula is also Assistant Professor at the (Bahrain) College of Health Sciences, head of the Emergency Nursing and Critical Care Program and the Head of the International Training Centre.

She was the first, and is the only, nurse in Bahrain to graduate with a Bachelor and Masters degree in nursing from an American university. She was Bahrain’s first nurse practitioner. She has worked for the World Health Organisation as a consultant for emergency and disaster management.

Rula first fell foul of her government when she led her union in a campaign to raise the status of nurses in Bahrain. “Our campaign lasted for two or three years, to convince the government that nurses with bachelor degrees should be on the professional level,” she said. “We started this campaign by wearing an orange ribbon and going to work wearing a badge. We were harassed by the Ministry of Health. The nurses who wore the badges were blacklisted. This continued for about seven to eight months.”

Violent crackdown leads to medic detention

Relations with the government plummeted with the eruption of Bahrain’s own Arab Spring and the government’s violent crackdown on protest. Injured protestors flooded the hospitals and nurses and doctors bore the wrath of the government for giving care to the wounded.

“My colleague, the General-Secretary [of the Bahrain Nursing Society], Ibrahim Al-Dimistani, was detained for helping a protester who was shot by a bird pellet shotgun. We requested for him to be released from prison and then the government attacked us and closed the BNS.”

In 2011, Rula and 19 other nurses and doctors were arrested, convicted after a sham trial in a military court, and sentenced to 15 years in jail. What followed was shocking. “My detention is similar to all other people’s detention. The torture starts from 5pm till 3am. We were deprived from sleeping, we were beaten, we were electrocuted, we were sexually harassed, threatened with rape. I had my hair cut. I had electric stun guns used on me.

“Then they take you back to your cell and ask you to sing the national anthem, to imitate different voices of animals, to sing songs for them, to dance for them or to run and hit a wall. All of us in Bahrain have experienced all this.”

International pressure gets results

The detention of Rula and her colleagues caused international uproar. After five months custody she and some of the other clinicians were eventually released.

“Humanitarian organisations from the US and Europe have been great. The Royal College of Nursing from UK has been excellent. The Irish community is incredible. They have had so many protests and voiced their opinion all over. They wrote letters to the Ministry of Health in Bahrain [and] the King. They had petitions.”

Rula still has a sense of disbelief about the government’s attack on its own health workers. “The shocking thing was that my own government, my own people, detained us for working and helping the ill people and the protesters who were injured. We were all detained even though we have the Geneva Convention and the government has signed a treaty saying that, at any time during war, medics are protected.”

She says that all hospitals in Bahrain have since been militarised.

“Protesters cannot enter because once they do they are detained. People are afraid to go there. Even if you go to the Nursing College, they have soldiers all over it. The Nursing Society, because we are at the premises of the hospital, is occupied by the riot police.”

Despite this level of intimidation and coercion, nurses and doctors continue to fulfill their professional responsibilities. “People’s homes are being arranged into clinics. We train people to be first aiders then every area self-organises their own clinics. The BNS has trained a thousand people in less than a year to be first aiders.

“We see and we treat different kinds of injuries. Lots are shotgun bird pellets and eye injuries. If you come to Bahrain, you are going to see a lot of people with one eye because the riot police make sure that they hit the eye area.”

Australian nurses can help

Rula says the fight for the release of health workers continues. “We have four people who are still detained. We have 28 medics who are still in court. I can’t tell you how much I want these people to be released from prison and for my colleagues to be acquitted.

“If I am innocent then all of us are innocent. We were all together. We are one family.”

Rula says she hopes Australian nurses will stand together with their colleagues in Bahrain. “I want to tell all the nurses that we are the spinal cord of the health field and the spinal cord, if it gets broken, you are paralysed and this is what’s happening in Bahrain.

“Nurses need to pressure their governments to pressure the government here. They need to voice their opinions in every arena they meet. It doesn’t matter where you are from, as a nurse, we are the same all over the world and if they have accused, abused and tortured nurses in Bahrain and sentenced them to jail, Bahrain is not that far from Australia or any other part of the world. We need to stay strong and we need to stand together.”