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Tear gas and violence encroach on daily life of American families

JUFFAIR, Bahrain — Mary was excited in 2010 when her husband got assigned to Bahrain, home to about 6,200 U.S. sailors, civilians and family members.

Headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, Bahrain is an oasis for Americans in an often unfriendly region. The family opted to live away from the base to experience the culture.

But on Feb. 14, 2011, the uprisings that were sweeping across the Arab world arrived at the family’s front door.

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The compound where they were living is in the middle of Shia villages that exploded when the protests began.

On the first day of the unrest, “Mary,” who feared that using her real name might hurt her husband’s career, walked to the Pearl Roundabout, where activists were giving speeches among a sea of people.

Despite assurances by the ruling al-Khalifa family that the protests would be allowed, a crackdown began a few weeks later.

“At night we’d hear the chanting from the rooftops,” Mary said. “Soon after that, the tear gas started. Our faces were burning from tear gas for about two and a half months.”

Fumes would seep into the house, but Navy medical officials told her there was nothing they could do.

One day Mary’s husband and a neighbor went to check out the protest site. Gunfire rang out.

Her husband sprinted back to their compound, with a mass of protesters close behind, Mary said.

“We were scared,” she said. “All our neighbors were Shia. They weren’t being violent. We said all along that we thought the police might be going a little overboard.”

Mary had tried to call her husband’s cellphone but service had been shut down, as had the Internet — “what they do when protests are going strong,” she said.

Mary said she called base security and reported hearing gunfire, but was told it was probably just more gas canisters being launched.

The family asked to be moved out of the area, she said, but the command denied their request, saying Americans were not being targeted.

“Tear gas doesn’t ask for your ID or your passport,” she said.

David Sidney, a spokesman for Naval Support Activity Bahrain, said in an email that requests to be moved last year weren’t tracked, but that “a handful” were approved.

“All requests that were not approved were deemed by command leadership to not require relocation after a thorough review of the security situation in that area,” Sidney said.

Navy officials continue to monitor the situation and the protests have not been directed at the U.S. military presence, he said. Community members are advised to avoid protest sites.

But the nightly violence is moving closer to the base in the Juffair neighborhood, with its American Alley lined with Burger King, KFC and American residences. Sailors are told not to go past the Mega Mart grocery store on the strip after 8 p.m.

A few nights before Christmas, sailors heading to one of the bars near the base were greeted by a stinging cloud of tear gas that wafted in from the Shia neighborhood just past the grocery.

Mary’s family moved to Juffair last summer, when their lease expired.

“The protesters gather, the police come out,” she said of life in Juffair. “We thought we were moving out of it.”

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

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