1) THE PICTURE
When the Strike (the strike was between December 2002 and February, 2003) started, a few protests took place at the famous “Plaza de la Meritocracia” (“Meritocracy square”), witch it’s not actually a square but just a street. The people were very used to gathering in that place. It was the place were they gathered every night from April, 9, 2002 till April 11, was almost like a sacred place for opposition demonstrations and I used to feel safe while I was there… All that until the Strike, and ever since the Strike, I can’t remember going, again, to any demonstration at those streets.
It all started with some president’s decree, I think, of naming some areas in Caracas as “Zonas de seguridad” ("Security Zones”). They were areas surrounding military installations or government institutions. And they were incredible big areas. Since those areas stopped being just some streets and were named as Security Zones; demonstrations were not allowed at those areas, or at least not opposition political demonstration because more than once, I saw, in front of my skeptical eyes; how many pro-government mass demonstration took place at the same place were opposition demonstration were not allowed with that “Security Zones” argument. The streets called “Meritocracy Square” are located near by an air force airport called “La Carlota”. Therefore, our “sacred” place to protest wasn’t so “sacred” anymore; it was now a “security zone”.
The people, openly challenging this government’ measure decided to go to protest at the “Meritocracy Square” anyways, as soon as the General Strike began. And they faced a strong government’s welcome: soldiers armed with tear gas bombs, pellets, and a “peinilla” (couldn’t find the word in English) witch its some kind of large machete that only works for hitting, but doesn’t cut. The violence extended for about two or three days and were part of the reasons of the Strike conflicts became more radical and longer. One of my uncles was there one day and a soldier or a police man, now I can’t remember properly; hit him strongly with a peinilla. After watching the images of military abuse on the TV, and hearing my uncles horrible stories; my dad decided it was enough. A few minutes later, in a very unconscious act, I found myself at the car, with my sister and my parents going who knows where to protest; knowing already that the military were on the streets and they were ready to attack in case of any “public disorder”.
We couldn’t get farther than a highway which it’s just above the “Meritocracy Square”. A few cars where parked on the highway (the highway was almost empty since people didn’t attend to their jobs that day and the oil shortage as a consequence of the strike was just starting), and there were some people with flags, as crazy and mad as us; just looking at the events down the highway. Seemed like the military had just ended a protest because I could feel an intense smell in the air that I know now was because of the tear gas bombs but for that time, I haven’t smelled tear gas before so I only knew it was that because of the comments my mom was making about it.
I didn’t not saw what was happening under the highway because as soon as I was starting to approach the border, all the doubts about “how a tear gas bomb is" were clear when one of those just fell right next to me. Luckily, it did not hit me. An explosion sounded and the people started running back to their cars or wherever they could. I wasn’t quite aware of the situation: for a second it was just a weird gray thing next to my foot; and then it started to give off an intense white smoke. My dad screamed at me: “Come back to the car right now! Don’t you see that? There is a tear gas bomb right next to you!” – “That’s a tear gas bomb?” – I asked, still unconscious of the danger – “Of course! Come back now!” - I made my family wait for a few more seconds: I had to find my cam, prepare the perfect witness picture and shoot; this was serious and I needed proof of the military abuse. While I was doing that I started feeling dizzy and my eyes began to tear. That’s when I ran and I just pressed the bottom of the cam without even knowing what I was taking. On the way back home I was complaining a lot about the burning I felt all over my face. My mom ordered me to not touch my face since it will make the effects so much worse; while dad, visible frustrated landed his feelings on the steering wheel, asking him self why did we went out to the streets in the first place.
- But dad, we were not even at the protest, we were just looking from above and the highway is not a “Security Zone”, I think – My dad looked me back like saying “Do you think they care?”. Now the reader might think that it was a lot of time between the moment where the tear gas was dropped and landed right next to me and the moment I finally took the picture, heard my dad’s screams and came back to the car; but it was just a matter of a few seconds indeed. A few months later, I developed the pictures (I didn’t have a digital camera back then) and found that picture witch cost me the most, and it was the worst of all pictures I took. It’s just a blue car and a white smoke. If I don’t explain it, people won’t think that it is a tear gas bomb. That’s why its just part of my box of memories instead of being sent to the press or something.
2) THE HANDKERCHIEF
It was a demonstration like any other political demonstration during the strike. The original plan was to get to the State’s Attorney building (in Spanish “Procuraduría General de la República”, I don’t know if I’m making a correct translation), but like always it was prohibited because it was a “Security Zone” or any other excuse. So we could only get a block before the building. We were a little bit tired of those measures because at the end seemed like our demonstrations didn’t had any purpose, since we could only go to certain meaningless places. This demonstration in particular was only a month after the “tear gas on the highway” event and for that time, we got used to being “prepared” in case the military dropped tear gas bombs. Each one of the people attending the demonstration had among common things like their ID, money and water; a tiny bottle of vinegar and handkerchief and/or a tube of toothpaste. The plan was simple and we had done that many times before: as soon as the military dropped tear gas bombs, we smelled the handkerchief filled with vinegar or put toothpaste like a cream under our eyes and nose. By doing that, you could easily resist to the effects of the tear gas smell and keep protesting.
That day, I went with my whole family and started walking till the end point of the demonstration. We heard rumors of pro-Chávez supporters “waiting for us” there, among with the military. But we did not listen to them and kept walking. Back then, we didn’t know much about fear; unfortunately, we learned that with time.
I think we were almost the first to get to the end of the demonstration. There was a lot of confusion in the atmosphere: in front of us, I could see a lot of military tanks and soldiers; on the left side there was a gas station empty and closed, obviously and on the right side, at a bridge above, the rumors were true: there was a group of Chavez supporters screaming at us. If I’m not mistaken they threw one or two stones but I was at the other side and, in the middle of the confusion, I was not quite aware of the whole mess. I decided to sit right next to a military tank with some people who were doing the same and just stay there for a while. My mom followed me. A lady approached and gave a rose to one of the soldiers. After seeing the soldier smiling I thought that nothing was going to happen that day. Clearly, I was mistaken.
I’m not able to tell from where, but I heard the sound of a lot of tear gas bombs being dropped. It could be the military or even the Chavez supporters (there was a lot of stories of Chavez supporters groups that got, who knows how, tear gas bombs that should belong only to the military or police force). If I’m not mistaken I think I heard some gun shoots too.
We found ourselves in the middle of a very difficult situation: in front the military tanks, on the left side the gas station, on the right side the Chavez supporters and back, the whole demonstration: loads of people walking (the ones who were getting to the end behind us) and running in different directions. We were trapped like a bird in a cage: we had no place to run. My mom, my sister and I got up; my mom ask us not to run, use the toothpaste and/or the vinegar, and just walk on the way back, as far as we could. But I never knew what happened. For some reason, the vinegar and the toothpaste didn’t work with me: there were a lot of tear gas bombs; the smell was way too intense and the people way too close to each other. In the middle of the crowd I got confused and felt like falling. That was the last thing I remember.
Sometime later I woke up inside an ambulance as I could see the vehicle later: a man was pressing an oxygen mask against my face and asking me how I was. My sight was very dizzy and my head hurt a lot. I quickly realized the situation and thought that there most been a lot of wounded people around. “I’m fine now” – I answered and got out of there. I could hear some people screaming in the back: “¡Valiente! ¡Valiente!” (Spanish word for “brave”). I laughed, didn’t feel so brave: after all I fall and the rest of my family were just fine, my mom told me that some man had to pick me up and ran to the first medical care improvised place he found. Did I use the vinegar and the toothpaste in a wrong way, or just too late?
As soon as I got down of the ambulance, a boy quickly gave me his handkerchief filled with vinegar. The air was still unbearable so I smell it and continue walking with my family till we got to an aunts house that is near by. There, my dad prohibited me to get to the end of any demonstration. Since then I was allowed to protest, but I couldn’t get in danger, it didn't make sense because I was obviously not strong enough to stand the tear gas smell like others and I was going to fill a space at some ambulance that probably other wounded needed more than me. “Never again” – He repeated almost to himself in a mix of sadness and anger, sitting with me at the main entrance of my aunt’s house. I think that demonstration brought as a result one death and many wounds, but I would have to look for the news of that time again. I played with the hankerchief that boy gave me, the one I still keep in that box.