Photos: Victor Drax, #19A
We were heading into the highway on Wednesday —19 de abril— and the scene was building up. Just like last time, the vibe at first had been civil. Once we arrived at Bello Monte, the march stopped and we stood, looking at each other’s faces, my friends Sandra, Adriana, Felipe, Felipe’s dad, and Vic, a local comic book artist. The movie had followed the script I knew so well. The tension was rising, the hoods appeared, youngsters ran to the front. So far, so normal. Well, “normal.”
And then: all hell broke loose.
Have you seen the video of people on the highway running from the tear gas, chanting “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”? That was us. I tried to be careful not to turn into a front-liner: I was more interested in photography than anything else. But when the booms began, the itch was there. It was all part of the plan. Felipe, Vic and I advanced, then we heard it, “The tanquetas are coming this way, two tanquetas are coming this way.” Seconds later, Felipe was lost, everyone was fleeing en masse and I was holding on to Vic for dear life. “Esta vaina es un pandemonio,” I told him.
The word first appeared in Milton’s Paradise Lost, applied to a palace in the middle of hell. Walking through this chaos, no other word could describe it best —for hell “is the impossibility of reason.”
“The fleeing multitude will suffocate me if the spreading gas doesn’t,” I thought to myself.
I soon realized that whatever happened was out of my control. If I tripped on the sea of fleeing protesters, I couldn’t do anything about it. If I went down, I was going to get trampled. If I survived, I’d be arrested (and then the party would kick into high gear.)
“The fleeing multitude will suffocate me if the spreading gas doesn’t,” I thought to myself.
The problem with tear gas is not only that it chokes you, it blinds you too. My eyes got flooded and, as I held to Vic’s hoodie, surrounded by shouts and fear, I felt isolated. The world went from this huge place to three meters in diameter. I could think, I was clearly aware of what was happening, but I couldn’t get enough air to speak and I couldn’t fucking see.
The street that I had crossed so many times to meet friends, girlfriends and work had become an actual living, malevolent thing that worked against us, its floor littered with rocks, flags and dread. We fear the night, we fear darkness and caves and attics because something deep within us gets it that not being able to see clearly makes us vulnerable. Whatever happened, it was out of my hands. I realized this without feeling afraid, or excited. I didn’t feel anything. It was a simple fact, absolute and overwhelming. The adrenaline made me only focus on “breathe, move on, clear your eyes”.
I was a passenger of events.
It’s one thing to smell tear gas from the distance and another to be right in the middle of the cloud. All your mucous membranes seep, your whole face burns and gets covered with a thick film of sweat, tears, and mucus that I personally think of as “tear-gas-shit”.
The men in olive green shot not only behind us as we flee, they shot cannisters ahead of us, too.
Reading this, you may think “I’m special, it won’t happen to me”, yes it will, you have no control over it.
As the canisters fly above you, they hiss (“Fsssss!”) and, goddamn, they’re still shooting! The men in olive green shot not only behind us as we flee, they shot cannisters ahead of us, too. So you’re running away from the cloud of horror and ahead of you, another one blooms. You’re going to meet it. You can only prepare mentally, take all the breath you can and hold on, because you cannot avoid this.
I managed to open my bottle of water (if you’re taking the streets, never-fucking-ever leave home without it), and took a gulp, poured some on my eyes. Miracle cure. Don’t believe in tooth-paste, anti-acids and sorcery: The best tool against tear gas is clean water. I blew my nose and off came a viscous, crystalline, long thing that splat on my feet. How I managed to open the bottle with just one hand, I’ll never know. Likewise, I took a picture of that moment that I have no memory of taking. I grabbed Vic’s gray hoodie and used it as a mask of sorts. By breathing through it with my mouth wide open, I could manage. I was back in the game.
And then I turned around.
Men with active imaginations are the easiest prey to paranoia —and as a writer of fiction, each time I board a plane, I’m a hundred percent convinced that it’s going to crash. What I saw when I looked back, however, was beyond me. The people best prepared for violent clashes are unimaginative men who are not afraid until there’s an obvious cause for fear. But picture being chased by a crowd of forty, fifty people, all with crazy wide eyes, blaring and, beyond (and I’m talking of four meters), a thick white wall like the deepest mist of dawn. You couldn’t see past it. On my right, people were trying to jump to cross the river (“Jesus Christ, they’re jumping into the Guaire!”), and it made sense. Anything was better than the human maze we were in. On my left, I saw them with my own eyes: Governor Liborio Guarulla with three other indigenous men, running, lost in the crowd. That’s how I recognized them, his people were in indigenous garbs, the body paint, the ornaments.
When I say today that I didn’t jump into the Guaire, it’s not out of some sense of decorum. It’s because we couldn’t.
They were old, they looked so frail.
“Don’t look back!” I shouted in Vic’s ear. I don’t know if he heard me.
I couldn’t help them if I wanted to. When I say today that I didn’t jump into the Guaire, it’s not out of some sense of decorum (because, honestly, it was much better than this hell.) It’s because we were trapped in the middle of the human current and we couldn’t move either to one side or the other. We were blocked in. We could only move onwards, to the Bello Monte bridge, which existed only theoretically. We were going to a place with a status we didn’t know, a place that we should have already reached but that simply wasn’t there. It had the surreal quality of nightmares. Right next to me, a brunette girl was carried by the events, like all of us, and her eyes were wide, alright, but she was sinking. She looked absent.
“Lift your face, chama, lift your face so you can breathe!” a man shouted right next to her.
And WHAM, we were pushed. It was this huge lady with eyes closed, her face covered in tear-gas-shit, and I’m telling you, she was big, enough body mass to make way. A few were using her as battering ram, and when we shouted to “Stop pushing!”, they didn’t listen.
“Lift your face,” I told the girl.
She looked at me.
“I’m trying, but I’m getting trampled,” she said and I felt relieved, she was conscious, she wasn’t fainting, she was here with us. If she fainted and fell, she was done for good. One of the men nearby, maybe the one who spoke earlier, was holding her up by the shoulder, so I tucked my arm under her armpit and lifted her. Moments later she liberated herself from my grip and I lost her, but she did it willingly, with her own strength. Or so I want to believe.
I don’t remember feeling afraid then, but I imagine I was.
Vic is a bigger guy than me and had been the guide up until the bridge that we could finally see (“Come on, fight on! The bridge is right there!”), but somewhere during the disaster, another gas bomb fell right next to us, not near, not above us: right next to us. The asshole soldiers were shooting at an already fleeing and scared mass of people, and everyone wanted to cross the bridge at once. He fell behind. I don’t remember feeling afraid then, but I imagine I was, because it dawned on me that I could advance on my own and, if I did, I’d be alone. Felipe was nowhere to be found, this was the critical moment where we could spread and get lost. I looked into his face. It had tear-gas-shit, but it was also alive with adrenaline.
“Hold on to my belt!” I screamed.
I was doing it wrong. By holding his hoodie, I could choke him, or the thing could get loose and I’d be lost all the same (it was a tough conundrum, because that very same thing served me for mask); you must hold on to the belt. It’s not coming off. I lowered my head and moved and once we entered the bridge, we could run. We had air. We might survive.
“Keep on running!” he shouted at me.
We did. We were officially out of the kill-zone, but Bello Monte was becoming part of the riot and the battle that was in full swing on the highway, was undoubtedly moving here. Gas canisters still flew above us and I felt stupid, defenseless, crouching and covering my head with my hands. What was I supposed to do if that thing lands on me? Is my hand going to stop it?
I once read that, in war, you get killed for one of three reasons: one, inexperience. You confuse an enemy uniform with a friendly, you don’t recognize when they’re shooting at you, you don’t know that tall grass means minefield. Two, bad luck. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how much you trained, to whom you prayed, if you’re standing on the wrong place when the bomb falls. Three, probability. If you keep pushing it, your number is eventually drawn. This is why you can’t get addicted, why you must embrace the chance to go home, because staying in the zone for too long is tempting the devil.
I took a deep breath, remembered the luck factor, and covered my head all the same from canisters shot by invisible enemies —you couldn’t even see them. We entered Las Mercedes. We could walk, we could breathe.
“Wounded! Make way, he’s wounded!” and you knew you better step aside.
The calls were there each three to five minutes. This victim in Las Mercedes wore a sky-blue shirt. I took his picture as he was being boarded on a bike (our own “med-evac”), his head bleeding from a gash. It didn’t take us long to meet the head of the sky-blue shirts, Maria Corina Machado herself. She was walking, visibly angry, and when she turned to us, her face covered in tear-gas-shit (so I can personally vouch, without being her supporter, that the woman was right there with us, taking hits with us), she raised her hand.
I looked at Vic. I don’t know about stronger, but we were alive, free and with a clear conscience. And we’re more. Good enough in my book.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” the cynical might say. “You went to the rally, you wanted to fight for democracy. Didn’t you get your wish?”
Yes I did.
The thing is, we had it easy on the East side. Even then, the level of repression we experienced was extreme. It was the worst they could have done short of opening fire, but keep in mind that the rally started at 10:00 and by 11:30, someone had already died in the West side.
I went out the next day too, even though I knew there was no guarantee that this time the tyranny was going down. I fear, same as you, that the people will pull back, that the political leadership will settle again, that the dead will stay dead and chavismo survive.
But I’m utterly certain that staying home is worse. Much worse. You think that if Maduro didn’t want us out of the streets, he would keep up the fear campaign? He’s talking of elections today when they were anathema yesterday. They fear our protest more than they fear our vote.
My feet look like Bruce Willis’s at the end of Die Hard, but I’ll keep doing it until our demands are met. I can only pray for my brothers in the West side because, while the beasts tried to choke us here, they’re actually shooting them over there. We must keep pushing, we must keep up the pressure. Everyone has to do their part.
If this round of protest is another brick in the wall, is entirely up to us.