A Scene of Chaos in La Vega

Yesterday’s protests were peaceful in the East of the city. In the hardscrabble West side, where I live, it was bedlam.

Photo: Punto de Corte retrieved

I almost didn’t make it home yesterday.

Soldiers on motorbikes, two armored vehicles and a water cannon, tear gas. The scene at El Paraíso is frantic. People running, tripping and falling; I myself fleeing to the first trees I see. An old man with a walking cane can’t breathe; we lay him down on the ground and pull him toward us. The National Guard rides by, dragging out anyone who takes cover inside houses. Shouting. A GNB approaches us, aiming his gun at my mom and me, and screaming “Move, move!”

We get back on our feet as best we can, because our eyes and lungs are burning. It’s not 11:00 a.m. yet.

I stopped protesting years ago because, I admit, I stopped believing. I thought it was all the same, only politics going nowhere. Yesterday, I decided to go because I wanted to see what’s going on, and I left happy. Although I expected difficulties on the road, I couldn’t imagine what we went through.

The scene at El Paraíso is frantic. People running, tripping and falling. 

We join a group of people from other working class areas: Caricuao, Las Adjuntas, Ruiz Pineda, Carapita, Antímano, La Yaguara and Montalbán. It’s a lot of folks. A National Guard blockade awaits for us ahead and, although we have cars and motorcycles, we’re just unarmed civilians. They want us to go home, we refuse, they shoot tear gas and we hold our ground.

That’s why they attacked us. Perhaps our determination hurt their pride.

They force us off the freeway, but we still go on, fueled by hope and anger. We reach the subway, we must get to Chacao. We succeed.

Guaidó keeps his end of the bargain and we keep ours. When it’s time to return, the nearest subway station is closed, that was the first portent. We walk from Chacao to Zona Rental, the equivalent of four stations, and we see the signs as we go by: people scream and run, tear gas, police officers every five steps.

We get into the Zona Rental station, and there are so many people inside that boarding a train looks impossible. The train I do catch has no air conditioning and, in the middle of the trip, it stops. It’s hot and dark, fear burns on the skin and, in the overcrowded cart, people faint. Some men overcome the despair and open the cart’s doors.

We plunge into shadows. The only thing preventing us from falling on the rails is a small platform less than four feet wide, and an unstable railing we can barely hold on to. Dizziness. My stomach churns, my mind focuses just on the floor, on not falling down.

Keeping calm is a struggle against those high-voltage cables, against the crowd’s anguish. Farther ahead an unconscious lady is carried by a group of boys. Sons? Relatives? Strangers? Panic. Live and dead rats. Soot.

We emerge into a world we had forgotten about. I need a shower, but I settle for light. Getting to La Paz, the closest station to home, is another odyssey, and once we get there we hear that La Vega is impassable, that there’s no way up, and we have to avoid the main avenue and take a shortcut. Specifically, through a slum.

Protest in La Vega: A territory in conflict. Photo: EP Mundo retrieved. 

6:30 p.m.

People are out on the street. “Tense calm” is never more tense or less calm than when you’re living it. We only see a couple of motorcycles drive by, few pedestrians like us and boys in hoods. As some can smell the storm coming on a cloudy day, here you can smell disaster. The higher we get, the worse the itch in our throats; we meet more hooded boys and hear gunshots, shouts in tongues, the language of chaos. “Comanche territory,” I think, remembering Pérez Reverte. A territory in conflict, that belongs to no one,  no-man’s land, where gravel sounds like broken glass beneath your feet.

A territory in conflict, that belongs to no one,  no-man’s land, where gravel sounds like broken glass beneath your feet.

We run through burning tires, smoke and sweat. When we cross the point where slums meet the main avenue, which we can’t avoid, it’s already hell. It’s already night.

“Are you going through? Beware, they’re shooting and you might get hit.”

We pick up the pace, half terrified, half escorted by the same groups that are targets for all sorts of enemies. There’s lights floating in the night and only when we get closer we realize it’s another armored vehicle; we walk right by it. We turn a corner near a playground, there’s a lot of hooded kids, some in the corner scouting for policemen, others farther away, setting up barricades with tires doused in fuel. Fire, debris, glass. People making molotovs. When they see us, they say: “Move quickly, they’re coming.” As if on cue, gunshots behind. We bolt. Smoke mixed with gas. The boys are running too, but toward the playground and the repressive forces. The last thing I see before getting to my neighborhood is the eyes of one of the kids, determined, aware, alive.

At home, exhausted, I realize the night is just starting. Protests in La Vega will go on for hours, with their noises, their smells, their sights. The looting of a supermarket and a popular market pock the night battle. I fall asleep, not because I’m calm; I just can’t take any more.

I wake up today smelling the burned tires, the aroma lingering as I write this. Sometimes it’s stronger, sometimes weaker, but it’s always there. The metalworkers are already repairing the gates broken by looters, and I can hear the call from the street: “We go out at five!”

La Vega is a war zone. There’s trash, debris everywhere, almost no transit. Few went to work, because they’re not sure they’ll be able to make it back home.

This is our reality.