Friday, July 17, 2009

My Honduras- Report from Dani Grigsby

By Dani Grigsby
"You cannot find peace by avoiding life" - Virginia Woolf

It's time to write...

(HERE are my pictures - they follow this story chronologically.)

I had intended to fly to Japan, alone, to experience a country I'd never experienced. To have an adventure and to fill the unquenchable need I have to explore, experience and live.

My car was broken into days before my trip rendering me penniless as my wallet was taken, my accounts wiped clean of their assets. While money is replaceable it would not be replaced in the amount needed for me to eat, travel, find lodging while in Japan. I'd made arrangements and it would probably work out, if only barely.

I was talking online with long-time friend, Neil, and mentioned these stresses to him. He told me, 'well you should just join me - I'm going to Honduras to observe the coup and participate in the demonstrations.' He was joking, of course, but my interest was piqued. "I really will do it you know, if you're serious I'm going to switch my ticket." Twenty minutes later it was done. I was to fly out the next day to meet up with Neil in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (another country to which I'd never been - a part of the world to which I'd never traveled - a language I don't speak). To fly in to the middle of a military coup, a country under Marshall law and an uncertain future.

I left less than 24 hours later (after quickly dumping out my backpacking pack of its developed-world packed items, replacing them with my well used developing world travel gear). Slept the night in the Atlanta airport and caught my near empty flight to Teguc first thing the next morning.

Upon clearing customs I walked out into the street. I didn't see Neil at first as a large crowd of people was pressed against the glass at the front of the airport trying to see if their friends/family had arrived on the flight. He was standing on a ledge across the street and called me over.

Grabbing a cab we rushed to the near empty hostel threw down my gear and rushed to the protests. Neil and I soon found that we are quite compatible in conflict zone 'tourism.' There was never any discussion of, "where do you want to be? is it okay if we move closer?" Instead we were almost pushing each other over to get to the very front of everything, climb to the highest point to watch, push our way to the front of each large group of people.

The first protest was somewhat small, the people had closed down a bank downtown and were dancing and singing in the streets to a national music star, Polache. It was really incredible, the energy pulsating, the people enthusiastic. At one point I tried to climb atop a large wall to watch. A man already on top offered me his hand to assist me up, Neil joined. He began to tell us of the trek he'd made through military road blocks and on bus. People were being pulled from his bus and arrested if they were thought to be pro-Zelaya. He and his friends got off the bus and had to hitch and walk their way into the city just to be at the protest. Just to participate in their democracy. To be heard. He risked his life to stand up for what he believed in, his country. It was amazing. (thanks to Neil for translating for me - no hablar espanol)

The people did a short march around the block, chanting, singing, dancing. The atmosphere was festive. They were hopeful. The people were uniting. The energy was contagious the air electric. The streets were filled with banners and fliers 'GOLPISTA FUERA.' All walls were adorned with graffiti. The country may be owned by the military at the moment but the people had the streets and it was exciting.

Neil and I attracted attention and people began telling us their stories, unprovoked. Neil listened and would translate for me. The stories were simply incredible. This would be a constant for us for the next several days of marching. Constantly being inspired.

We ate with friends of Neil's from Honduras that night (great food! balearas...however you spell it - como se dise tortilla en espanol? hahahahaha), returned to the hotel to watch some TV - only to find the stations taken over by the golpista government's propaganda, it was rather eerie. Neil sat on the roof and spoke with men who had traveled days to get into the city to participate in the marches, I crashed.

That night we awoke to the first of the bombings.

The next day we woke early to join the march from the university to the airport. A long distance. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the University. The energy from the day before was back, only multiplied a thousand fold. The people were told to organize by neighborhood so they could watch out for one another. Neil and I laughed as we stood together...our neighborhood of two (from the US) was complete :). Before beginning to march a pastor offered a prayer. Be you a praying person or not, it was moving.

As the march began Neil and I climbed to the top of a bridge to observe. The line of people just kept coming and coming and coming and coming and coming. I had chills (and do again writing this) as I watched a never ending sea of people chanting and singing and laughing. United in a belief that they were going to bring justice to their country. It was beautiful.

Not soon into the march the military began sending out helicopters to fly low over the protesters to intimidate (there was no other reason for their presence). It had little effect as the people just screamed at them, shaking fists in the air (I'll admit, it worked on me a few times...!).

We saw many graffiti artists along the route... :)...

We marched in the hot sun for hours, up and down hills, under bridges, past roads blocked by the military. All in peace. All in unity. All in a spirit of conviviality. Truth be told, it was a hell of a lot of fun. People commented on my sun burn (obtained from the previous weekend's 100 mile bike race) - "you're a tomato!" they exclaimed!

It must be noted that of the team of Neil and Dani I stood out significantly more. Light hair, blue eyes, light (bright red) skin. Through that I never felt threatened, never targeted, I was accepted by the people even though I spoke no Spanish (though I tried...accidentally telling a woman I hated food when she offered me her sandwich...hahahaha). I was a part of the people, regardless.

We made it all the way to the airport to find the military had blocked the entrance and Zelaya's plane was not to land that day. We stayed and enjoyed the atmosphere around the airport until the crowd was told to disperse and meet again the next morning to march on the airport.

Happy 4th of July - Neil and I had a true 4th this year having spent the day marching for freedom. Never going to forget that.

Second night waking to bombings.

"A woman's whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day her whole life" - Woolf

Got up and didn't march with the people, instead climbed to the top of a hill with a giant Christ statue on top, with a view over all of Tegucigalpa. It was amazing. We then got anxious and cabbed to the airport to observe the goings on. Our cabbie had to drive us around the back way as the traditional roads were closed. When he dropped us off we were confused. The streets by airport were empty. Eerily empty. The red cross had established itself in each back street but the streets were bare. We soon saw military and police crowded into trucks, sirens blaring speeding down the road toward town. We looked at each other and immediately followed.

Shortly after we realized that the military and police had set up a road block. Blocking the people from marching on the airport, and we were BEHIND it. We debated which side of the military was the safest side to be on and decided we'd stick with the press corps for the time being. We positioned ourselves on a ledge overlooking the military in formation - all waiting, tensely, for the people to arrive. Which, in time they did - but the military chased us off at this point (I posted a video of this previously) - so we ran behind the barricade and climbed a grassy hill on the other side with military in front of us and behind. We positioned ourselves behind the press workers wearing full flack jackets, toting gas masks and helmets. Nerves were high.

A group of protesters marched in front linked arm in arm and placed themselves as a barricade between other protesters and the military, "we will not be violent!" was the cry shouted form megaphones. AND THEY WEREN'T. I'm emotional about this. The people were never violent. I have footage of them handing water to the military men who were blocking their path to welcome their democratically elected president home. The people kept chanting at the military, "Pueblo unete!" True ahimsa in Honduras.

From our vantage point we saw the military general talking on his radio and the police chiefs joining with him. The press began to swarm. Not too long after the announcement came over the loud speaker that the military was going to RETREAT! The people had taken the streets! Row by row the military retreated, "give them room! give them time to get away!" was the cry from the loudspeaker. Brotherhood, in its truest form.

After the last of the police had dispersed the people slowly began marching forward. Oh the atmosphere was lively! I filmed for four solid minutes on my crappy digital camera as the wave of protesters marched by. They saw Neil and I with some of the press corps on the hill and they shouted and cheered and smiled and waved at us. Victoriously.

We slowly made our way to the gates of the airport. Zelayas plane was coming the radio reports were saying over and over. The people dispersed a bit around the airport and waited. Neil and I made our way to the front of the crowd that had gathered by the runway. A small fence with barbed wire was all that separated us from the military behind.

We sat in front of a large stone wall. It was hot, we were tired but we were excited. Both of us felt that the people had done it. Zelaya would land and the people would welcome back their president. The military was cornered (seemingly) at the airport. The people had won back their country, peacefully.

The military began moving trucks, and small aircraft onto the runway. It soon became clear something was up. After an hour or so the people became restless. Would it happen? Would Zelaya be allowed to land? Over the loud speaker it was announced to the military (Neil has this on film), "we are going to march onto the runway. we will welcome our president. do not shoot at us, your fellow Hondurans. we will be peaceful!" Slowly the men in front began to cut down the fence while Neil and I snapped photos.

Translation of video below:
"Please do not fire on any Hondurans. Your responsibility is to protect the Honduran people against...(inaudible) Everything you consume and have is paid for by the sweat of our people. This government and its power is over. It has been denounced by the international community. Now, our president is about to arrive and the people will recieve him. We will not permit, for any reason, that they will kidnap him again. So dear soldier of our country, we have nothing against you, we have nothing against you..."

The rest is a slow motion blur.

Without any warning rapid bursts of gun fire began. Immediately men, women AND CHILDREN began screaming and falling to the ground. Neil and I were very close to the fence. Too close. We crouched low instinctively and I grabbed desperately to his arm. "We need to MOVE!" Neil screamed.

We were stuck in front of the stone wall. We pushed our way with some people around to the left side of the wall at which point the women around Neil and I tripped. We dropped hands so Neil could try and help them up. Meanwhile I attempted to turn on my camera so I could video tape the shooting (keep in mind the gunfire is still going on, non-stop). In doing so I tripped and fell on top of the women as well.

At this point the military began shooting tear gas. There's no way to describe the feeling of tears gas. It was probably more terrifying than the sound of bullets being fired around you. It settled on us and immediately began to sting and burn our eyes, noses, throats and chests. I couldn't see, could hardly breath and all the while all I could think was, "people are dying, oh my GOD, people are dying." The gun fire continued, unabated. Neil and I were separated. He began to scream my name at the top of his lungs. I could barely see, or think but was able to follow the sound of his voice behind a Popeyes Chicken situated across the street from the airport runway. En masse we arrived with others fleeing the gunfire. At this point both Neil and I realized we hadn't been recording and turned on our cameras, thus the footage you see is late into the shooting.

Neil asked for water - I was so much in shock I offered him my coke (not sure what I was thinking). The shooting began again and we ran behind some cars. I stood up to film what I saw - my camera lens was clouded from tear gas so you can't tell but from behind the car I could see hundreds of rocks being lobbed over the fence at the military. Rocks against bullets. ROCKS. Children, women, elderly, PEOPLE fleeing from bullets and retaliating with ROCKS. The Palestinian intifada comes to!

The shooting continued and our hiding spot was soon too crowded for safety. To see people running toward you en masse is terrifying. I thought the military was chasing us, that they'd crossed through the fence.

Neil and I grabbed hands and ran together, climbing a fence and filming the continued shooting. We ran further down the street and collected ourselves.

After some amount of time (who knows...time was irrelevant through all this, it could have been days, hours, seconds) we decided (again, without consulting each other) to head back to the scene. What had happened?

It must be said this is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO WRITE. I'm having a really hard time. This is tough.

We watched people dousing themselves in water to wash off tear gas - which hurts for a long time after. The closer we got the angrier the people were. As we got to the front of the scene of the shooting people immediately started dragging us around by the wrists, "FILM THIS!!!!" they screamed. They showed us the front of the Popeyes Chicken the building behind which we'd sought refuge. It was riddled with bullets. We then were taken to blood stains - the red cross workers had cleared up most of the carnage and injured.

Finally a man dragged Neil into the front of the crowd (me in tow) we saw the blood before we knew what it was and we both dropped back a bit.

People died in this shooting. A child died. No matter what the international press reported we heard it from Red Cross workers. A child no older than 10, two men 17 and 25. One shot through the head. Neil and I saw this later. No more details are necessary. But people died. Peacefully protesting a coup. Lives ended.

The crowd was deflated. People walked around in a daze. Neil and I meandered without talking back down the street toward the front of the airport. We climb atop a ledge to watch the airstrip for a few minutes. To breathe. We sat next to several Hondurans seemingly doing the same thing. We were alive. And I was angry.

We continued toward the airport entrance just on time to see the military in full armor still guarding it. A smaller crowd still stood in front of them chanting with so much enthusiasm. They sang their national anthem. My body had chills and I stood there, fist up in support and listened. I couldn't sing along, I didn't know the words, but at that moment I, too, was Honduran.

To guard this sacred emblem
We shall march, oh fatherland, to our death;
Our death will be honoured
If we die thinking of your love.
Having defended your holy flag,
And shrouded in its glorious folds,
Many, Honduras, shall die for you,
But all shall fall in honour.

Then the announcement came that Zelayas plane was circling overhead. We stood, head's skyward and listened as Zelayas voice was broadcast over the radio. He was trying to land but after the shooting the people weren't able to take the runway and the military blocked it. He circled for at least 30 minutes - his people cheering below. In the end the flight was diverted and the military succeeded in its goal - keep Zelaya out. And people had to die for it.

It was then announced that the country-wide curfew was to begin that night at 6:30 Neil and I had to run to catch a cab - nobody would take us as everyone was scrambling to get home before 6:30 - being caught out after meant arrest or worse (we'd witnessed this on previous nights).

We made it home and got online - this is when I wrote the blog post on 7/5/09. We were in shock.

We spent the entire next day in shock and on lock down. We did venture out into the city but not to the protests. We eaves dropped on the press corps staying at our hotel.

The airport was closed so Neil missed his flight. We spent a great amount of time that day on the telephone trying to book us both flights out of San Pedro de Sula. Neil's was to leave the next day. We stayed up late late talking and caught a bus to San Pedro in the early morning.

Leaving Tegucigalpa was defeating for me. I felt like I was betraying the people somehow. I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

We hadn't gotten far from city when our bus stopped, "there's a roadblock" the driver announced. Neil and I immediately hopped off the bus to protests from the driver, "it's not safe!" and marched up to see the road block. This was all it was:

'Never underestimate the ability of a small group of dedicated people to change the world. It's the only thing that ever has' - Margaret Meade

Yes, it was inconvenient. Neil missed his flight. But the people were not defeated. I will always take that with me.

We arrived in San Pedro shortly before curfew. We walked around the plaza, got food and returned to our hostel. My flight was booked out the next day.

Leaving Neil in the country was even worse than leaving Teguc - again, I felt I was betraying! Though, I barely made it out of the country. My passport was flagged for some reason and the security took it for 1.5 hours. I crouched on the floor in near tears asking in broken spanish what was going on. Nobody could answer. I was nervous. Eventually they searched my luggage several times (I'd hidden by SD cards in my bra) and let me pass. I got to the plane 20 minutes before take off. Quite stressful.

As I boarded and Honduras floated away beneath me I couldn't deal with the images I had in my head, the chants that floated through my brain.

Our lives are full of defining moments. Or moments that need defining. Honduras was for me, both.

Why did I go? To be a witness. Did me being there change the outcome of events? No. Was my presence necessary? No. Did it mean anything to anyone? Yes. For one, you're reading this. For another, I met so many Hondurans who were so excited to see me - just because I was foreign, white, maybe even "wealthy" (ha!). Do I want to be glorified for what I saw? No! It's not about me. It's not about Neil. This was never about us. This was about Honduras. This was about the people who refused to be silent. To people world-wide who refuse to roll over and accept what is thrown at them. The oppressed, the voiceless. I went. I heard and in my teeny, tiny way I gave voices to the voiceless. And those voices have changed something inside me. So, I went to be a witness. I returned Honduran - feeling more human, connected and alive than perhaps ever in my life.

And I'm going to keep talking, even though it's hard. Even though it makes my stomach churn and I wake up at night thinking the military is attacking my room. I cannot be silent. I can't for the sake of those I left behind. Those who didn't have the luxury of boarding a plane to safety. Those who will continue to take to the streets until justice is restored.

Thanks for reading.

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