Saturday, July 30, 2011

Police, teargas & burnt tyres...

When I woke on a rather warmer Wednesday morning on July 20 after weeks of chilly weather, little did I know the adventure and chaos that happened later would ruin what should have otherwise been a good day.

July 20 was a day; nationwide demonstrations were announced so most shops and businesses were closed. Streets were mostly deserted and very few minibuses were travelling. I later learnt some drivers and conductors marched in the demonstrations.
Anyway curiosity got the better part of me as a journalist when I finally boarded a Blantyre bound minibus and disembarked near Mandala deciding to walk towards Highway road and the Clock Tower were protesters were expected to gather.
As soon as I walked towards the Clock Tower I noticed heavy police presence and police vehicles nearby.  Some five policemen stared at me as I headed in their direction but I remained unmoved and walked confidently feeling like a BBC journalist in a war zone or something. 
By the time I had passed the clock tower at 8am I noticed about 20 demonstrators dressed in red gathered at the filling station opposite where I was; loudly chanting their sorrows.
Suspected police vehicle with smashed windscreen
after  the looting 
The police seemed to have outnumbered the demonstrators at the time and their vehicles kept on circulating in the area while some organizers and lawyers where busy trying to vacate an injunction sought the previous night by Chiza Mbekeani I heard.
About an hour later, the protesters started moving from the filling station and headed towards Old Town Hall downtown where there was a larger crowd. By the time I got there I saw many enthusiastic but angry men and women in red clothing and scarves chanting and dancing and heavily armed police watching nearby.
The police allowed journalists to take their pictures and once in a while they were seen hanging around in premises behind.  One wore what looked like a teargas mask he never removed but they were friendly to all.
Luckily I met other journalists there and a friend who would later help me out during the drama that was to follow several hours later.  Back at the premises where the demonstrations were supposed to start, representatives of various media houses and politicians gathered waiting well past lunchtime for a vacation of the injunction. 
I could hear many complaining of hunger and thirst since all shops were closed and there was no sight of a food vendor in the streets. Even hunting for airtime units was a hassle; none could be seen nearby.

A protester before an injunction was lifted
There were some questionable characters including a shabbily dressed drunk man recording people with a Blackberry phone while another posed with cassava in his mouth probably mocking his hunger. 
By the time the injunction was vacated later in the afternoon a tired crowd of people who had spent long hours and hungry in the sun positioned themselves to march.
A slight disagreement erupted as some wanted to march through Blantyre city centre where many shops and various property were but the organizers bluntly told them to use the approved road from Old Town through CI then Kamba on route to the Civic Offices.
Black Maria leaves for central Blantyre
An intimidating police van popularly known as Black Maria was suddenly seen rushing off in the opposite direction towards the city centre as some unknown people were said to have began looting some shops.  This was evident when some police officers were seen carrying Bata shoes mostly one side of a pair and piling them in a heap at the Old Town hall.
The July 20 peaceful demonstration scheduled for Blantyre then began away from the city centre.  A huge crowd including older women headed in the opposite CI direction marching peacefully.
Police vehicle starts firing teargas behind the marchers  
Barely five minutes after the people had started marching a police vehicle approached from behind and officers fired teargas while the ‘Black Maria’ went in front and blocked the route teargas smoke everywhere as part of the crowd jumped into a nearby bush.
I heard many women ask what wrong they had done and why the police was showering them with teargas but alas, teargas continued filling the air. Others with water bottles started washing their faces while some men advised women to cover their mouths with a cloth and not breathe in the air.  It was terrible as I felt the teargas enter my nose like pepper, stinging pepper as I gasped for air.
Black smoke  filled the air
Before I could even breath more teargas was fired into the air and tears filled my eyes as my friend helped me run into the bush as the ‘Black Maria’ kept on travelling back and forth with officers suspected to be firing teargas.
The air was thick with teargas. Never in my life did I run so fast when I heard something like a shot fired into the air but alas the Sunny Side road was also blocked by police. 
All of a sudden I saw men make a huge silly mistake by removing cement pillar blocks from the entrance of some houses using them to block the roads while others grabbed dry grass, billboards and tyres which they lit to create a fire block making matters worse and the police more aggressive and suspicious I feel.
Black smoke filled the air as some men started pelting police vehicles with huge stones while running away from the teargas and blocking the road with huge stones and tyres.
It was like a scene from a movie  as we ran towards CI as the ‘Black Maria’ still travelled back and forth causing men to tell some frightened women not to run into other people’s premises as if they had done something wrong.
Black Maria in front of marchers 5 minutes after starting 
Running in front to avoid the teargas, I ran although I was hungry, tired and exhausted until I reached CI and saw the Catholic church while holding my rosary and to be honest scared and annoyed with my curiosity. 

Just when I was about to catch my breath I saw our company car and quickly ran to flag it down!  But my relief was short-lived as the route to where I was going was blocked by demonstrators and police watching from a distance. 
Running towards CI
I had no choice but to get out and cautiously walk in their direction to avoid them attacking me until they turned at Kamba leaving burnt tyres along the route reportedly heading towards Civic Centre. 

As I walked continued walking towards my destination I found all shops and groceries closed along the route and young men blocking the road near Zingwangwa market, burning tyres and once again I had to block my nose and struggle to breathe till I got to my destination! Thank God I made it through that day, July 20 without injuries but that was too risky and a learning experience.

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Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of the Sirius star. this space.