Safe haven

Contributed by on 19/01/13

I land with my back to the dirty wall, making a dull thud, gasping as what breath I have left leaves my lungs forcefully. The alley stinks of dirt, urine and tear gas. I try to focus, try to breathe, but the gas burns my eyes and throat. I can hear the sounds of the riot all around me, screams and sirens coming together in a violent cacophony. Somewhere to my left, I can hear glass breaking; probably a store window making an acquaintance with a brick, or a piece of pavement.

I try to collect myself, stop trembling for just a minute. I can hear someone screaming close to me, and the unmistakable sound of aluminium meeting flesh. What should I do? Can I go out there again? Can I help? Or I am just going to get beaten to the ground too?

I didn’t see how it started. I couldn’t; I was too far back. People were marching, chanting, there was a palpable energy in the air. We stood still when we reached our destination, but we kept chanting. It started raining after a while, but no one cared. We didn’t move an inch. I felt all-powerful, invincible; nothing could move us from that spot. No one could take it away from us.

Then someone screamed. The chant broke, and the crowd started ebbing. Some people cried out, trying to rally the rest; some tried to push back. Others withdrew into the alleys around us. Within minutes, our lines had broken. The police pushed through, swinging their batons indiscriminately, shouting insults and threats. Pieces of concrete bounced off their shields and somewhere, a Molotov blew up, wrapping a car in flames.

I tried to take pictures as I saw two riot policemen beat a girl about my age and size, but someone knocked me over, and I lost my camera in the commotion. Then I felt my eyes start to burn; gas. I felt a hand grab me, while a male voice shouted, “Get up! What are you sitting there for? Are you crazy? Get up, come on!” I was dragged through the streets, before the man let go and disappeared in the crowd.

I kept running, my lungs now burned with each breath. I couldn’t keep up with the stragglers around me. The alley entrance seemed like it popped up out of nowhere; I just ran inside with what strength I’d left. I stayed there, back to the wall, trying to catch my breath and remain unseen.

I try to blink through my tears, and my throat is hoarse from the gas and the screaming. I can’t even remember screaming. I slide down, and sit on the dirty pavement. I try not to cry, but I can’t. I wonder what a lovely picture I must make, a girl sprawled on the street in a foul, dirty, graffiti-covered alley, sobbing and wheezing. Some activist, eh? Some fighter.

No.

I can breathe again. I wipe my tears, although my eyes still burn.

I lost my camera, but I still have my phone. I can still write this. I can keep going.

I can keep fighting.

I get up; my body aches, and my clothes and my hair are filthy and smell of gas. I can hear people regrouping near the alley. They’re chanting again.

I get back out there.

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