Monday, June 20, 2011

Power

Every day was a new experience. I never really knew what to expect.

On Monday, January 17, residents and protesters returned to Bourguiba Avenue. It was amazing to see how the uprising had empowered people. They were no longer afraid. Men and women of all ages were stopping me and other members of the press on the street and speaking their minds out loud for the first time in perhaps two decades. One man exclaimed that he felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

A revolution doesn't happen overnight, even if the head of state resigns and flees the country. Tunisians wanted the whole system to change. Their first demand that first Monday after Ben Ali resigned was for government ministers and officials associated with Ben Ali's all-powerful political party, RCD, to resign as well.


The Tunisian Army was in charge of securing Bourguiba, after the previous day's sniper shootout. The avenue was closed at either end to motorists, and to demonstrations. Protesters amassed at the end of the avenue, farthest from the heavily-guarded Ministry of Interior, but were kept at bay by the Army.

Public opinion toward the armed forces was different than it was toward the police/internal security structure. To put it simply, Ben Ali built up a powerful police force and used it to enforce repressive policies on his own people. The military, small, underfunded and politically weak by contrast, was handling the demonstration with restraint and had stepped into the role of mediator between the protesters and police.


The army shot a water canon at the protesters, trying for several hours to contain the growing demonstration.




People kept expressing gratitude for the military's restraint toward the protesters.


Finally the crowd overwhelmed the soldiers and surged forward, facing off with police near the Ministry of Interior. The confrontation was inevitable: the police responded the only way they knew how, with force.


I only remember trying to stay out of the direct line of the tear gas launcher. I was wary of tear gas canisters pointed at my head.

When a tear gas canister falls in a crowd, people usually panic and run blindly in any direction to get away from it. A couple of times I was swept away by the sheer force of a desperate, stampeding mob.


But protesters didn't disperse. Carrying bags of lemons needed in case of tear gas, they marched away from Bourguiba and the Ministry of Interior into a shopping district.


Men stood ready to protect a shop from trouble.


Police argued with protesters.


More tear gas. I was barely able to compose this photo before I was overcome. I was again working alongside other photographers, and we took a minute to recover. Protesters came up to us and passed out lemons and sodas.


The following day was even more violent. A demonstration formed at the far end of Bourguiba Avenue again and pressed forward toward the Ministry of Interior.

A friend of Lucas Dolega, the photographer who died, had stopped working when Lucas was injured and lent me a helmet and goggles. At least I didn't feel so unprotected.


This time the police charged the protesters, whacking people with truncheons. I noticed the police made a sort of line in front of the protesters, but I didn't realize what was happening until they surged forward, batons raised.


This policeman took a swing at me and I screamed. He narrowly missed.


This time the dispersion techniques worked: protesters were separated into groups throughout the downtown area. However, they stood their ground and continued peacefully demonstrating...


...and also running when necessary.


But they always came back.


The tear gas launcher.




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