I went to a presentation today about the military crackdown of the recent uprising in Burma. Terrible, and disturbing in and of itself. But I managed, somehow, to sit and look pictures of beatings and corpses. Until one image flashed on the screen and I nearly had a breakdown.
It showed the inside of a monastery raided by the military, with broken glass, upended furniture and a pool of blood on the floor.
It wasn’t, by any means, the most graphic picture in the series. But it triggered ghosts of a trauma I thought I had managed to lay to rest.
It looked so much like images I still carry burned into my retinas that I almost vomited. I wanted to run out, but didn’t trust myself to squeeze out of the crowded room without freaking out worse, so I stayed in my chair and rode it out.
Just over six years ago, when I was 19 years old and living in Barcelona, I went to Genoa to join protests against the G8 summit. The entire experience was incredibly intense. What I remember most, these years later, is the feeling of menace. I’ve been to some fairly dodgy places in my life, but nowhere has compared to the palpable sense of danger I felt from the moment I set foot in the city until the moment I left, speeding out of the city through back roads afraid for my life. The pinnacle for me, or perhaps more accurately the darkest pit, was the raid on the Diaz school on July 21, where people participating in the Genoa Social Forum, including myself, had been staying during the summit.
I reprint below –typos and all-- an email I sent out the afternoon of July 22, 2001, which describes the situation with much more immediacy than anything I could possible write now.
hey. first i want to let everyone know that i am okay(physically at least). so are cj, shira, macia, soren,alessia and everyone from la fabrica. (sorry for thoseof you who don,t know these people, but i don`t have time or energy to write 2.
i dont know if youve heard anything about the raid on the indymedia center and the school across the street here in genoa. theres some pretty good general information about it at www.indymedia.org.
when it happened i was sitting outside in front of the indymedia center, where there were some meetings going on. things had been pretty tense but it was late and i was very tired, and thinking about going to sleep. all of a sudden, somebody shouted police, and we looked up and saw lines and lines of riot police running down the street towards us. for a minute we nearly ran into the school that had been used as a sleeping place for GSF activists, but at the last minute we turned and ran into the indymedia center, just before the gate got shut. we closed the building up, and ran to the windows. i didnt get a good view, but people who were looking said that they saw the police drive a truck through the gate of the school, then run towards the building, screaming and throwing bottles. just after that the police came into the media center. they made all of us sit on the floor next to the wall, and then searched and trashed the building, taking as much legal support and networking databases as they could. the floor where i was was very tense, with the police walking up and down with sticks and yelling in italian, but after a while it relaxed a bit, and nobody got hurt. they kept us there for about 45 minutes without searching or id-ing anybody.
then they left and someone ran into the hall saying really shaken up saying they had massacred the people across the street. we ran out and there were lines and lines of riot police between us and the other building. they starting bringing stretchers into the building. they were going in and out for over an hour. people saw large black bags being carried out as well. it was hard to see much, but i know for sure that i saw one person being carried out on a stretcher still in his sleeping bag, with a bleeding headwound. it was awful. it just kept going on and on and on. and the tension kept mounting with the police as we were all screaming and crying. after they carried all of the stretchers out, and arrested everyone who could walk out, they ran back to their vans and left, leaving the building open.
when they were gone, we went to the building to tru and get peoples things out, and to try to see what had happened. there was blood everywhere, peoples bags dumped out and scattered, doors to anywhere someone could hide smashed open. everywhere it looked like people had been sleeping there were pools of blood. then the journalists came in and starting filming everything and anyone who was crying and it was even worse. i tried to keep focuse on saving peoples personal things, but i had to leave the building for a while after being in a stairwell with a bloody board lying in a huge pool of blood with a handfull of hair next to it. everywhere that in looked like people had been sleeping was covered in blood. there was blood all down the stairways and smeared all over the walls. there was a radiator with a big circle of blood on it and drips on the floor below. and the police left the building open for everyone to see it.
there were some people in the building who managed to get out by climbing onto scaffolding, and some who managed to hide. everyone has said that when the police came in everyone was just running and trying to get away, or asleep.
when the police would come into a room people would lie down on the floor and try not to provoke them, but that the police were obviosely enjoying themselves.
there still hasnt been a full list of everyone arrested and hospitalized released. crusty from petrushka in defenitly in the hospital with a head injury.
im afraid of being in this city, but the people from GSF seem to have abondoned everyone, so im staying to try and help with legal support. ive been really lucky so far and i hope it will last. people have been organizing safe places to sleep for those of us who are staying, so i should be fine.
but please, tell everyone you know about what has happened here. the media is really shutting it out and its really important that people know. anything you can do to try to raise attention (even forwarding this email if neccesary, removing the beginning bits) would be really appreciated by everyone.
The end of this story is that there was no safe place to sleep in Genoa that night. The list of those arrested and hospitalized did come out that afternoon. 62 people were beaten into the hospital, nearly all of them with head trauma. Almost everyone involved in the demonstrations had fled town, with most of the organizers from the larger NGO’s regrouping in Milan.
My instinct for self-preservation is stronger than this story may suggest – though I did, after all, at least have the sense to run to the building full of journalists when the riot police showed up – but after what I had witnessed, leaving town while people were still in the hospital seemed unconscionable. It came down to just a few of us left in the media center trying to coordinate some sort of local clearinghouse for information and to get the arrestee’s belongings to safe places.
As night fell, though, it became clear that staying in Genoa any longer would’ve been suicidal. We were being tailed by police as we tried to go to a place to sleep. Some signals were made which, according to my Italian friends, were unambiguously death threats. I don’t even remember exactly how we got out of the city, but I remember almost not being able to breathe from fear until we got onto the autostrada towards Torino.
In the immediate aftermath, the degree to which I’d been traumatized was clear. The next day was the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten so drunk I couldn’t take my own shoes off. I was living in a fog I couldn’t crawl out of until I went into the Alps to sit in the forest for a few days. When I visited Torino a few years later, I recognized nothing in the city. I still haven’t been back to Genoa.
But I thought I’ve been able to put the experience behind me. It’s not something I ever talk about. I honestly don’t think I’d even thought about it in years. But I learned today, it still cuts pretty deep, and probably always will.
If the description above isn’t graphic enough, there’s a film at: