Thursday, November 22, 2007

"C'etait chaud a Dakar hier"

Litteral translation: It was hot in Dakar yesterday.
Actual meaning: Things were heating up in Dakar yesterday.
That's what everyone was saying today, after the worst riots this city has seen in years. Here's how it all unfolded:
I'm in the office, when around 1:30pm, my boss comes in announcing there are demonstrations downtown and that we should probably leave early so that we make it home before they get out of hand and reach our office (about 20 minutes away), just to be on the safe side. A march by union workers protesting the high cost of living had been planned for that afternoon. But separate protests had spontaneously started that same morning, sparked by a presidential decision to clear street vendors from the sidewalks in order to improve traffic flow. (Dakar's streets are clogged with people selling everything and anything, because it's the only work they can find. The president's decision meant thousands of people had just lost their livelihoods.)

I ask my boss is this isn't something we should be covering. She says, yah, actually you're right. The rioters had already reached my neighbourhood anyway, so I was going to be amongst them no matter what. So off I head to where the march of union workers was supposed to take place. It's calm, but people have begun gathering and police trucks are already stationed.

The march begins like any demonstration in Canada would - people holding signs, whistling, filling the streets and walking in groups. I find a big truck driving along blasting music, so I hop on to get a good vantage point for pictures. I interview people who complain about different things: teachers who have never received the extra money the govt promised them; journalists protesting the arbitrary arrest of their colleagues by the authorities, men who make $20 a month; get no medical insurance and can't afford their rent; others whose tiny salaries are expected to sustains dozens of family members (because unemployment is so high here, if one family member gets a job, he/she is expected to take care of everyone else - including distant relatives - who cannot provide for themselves).

So, I'm walking and interviewing people in the crowds, when all of a sudden people start running in one direction because the police have fired tear gas. Eventually, the crowds disperse enough for me to see the dozens of riot police that are now confronting the protesters head on. I walk off to the side a bit, trying to get pictures, conduct interviews and at the same time, be aware of where I should and shouldn't be to avoid trouble. Police push people in certain directions, and if the officers face any resistance, they don't hesitate to beat people with their rubber truncheons. From what I can see, it's often the police instigating the aggression. An old man, who must have been 70 years old, shows me a bloody cut on his arm.

Then, another tear gas grenade. This time, I get a good wiff of it as I hurry along with everyone else trying to escape the smoke. It hurts a little to inhale, but I'm far enough away that it doesn't really affect me. At one point, as I take out my camera to take a picture of the police, and I realize my hand is trembling! I never get too close, but it's still enough of an experience to make you slightly nervous. Every now and then, the crowds come together again, until a warning shot or tear gas force them to separate.

Within half an hour, the police have basically shut the whole thing down, clearing the main street and threatening to hit anyone who doesn't move where they tell them to. When you do as they say, you find yourself getting pushed into side streets, and the road you would take to get home is blocked. Police trucks have parked in the middle of the intersection and are guarding every corner. As my journalist friend Cyr says, when I run into him, "It's like a civil war zone here." It's a bit of an exaggeration of course, but it was certainly an experience.
Still, the afternoon march by the trade unions was nothing in comparison to the riots of that morning (when I was safely in my office). Young street vendors burned tires and cars, pillaged the mayor's office, threw rocks at police and shattered windshields. I stopped by the hair salon where my friends work on my way home after the afternoon march. They said they were forced to close their shutters because the mobs were throwing rocks at the store windows and burning the wooden tables people use as stands.

The street vendors got some concessions from the government in the end - new places in the city that would be reserved for them. The streets were empty as I walked home from Wolof class today. Even the lady who normally sells peanuts outside our door wasn't there anymore.

It's the street vendors' riots that made the front pages of the paper today, eclipsing the wider and more far-reaching problems of lack of jobs, low salaries and high cost of basic commodities. So the government solved one problem, but it certainly won't be able to solve the other anytime soon. People are sick and tired of being poor and jobless. And there is certainly mounting dissatisfaction with this government. I'm sure some component of these riots was just kids looking for an excuse to cause trouble. But there's no denying that people are frustrated and increasingly unwilling to tolerate this situation. The city was basically back to normal today, and I don't think we'll see riots like these for a while, but when this kind of tension exists, it doesn't take much to unleash people's anger.


Kamal Shaath said...

Alright... Now I can just see the comment from your mother worried about you...
Be Safe & Take Care.....

I would have to say.... if I was in your shoes... I'd be doing the same... it is exciting to report in a middle of amn incident, riot etc... but remeber that during those events things happen so fast that you may be caught off-guard so easily... We never wanna see you in the wrong place at the wrong time..
Again Be CAREFUL and Take care.

Ghadeer said...

Kamal! you are the fist to comment among our group .. how nice and lovely especially when you say what we want to say ..

Heba please.. be very very careful and be safe..

Your article has brought so many memories that I don't want to remember .. although I haven't forgot the smell of burnt tires and tears smoke ... and as Kamal said .. things happen too fast in these please be careful!

Thanks for sharing this with us.. life is more complicated than we think sometimes and more generious than we deserve in other times..
Alhamdullah, after all!

Take care hun!

Asif said...

Wow that sounds like quite the day of madness. That so cool that you were in the middle of the action. I knew that you were one for the real action when I told you that my sister was interested in working in Iraq and you thought it was a good idea :) I'm glad that your starting to build your journalistic pedigree. I can't wait to hear the rest of your stories when you get back (if I'm still here :s). Take care and I hope you get the most out of the rest of your time down there,