By Daniel A. Vázquez Díaz
My Experience in Vieques
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Note to the reader: This was written on 1 January 2000. The civil disobedience camps were all dismantled by the Navy during the May 4, 2000 arrests. However, the civil disobedience campaign continues. Puerto Ricans and foreigners alike constantly enter the restricted area. In the end justice will prevail. ¡Paz para Vieques! (Peace for Vieques!)
I just returned on December 30th from the civil disobedience camps in the island of Vieques. There are no words to describe what I experienced. I left San Juan around seven in the morning, on the 29th of that month. After the one hour trip I arrived in Fajardo and took the nine in the morning ferry to Vieques. Everywhere I could see people waiting in line to go to Vieques. Many of those taking the ferry carried tools, water, and supplies they brought to the civil disobedience camps. T-shirts referring to US Navy occupation of the island as abusive were commonplace. They were people from all social classes in Puerto Rico, all united for one cause.
The people in this picture are waiting for the fishermen to take
all of them to the different civil disobedience camps such as "La escuelita," and "Monte David."
The ferry trip to Vieques took around one hour. As we approached the island everyone took pictures of its coastline. The Navy topic floated in the air. After arriving I followed the instructions I had been given and walked to a nearby dock where I found about twenty persons looking for the fishermen who could take them to the Navy owned part of the island. So many were waiting that I was there for two hours before I could fit in someone's boat.
The thirty minute trip from Isabel Segunda (Vieques' civilian town) felt -- as someone later described it to me -- like entering a twilight zone. Suddenly all obvious signs of human life disappeared, this was followed -- seconds later -- by the fishermen mentioning that we already were inside the target zone. One of the hardest things is to believe that someone can pollute a place so beautiful. The beauty of Vieques, of its deserted beaches, huge cliffs and different shades of blue and green is incredible. Yet, before long signs of the military presence were noticeable. Everywhere one looked there were gigantic chunks of torn and mangled metal, frequently on top of cliffs towering over the sea. A few minutes later the infamous observation post where David Sanes was killed earlier this year was visible from our boat.
The civil disobedience camps are all on the eastern tip of the island within a radius of a few miles and can be reached, without major problems by foot. I spent my time there in the "Congreso Nacional Hostosiano" campsite. Time in camps such as the one I stayed in is spent showing visitors the island. The day I arrived construction of one of the permanent wooden dormitories had been halted as they waited for more wood. Our camp had latrines and a few other wind and solar power modern amenities.
I arrived to the camp around 1 p.m. on the 29th. About an hour later a New England lawyer gave me my first island tour. I quickly saw my first bomb. It was just laying there, strategically placed in the middle of the road, perfectly positioned to scare me. As most first timers I took pictures of the huge metal bullet which was about a foot and a half long (46 cm) and 8 inches (20 cm) thick. I later discovered this was a small projectile. During my walk signs of the Navy's presence became more frequent. There were huge boulders randomly placed in the middle of roads, concrete slabs and metal pieces dispersed at random. My tour guide then showed me the "OP" (Observation Post) where the Navy had its guards and warned me not to risk approaching it since only two days before there had been a small incident with a photographer.
We then walked into another area full of old airplanes, trucks and artillery. Those old equipments had so many bullet holes they resembled percolators. Bombs and all types of ammunition were everywhere. It was practically impossible to avoid stepping on the bombs, unfortunately one never knows if one of them can still explode.
The bombing had changed the place's natural topography .Everywhere there were small lakes filled with water: they really were bomb craters. Fortunately in the last few months of protests nature has returned. The green field where I stood had an interesting peculiarity: there were no big trees, only small brush. The trees had not had time to grow. Those who had been there before recalled the total desolation seen just a few months ago when it was all a muddy desert with no signs of life. We continued walking and taking pictures of all the small animals and birds that roamed the place. Minutes later we arrived to the island's southeastern shore to the most beautiful beach I had ever seen in my life.There the Puerto Rican Independence party had its camp.
Yet, the beauty of the white sand and the shades of light blue in the clear water, were misleading. The beach is in a place where depleted uranium bullets have been used. The sand and water are all polluted by high radiation levels.
We then walked around the beach and went back to our home camp; always taking pictures and talking to the many people staying at the different beaches.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening exploring some of the grounds close to the camp where I was staying. And later talking to all the very interesting people camping there.That night a boat, approached the beach and started looking at us with huge spotlights. I never found out, but, they were probably from the Navy.
After waking up the next day several people took me to see "Monte David:" one of the most polluted places in the whole island. Monte David is about thirty minutes away from the camp where I was staying. The road going there was full of debris more impressive than what I had seen the previous day. Before long parachutes with cluster bombs, and five (152 cm) or six (162 cm) foot long bullets -- the size of a medium person -- were common. One frequently encounters small ponds that have been either altered or created by the bombing. The frequent explosions create huge holes filled with rainwater. If one looks closely at them its evident they are too symmetric to be natural. They all have the same characteristics as they were all created by the bombings.
Around 10 a.m. we finally got to Monte David which sits on a high cliff in the coastline. The beauty of the island from that vantage point is undescribable. On top of the mountain there is a huge war tank that has been bombed with uranium and where the highest levels of contamination in the island are present. Next to that tank protesters have established a campsite. The hill's summit has very little vegetation, because of the destruction of the topsoil. The rocky earth is littered with war instruments everywhere one looks. Bombs are so common that the protesters use some of them as weights to hold their camping equipment in place.
Small wooden white crosses surround the summit, one for each person that has died because of Navy negligence People such as cancer patients and those injured by stray bombs. The contrast between the crosses, the tanks, the campsite, the rusty bullets, against a backdrop of a blue sea was nothing short of biblical. Militarism and destruction are symbolized by the many craters visible in the coral reefs in the sea below, and the different tones of blue in the water. Its rejection is shown by the crosses sitting next to the tank and the protesters' campsite. The people staying there, risking their lives, breathing radioactive substances symbolize what this whole struggle is about.
There are many other things I found out, such as the sunken ships, that contain some mysterious, pollutants. Or the six or seven times the Navy helicopter circled all the camps later that morning, taking pictures of everyone. I could talk about the Navy's hypocrisy, and false claims of job creation and environmentalism. But. I won't. I could write a whole book about everything I learned in the few hours I spent there.
Daniel A. Vázquez Díaz
Saturday 1 January 2000, San Juan, Puerto Rico