The nightmare began on the 13 of April when hundreds of paramilitary police and federal army invaded 10 de Abril. They hurled around CS gas and beat heads as they entered, the villagers' attempt to block their passage breaking up in chaos and confusion. Children choked on the poisonous gas and shoots rang out as the soldiers fired into the air. Three Norwegian international observers were violently apprehended, and thrown into the back of a truck with a hood over their heads. The occupying forces then began sacking houses and stores, taking work tools, provisions and anything they saw of value.
Alfredo, a 17 year old villager, ran to help the Norwegians. For his trouble, he was beaten, stripped and kicked into the truck. All the way to the military base back in the nearby town of Altamirano, they punched and threatened Alfredo. " Maybe we'll shoot you now and throw you over the side of the mountain," they said. Back at the base, the beating continued, he was interrogated ( Do you know Marcos?), hit repeatedly in the solar plexus (leaves no bruising) and then held in a small empty water tank for 24 hours. He was not formally charged nor allowed access to a lawyer.
And while Alfredo was being tortured, the 3 Norwegians shared the same fate as the 12 international observers who were deported from the village of Taniperla just three days previous. Within a few hours, but not before a thorough interrogation, they found themselves being pushed onto a plane accompanied by a couple of thugs from the Migration Police. An army of press greeted them at the airport in Oslo and so began the media turmoil.
Back at 10 de Abril, people were picking up the pieces, so many houses sacked, so many possessions stolen, Dona Petra's house burnt, everybody sick from the gas, people tending wounds. It is the second time the military have entered the village this year. Why? The threat of a good example. This Zapatista village of 100 families on occupied land taken 2 years ago, is thriving, and the people are strong and organised.
Alfredos mother and father come to San Cristobal to denounce what happened and to find their young son. Nobody knows where he is being held and the authorities are refusing to say anything. In an emotional Press conference organised by the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Centre, Senora Cristina calls for the release of her disappeared son and castigates the government repression saying that they won't beat down the communities by this intimidation and violence. Unsurprisingly, the state controlled television decides against broadcasting this enraged, passionate denouncement of the real face of Mexico, deciding instead to do a feature on international restaurants in the capital and other newsworthy topics.
Local, national and international pressure comes to bear and Alfredo is finally located and released after 3 days, having to pay a fine of $2000 pesos for the privilege. He is shaking and in pain, reeling in anguished trauma. All he can say is that the military have threatened to come back again and finish off 10 de Abril for once and for all.
Despite the horror, the people in the village are resilient and showing spirited resistance. "We won't go one step backwards" says Don Anselmo, 65 years old, and limping from a rifle-butt whack in the leg. Some aid begins to arrive in the community, donations of food and medicine from solidarity and church activists. All that is left of the invasion is the empty CS Gas canisters (Made in the USA), the charred remains of Dona Petra's house and the one Norwegian observer who got away, remaining to demonstrate to the government that their xenophobic campaign to clear Chiapas of international presence will not succeed, that they won't frighten us away, and that we will remain here to witness the repression at the invitation of the communities in resistance.
Here in the wrecked peace camp, it's hard to imagine all the Seguridad Publica and Military thugs plundering around, smashing things, stealing clothes and cameras and taking away books and papers for investigation. They carried away the Irish committee banner like a trophy of war:- they do after all claim that foreigners are commanders in the EZLN. The Irish committee wrote a letter to President Zedillo asking for the remains of the volunteers from the San Patricio battalion, a group of Irishmen who fought and died for Mexico in the 1846 war against the United states, to be returned to Ireland- they too must be retrospectively considered "interfering foreigners".
Life moves on in 10 de Abril. If it's not the military repression, there's always the continuing forest fires. All around the glen a pale of thick fog envelopes the air, and at night the mountains glow hellish orange from the enormous flames. Everybody believes that the military is starting fires in every Zapatista region in an attempt to burn out the rebels and fuck up the harvest.
May 3rd, Day of Santa Cruz, there's a 24 hour pilgrimage by the village elders to ask God to send rain. All day and all night, the procession moves around the valley from water spring to water spring, beating drums and playing the flute and arriving at a state of deep spiritual reverie. Out at the Milpa (Cornfield) plain, the ground is rock hard and scorched from the extraordinary dryness this year. "We're all going to die of hunger if the rains don't come soon" says one of the elders, overlooking the famished land, the worst drought in living memory. If it's not the military, if it's not the fire, there's always the drought.
That night, 20 military trucks stationed themselves battle ready at the crossroads near the entrance of the community. Everybody mobilises again and awaits in an all night vigil. Peace-campers are packed off to a remote location above the community in the hills where they can witness what is happening without being captured. "Here we go again" says Geronimo with gritted teeth. He and his family were burnt out of their house in another village at the start of '94 by Pri-ista paramilitaries." Ya Basta!" he smiles.
Near dawn, the trucks pull off and return to their base without incident. Tactics of intimidation, piling the pressure on the community. There would be 2 more mobilisations like this over the next 3 weeks. Each time, the community prepares for the onslaught, the children cry, the old people pack their few possessions ready to move. Fear and stress and rage, so much anger.
Three days ago, (May 23) we were laying the foundations of the new church and community centre. People work with determination and pride, digging up the rock-hard earth. This will be the first concrete building in the new village. Suddenly clouds appeared through the blanket of smog. Rain! Drop by drop, the rain began to fall. Everybody stopped work. Some little boys started to hoot. Over there, one of the elder men, of indeterminate age but with a face etched with centuries of hard work and wisdom, leaned on his shovel, and smiled softly and said something in Tseltal to his sons and his grandsons. They all saluted him, and everybody laughed with a quiet joy and sense of relief. Rain!
After work was finished, we all went to the river to bathe. Alfredo and his whole family splashed around in the water. Mario the father lathered his wife's back with soap as 12 year old Augustine washed down the horse. The 3 youngest children laughed as they attempted to learn to swim back stroke while Alfredo, their eldest brother, watched over them. The family was united again. A moment of peace and happiness. Far, far away, the interim Governor of Chiapas Albores Guillen, elected by nobody except President Zedillo, made a speech promising to dismantle the Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities, (whose authorities are elected democratically by the communities) and rid Chiapas of the plague of interfering foreigners. But the foreigners remain, the autonomous municipalities remain, the silence of the Zapatistas is one of strength and cunning, the counter-insurgency war may be moving from low-intensity to medium intensity but the signal from the base is so clear: Not One Step Backwards!