Monday, September 24, 2012

How about some tear gas with that lunch?

As some of you know, I eat lunch at a cook shop (Liberian slang for a hole-in-the-wall place) called Lowise's bar and restaurant. I shouldn’t call Lowise’s a restaurant; it is more like a shack. Heck, it doesn’t even have electricity…you have to eat in dim light even when it is sunny outside because of inadequate windows. I guess it is Lowise’s idea of a romantic lunch during the depressing rainy season. Monrovia is usually dull and dreary in the rainy season. The unrelenting rain keeps most people indoors. Despite the rain, I walk over to Lowise's at least three times a week for lunch.

Because the rain is relentless and crippling, people pour in to the streets as soon as the rain stops, even if it is for a few minutes. I am one of those people. On Friday, I walk over to Lowise’s to have some fried greens with fish and rice. I am savoring my lunch while I notice loud noises coming from outside. Now mind you, this is Monrovia, it is loud all the time. However, the loud police sirens alerted me. I got up from my unfinished lunch and walked over the entrance of Lowise’s to see what is going on. I notice police in full riot gear gathering right outside Lowise’s. I am usually unperturbed by these kind of activities, but this is Liberia; a simple demonstration can turn in to a violent life-threatening incident in a matter of few minutes. I ask the ladies serving food at Lowise’s what’s going on with the riot police. They say the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) – the main opposition political party in Liberia – is holding a rally in protest of high unemployment rates in Liberia. Well, these kind of protests are common in many countries… it does not sound dangerous, does it?

Before I finish gathering information from the ladies, I hear people screaming from the outside and something similar to shots being fired. First instinct, duck for cover! Next thing I know there is thick smoke pouring in to Lowise’s. My eyes, nose, and throat immediately start burning. Then I realize it is tear gas. People are still screaming outside, running helter-skelter, while the ladies working in Lowise’s wrap their faces in cloth and lock the entrance door so nobody can enter from the outside.

So, here I am ducking under the table, with my eyes, nose, and throat severely burning, and no way to get out. I had nothing to cover myself and I was writhing in pain, wishing that this unprovoked tear gas attack will end fast. I waited under the table for what seemed like eternity, even though I think it may have been only 15 minutes, all the while coughing, crying, and suffering from the intense burning sensation. I call my boss while waiting and alert him to the incident. Since our office is just around the corner, he was able to witness the incident from his window, without having to inhale the tear gas like I did. After a while the ladies unlocked the door and I bolted back to my office (just around the corner). I washed my eyes and face with clean water and, like any crazy person who is addicted to work, went to a meeting.

I do not know the complete story behind the rally or the occasion for a protest by the CDC. However, from what I witnessed during lunch, the attack by riot police seems unnecessarily brutal. I saw a happy group of people singing and marching and the next thing I know the riot police are throwing tear gas at them. The sad part is that the tear gas attack happened about 100 feet away from a school. I can only imagine how terrified the children may have been. Such is the state of ruling political parties in many countries, they use brute force on opposition, sometimes without provocation. 

So, there you go folks…that was my Friday afternoon. A little tear gas served with my lunch. How did you spend your Friday?

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