Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
You Got Skunked
“Skunk”, the Israeli Army calls it. Good name.
It had been a month or so since I was last in Bilin, a village in the West Bank, north of Ramallah. Regular protests occur here every Friday over the controversial Israeli barrier fence. Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters and activists gather near the fence to protest and sometimes throw stones at the Israeli security forces standing guard on the other side who fire teargas at the protesters. Sometimes the amount of teargas the security forces fires can be overwhelming because they are firing into open fields rather than narrow streets or houses. The gas is usually enough to turn all but the hardcore protesters back along the path from which they came.
I knew beforehand the Israeli security forces had recently introduced a new sort of smelly chemical spray, called Skunk, fired from a police water cannon. I was told by Fadi Arouri, our Ramallah photographer, how horrible it was after he experienced the lasting stink it left with him the week before. He politely offered to stay back last Friday, a few hundred meters away, to get a long shot of the tear gas being fired.
I thought, no problem, I’ll get in there and get the shots before any spraying starts. I should have known better with my track record. I was once sprayed by a police water canon in Kuala Lumpur during a protest and had to walk the walk of shame through a brand new shopping mall, covered in yellow die and pepper spray, to find a dry shirt and a pair of pants. Nobody in the mall wanted to serve me.
A few years later, outside the American embassy in Jakarta, I was directly hosed by a police water canon, for more than the required amount of time I might add. Moments later I discovered, to the amusement of the few hundred hard-core anti American protesters who were also there, that I was the only person who was wet.
This time in Bilin, I promised myself, it would be different.
Some of the protesters were wearing heavy yellow rain gear, the type fishermen wear or crossing guards don in storms. I wonder where they bought them, out here in the desert where it rains only a few days a year. The police water canon quickly emerged from hiding behind a house on the hill. I was already wearing my gas mask as I casually started walking backwards, trying not to appear like I was retreating.
It was not the most dramatic sight in the world. The water cannon first sent a few feeble streams of the green liquid into the air to test the wind direction. It looked like most went back towards the Israeli troops watching from the distance. Then it started sending the plumes of spray 45 degrees to the right of us, high into the air. I watched it rain down on the protesters in front of me, took some pictures and stood back out of the way. Again and again it fired, but I was dry, safe and, I believed, smelling sweet.
And then it happened. It started with a drop of sweat on my nose, inside my tightly sealed gas mask. The sweat started a chain-reaction itch. I shook my head and even jumped up and down. This had to be dealt with, and quickly I thought. Walking away from the protesters, I gently slid my index finger through my mask’s seal in attempt to solve my dilemma by scratching my nose. Big mistake!
It was, without doubt, one of the most horrible things I have ever smelled. I can’t describe it without using expletives. But if you mixed dirty diapers with not so fresh road kill and left them all in the sun for a few days, you might get an idea. That half second scratch will last me a lifetime. And I wasn’t even hit with it.
Despite changing my clothes by the car, and rinsing my exposed arms and face with water the stench was still there. It was on my boots, my cameras, my helmet and mask. I could smell it the whole ride home. I could think of nothing else. I thought about what I would say to the border police at the checkpoint if they searched my car. “No, I don’t have a rotting corpse in the trunk, I was just at a protest”
Five days later, after countless washes and scrubs, I can still smell it. My cameras came out worst. I wanted to put them through the delicate cycle in my washing machine, but you just can’t do that. My gas mask went in the dishwasher, though, along with my helmet. Everything else that couldn’t be machine washed, has been coated over and over with disinfectant spray, to no avail. The trunk of my car still has a “serial killer” stench to it.
Next time I am in Bilin, I will go for the long shot…