In exile with the President
Urgent news flash! Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has returned to the country after 82 days in exile. I kiss my wife and son. “Bye, see you soon.” I rush out without a shower and without socks. The first information places Zelaya in the U.N. building in Tegucigalpa. It must be true.
Fifteen minutes later 50 supporters are cheering victory for Zelaya outside the building. His closest allies appear making gestures of triumph. Zelaya has returned, but it soon becomes obvious that he isn’t exactly there. The lie is a strategy to confuse the de facto state security that had blocked his previous attempts to return. Suddenly one demonstrator screams, “To the Brazilian embassy!” And I follow.
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya gather after learning of his return, outside the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Hundreds of his followers pack so tightly in the doorway that they seem about to asphyxiate themselves. The door opens and I push with all my might to within two steps of the entrance but the mob is too much. The door closes and I am being smothered until a local colleague pulls me free. A minute later I try again and manage to enter completely, gasping. I race inside as if I was returning home.
Today, as I write this, it is that same embassy that I have been calling “home” ever since.
Right now it is midnight, the best time to concentrate and write about my experiences – complex, joyful, exhausting, arduous, but above all inspiring.
I keep running and running without looking back. I climb a staircase to reach a room that has since become my living quarters. I am told that Zelaya is in the next room, where he remains to this day. People that enter and exit his room confirm his presence, but I need to see him. A door opens and there he is! I take two photos and make my first dispatch.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya greets supporters inside the Brazilian embassy after his arrival in Tegucigalpa September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Then comes the fiesta; Zelaya greets the masses by waving the national flag. Even though joy is everywhere, a cloud of uncertainly begins to form…
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya waves the Honduran flag inside the Brazilian embassy after his arrival in Tegucigalpa September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya cheer as he arrives outside the embassy of Brazil in Tegucigalpa September 21, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
He decides to camp right where he is. His supporters celebrate and sleep outside. And I, with the cement floor as a mattress and a backpack as pillow, get no sleep amidst the screams and chanting. This atmosphere continues until we face a cloud of tear gas at 5:30 the next morning.
A large company of soldiers and police use more gas than I have ever encountered before, even in my home country Chile, to clear supporters from the street. The gas hangs from my mask as I step outside to cover the clashes. I soon have to decide whether to stay outside and continue as the only photographer covering the gassing, or enter the building again. When I try to return into the embassy I find the door locked. I bang hard but I know nobody will open it with Zelaya inside.
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya are seen on a roof outside the Brazilian embassy after police fired tear gas, in Tegucigalpa September 22, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya cover their faces as they react to the tear gas fired upon them by police, inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa September 22, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
The iron fence of a neighboring house turns into my best option to climb over into a long alley with a courtyard in the back. Then, I scale a wall to reach the roof of the house and jump down into the Embassy compound. I am “home” again.
In the middle of Zelaya’s first press conference to denounce the military operation, soldiers on the outside use a high-frequency acoustic device to disperse the crowd.
Soldiers put up a high-frequency acoutic device to disperse supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, outside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa September 22, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
There is an atmosphere of great tension. We believe our hours to be numbered. I become worried and begin to think of my family. Some followers on the inside of the embassy are evacuated. An important photo of Zelaya sleeping across two chairs gives me a moment of joy, as if life were thanking me at that very moment.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya sleeps inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa September 22, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
It is to be a somber afternoon, and a night to forget. I sleep holding my camera, my finger practically on the shutter ready for what seems the imminent intervention, ready to protect myself, ready to shoot.
Wednesday, after two days inside the embassy, there is no food, no telephone, no rest, no bath and no clean clothes. A day of meetings for Zelaya and the tension continues, even more so at night. Soldiers bang on their shields as they surround the building. It becomes a war of nerves. Stones hit the roof as the National Anthem is played on powerful sound equipment placed nearby. Inside there is fear, much fear.
Police patrol outside the Brazilian embassy as ousted President Manuel Zelaya remains a refugee inside, in Tegucigalpa September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Nervous journalists pace back and forth while making contacts and all types of interpretations of the events. Zelaya calls a meeting of everyone inside, but without cameras. The meeting is disappointing from both the human and professional perspectives. Among us are supporters of all types, humble, fanatic and political, a combination that makes me nervous. I don’t believe any of them. I want to leave.
Thursday comes along and at least I am able to receive food from my colleagues on the outside. Part of the package was consumed by the soldiers who promised to pass it in. Then comes an alleged toxic gas attack; it seems the end is near. Everybody runs, but no one knows what is happening. In the end it is nothing important, if it even happened at all.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya holds a surgical mask over his face during a news conference in which he accused the de facto government of injecting “toxic gas” into the Brazilian embassy where he has taken refuge, in Tegucigalpa September 25, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Zelaya and his followers assume a strange attitude towards us. They become tense and don’t accept explanations. They become irritated by our photos of them sleeping, after seeing them published in the local media. The local press seems to have twisted the information to political ends. It makes me feel suddenly exhausted. They all speak, they all know, but none of them listen.
Zelaya finds out about my photo of him sleeping that was published around the world, and he calls me over. He applauds the picture for reasons I understand but don’t agree with. For him, my presence should be limited to being a simple witness.
I try to take more photos and get closer to the experiences of humble people that are chasing the dream of living with social justice. The class struggle continues tirelessly.
Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya speaks with the media as supporters sit around him at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
For the first time in a week I receive clean clothes and I take a shower. We work out a system to share the bathroom among colleagues. Whoever is inside calls the other when he’s about to finish, and the other rushes in when the door is opened. There are only two showers for 70 people, except for Zelaya, his family and closest friends.
Supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya practice daily hygiene inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa September 24, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Once again on the hard floor, I try to sleep. Tomorrow my colleagues will try to pass me a mattress, which I await anxiously. I search in vain for cardboard. My back aches, but the fatigue allows me to forget and sleep.
I begin to get into the routine of waiting for my food at the door; everybody wants to eat. Two days earlier a policeman ate up the food that one of my colleagues had sent me. Yesterday the priest that is keeping Zelaya company handed my four bags of food to the supporters because I wasn’t around right when the package arrived. I fabricate a spoon out of a plastic cup. Then I begin to think about washing my clothes, and end up paying a supporter to do mine. The supporters eat whatever the United Nations sends in. Zelaya eats his own food and I eat the Reuters food. We are envied for the air mattresses. Groups are formed, the family is expanded, the house is established, and I continue living here.
As the days go by the tension persists with helicopters flying continuously overhead. Tegucigalpa survives between the fear and the lies.
A soldier with a mask is seen through a window as he stands guard outside the Brazilian embassy where ousted President Manuel Zelaya has taken refuge, in Tegucigalpa September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Another day, more shadows, more photos, more Micheletti on the radio, more politics, more ignorance, more opposing pride, more history, and me in the middle. At the end of the day another phone call. My wife says, “Our son is fine, we’ll see you soon.”
For a slideshow of Edgard’s work from within the embassy enter here.