Little house, big hell
November 6, 2009, Tegucigalpa
Forty-odd days ago there were forty-odd days still to go, days of uncertainty…
Today we survive inside the Brazilian Embassy while the dialogue to reinstate deposed President Manuel Zelaya is dying. The afternoon ends and the footsteps of Lineu Pupo de Paula – Brazil’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) – jogging on the roof echo as the anxious heartbeats of Hondurans awaiting a solution.
Brazil’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) Lineu Pupo de Paula runs on the terrace inside Brazil’s embassy in Tegucigalpa October 11, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Zelaya appears outside his room and approaches us. “[De facto President] Micheletti says he will resign at 5 o’clock this afternoon if we choose a third person as president,” Zelaya tells us with a smile. ”I proposed Father Tamayo (the priest who accompanies him inside the Embassy) but Micheletti didn’t accept.” One more anecdote that I quickly write down along with so many others in my notepad.
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya (L) attends a mass with priest Andres Tamayo inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 25, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
TO TAKE PICTURES OR NOT TO TAKE PICTURES, begins my Ode to politicians who confuse me with their million-dollar question. “And who do you support?”
Some days ago Zelaya sent one of his guards to summon the photographers. We approach him as he is seated in front of a computer, reading a local newspaper with a photo of himself. He asks us, “Which of you took this picture?” One photographer admits, “I did.” In the picture, Zelaya is seated across from an empty chair. The feeling it gives is one of defeat. He had received calls from his supporters about it, and he urges us, “Let’s all practice solidarity with the people.” We respond, “We are neither for, nor against you. We’re here to report on what we see and provide a service to our clients.”
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya receives his hat before a news conference inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
“A news photo is open to any variety of interpretations as much by the author as by the viewers, just as is a movie or a book,” I tell him. None of our answers satisfies. In the coming days we receive from him a variety of arguments about how to photograph, but nevertheless today he seems to have understood, overcome his doubts, forgotten, ignored or simply decided what is best.
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya uses a news photographer’s camera to take pictures of his family at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 25, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
In numerous past street demonstrations for Micheletti or Zelaya I’ve been asked the same questions. “Where are you from?” and ”So which side are you on?” That’s when I repeat the well-memorized phrase, “We are the world’s window for whatever you want to see or do. That’s why Micheletti has given us four or five interviews, just as have Zelaya and General Romeo Vesquez (head of the armed forces), all without protesting our reporting. We have also covered all their demonstrations in favor or against each other. We don’t do public relations…”
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya smiles as he holds a turtle at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 25, 2009. Talks between Zelaya and the country’s de facto leaders collapsed this week, throwing efforts to resolve a political crisis sparked by a June 28 coup back to square one. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
So for my story of the Embassy, this topic goes back to a time of persecution within and alleged spies posing as journalists, tiring explanations, persistent bad jokes, reporting produced on the inside but modified on the outside, local TV programs showing us as terrorists, and photos either considered wonderful and worthwhile or distasteful and damaging.
I also noted some things to one day tell my (future) grandchildren:
Presidential candidates, priests, negotiators, politicians and advisers cross paths while visiting the Embassy. The windows of the meeting rooms are covered with newspaper, cardboard and aluminum foil that Zelayistas (Zelaya’s supporters) use to protect themselves from the high intensity light aimed at the building by soldiers and police at night, and to stop an alleged interference cell phone scrambler.
Police officers look through binoculars outside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa where ousted President Manuel Zelaya has taken refuge with his wife and scores of followers October 9, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
As the days go by the fear of a possible invasion of the Embassy by soldiers diminishes, but at the same time another level of paranoia grows. The faces of animals and of important figures, like Fidel Castro, appear projected on the walls, and there is more suspicion of gas attacks and high-frequency sounds and infrared rays. I must say that I have noticed nothing of those since being inside.
I have no ulterior motive for being here other than to take pictures. Apart from that I eat, sleep, check the internet and listen to the same music: Paco de Lucia, Los Jaivas, Joaquin Sabina, Los Cadillacs, Soda Stereo, U2, Ennio Morricone. They all help me fill the emptiness and forget my boredom. I look at the plastic sandals on my feet, my sleeveless shirt and my knee-length pants which I’ve been wearing since I entered here on September 21; it’s hard not to consider myself a prisoner.
Journalists that have children on the outside already left the Embassy. There are only single colleagues and me, with my baby son awaiting me at home. A Sponge Bob balloon, sent to one of my colleagues, is released into the sky above and becomes a moment of near confraternity between journalists and soldiers as we watch it together.
Mistrust and sectarianism dominate those of us who remain. There is Zelaya and his family, his security agents, close friends, followers and advisers, and us journalists. We eat different, sleep different and have different agendas. One of the Zelayistas says to me, “We’re all here. We represent all Hondurans.”
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya plays the guitar next to his granddaughter Irene Melara during her visit inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, November 1, 2009. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
The police prohibit someone from sending in a much-anticipated soccer ball, and gloom sets in. Then the news of renewed negotiations between Micheletti, the OAS and Zelaya restores our hope. Both sides declare 99% of their demands satisfied. We all get ready for the end. I prune my beard with scissors while others pack their belongings, fix their hair and prettify themselves for the glorious day, but alas it turns into nothing…
Almost as if we had requested it, the Army celebrates its anniversary by blasting music at us all night from loudspeakers placed three meters from the outside wall. They included recorded sounds of pigs, cows and dogs, church bells and trumpets to keep us company until dawn.
During those days Honduras lost their World Cup qualifying match against the United States, leaving their last chance to qualify for the final round. National player Carlos Pavon misses a penalty shot and Zelaya comments, “Pavon is an ally of Micheletti, because they both screwed seven million Hondurans.” (A week later Honduras would qualify for the World Cup in a match too tense for cardiac patients, but which we all survived.)
Honduras’ ousted President Manuel Zelaya (C) celebrates with supporters after Honduras scored a goal in their World Cup qualifying soccer match against the United States, inside Brazil’s embassy in Tegucigalpa October 10, 2009. The United States won the match 3-2. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
We experience practically every emotion in the book from joy to disgust, in an atmosphere that switches in an instant from peace to cataclysm. We feel at once friendship and hatred, tolerance and suspicion. The slogan these days is, “No one for all, and everyone for himself.” It’s the full experience of life in just 40-odd days. It’s all of Honduras in 30 square meters, or my own impression of life inside a prison.
THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE
My Reuters colleagues on the outside buy my supplies and bring them to the police checkpoint where human rights activists and United Nations reps receive them. Then they spend torturous hours of waiting until the police grant permission to carry them inside.
One of my first experiences in receiving vital supplies from outside ended in tragedy when Father Tamayo distributed my food amongst the Zelayistas because I wasn’t standing in the doorway when the bags arrived. Only one of many stories of things gone missing inside Honduras’ version of the Bermuda Triangle.
Within the 300 meters that separate the first checkpoint and the wall of the Brazilian Embassy everything strangely disappears – even shame. The only thing that remains intact is my dedication to clean journalism and resistance against becoming a prisoner inside an Embassy.
Bags filled with food and clothing disappeared forever, as did cell phones, modems and ipods. Fights over a can of soda, a pack of crackers, or even Zelaya’s shampoo, were a part of our daily life. Journalists donated two extra mattresses to the Zelayistas, which turned up after the first night torn and full of holes.
A soldier stands outside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 23, 2009. Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya pulled out of talks with the country’s post-coup de facto leaders on Friday, throwing efforts to resolve a months-long political crisis back to square one. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
I tell my editor about all these incidents and she says, “Little house, big hell.” At that moment I remember another time that we spoke. It was September 29 and I told her, “My wife is already worried about our anniversary celebration on October 27, telling me, ‘I hope you don’t have to spend it inside.” My editor answered, “By that time there’s no way you’ll still be there.”
A police officer reads the notebook belonging to Maria Jose Diaz, a Telesur journalist, after she left the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa October 8, 2009. Diaz is one of only five journalists who have remained holed up inside the embassy with ousted President Manuel Zelaya and a group of his supporters since last September 21, and is the first to leave the compound. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Today is November 6, only a few days after my son learned to say “papa” over Skype. I asked a friend to send my wife flowers on October 27. And today I’m finally ready to leave the Embassy.
Throughout the day Zelaya held meetings with his supporters. After a U.S. State Department agreement failed Zelaya told them,“From here on only God knows what will happen.” Some of them propose leaving the Embassy soon. Zelaya asks them to do so in small groups. I try to take a photo of this meeting and Zelaya insults me.
I grab my belongings and leave my mattress and plastic sandals behind for one of the supporters. Outside I am processed by police, soldiers and immigration officials. Together with an attorney and a Brazilian journalist we walk away from the Embassy. My colleagues are waiting on the corner and carry out their evacuation plan, almost as if we were boy scouts, to guarantee my security and avoid the awaiting local press corps. I will never forget any of this.
The city seems strange. Maybe I was a prisoner…
Reuters photographer Edgar Garrido leaves the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa November 6, 2009. Garrido and Fabiano Maisonnave, a journalist from Folha de Sao Paulo, and 4 supporters of Zelaya, who have remained holed up inside the embassy with ousted Honduras’ President Manuel Zelaya and a group of his supporters since September 21, have left the compound. REUTERS/Henry Romero