Sin violencia?

By Lina Vargas Vega November 22, 2019

Rain, tear gas and violence fail to break the spirits of N21 protestors.

I left my house at 9.40am on November 21, a friend told me that the north side of the TransMilenio station next to my home was closed, and other stations on the north side of the city were completely out of service, so I hurried up. When I arrived at the station they wouldn’t sell me a ticket so I had to jump over the south entrance and run to take the last bus to the south side of Bogotá. This was a problem for the people who wanted to protest, we didn’t have transport to go downtown or back.

Protestors gather at the start of the day. Photo: Otto Berchem

In the bus I met two friends, but when we arrived at Avenida Chile station the service was over, so we had to walk all the way to Universidad Nacional where we started the protests. When we arrived at the university we saw a really nice environment, many people were making banners, playing music, chanting and getting ready to go out to the streets.

When we left the university we started walking on the 26 street, it was the best part of the day, everyone was happy and singing loudly, musician students were playing drums and people started to dance, to act and to run. I didn’t know any of the chants but I learnt a few. I wanted to cry with happiness, I felt that everyone was so committed to the cause.

When we arrived to Gran Estación, a popular mall, we were tired and hungry. We sat outside and ate, then we started to see, very far away, smoke. ESMAD, the Colombian riot police, had decided that we couldn’t walk anymore in the 26, so they drove away people with tear gas. We saw that they were still very far away, so we stayed there eating and protecting ourselves from the rain. As ESMAD started getting closer, we decided to move, we didn’t want trouble, the students raised their hands and screamed “SIN VIOLENCIA” (without violence), but the police continued to throw tear gas.

The protesters in the Gran Estación square were eating and resting, when a big squadron of ESMAD came from a side street, this time they were so close. When the ESMAD set foot on the floor of the square, we were a little confused, we didn’t know what they were about to do, they started throwing tear gas grenades even when we were just resting.

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In that moment, I couldn’t breathe, I covered my mouth and nose with my hoodie and ran as far as I could. During the march, I had met a lot of friends, but in that moment everyone ran to different sides. I just could stay by one friend’s side, he helped me jump over the street separators, we ran all the way to the other side of 26 street but we were cornered. A man was in the middle of the street sharing water with magnesium milk, when we washed our faces with that, we could breathe normally again.

But we were still cornered and we saw how police hit and arrest a lot of people, me and my friend decided to stop running because people were saying that they want to corner us even more in a little street, we start walking with our hands up to go to the 26 street, this time looking for our way back. The ESMAD continued to throw gas, so we walk with eyes closed and hands up screaming ‘SIN VIOLENCIA’.

Once we made it, we started our way to Plaza de Bolívar through the rain. It was a very long walk, we were at most a quarter of the people that had been at the beginning of the march. The rain was hard and people were tired, we rested half an hour in an out-of-service TransMilenio station, and then continued.

When we arrived downtown we saw a lot of people making their way home, but we wanted to make it to the main square. When we arrived to Avenida Jimenez, we saw a man trying to break a window, so some people grabbed him and shouted ‘SIN VIOLENCIA’. Protestors were protecting the buildings from bad people and we kept on our way to the Plaza, but in the middle of the road we saw smoke again. They weren’t going to let us get there, even though Plaza de Bolívar is where demonstrations always end in Bogotá.

We start to scream “RESISTENCIA”, and go on step by step, but they threw a lot of tear gas so my friend and I decided to go back to Avenida Jimenez. Now there were no people, the police and ESMAD were throwing tear gas that way too, so once again we were cornered. This time I felt fear, in this part of the city the streets are very narrow, so if they cornered us we wouldn’t able to run anywhere.

We found a little street and escaped, but they were waiting for us on the other side. I felt like they wanted to kill us or something, because even though we wanted to get out of there they wouldn’t let us. Finally, we found an empty street, we ran and escaped, in our way we saw them take a guy, when people tried to help him they started shooting gas again.

We left the place in fear, we didn’t stop running until we arrived at a big street and we decided that we didn’t want more tear gas for the day so we started making our way home. We walked and walked, after that we kept walking, but there was no TransMilenio. Taxis, if you saw one, were incredibly expensive, Uber, Beat, DiDi and all transport apps wouldn’t confirm us. We walked from Calles 11 to 85. There, my mum, who was very worried because the news showed a city on fire, picked me and my friend up, and we finally went home in car. On our way, my mum told me that it was the most crowded march in our recent history. Then I saw so many people in the cacerolazo which made me feel happy and finally, although there had been many problems in the day, I saw everyone united for one cause.

This is a first-person account of the November 21, lightly edited for clarity.