The significant other looked worried as we walked past the three red trucks on our way to the taxi stand - she had seen what these guardians of law and order could do to innocent by-standers who got in their way. "Stay close to me," I assured her. "Stay close to the Reformasi journalist?" she remarked cynically. "That's good advice!"
As our taxi took us past Dataran Merdeka, we spotted even more of the red trucks parked along the perimeter of the square. I had a bad feeling about today.
By the time we were dropped off at the National Mosque, the road leading to its main entrance was already closed off by barriers, water cannons and police trucks. A police officer was waving pedestrians away. "Kalau betul-betul nak sembahyang, boleh lalu. Kalau nak berdemo, pergi baliklah!" ("If you've really come to pray, you can pass. If you've come to demo, go home!")
Inside the blocked-off road, hundreds of FRU troopers were forming ranks, their plastic shields and shiny red helmets gleaming in the searing midday sun. Some were checking the barrels of their tear gas guns or casually swinging their batons, some of which were gaily painted red for the occasion. The road was filled with the shouts of officers barking orders, and the crackle of walkie-talkies as they received instructions from their unseen masters. A water cannon menacingly trained its turrets towards the mosque courtyard. A police helicopter was buzzing noisily above.
It was certainly not the kind of tranquil environment ideal for praying to the Creator.
Despite the massive police 'tour de force', though, the courtyard was already a sea of people, perhaps ten to twenty thousand, with a few thousand spilling across the road into the Railway Station and Dayabumi complex. It seemed more like a massive picnic than a demonstration. Children were playing catch around the trees in the courtyard, as their parents sat on mats eating cakes and drinking tea. Young students were sitting under the shade of the trees, reading the latest issues of Harakah, while elderly men in skull-caps were quietly smoking as they watched the police columns maneuvering on the road below.
And I am sure I have never before seen so many Chinese within the courtyard of the National Mosque before. Today, there was a cause that transcended the racial barriers that once divided us. I suppose tyrant's whip does not distinguish between the colour of your skin, the language you speak or the faith you hold.
At 1.45 p.m., prayers started and ended with the voice of thousands roaring "Allahuakbar!" three times, rattling the chandeliers of the packed prayer hall and sending echoes reverberating among the marble passages of this sacred place. Almost on cue, the crowd broke into the familiar chant of "Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!" as banners sprouted like mushrooms among the crowd and the courtyard became awash with a sea of Malaysian flags, Parti Keadilan flags and PRM flags fluttering in the wind.
The police on the street below grew restless as the chanting grew louder and louder. Limp batons suddenly stood at attention, as officers marched up and down the ranks shouting orders and gazing nervously at the chanting crowd. The helicopter flew lower and started making even smaller, tighter circles around the swaying masses in the courtyard. An FRU officer stood on the water cannon turret taking photographs. I didn't think he was taking holiday pictures of the National Mosque to show their families at home.
From the upper courtyard, Malek Hussein addressed the crowd with a megaphone. "We are gathered here to take a memorandum to our King!"
"Daulat Tuanku!" "(Long live His Majesty!") the crowd responded loudly.
"Mahathir says demonstrations are not part of our culture," Malek continued. "Are lies and slander part of our culture?"
"Tidaaaaakkkk!"("Nooooo!") the crowd roared.
"Is beating up people in prison and on our streets part of our culture?"
"Is robbing the people's money part of our culture?"
Parti Keadilan Liason Head Ruslan Kassim repeated Mahathir's enlightening views on freedom of assembly. "He says it's not part of our culture. But he holds 'demonstrations' every few days and calls it "PM Bersama Rakyat"! ("The PM Meets The People!")
"And we don't need teenage bimbo pop stars for our gatherings!" someone shouted from the crowd.
"The people are just bored, sick and tired with the cruelty they have seen," Ruslan continued. "We haven't gathered here to make enemies. We haven't gathered here to start fights. We have gathered here to bring a message to our King! And that message is: we want justice! We want an end to oppression! We want peace!"
"Did UMNO hold demonstrations when they opposed the British in 1946?" DAP Youth Leader Teng asked.
"Do you think they got a permit from the British?!"
"Tidaaaaakkkkk!" the crowd replied, to howls of laughter.
"But they did it anyway. Why? Because it is the right of the people to assemble!"
"Hidup demokrasi!" ("Long live democracy!") the crowd shouted.
Parti Keadilan Youth head Mohd Ezam Nd Nor then appeared in a black baju Melayu and songkok, to shouts and cheers from the crowd. "We are here to gather and march peacefully," he reminded the crowd. "Those of you with cameras, take lots of pictures. Take pictures of anyone who starts any trouble!" The crowd cheered and clapped loudly.
There was a stir of excitement and the cheers became louder and faster as the Princess of Reformasi, Nurul Izzah, took to the podium. "Nearly one year ago, I came here with my father," she said, referring to Anwar's massive rally at the mosque last year, just hours before he was arrested. "We are gathered here again!"
"The people can no longer be patient!" her young voice cried out, full of emotion. "We demand that the Prime Minister takes full responsibility! This is the second attempt on my father's life!"
"And the Public Prosecutor must apologise in public to our family for accusing us of poisoning him! His statement was insolent and humiliated the family!"
"Throw that dugong back into the sea!" someone shouted, alluding to the Public Prosecutor's most recently-acquired nickname. Peals of laughter erupted among the crowd.
"Great to see that people are all for freeing wild animals," a marine biologist friend of mine remarked jokingly. "Looks like we're becoming more environmentally aware as well as politically aware!"
The crowd proceeded to leave the mosque compound, with the delegation of party youth leaders leading the vanguard. The mood was jubilant and hopeful. A few young girls carried roses to give to the FRU. Some even shook hands with FRU troopers in the trucks as they inched their way towards the main road.
The significant other and I were just about 20 metres away from the front line, trapped on the staircase leading down to the road as thousands of people funneled into the narrow gate exit of the mosque. We couldn't move either forward or backward as more people joined the crush.
Suddenly, without any warning, the front line of youth leaders were surrounded by FRU troopers. "Sit down!" one of the troopers ordered PRM Youth leader Faizal Sanusi. He complied and the trooper's baton came crashing onto his shoulder. "Stand up!" the trooper ordered, and as soon as he did so, another baton blow struck his ribs. "Go back!" the trooper barked. As Faizal turned around to join the crowd, another baton blow struck the back of his head.
The other youth leaders were similarly attacked. A PAS youth leader was struck repeatedly on his arms as he avoided blows aimed at his head. Tian Chua was hit repeatedly on his hands and thighs. PRM's Hassan Karim managed to deflect the blows with his arms.
The crowd shouted in a rage as they saw the columns of FRU troopers batter the group. Shoes, banners, flags and motorcycle helmets started flying in the direction of the attackers when suddenly shots were heard and gas canisters billowing with smoke shot into the air and descended upon the crowded masses.
Within seconds, it became utter pandemonium. A wave of people surged before me as the crowd retreated and I was lifted off my feet by just the sheer weight of bodies stampeding towards the sanctuary of the mosque. I stopped momentarily to help a young student who had fallen down - in the panic stricken stampede, he could have easily been crushed underfoot as thousands of people rushed through that narrow gate to evade the marauding policemen and exploding gas canisters.
As soon as I got the bruised student on his feet, I quickly looked around and suddenly realised, to my horror, that the significant other was gone from my side.
Before I could move, hundreds more people rushed past me and I was pushed by the sheer numbers into the mosque compound, like a paper boat being carried along the crest of a tidal wave. The next few minutes was a scene of terrifying fear and confusion as hundreds of people rushed past in all directions, tear gas canisters exploded all around us, shouts and cries filled the air and the choking mist of tear gas enveloped us all. A man ran past me carrying his screaming little girl in his arms, while his wife ran behind, their baby wrapped around her arms in a shawl. A few youths picked up the smoking gas canisters and hurled them right back at their assailants.
A jet of water spurted out of the water cannon towards our direction but the fountain of acid fell short of the crowd and splashed impotently on open road. Frustrated at having missed their target, the water cannon operators wheeled their turret around towards the mosque's outer compound and shot at another crowd that was looking on in horror at the attack. They too scattered towards the safety of the mosque, amid the screams of women and the cries of children.
Within minutes, most of the crowd was already in the mosque. A misty, abandoned no-man's land lay between the frightened demonstrators in the mosque and the walls of police shields just outside the mosque gate. Fearing that the significant other could be still somewhere between the mosque and the gate, perhaps unconscious, I proceeded to go into the deserted no-man's land. "Oi! Nak mati ke?" ("Oi! Do you want to die?") said a demonstrator as I walked alone towards the Red Helmets in the distance.
My heart was beating wildly as more canisters started falling around me, hitting the ground with a metallic clink. The wall of red shields was now only 10 or 20 metres away. The area was blanketed in tear gas and the ground strewn with discarded shoes, flags, banners, bags and smouldering gas canisters. But, to my relief, she was not among the scattered debris.
By now, my eyes and skin were already stinging with pain. By the time I returned to the refuge of the mosque, my lungs were already choking for air and my eyes were blinded with tears. For a few minutes, I literally could not see anything but faint shadows moving around me. When I recovered some visibility, the scene around me was like a war zone.
Some people were walking around like blind men, arms forward, with their friends and loved ones guiding the way. Others were walking around with soaked handkerchiefs covering their faces, in a vain attempt to lessen the effect of the tear gas. Small children were sprawled on the floor crying, their mothers frantically washing their faces with mineral water and trying to soothe the terror in their cries. Elderly women were squatting on the grass, vomiting from prolonged exposure to the tear gas. Others were tending to bloody cuts and bruises they had got while escaping the FRU charge and clambering over the two or three fences that lay between them and the safety of the mosque. Everyone was coughing badly.
All around, there was only the sound of children crying, women wailing, persistent coughing and the moans and groans of the sick and wounded. Above us, the buzzing of the police helicopter sometimes drowned the cries of pain.
For fifteen minutes, I ran from one end of the tear-gas filled mosque to the other, looking out for the familiar black-and-white stripes of the significant other's blouse. I finally found her walking in a daze at the far end of the courtyard. She had apparently been carried by the retreating crowd into one of the inner courtyards of the mosque. Frantic with fear and worry, she just sat down on the stairs and burst into tears. A group of women comforted her and lent her a handphone to contact me. I must have been too dazed and confused to hear the phone ringing, and she had to leave a message on my voice-mail.
I heard the message later. "Sabri …. Sabri …. Sabri … Hello … Hello … Where are you? …Hello … Sabri…", she pleaded, in between sobs, with shouts and crying in the background. I don't think I will ever delete that message.
Thousands of people were still milling in the mosque - they refused to leave. Upstairs in the prayer hall, people were lying under the marbled splendor of the mosque dome - some asleep with exhaustion, some just lying down moaning in pain, some meditating in silent prayer, some comforting their terrified children. Others were just sitting down, talking and reflecting on the afternoon's events - some with excitement, some with anger, some with disgust and shame, some with hope.
"I'm ashamed to be Malaysian today," another friend said. "Those people who attacked us are no longer human … even animals won't do this." His voice quivered with rage.
Another friend disagreed. "We should be proud to be Malaysians today. Those people outside the gates - they are not Malaysians. These people sheltering in this mosque - they are true Malaysians. After 42 years of independence, only now are we struggling for the true spirit of independence, the true spirit of freedom."
Despite the pain from his wounds, Faizal marveled at his athletic abilities. "I had to sprint and jump over three fences in almost under ten seconds - and all this while I was blinded with tear gas! I am the complete athlete! Now I know for sure I can qualify for the Olympics - as long as there are FRU chasing me from behind!"
At about 3:30 p.m., rain descended upon our besieged mosque. "Alhamdulillah!" ("God be praised!") people cried, as the soothing waters from the heavens cleansed our bodies of the sting from the tear gas. Across the road, around the Dayabumi complex, a large crowd had gathered, cheering and chanting the thousands of people left in the mosque, while another crowd cheered from the Railway Station. A column of a few dozen FRU and a couple of trucks was sent to the far side of the mosque to monitor the Dayabumi crowd. A young girl in the mosque courtyard threw a rose at the FRU as they formed ranks outside the mosque fence and grimly faced our cheering supporters across the road.
At 3:45 pm, an announcement was made. "Nurul Izzah and Mohd Ezam Nd Nor have successfully delivered the memorandum to our King!" The news was greeted with shouts of "Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!" as the sea of people came alive again in a frenzy of joy and celebration. Discarded banners and flags were picked up on the ground and were waving and fluttering again among the seething crowd as they reveled in the news of their victory. They had been attacked, the air in their lungs had been poisoned, their limbs beaten, their bodies bruised and battered - but they had delivered their message of the day.
By about 5:00 pm, the crowd began to disperse and droves of people flooded out of the rear entrance of the mosque, as the front entrance was still blocked off by columns of red helmets, shields and water cannons. But the crowd has barely left the mosque for a few minutes when we suddenly heard the shrill "Ting! Ting! Ting!" of a police truck and a column of FRU formed behind the dispersing crowd and charged them from the rear. Again hundreds of people fled in panic, scattering in all directions. The road had not been closed and people were weaving their way through speeding cars and lorries trying to escape the swinging batons of their pursuers. An elderly woman was trapped in the middle of the road, the road divider being too high for her to manage. Fortunately, two young men lifted her above the concrete divider and escorted her to the relative safety of the Dayabumi complex.
Yet again, I found myself caught in the middle of this wave of humanity - and this time I wasn't so lucky. I came crashing to the ground as soon as I'd clambered over the divider and sprained my ankle. I hobbled my way across the road on one leg, trying to avoid oncoming cars, buses and motorcycles. I had thought I had reached the safety of the other side, when to my shock, I saw yet another large crowd fleeing towards me from some unseen attacker near the Dayabumi complex. The police helicopter was now hovering closer to the ground, circling the fleeing masses of people and giving directions to their comrades on the ground as to where to trap their victims.
I limped at top speed in the opposite direction, towards the Railway Station and reached the Station roundabout only to find yet another large crowd fleeing other attackers. Attacks seemed to be coming from all directions and, in the distance, I could already see Red Helmets moving in to occupy the mosque compound. "Kita dah nak balik pun nak pukul!" ("They beat us even when we're going home!") a friend snarled as he fled past me. I knew that I could not move very far with one leg throbbing in pain with each step - but fortunately the FRU charges stopped short of the Railway Station. They probably didn't want to scare away the tourists.
I bumped into another friend and we drove off towards the city centre. As our car inched its way through a massive traffic jam leading to the Central Market, the helicopter kept buzzing overhead, like an annoying metal mosquito. No sooner had we reached the Central Market when we saw yet another large group of demonstrators in Central Market. It did appear that the day was not going to be over yet for my weary limbs.
We parked our car and made our way on foot (literally just one good foot in my case) to Central Market. However, by the time we reached there, the demonstrators had vanished - the only crowds left were people gathering to watch the performance of a pair particularly theatrical 'penjual ubat' ('medicine sellers') and a busker strumming a battered acoustic guitar.
A truckload of FRU and a water cannon arrived on the scene just minutes later. They appeared a little confused at first not finding huge crowds of people shouting 'Reformasi!' - but they decided to disperse the 'jual ubat' crowds anyway, just to be on the safe side. A thin blue line of the troopers gallantly strutted down the pedestrian mall, shields on their chests and batons at their side, asking people to disperse and go home - herbal medicines and street music were apparently a public disturbance this evening. The water cannon trained its gun barrel on this potentially riotous mob. A crowd of European tourists looked on in amusement - they must have found all of this rather entertaining.
"Apa ni? Depa cuma cara makan saja!" ("What's this? Those guys are just earning a decent living!") my friend remarked. "Buat malu Mat Salleh itu tengok - depa ingat kita ni negara kuku besi macam Myanmar agaknya!" ("How humiliating - those foreigners must think we're a dictatorship just like Myanmar!")
As we drove back, I couldn't help thinking that, after today, it would not just be the Mat Sallehs who would be thinking that.
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