'I was coughing really hard. It was getting harder to breathe. The only thing that was flashing on my mind was the thought of death.'
On July 7, while I was lazing around at home after work, I got a call from my friend, N Surendran saying that my name was on the list of 91 individuals who were restricted from entering Kuala Lumpur on July 9, 2011.
Nothing surprising. It was just that I couldn’t wrap my mind around the paranoia displayed by the government over a planned peaceful assembly to demand for clean and fair elections.
This whole scare tactic definitely was funnier than any comedy show I’d ever watched on TV.
It was July 9, the day plethora of right thinking Malaysians and I had been waiting for. It felt like waking up to Aidilfitri morning. Serenity filled the air. Peaceful. I packed my bag. Salt, checked. A bottle of water, checked. My friends, Latheefa Koya, Eric Paulsen and Renuka Balasubramaniam and I went to KL Hilton to meet with the rest of the group.
When I got into the room, I saw Bersih leaders, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Maria Chin Abdullah, Wong Chin Huat, Haris Ibrahim and Zaid Kamarudin, all getting ready to lead the march.
I also saw Pakatan Rakyat leaders, Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Lim Kit Siang, Hadi Awang, Tian Chua, William Leong, Nurul Izzah and our respected national laureate, Pak Samad Said, standing firm next to Bersih leaders, to give their undivided support to the cause.
I looked at my watch, it was 1.30pm. After finishing our Zohor prayers, we put our yellow Bersih t-shirts on.
The room was filled with laughter, the worrying thoughts on the highhandedness of the police in dealing with this planned peaceful assembly seemed to fade away for a little while.
I could feel the strong conviction to freedom, freedom to march on, to assemble peaceably to demand for free and fair elections. We couldn’t wait to meet with the rest of right thinking Malaysians so that we could walk together to Merdeka Stadium on this historic, most awaited day.
We started marching on, we held each other’s arms so tightly. We chanted “Bersih!Bersih!Bersih!”.
A strange feeling suddenly embraced me. A pleasant strange feeling. I believed this was what solidarity, strength and conviction felt like.
I was holding Wan Azizah’z right arm. Nurul Nuha was holding my left arm. As we were walking, I could feel more hands were holding my arms, the hands of amazing people I hardly knew.
When I looked around, all I could see was police. My heart was beating so fast, in between the chanting and the thought that all of us would not make it to Merdeka Stadium as it was almost certain that we would be arrested, judging from the heavy police presence around us.
From KL Hilton, we proceeded to KL Sentral train station. At this juncture I kept asking myself why we weren’t arrested yet.
The police were there, surrounding us, waiting and watching our single move. I just ignored the question that was lingering on my mind. From KL Sentral train station, we had to go down the escalator to the underpass to reach the main road.
After going down the escalator, we then walked through the dark and confined underpass. Suddenly I heard the wail of police siren behind us, there was a police truck that was trying to pass. We stopped and gave way to the police truck. We then continued walking.
As we were still walking in the underpass, people in the forefront abruptly stopped. It was puzzling as to what was happening. I saw Anwar Ibrahim turning around and asking the people who were standing in the back to step back.
I was still puzzled as to what was happening at that particular moment. In a split second, I saw the dark and confined underpass filled with tear gas. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were all teary. Everyone was coughing. Panic struck.
I kept asking myself these questions. “Why did they fire the tear gas directly at us while we were still in the confined underpass? Why didn’t they arrest us right before we headed for the underpass? Could this be a trap?”.
Every one ran towards the escalator to escape. Haniza Talha fell on the floor and Sharifah Shahidah picked her up. I saw one man was holding Lim Kit Siang’s left arm, trying to help him to get onto the pavement. I quickly grabbed Lim Kit Siang’s right arm and helped him get onto the pavement.
I was coughing really hard. It was getting harder to breathe. The only thing that was flashing on my mind was the thought of death.
The voice inside my head was getting louder and louder-“God, I’m going to die, I won’t be able to join any peaceful assembly in the future as this would be my last. How are people going to survive this brutality in the future?”
The use of tear gas on us, in the confined underpass was severely criminal. The thought that the same tear gas would be used on peaceful demonstrators in future peaceful assemblies was killing me.
I dragged myself to the wall and leaned against it. I was struggling to find air. A woman gave me water and held my hands. We were trapped in the middle of the underpass, we couldn’t escape from where we came. It got harder and harder to breathe.
I tried to drag myself to the escalator in my attempt to escape but my steps were getting heavier. I saw tear gas was also shot from the back of the underpass and that made me realize that I would never make it to the escalator. The dark and confined underpass was filled with tear gas which was shot from both directions, leaving every one trapped in the middle.
I just stopped as I couldn’t move, not even an inch towards the escalator. At this point in time, I couldn’t open my eyes. Everything around me seemed so distant. I couldn’t hear a thing.
Light, I suddenly saw light in between the wooden walls that were blocking off the adjacent construction site.
I told myself to get to the light and try to escape. I suddenly saw Wan Azizah and Elizabeth Wong running towards the construction site. I ran towards them and we managed to get through the gap in between the wooden walls into the construction site.
‘Welcome to Malaysia’
We ran and crossed the main road in the rain. We stopped to catch our breath. We were still coughing. Our eyes and skin were all red. I couldn’t touch my skin as it was burning.
Two American journalists were standing next to us. They too were hit by the tear gas. One of the journalists asked us “Are you okay? The police were brutal”. I replied “Welcome to Malaysia!”.
There were also a few men standing around us, passing a bottle of water to us. Elizabeth Wong drank the water and threw up as she couldn’t stop coughing.
We then sought refuge at a chapatti shop nearby. At the shop, I started calling everyone to ask whether they were alright. Some were severely injured, some were arrested and some managed to escape.
I received calls from my lawyer friends, Farhana Abdul Halim and Afiq Mohd Noor who were on their way to the police station to give legal representation to peaceful demonstrators who got arrested. They told me that they were caught in a middle of sea of people, attacked by tear gas and water cannons in Puduraya.
The whole city was under siege.
Why did they have to launch this brutal attack on us, the unarmed, peaceful citizens of this country?
Why did they have to launch this brutal attack on us, the unarmed, peaceful citizens who were just exercising our constitutional and democratic rights?
Why did they have to wage this war against us, the unarmed, peaceful citizens who were just marching on to demand for free and fair elections?
I might not have the answers to these questions but I am certain about one thing. We, the people have won this war the authority waged against us.
We stood tall in dignity, weathering this brutal attack, standing up for one belief, a belief that would never be taken away from us.
Yes, we, the people have won.
Fadiah Nadwa Fikri is from Lawyers For Liberty.