-story and photos by John LaForge
BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 27 - Calling ourselves "an international citizens inspection team to prevent war crimes," 500 nonviolent activists from around the world who had walked more than 100 miles from the Hague, converged on the beleaguered NATO headquarters, where we were met with water cannons and hundreds of baton-wielding riot police.
The marchers, protesting NATO's illegal nuclear weapons policies and its disregard for civilian lives in its bombing of Yugoslavia, defied the Mayor of Brussels' declaration that our final walk to the NATO facilities was illegal. With my Nukewatch press badge in tow, I was honored to be a part of the group, arrested twice, an enemy of the Alliances' nuclear, chemical and conventional warfare operations.
|A total of 21 affinity groups, like the one above,
practiced "locking weight"
during large group nonviolence training May 26 at the walkers' camp near
Mechelen outside Brussels. Participants devoted eight hours to the
planning and practice of nonviolent action.
Over the course of three days, some 272 would-be inspectors were arrested on a variety of charges - or no charge at all - and jailed for up to 12 hours. The May 27 arrests followed NATO's refusal to disclose records of its "Nuclear Planning Group" regarding its weapons of mass destruction. Our international delegation of self-styled citizen inspectors had intended to provide the information to the international press, the United Nations International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.
On Saturday, May 29, 63 activists were arrested without probable cause of any kind, miles away from the NATO base, under a termporary edict issued by the Mayor of Brussels who declared any protest of NATO illegal. Fifty of those arrested had simply stepped from a crowded public tram when national police and Belgian secret police detained them and carted them to jail.
The police actions made mockery of NATO's routine championing of democratic freedoms such as a free press. En route May 29 to a publicized press conference, 15 of us were surrounded and ordered out of our cars after we stopped at a light. When I asked the chief officer why we'd been pulled over, he told me "You're in a war zone." With my press badge displayed, I scribbled his answer in a notebook and reminded him that no declaration of war had been made by any party. When I then asked the name of the charge against us, he answered, "Uh, the impression of the intention to interfere with NATO." No one made it to the press conference, but instead we were jailed without charges till midnight and released.
Only our legal advisors were unsurprised by the Mayor's adoption of a police state mentality. Kuen Muntz, a Brussels-based peace activist, smiled at our outrage and explained that "Brussels is the birthplace of surrealism."
Starting out Sunday, May 16 from the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, seat of the UN International Court of Justice, about 250 of us walked, talked, danced, drummed, sang and reveled for twelve days in a spirited anti-war parade of flags, congas, whistles, banners and costumes. With participants from 31 countries, we walked a total of 124 miles carrying a demand for the immediate start of international negotiations for a treaty banning all nuclear weapons (as required by the July 8, 1996 Advistory Opinion of the International Court of Justice), and for an end to the US/NATO bombing raids against Yugoslavia. In the spirit of UN arms inspections in Iraq and North Korea, we likewise demanded that NATO's Nuclear Planning Group provide us "tranparent" access to information about its European nuclear arsenal includihng warhead numbers, types, yields, costs and targets.
Organized by For Mother Earth International, an anti-war network based in Gent, Belgium, the "2000 Walk for Nuclear Disarmament" was planned many months prior to the US-led bombing of Yugoslavia. NATO currently threatens the "first-use" of the 200 nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction that it now deploys in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
|Walkers lunched and rested May 22 beneath a stand
of tall poplars south of
Breda, Netherlands en route to Antwerp. Bicycles were used for messages,
rest and first-aid help.
Germany and Canada suggested last November that NATO renounce its nuclear first-use policy. Defense Secretary William Cohen attacked the anti-nuclear proposal, saying the current policy was "sound doctrine." A NATO delegate told the New York Times, Nov. 24, "We have 200 nuclear weapons systems in [Europe] and their credibility would be undone without the first-strike option."
Founded in 1949, NATO members "agreed to settle disputes by peaceful means, develop individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack, to regard an attack on one as an attack on all, and take necessary action to repel an attack under Art. 51 of the UN Charter." The undeclared, immoral and illegal US/NATO bombardment of the former Yugoslavia - no NATO member was attacked - added a mournful background and a dreadful urgency to the march.
Nevertheless, and in spite of sore feet and sunburns, we all enjoyed the lush, windswept, bicycle-friendly tabletop flatness of the Dutch and Flemish countryside, and the ornate, statuesque beauty of their medieval city centers - en route to the sprawling urban command center for NATO's nuclear, chemical and conventional warfare operations.
Nearly every day on the road brought news of another US/NATO crime, including the killing of civilians in trains, TV and radio studios, police stations, hospitals, refineries, apartment buildings, power plants, refugee columns, a nursing home, an embassy and even a prison. My journal mentions May 13: a Korisa refugee encampment, 80 killed; May 19: a Belgrade hospital, 4 killed; May 30: a Varvarin bridge and market, 11 killed; May 31: a Surdulica hospital, 16 killed; May 31: a Novi Pazar apartment complex, 10 killed. NATO and the UN HCR say that 1,500 civilians have been killed by the US/NATO bombardment.
-As anti-war and human rights activists with years of jail experience between us, the multiple bombing of the Istok prison - and the death there of at least 19 inmates - was particularly horrifying. Vladan Bojic, an inspecting magistrate who visited the scene, said the attack was "one of the biggest crimes of modern civilization."
The walkers were fed delicious and complex meals by "Rampenplan" (translation: "disaster plan"), a mobile kitchen collective based in Sittard, Netherlands. The members donate their time, cooking vegetarian and vegan meals for peace and anti-nuclear groups across Europe
The walk was supported as well by six City Councils that offered camping facilities and warm greetings, while official receptions took place at the city halls of Antwerp and Mechelen, Belgium. In Dordrecht, Netherlands, Mayor Vanja Bonkina spoke to the group as we rested near a giant bridge, "We see your visit as an honor. Here in Dordrecht, there began an 80-year-long war between the Dutch and the Spanish. We still want peace." In Zevenbergen, City Councilor Marjolein Dewit told us, "I'm amazed to see people from all over the world here. Thank you for using your words to fight for peace."
|Over-tired, windburned and exhilarated, but "sorry
the walk is over" after 220 kilometers, the walkers
entered Brussels May 26 - in defiance of the Mayor's
prohibition. "Brussels and Belgrade are the only two
places in Europe where demonstrations against the
war are prohibited," said Pol D'Huyvetter, a
spokesperson with For Mother Earth.
As we campaigned, we were all aware of the stark contrast between the conscientious working life of the farms, villages and towns we passed, and the barbed, mechanized and impassive face of the war system we condemn. Our slow-paced, pedestrian experience of civil society - blooming agriculture, manicured suburbs, bustling cities - was abruptly ended upon reaching Brussels.
With NATO HQ, the European Parliament, branch offices of all the Fortune 500, and the embassies of the G-8 all established here, the city is shadowed by the spirit of empire, haunted by the machines and armor of national police, secret police, military police and riot police.
Dr. Fernand Rochette, director of the Catholic high school who defied the Mayor by hosting us on his campus, took the ice out of the city's cold reception. He told us, "I didn't hesitate to welcome you. My students will benefit from your commitment to the prevention of war."
The long, hot days on the road were filled with meetings: meetings along the way, meetings over meals, meetings during camp work and after hours. Regular meetings, often held after six hours of walking, electrified the fluid organization of 250 strangers. We met as a whole, in speakers' councils, in affinity groups, as organizers and as nonviolence trainers. The consequent solidarity and friendship that was established, over the course of 200 kilometers, across 25 languages and 30 cultures, came as a beautiful shared gift.
It was easy to see why dozens of the participants in this disarmament walk were seasoned by the previous marches. They know from experience the love and power that a peace walk generates.