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Teargassing is chemical warfare

THE Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dispersed a peaceful meeting that was to be held by war veterans at some venue in Harare two days ago.

THE Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dispersed a peaceful meeting that was to be held by war veterans at some venue in Harare two days ago.

Never in the history of this country had I ever imagined that such a thing would happen to people that went to war to liberate this country, although this tactic has been used against hapless university students demonstrating over various issues at institutions of higher learning.

But these war veterans, just like the students, were unarmed and I sincerely believe that they were up to holding a peaceful meeting to map the way forward considering the recent events surrounding the politics of this country.

An anti-riot police truck seen chasing after commuter omnibus crews

In most cases, where teargas is used elsewhere in the world, the protests are violent resulting in many people getting hurt, including officers of the law.

This group of people did not display any riotous behaviour and were not a threat to anyone, so why did police come in full combat gear to disperse this meeting?

Most of these war veterans are in their late 50s and early 60s and may not be able to engage in a full-scale war, I think.

So why use such force, which may be a danger to those with asthmatic conditions, to disperse a peaceful meeting? It wasn’t a demonstration, but just a meeting to map out strategy on what to do about the political ongoings in Zanu PF.

The term teargas is a misnormer because these are solids or liquids that get turned into aerosols.

The canisters of teargas contain a solid powdered chemical rather than a gas, when activated this powdered chemical is aerosolised, creating a dense fume of cystalised chemical that hangs in the air.

These aerosolised crystals settle on the mucous surfaces of a person’s eyes, mouth, skin and breathing pathways.

When teargas is deposited on the human body, it can cause burn-like injury and swelling especially on parts of the body that are moist, like eyes, oral cavity, airways, oesophagus and armpits.

Given the ages of war veterans that had gathered for this meeting, it is possible that some of them may have health issues like cardiac and respiratory conditions like asthma, hyperactive airway diseases and, therefore, are likely to sustain severe morbidity like heart failure/attacks, respiratory failure and even death.

One war veteran, who lives in Greystone Park, called me yesterday saying that he was experiencing serious breathing difficulties because the teargas was aimed directly at him.

He said the group was caught unawares and that although he was still able to run, the teargas he inhaled made him stop as he choked and vomited and he was whisked into a nearby vehicle and driven away from the scene by fellow war veterans.

Another female war veteran, who lives in Greendale, has apparently sought medical attention, as she has severe asthma, which was made worse by this gas.

Using teargas on protesters in narrow roadways and alleys with inadequate air flow has resulted in many deaths in countries ranging from Bahrain, Turkey to Egypt, according to a report by Rainhan Chowdhury, a medical doctor who has written extensively on this subject.

He noted that reports from demonstrations in Egypt in 2013 state that 37 people died of asphyxiation after a teargas canisterwas fired into the vehicle carrying them. Others have been blinded, maimed or killed by teargas canisters shot from close range.

Chowdhury says the War Resisters League reports on deaths, miscarriages and stillbirths after exposure to the chemicals. People with respiratory diseases like asthma are susceptible to teargas, sometimes requiring long-term hospitalisation. Over exposure, he says, can cause burns to the skin and eyes with the latter frequently leading to blindness.

Teargas, under the Geneva Convention, is characterised as a chemical warfare agent, and, hence, it is precluded for use in warfare and yet it is frequently used against civilians in Zimbabwe.

It seems the use of teargas is banned by the International Convention in Waco, where CS gas was used on women and children in an enclosed space resulting in the death of many of them.

There are many examples, the report notes, where people suffered severe injury and burns, especially in enclosed environments or city streets, with several building alongside.

Teargas has now become the major method to disperse protesters and quell disturbances, which are in most cases not violent at all.

Teargas has been used on university students protesting living conditions and on dissenting voices opposed to the politics of this country.

Although it is allowed to be used by police as a domestic riot control response, teargas is not a gas. It is meant to be a non-lethal crowd-dispersing agent, but to its victim, and people who study it, that distinction isn’t always so clear.

International guidelines such as the UN Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms stipulate that the police are expected to use discretion in crowd control tactics.

The heavy-handedness displayed by the Zimbabwe Republic Police on a crowd that was seemingly not violent and heading for a meeting is uncalled for.

These are the people who sacrificed their lives to take up the armed struggle that brought about Zimbabwe’s independence and yet are now being treated as a useless force that has been openly taunted in public.

I totally believe that this is the turning point in Zimbabwe’s history because this is the first time that I seen such an action being meted out on liberation war heroes.

War veterans countries like US and United Kingdom are given the respect they deserve. On one of my many trips to the US, I observed a commemoration of World War Two heroes who are held in high esteem for the role they played to protect their country’s interests.

There are better ways of solving problems rather than resorting to direct military confrontation that may prove lethal in the long run. What if the war veterans were armed, what would have happened? I have high respect for these people, no matter what other people may think.

They sacrificed for you and me to be what we are today and that is a fact that is deeply engraved in black and white.

This chemical warfare should be banned because it is a repressive instrument and a barbaric way of dealing with internal political differences.

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