Thursday, July 16, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Siege day 5)
The people i have spoken to in the past 24 hours as desperation sinks in:
- The Vice Minister of the Interior
- La Nacion newspaper
- The head of the Bolivian Tourism Ministry
- The British Vice Consul
- The Times Newspaper
- Alexei (got food poisoning)
- Colonel Hinojosa, head of Potosi police
- Agence France Press
- The miserable woman who 'makes'breakfast and immediately afterwards padlocks away the salt and tea bags so we cannot get at them
- Mike Collier (legend and journalist friend)
- Rayyan Sabet-Perry (legend and journalist friend)
- A representative of the Catholic Church
- The British Ambassador
- A bloke who says he can get us more eggs and beer
- Rep from COMSIPA
- Bolivian journalists in the main square
Email to Bolivian government:
Hi (name withheld)
Here is the Carlos V Imperial Hostal Evacuation list: Northern Ireland 2, England 1, Russia 2, USA 2 (names withheld)
Due to events in Potosi, all tourist sites have been closed for a couple of weeks, with the only exception being the tours of the mines. I would assume this is because the miners still want visitors to witness the atrocious and terribly dangerous conditions they have to work in. Personally speaking, I just don't fancy going down those mines as it is genuinely unsafe. Countless men have died down there over the years, decades and centuries.
Strangely, they have decided to open up the Casa Moneda today for an hour but we have been tipped off it is only possible to get in if you knock. For one reason or another I am the only one of the Potosi 7 who wants to pay a visit. I often skip expensive museums because budgets simply don't allow but I want to get a better understanding of the history of this remarkable city.
Casa de la moneda by Elemaki/wikimedia commons
Hundreds in a day normally visit the Casa Moneda – the Bolivian National Mint. Today it is literally only me. I am on my back at the scale of this place. And the penny has finally dropped about just how significant Potosi was to the Spanish Empire. That big mountain peak , Cerro Rico that looms over Potosi, was the difference between the Spanish remaining part of the world elite for centuries. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Literally, one mountain changed and shaped the world. No wonder that mountain is central to so much Spanish and Catholic art from that period (see main image) Without that hill of silver the Spanish would not have been able to afford to build one of the greatest empires in history. From the 1500s, Potosi and parts of Mexico provided the Spanish with unfathomable amounts of wealth. During the 16th century alone, their silver reserves were said to be worth up to $2 trillion in today's values.
The cost was tens of thousands of deaths from mercury poisoning, lung disease and sub-human conditions. More than 30,000 African slaves are said to have been brought here to work and die.
Truly, Potosi was once the world's richest city and one of its most populous (second largest in the Americas at one point with 200,000 people, many of them rich Europeans). The expression 'to be worth a fortune' comes from Potosi. Valer un Potosi – to be worth a Potosi. And the mint mark of Potosi is believed, by many, to be where the US dollar sign originated from.
Today, as the poorest city in Bolivia (population now only 240,000), oh how it has been raped and abused and left to die. Almost 500 years of digging for silver, then tin and then zinc, mean that parts of the mountain could collapse soon. Already, massive sinkholes have appeared. We Europeans must teach our children and their children about all the great atrocities committed by our rich nations over the centuries instead of celebrating our disgusting empires.
The lovely guide who has shown me around tells me she fears what will happen in the next week or two. She believes we must get out of the city soon before something really bad happens. She thinks the city has no future under Morales. Five years ago apparently, a similar general strike was held in Potosi, which ended when the government promised a number of things for the city, including a new cement factory, new hospitals and significant direct investment. None of those promises were ever kept.
Afterwards, speechless as I contemplate the scale of what took place in this city over the centuries, I wander back taking in the views of stunning Potosi.
Some images of Potosi old town:
(click on images to enlarge)
Agence France Press:
I’m (name withheld), of AFP news agency. We’d received a message from our colleague in Riga, and he told us you were in trouble in Potosi, because of a general strike in that city. Is it possible to know about your situation, and maybe can you give us a local phone number (from the hotel maybe or a person you are close there) for calling you? We were trying to reach you in your Riga’s number but it didn´t work. Also I wasn’t able to find your WhatsApp. Please, let´s us know any news, and we really hope things became better soon. Regards
British Head Consul: I understand the representative from the Tourism Ministry has been in touch with you but please let me know if you still have concerns about the evacuation arrangements. We understand the evacuation by coach will take place later today and you should be taken to La Paz (if this still is your preference).
Letter to Bolivian government: the colonel was not there as promised. the police do not have an organised evacuation plan. they are talking about us leaving in a bus organised by a hostel but there is no guarantee of safety. there is a mass demo planned here at 2 and already people are arriving from every direction
It is another mass demo day. As much as I would like to, rather than risking watching it from nearby, I think it is best to follow the live TV coverage from the safety of our hotel. Po-to-si, ley ley ley, the protesters repeat over and over again. From time to time, sticks of dynamite are thrown a few yards in front of the lead marchers, exploding with a large bang each time, a few seconds later.
It is officially confirmed that yesterday's evacuation of the Argentines was botched. The news doesn't fill any of us with confidence.
Meanwhile, the journalist from the Times doesn't think our story is newsworthy. But, when I try to contact her on Facebook and she ignores my messages, I notice she's spent half of her day in London posting photos and 'hilarious tit bits' about her bloody dogs. I despair. Now that our situation has become worryingly precarious I see what other people are emailing and tweeting about outside the bubble of Bolivia and it all seems like a complete and utter load of bollocks. Pardon my French. Nonsense about which striker is going to some Premier league club, photos of what people had for lunch, wasn't doo dah whatsit brilliant on Britain's Got Talent last night. I feel like I am living in reality and all those people are occupying some candy floss dream world.
In the evening, and seemingly out of the blue, we are suddenly told to pack and follow someone to Koala Hostel. As the news comes only from our hotel manager - and not from the police or embassies - we are a little suspicious this news is genuine. The hotel staff have become rude and nervous during the past 24 hours; as if our presence has begun to threaten their own security. And they are adamant we must leave right now, attempting to overcharge poor Alexei, who is only just recovering from his bout of food poisoning, in the process. It seems ironic that I have spent five days in such an amazing room; the poshest backpacker pad I have ever had.
The hotel boss skips through the main square and down some side streets to the hostel. As the seven of us are carrying our backpacks, we are attracting lots of attention from the locals.
Once we arrive, we stand in the street with our rucksacks in the darkness but there is no sign of the police and army. Our former hotel manager scuttles off into the shadows before we can get an answer from him about what the hell is going on.
Inside the hostel, I speak to some French teenagers who tell us the evacuation has been called off. Haha. So all they have done has corralled all the non-Argentines into one place. For the second day running, our evacuation out of Potosi has been abandoned or botched. Christine doesn't think we will get out of here at all and wants to leave early tomorrow morning. Andy is quickly talking sense into her. "Which direction are you gonna go in?" "Down there." "And then where? And where after that?"
The French are also discussing leaving as a group early doors. I am trying to convince everyone to stick together and explain to the French that I am speaking to the foreign press about their plight. They came here to volunteer and help the local poor. I think when the foreign press hears that they did this and are now trapped, there will be enormous pressure on the authorities and local civic leaders to evacuate them. The French could be every foreigner's ticket out of here.
There is actually no room for us in the hostel although there is another hostel with an almost identical name nearby called the 'Koala Den'. The owners are extremely friendly and accommodating.
We go for a walk in our new neighbourhood. Many street sellers are out and nobody is stopping them. The atmosphere has changed for some reason. It leaves me with a sense of genuine hope, even if most of the Potosi 7 are resigned to defeat after our second botched evacuation in two days.
Back at the hostel, Andy and I are using twitter to push our message. A couple of notable, well-followed people have retweeted us and More Than a Game is picking up lots and lots of new followers, many of them media people and interested parties with thousands if not tens of thousands of individual followers. I have never been a fan of twitter but I can see how it can be used by anyone to potentially push a message. An Argentine journalist contacts me after picking up some of my posts from the #potosi hashtag. Better still, a reputable French journalist is in touch. I feel Andy and I are gaining momentum in our push to use the media to get us out of here.
Near the Koala Den, there is a little convenience shop where you can bang on the corrugated iron and mutter some passwords to the lady hidden in the shadows. More beer, eggs and noodles!
After an evening of twitter and emails, Andy and I sit over a couple of beers discussing our predicament.
What happens after a city has been raped and abused for centuries? This is what happens. The two of us are in total solidarity with the people of Potosi and believe in their struggle. We don't blame them for this general strike and siege. If I were one of them, I would join them. But I am not and I would just like them to let me and my friends leave in peace as this is not our fight.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Seige day four)
It's day 4 in the Big Brother house...
It is certainly starting to feel like that.
Early doors, I renegotiate the price of all of our hotel rooms with the boss. My reasoning is that with only one functioning bank machine in town and most of us hoarding what little cash we could access from our accounts, once all the Bolivianos are gone, they are gone, and we won't be able to pay up anyway. I mean, we could be staying at the Hotel California for weeks or even a couple of months. The hotel boss agrees to a 20% discount for the #Potosi7. Our amazing suite is now costing me a bit less than 20 quid per night, haha.
There are rumours all 'extranjeros' will be evacuated tomorrow in a one-hour window of opportunity during some protest that is due to take place.
There are no sounds of explosions until 10am. And more good news: those three crucifixions we heard about that put the fear of God into us, were self-imposed (in protest) rather than imposed! Those involved are said to be in decent health.
Andy, Christine and I are now busy speaking to anyone and everyone we can online, who might be able to help us in some way. We also plan to try our luck with the police and the unions today. I've also sent out an SOS to a couple of journalist mates – Mike and Rayyan - in the hope they can pull some strings with the UK press.
I must confess, I am worried about the health of our elderly American friends. They are in their mid-60s and both have apparently had cancer in the past as well as having dodgy tickers. Imagine the stress on their bodies up here at 14,000 feet! I know Steve is really concerned about Jennifer. Yes, Steve is a chilled ex-hippie, with a happy-go-lucky outlook on life, but he is 65 not 25 and he knows we are all in a tight spot here. The US Embassy has totally blanked him so he knows, as it stands, he is personally responsible for getting him and his missus out of here.
British Embassy: (14 July)
Thank you for your email. We would advise you to stay in Potosi for now. To leave, you would have to cross blockades and it is not even certain you will find transport. I spoke to our contacts in Potosi today and we understand most hotels and some restaurants are operating, but you may have to knock on the door and ask.We are closely monitoring the situation and working with other EU Embassies on how we can best support our citizens, especially if the situation continues or deteriorates. If our advice to British Nationals changes, we will update travel advice accordingly. Please do get in touch if you require support in getting medical attention for you or your partner.
Reply: (14 July)
I appreciate your rapid response to my email. I would like to update you with some information:
I appreciate that problems persist in Bolivia on a weekly basis, but I suspect the British Embassy is underestimating the gravity of this situation. The Bolivian state has lost total control of the city of Potosi. Is there any dialogue about the possibility of evacuating all foreign nationals from Potosi?
My suggestion: dialogue with the strike leaders, the local municipality and the police about evacuating all foreign nationals in a bus convey escorted out of the city to Sucre by security forces. All foreign nationals are registered at local hotels so this could be coordinated without too many complications. I also suggest that bus companies are prevented from transporting unsuspecting foreign nationals from the cities of Uyuni and Sucre and dumped on the edge of the city as we were. It should also be agreed that no more foreign nationals be allowed into the city on foot through the barricades. Less foreigners have arrived today but to our knowledge at least five more got through and are now trapped here.
For your information, I have drafted a letter to the British press informing them of our dire situation. I am considering sending this out in the late afternoon today if I see no hope of our circumstances improving. In the space of a few hours, media interest in Argentina about the plight of their nationals here has gone from one story to dozens. It seems to me, those Argentines now have more chance of getting out of here because of this. I feel the same might happen if the British press take this story. I am going to bed now and will check my email account again tomorrow morning. Thanks once again for your rapid response to my first email. I dearly hope that we will find some hope of getting out of this frightening situation in the next 24 hours.
British Embassy (15 July):
Thank you for your information. Is there any update today on what you are seeing? The reports we have received from our contacts do not suggest the security of tourists is at risk but please send us further information if this is not your experience. We are in contact with the government, along with other Embassies, and pushing hard for them to come up for options to help tourists affected. We are not aware that more tourists are entering the city – is this still happening and how are they doing so? We are also gathering information about the number of British tourists affected. If you are aware of other British Nationals there could you encourage them to get in touch with us via this email address or by phone on (number withheld)
British Embassy (15 July) :
The Bolivian government are asking us for all your contact details , so that they can assist you and organise an evacuation. Please could you send us the details and ask any other British Nationals to do the same.
British Embassy (15 July) :
(name withheld) is the person in the government organising the evacuation. Could you please email him as they are trying to find out how many people need to leave.
Mike and Rayyan are in touch. There is potentially interest from the Times, Telegraph and the BBC.
Alexei is sick in his room. I am also starting to think Alexei has been putting on a bit of an act and that he is actually scared by our predicament. Don't get me wrong – this boy can look after himself - but with him trying to get help from the Russian embassy and getting blanked I sense he is a little worried about how the hell we are gonna get out of here safely.
The British Embassy advised me to come to the police station and meet the head of the police, Colonel Hinojosa, who is apparently making a list of all nationals to be evacuated. Once inside the station, it is quickly apparent that no such list exists. The colonel is nowhere to be seen. If my Spanish serves me correctly they seem to be suggesting he is busy having coffee somewhere else in town. It becomes apparent the police have no concrete plan and no lists but do suggest we speak with the people at Koala Hostel, who they say are trying to formulate an escape plan.
There is a press report that a French national has been attacked in Potosi.
For a couple of hours, the front doors of the hotel are locked and we are told we must stay indoors as nobody can guarantee our safety during the latest march. There are a lot of explosions in the streets. I don't even feel safe enough to stand on the hotel balcony in case someone lobs a dynamite stick our way.
A lady from the Times calls me and says she might cover the story, although she sounds disappointed when I tell her none of the foreigners in the city have been murdered. She says she will do her best to get something published but complains it is 'hard to get any space in the newspaper because it is all about the Greek Crisis at the moment'. 'Surely four lines about British nationals being forcefully trapped in a foreign city has some appeal for your readers?'I suggest. 'Ah, I am not sure. Everyone is focusing on Greece. Perhaps if things get more serious I can help you.'
Up at the COMCIPO offices there has been a big meeting of the unions and community leaders where, among many issues, the subject of the trapped foreigners was brought up. We arrive shortly after it finishes to find out where we stand. Stressed officials are handing out special vouchers that can be stuck in the front of cars to enable them to officially get past the blockades. They have nothing to offer us, they say. They are not willing to stick us in any of said cars to evacuate us.
Briefly, we speak to an affable Swiss couple, who came here in a camper van.
We continue to press our case with COMCIPO and after half an hour of various broken Spanish conversations we are told to follow one bloke to our hotel who will apparently lead us to an evacuation bus. Ive no confidence in any of this.
Walking back from the top of the old town, with its beautiful red-roofed houses that put one in mind of Romania, suddenly someone throws a brick through the window of a camper van (must belong to the Swiss) parked up in the street. Whoever did it, quickly disappears off down a side street, while locals call the police. At the same time we can hear the loud noise of a marching band nearby and the distant sounds of explosions.
Andy and I race back to the hostel and tell Jennifer, Steve, Alexei, Christine and Katya to pack so we can run for the 'evacuation bus'. But, hang on! The hotel staff are telling us we shouldn't trust the bloke who is offering to evacuate us and that we shouldn't go with him.
The seven of us deliberate about whether to go down to the alleged bus. I am against it. I don't believe any evacuation would be attempted just as it gets dark. Surely the bus would end up getting stoned? After discussing it we agree that it is better to sit tight and not risk the bus. The very fact that the hotel staff don't trust the bloke who is taking us is enough to put me off.
Very soon, news filters in that the evacuation has been botched. A crowd of youths surrounded the bus (which was full of Argentines) and the decision was made to not attempt to leave the city.
Email to British embassy:
can you please call the hotel? we have no credit/mobiles and internet keeps going down. the union evacuation seems to have gone wrong with youths near the buses waiting for people to leave for sucre. we have stayed in our hotel, it is the hotel you called earlier this week with the northern ireland couple
In the evening, we all decide to stay in the hotel and not venture out, as we don't feel safe. There is a sinister feel out on the streets today. All I've eaten today is jam and crackers and a bag of salted crisps.
The situation in Potosi has now become very worrisome. We are not sure we can trust those who are said to be organising the evacuation but, at the same time, Potosi suddenly feels genuinely dangerous. Do we try to stick or twist if another 'evacuation offer' presents itself tomorrow?