By Neil Brandvold, who was at Toncontin airport in Tegucigalpa awaiting the arrival of President Zelaya’s plane when the Honduran military opened fire on the crowd.
The democratically elected president of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, is currently making plans for a second attempt to enter Honduras since he was ousted in a military coup just under a month ago. Earlier this week, Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias proposed a plan to return Zelaya to the presidency. Zelaya agreed to all conditions outlined in the proposal, including establishing a power-sharing government and holding presidential elections on Oct. 28, a month earlier than scheduled. The proposal was immediately rejected by the junta.
Zelaya has arrived at a Nicaraguan town on the border of Honduras with plans to enter the country by land, stating: “I have requested my wife and family accompany me, and have made the military responsible for any damage. I am going unarmed and peacefully so that Honduras can return to peace and tranquility.” It is a risky move for the president and his supporters, especially considering his first attempt to re-enter the country on July 5th was blocked by the junta. On that day, the military open fired on a gathering of upwards of 100,000 peaceful demonstrators at the Toncontin airport in Tegucigalpa and subsequently blocked the runway preventing the plane from landing.
I was on the ground, on the front lines of the peaceful protest when the military open fired on the peaceful crowd, killing several demonstrators and injuring upwards of 30 more. The brutality of the junta was shocking. Women and children were at the fence overlooking the runway, awaiting the return of their elected leader to restore their country to normalcy, ending curfews, media censorship and the violent police state the current regime has installed. As we pressed up against the fence a loudspeaker echoed over the crowd speaking directly to the young soldiers on the front lines. The man yelled:
Please do not fire on any Hondurans. Your responsibility is to protect the Honduran people… Our president is about to arrive and the people will receive him. We will not permit, for any reason, that they kidnap him again. So dear soldiers of our country, we have nothing against you; we have nothing against you…
With that the military open fired. The footage is shocking to watch — you can see elderly women stuck in front of the fence while soldiers fire indiscriminately into the fleeing crowd. Several brave Hondurans refused to run, and as the sound of machine guns rang out and teargas filled the air they retaliated by throwing rocks while the blood of their fellow Hondurans flowed in the streets.
The junta tested the will of the Honduran people that Sunday. But after being shot at and teargassed, and after their fellow Hondurans were brutally murdered for demanding justice, the Honduran people remained in the streets. I was with them as they defiantly stood in front of the military blockade at the entrance to the Toncontin airport and watched the president circle above the airport. Everyone, with tears in their eyes and fists in the air began to sing the Honduran national anthem:
To guard this sacred emblem
We shall march, oh fatherland, to our death;
Our death will be honoured
If we die thinking of your love.
Having defended your holy flag,
And shrouded in its glorious folds,
Many, Honduras, shall die for you,
But all shall fall in honour.
While much of the world has moved to condemn the coup and demand the return of Zelaya, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has refused to classify the ousting of Zelaya as a coup, and Clinton-insider Lanny Davis is now lobbying congress on behalf of pro-coup Honduran business leaders. The U.S. claimed to cut military ties to the regime, suspending $18 million in military aid, but the National Catholic Reporter revealed that Honduran military officials are currently still receiving training at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of the coup leaders were trained at the School of the Americas, including army commander and coup instigator General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, as well as several other members of the infamous 1980s death squad Battalion 3-16 who are currently taking top military and government positions in the junta. One of the more notable of these is Billy Hoya, who is famous for coordinating and directing tortures and assassinations throughout the country during the 1980s. Hoya has been taken on as special security advisor to installed Honduran President Micheletti.
As peaceful resistance continues to grow in Honduras in the form of strikes, roadblocks and protests, which take place in growing numbers across the country each day, the junta has increasingly clamped down on basic civil rights. A member of the student group “Feminists in Resistance” recently told me that their dorm was raided by the military personnel who beat and threatened the lives of several members of the group. Indigenous farmers continue to routinely shut down commerce on main roads by setting up roadblocks. The military regime has established a 6pm curfew along the Nicaraguan border as it attempts to restrict the movement of Zelaya supporters, who are flocking to the border. On the ground we found that Zelaya still retains popular support among the Honduran police and even lower ranks of the Honduran military. Zelaya has said he will return as early as Saturday, and has asked the military to disobey any orders given by the junta to arrest him.
As tensions rise in Honduras, we can only hope for a peaceful return to democracy and that no more Hondurans will have to die in this struggle for justice. The next days will be telling as Zelaya makes his return to the country. Costa Rican president Oscar Arias has predicted that if things do not move forward quickly the situation will escalate into a civil war.
We can’t afford to remain silent and inactive as the people fight across Honduras for justice and a return to democracy. Right now there is a popular cry on the streets of Tegucigalpa, “¡Pueblo únete!” or “People unite!” The least we can do is join them in solidarity and let the people know we are listening, their struggle is our struggle.
Neil Brandvold spent several years living in Honduras and has traveled extensively through Latin America. He recently returned to the U.S. after joining pro-Zelaya protests across Honduras the first weeks following the coup. He works with the Middle East Policy Council developing resources for K-12 teachers on the Middle East and Islam.