Some time ago, however, I broke my spectacles and have not wanted to spend the money to buy new ones. Also, those available here are all made in China, whose products we are actively boycotting, so I would rather remain half blind. Still, I can see movement in the distance well enough to know that, at night, it would be attributable to police or soldiers, since according to the martial law curfew no one else is allowed outside at that time.
While the banging of pots and pans goes on, I can watch from my balcony with little risk of being seen. Other spotters are stationed with all lights out just inside the doorway to our building. We are also monitoring the few communications that we receive from others both within and outside our quarter, though these messages are often spotty and not always accurate enough to be of much help.
From one end of my balcony I can see right to the end of our street. I have a pretty clear view of a primary approach that I can keep an eye on. At the corner, where a side street intersects, is a tree, and within the foliage there’s a gap in the leaves through which I can see the feet of approaching soldiers. It takes them three more steps before they are out from behind this screen and only then can they possibly see me. So before they take those steps I have to shout “lar bee,” which warns my neighbours that troops are on the way. Immediately all pots and pans are silenced, and just as quickly I have to hit the deck before being seen. When the banging stops on our end of the street, those in apartments beyond the reach of my voice also know it’s time to stop. Then we all wait.
After calling out the warning, I crawl on my hands and knees back inside my apartment to take up my second position. We have to try to keep close track of the number of advancing soldiers because sometimes one or two will unobtrusively peel off from the group and hide behind a tree or parked car. Directly across the street is a long glass window and, with a streetlight providing some illumination, from inside my apartment I can see just enough of a reflection to be able to count the soldiers as they pass.
My count might not always be accurate, since immediately after crossing the intersection one of them might hide. However they seem to lack the courage to be alone; ordinarily they work in pairs. I could miss the first one who drops out but feel certain, given the short time before I see them in the reflection of the window, that I can spot the second one before he hides. But there’s no guarantee, and that tests my nerves later on. I relay the number of soldiers that I count to another person inside my apartment who texts off that number. If I first see ten soldiers at our end of the street but only eight show up at the other, I know that two are hiding somewhere. At least that’s the theory.
After I think they have passed by, I crawl back onto the balcony and, from behind a longyi hanging on the railing, I peek out to make sure that they have all completely moved on. If so, I then recheck the direction from which they came to ensure that none are in their favourite hiding places. If the street is clear both ways, then I slowly stand up at the end of the balcony. And this is the part I hate the most—I have to crane my head out far enough to see to the very end of the street to determine where the soldiers have gone.
Unless they are out chasing protesters, rarely do they pass through without shouting, breaking windows, throwing rocks at the fronts of the apartments, damaging cars or attempting to break in somewhere to make an arrest. Once they have gone all the way to the end of our street and out onto the main road, I will then start to hear someone clapping to a beat that is immediately taken up by others until everyone is clapping. Next they break into the first of two protest songs that we sing every night. That is also a time when it’s important for me to continue to remain alert. If, before they get too far, the soldiers hear us singing, we can be sure that they will come back with a vengeance.
Last night in the quarter next to ours, soldiers returned to a street where, from upper-floor apartments at one end, residents were swearing at them and shouting all sorts of names. When the soldiers arrived at where the shouting was, it stopped. But then the other end of the street started cursing, drawing the soldiers back to whence they had come. Back and forth the soldiers went, threatening residents and throwing bricks and pieces of concrete through windows. (Apparently, they were recently ordered not to shoot or use stun grenades, but that in no way means they won’t.)
What was unusual about last night was that the residents were especially angry and would not stop their cursing and name-calling. For the first time that I am aware of the soldiers retreated before quietening the street. However, later, in a video recording, I could hear the soldiers threatening that they would be back tonight. No doubt they will.
People used to be very much afraid of the soldiers, however as time goes by they are getting angrier and angrier and more and more willing to take the kind of chances that they would never have contemplated three months ago. But of course, as we have already seen, such bravery can have deadly consequences.
This is what we do and what we face every night. We bang our pots and pans and sing our songs of protest. What is so very important about this exercise is that people feel they at least have a voice, and when others up and down the street join in it reminds each of us that we are not alone and, in fact, are in a vast majority.