Sara Ahronheim volunteered as a medic during the anti-FTAA protests in Quebec City this past weekend. This is her story - Ed.

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In a War Zone
by Sara Ahronheim

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This weekend I treated hundreds of injured people, was tear-gassed, felt the effects of pepper spray, and felt the kind of turmoil that a member of a peaceful society ought not to experience, ever.

Throughout the event the police targeted medics: Wherever my partner and I would be treating people, tear-gas canisters would land beside us. Some medics were hit by rubber bullets.

On Friday, my friend Sean was on his knees treating a patient in a tear gas cloud on the front lines, when a canister fell right under his face and exploded. He gasped, gulping the gas, and tried to stumble to his feet, only to narrowly duck a canister aimed at his head. Another canister hit the wall behind him, bounced, and hit him in the back, knocking him flat. A final canister rolled by his face again and exploded. He was rescued by another medic team and spent the next two days recuperating in the medic clinic on Cote D'Abraham.

On the front lines we began treating people as the gassing began, Friday. We had to retreat again and again to avoid the clouds of gas. At one point a canister exploded right next to me. I can't begin to explain the agony of being hit head-on with tear-gas. First of all it suffocated me. I began to walk very quickly, barely restraining the panic, as I coughed and choked. I thought I would die, and worried that any minute my asthma would kick in.

Everywhere we turned we saw more riot cops, more gas, and no safe space to calm down and decompress. My eyes were fine, being sealed under swim goggles, but my skin was burning like fire. Finally we managed to find a corner without gas and I got my breath back.

I can't explain the fear that set in after my first gassing - I was scared to go anywhere near the cops; but I was in Quebec to do a service and treat injured people who were in pain. Now that I knew what that pain was like, I also knew I had to go back. As we returned to the chaos, we found a girl who had been hit by a canister of gas, which exploded all over her body. Medics were treating her by stripping off her clothing and pouring liquids all over her. The poor girl was crying and screaming, in so much pain. Around us were clouds of gas, and cops advancing on all sides. They began shooting canisters high into the air, into the back of the crowd, into the crowds of peaceful protesters far from the perimeter fence and not involved in the small group of protesters armed with rocks, concrete, plywood and molotov cocktails. We had a clear space full of people being treated for various injuries, just trying to recuperate, yet we were getting hit with dozens of canisters.

We had to furtively watch the sky, hoping the canisters wouldn't hit us in the head or land on those being treated. We had to continually stand in the centre of the action, screaming at people to "walk, walk, walk" to avoid being trampled by a mob. It's so hard to stand still or walk slowly when tear-gas canisters, at a temperature of hundreds of degrees Celsius, are being shot straight at you.

Emotion ran so high and I broke down so many times. I worried I was either going to die or be incapacitated or arrested. Later a row of riot cops formed at one intersection, and lobbed gas canisters to block off the end of the block. There was no escape route for my partner and I and the dozen or so protesters still there. Again I began to choke and almost panic, but we ducked into a driveway. When I saw the pain of others, the adrenaline kicked in, and I began to treat them. I didn't think about my state. I didn't feel the gas once I saw injured people that needed my help. We managed to escape through backyards onto another block.

This weekend was a war zone. I felt like I was in the middle of urban civil war. I saw third degree burns. I treated so many burned hands, from people who wore thick gloves to throw tear gas canisters back at the cops or away from the crowd, yet got their hands burned anyway. I flushed hundreds of eyes with water and antacids. I treated so many injuries from people hit by tear gas canisters and also those hit by rubber or plastic bullets. I saw back injuries, head injuries, broken fingers, leg wounds, and so much more.

On Friday night we ended up under siege in our medical clinic as the cops advanced down Cote D'Abraham, firing rounds and rounds of tear gas. The air was so contaminated that we had to breathe through our vinegar-soaked bandannas insidethe clinic. We had all the lights out and were speaking in whispers. It was so scary: I was sure we were going to be arrested, but we managed to evacuate down the stairs outside, and escape.

But Saturday night was a different story. I was in the field at the time, but I heard the story from many medics who were there: The cops advanced down Cote D'Abraham, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets down alleys and driveways. When they reached the clinic they marched everyone who was in the alley (the decontamination space) out at gunpoint. This included many medics and their patients, even seriously injured ones. The cops forcibly removed almost everyone's protective gear, including gas masks, vinegar bandannas and any goggles, saying "No more protection for you guys!"

They also took the medical supplies and equipment that were in the alley or being carried by the medics. Then they marched people, hands in the air and at gunpoint, out into the gas. They made them walk one way, then changed their minds and marched them another direction. My friend Sean said that one guy next to him was hit in the head with a rubber bullet, and the cops wouldn't allow him to stop and treat the person. Finally they let the group go, without any arrests. The clinic was evacuated and set up in a different location.

I heard about other injuries from medics: Derek and his partner treated a guy who was severely beaten by police. He had a skull fracture, was in serious shock and had a compound leg fracture that made it almost severed. They waited in clouds of tear gas, with more and more canisters being hurled at them, for the ambulance. Another medic treated a guy whose finger was cut off as he tried to scale the wall. One girl's shoulder was dislocated. I treated a guy who got hit in the back with a tear gas canister. One guy got hit in the Adam's apple with a rubber bullet and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. My teammate Leigh had a serious asthma attack in the clouds. There were many victims of beatings at the hands of police - serious injuries from police batons. One guy had his earring ripped straight out of his ear by a riot cop. I can't remember many of the injuries. The mainstream media (i.e. the Montreal Gazette) reported only 300 injuries, total. That's laughable: I treated that many myself (and there were probably 50 medics treating that many injuries each).

While we medics were holed up inside a shack that was being used as a "Free Space" in Ilot Fleurie (they let us use it as a makeshift clinic), a guy was brought in with a serious asthma attack. He had been having the attack for about a half-hour, and his breathing was extremely laboured. I sat him down and attempted to calm him, but it only got worse. I could hear the wheezing and feel his body shaking with every effort, and I knew the pain he was in because of my own experiences with asthma. I recognized his panic: he also didn't have his ventolin inhaler.

As I sat there by his side I went over my options in my head - and realized I had none. An ambulance wouldn't come into such a "hot" area, the cops had just busted our clinic, and I had no ventolin or adrenaline for him. So in a moment of clarity I realized I should try my only other option - an acupressure point I had learned the week before that supposedly stops asthma attacks immediately. I admit that before Saturday night I was very skeptical of these techniques, but when I was confronted with this guy's obvious need, faith just kicked in. I knew it would work, I just knew it. Maybe because I believed it so much, maybe because of something else, it worked.

Within seconds of my pressing that point on his hand, his breathing began to slow down. Within a minute he was calm, and walked out of the clinic. That moment for me was magic - without any Western medical techniques or medication of any sort, I managed to help take away this man's pain. Unbelievable. I began to cry as soon as he walked out - I was so shocked and so relieved.

I can't believe how people hurt each other. I am shocked at the violence I saw in the span of two days, Friday and Saturday. I can't believe the ferocity of chemical weapons, and that a government would allow its police force to use such arms against its own people. I fully appreciate the cops' need to defend themselves against the concrete and plywood wielding protesters, but each of these cops was heavily armed and protected, and a handful of them could have easily surrounded the small group of armed protesters and dealt with them instead of affecting the peaceful demonstrators: instead tear-gas was shot deliberately at the peaceful demonstrators at the back of the crowd.

I am writing this story because I believe that the mainstream media is very biased. I want you all to know what really went down. I haven't even told you the half of it in this story, but I've tried to give at least a taste of the pain I saw this weekend. I am having a very hard time processing and dealing with this - the feelings I am experiencing are similar to those I had when I came back from the death camps in Poland. I cannot function adequately right now, and writing this is part of my healing process. I want the world to know what went on in Quebec, how undemocratic and unfair and immoral and oppressive the situation was.

Yet I also want people to know that a better world is possible - through the gas and the pain and the fear I also glimpsed the possibility, the hope, of that new space. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages and races came together in Quebec to fight against corporate rule, and to fight for basic human rights, environmentalism and fair trade. We have a vision of a future where things will be better. I don't stand with the anarchists who want to break this society in order to form a new one, and I don't stand with the protesters shouting "Revolution" in the armed sense. But I do stand with the ordinary individuals, grandmothers, kids, labourers, environmentalists, and other humans who want to change things.

As we said in Quebec City, Be Safe.

Sara Ahronheim is still treating the injuries of the protests.

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