19 Oct 2016

What it's like to be tear-gassed

8:26 am on 19 October 2016

In the middle of a protest in Palestine border, Ivan Steward was desperately trying to breathe.


Israel Defence Force soldiers watch the protest after tear gas was fired.

Israel Defence Force soldiers watch the protest after tear gas was fired. Photo: Ivan Steward

‘What it’s like’ is a weekly Wireless series. For more, click here.

In everyday New Zealand, the boys in blue are about as likely to provide late night pie eating tips as they are to reach for the pepper spray. There’s certainly no warzones and our protests are pretty tame affairs by international standards. Our politicians are full of shit but it’s odourless, just like the methane from our cows. For the most part, NZ is a pretty benign olfactory landscape, so I never really had any prior imaginings about what being tear gassed might actually entail.

Nevertheless, while on a pilgrimage to the Middle East I found myself in Palestine and on the hunt for a fairly well-known piece of Banksy artwork. You know, the one painted onto the apartheid wall that Vice or Juxtapoz probably frothed over, of the girl flying away with a bunch of balloons? Travel photography gold, please and thanks.

As it happens, “balloon” sounds a lot like “Bil’in” to the ears of certain taxi drivers in Ramallah. “The Wall” disappeared in the rearview, eventually making way to a landscape replete with scorched earth and demarcated by barbed wire and spent ammunition.

Megaphones screech. Rocks are thrown. Shots are fired into the air.

A man who seemed to appear from thin air asked who I was and what I was doing. I didn’t have much of an answer aside from gesturing with my camera and making balloon shaped hand movements. Long story short, I had inadvertently wound up in the place that served as the staging ground for protests against Israeli incursions into Palestinian Territories.

It was Thursday. The next rally was on Sunday, I had a fancy camera, did I want to come? Damn right I did. I spent two days with his lovely family in a bombed out house, met half the village and played soccer in the Saturday tournament on a rock-hard, semi-desert field.

On Sunday, there was an excited nervousness but no real fear as we walked along the dusty path toward the barbed wire that demarcated the Israel-Palestine border. The IDF (Israeli Defence Force, also known by Palestinians as the IOF - Israeli Occupation Force) stood with machine guns and rocket launchers beyond the barbed wire.

The somewhat jovial initial attitude of the local protesters was disarming and probably also masked the magnitude of the events to follow: Megaphones screech. Rocks are thrown. Shots are fired into the air. Then the sonorous thump of tear gas canisters being launched into the air is upon us. I’m told to look at the sky, follow their trajectory and watch where they land, so I don’t get hit directly.

I move, as one canister falls amidst the olive trees in front. White fumes swirl up like fake smoke at a KISS concert, but there's nothing fake about the cries that ensue. I gasp, and the burning sensation sears its way into my sinuses and down my throat. It's as if I’ve swallowed fire.

A protester after being tear-gassed.

A protester after being tear-gassed. Photo: Ivan Steward

Forcing my eyes open, the world has blurred. The screaming crowd scatters, and all is chaos. People shriek, wail and flee backward over the rough terrain, tears and mucus flowing freely from reddened faces. Everyone is spluttering and vexingly rubbing their eyes. Some double over and retch. Not realising that you don’t have to see it for the vapour to still be active in the air led to me winding up in a coughing fit. On the verge of passing out, I was handed half-an-onion to breathe through. If you break an onion open, sniff it, and get it near your eyes – will greatly reduce the irritation. In the absence of gas masks and vinegar-soaked bandanas, photojournalists in Gaza carry onions with them.

Desperately trying to breathe in, as a gooey mixture of bodily fluids is rapidly trying to get out, courtesy of the air that was once a palatable combination of mainly nitrogen and oxygen being replaced by 100,000 farts and bleach, combined with rapid onset asthma. That’s roughly it.  

Inhaling tear gas feels like taking in fire.

Inhaling tear gas feels like taking in fire. Photo: Ivan Steward

Each inhalation is a trial. You force yourself to gasp beyond the limitations imposed by panic and a fitful respiratory system. This is how it works: It will feel like you are unable to breathe, so you panic, and riots stop.

Tear gas leaves chemical burns, but doesn’t usually kill unless pre-existing medical conditions or allergic reactions are involved. That, or you are horribly struck by a projectile canister as was the case with a local legend of a man named Bassem, whose death generated international outrage and consolidated the local Palestinian resistance movement in Bil’in.

I found out later that the documentary ‘5 Broken Cameras‘ was largely filmed in the very place I had unwittingly stumbled upon. I recommend the film to everyone, which is more than I can say for being tear-gassed.

We went to a local wedding the following day, I continued on into Syria, and my new friends would repeat the process the following Sunday.