Harare in the past few weeks has resembled a war zone.You never know when next you are going run into teargas . In Harare it has become a common occurrence as there are anti-government protests almost twice a week these days.
Whether the protests have been authorised by courts or not, police have sought to prevent the demonstrations from going ahead. However some Zimbabweans have become bolder of late and are standing their ground leading to confrontation with the police.
Scenes of burnt cars and property in Harare have prompted the government to announce that it will escalate its clampdown on protesters. Opposition parties have also announced that heavy handedness will only increase their resolve to carry out more protests
Police have indiscriminately fired teargas in the central business district in an effort to disperse the protesters or prevent crowds gathering. In the latest incident police fired teargas at the venue of the demonstration as a preemptive measure before people had even gathered. Earlier in the same week police fired teargas in a passenger vehicle provoking widespread outrage.
This has provoked debate of human rights violations as police have fired teargas even in moving cars and in the process affecting people who may not be part of the protests. This controversial use of teargas has come under the spotlight with reports of a child dying in Bulawayo and many others suffering health side effects.
On Friday teargas smoke could be felt in offices in the business district forcing many to close shop. One of my colleagues was so affected that he had to pour cold water on his face
As for me it affected me so much that I suffered a blocked nose and succumbed to excruciating body pain. My health problems started soon after the fateful day and I am not the only one who has complained of pain and other symptoms.
So what is teargas and why is it feared so much?
The most commonly used tear gas contains the chemical agent 2- chlorobenzaldene malononitrile (CS).
Although called a gas, tear gas is not a gas. It is in fact an aerosol. CS is “solid at room temperature and mixed with liquid or gas dispersal agents when used as a weapon designed to activate pain-sensing nerves”. It was first used in World War 1 by France and Germany.
There are laws surrounding the use of teargas. A Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which was signed by almost every nation including Zimbabwe bans the use of teargas in warfare but allows it in domestic crowd control.
Tear gas has effects on the body. “It works by irritating the mucous membranes of the eyes, lungs, mouth and nose. Normally the effects kick in after 30 seconds and the symptoms include a burning, watery sensation in the eyes, difficulty breathing, chest pain, excessive saliva and skin irritation”. Those exposed to heavy smoke and for longer periods can also suffer from vomiting and diarrhea.
After a person escapes from the scene and finds fresh air the effects should subside in about 10 minutes. For other people they may be prolonged sickness .
If you already have other medical conditions such as respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic sicknesses or on medication that weaken the immune system that is chemotherapy, lupus or HIV you may have serious health problems if exposed to teargas. These people must avoid teargas at all costs but the behavior of Zimbabwe police is unpredictable and their trigger happy behavior means anyone is at risk any time.
So why do people pour water on their faces?
According to a chemist who requested not to be named teargas ‘is just a noxious gas that happens to dissolve in water so when you are exposed to it you can reduce its effects by pouring water on the affected areas.”
In other countries protesters have been seen pouring milk or Coca Cola on affected areas as they claim that this minimizes the effects of teargas. The Occupy movement in 2011 circulated an online flier with advice on how to deal with teargas. It recommended antacids such Maalox dissolved in water as a method of relief from effects of teargas.
With the mood of civil disobedience gripping Harare you may never know when your next encounter with teargas will be.