Thu, Oct 26, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Bolivians reminisce on Black October atrocities

AP , EL ALTO, BOLIVIA

On the weekend of Oct. 12, 2003, grieving relatives delivered 16 bodies to Reverend Wilson Soria's church in a neighborhood at the heart of fighting between protesters and government troops.

"We had to sharpen the knives in the parish kitchen" so autopsies could be done by doctors who typed out their reports in the church office, Soria recalled during a reunion marking the bloody protests' third anniversary.

After the fighting had stopped, a mass funeral was held in the park next door to the Roman Catholic church in the Villa Ingenio barrio, with all 16 coffins laid out across a concrete basketball court.

In all, more than 60 people were killed over three days in El Alto, a rapidly expanding wind-swept shadow city on the edge of a precipice high above La Paz.

As others in the room told their stories of what is now known as Black October, painful memories were fortified by fierce pride at having toppled then-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

A popular young soccer player was gunned down by soldiers, one person remembered. For another, it was a pregnant woman being shot in the back. Soria, for his part, recalls ringing his church bells through the sound of gunfire.

Journalist Julio Mamani lamented the lack of a coherent history of Black October, recalling how he and other reporters set aside their work to tend to the hundreds of wounded.

"Did we get the cameras out? Did we keep the recorders rolling? We couldn't. We had to save lives," Mamani said.

Many mentioned the fatal blast at a shuttered El Alto gas station on Oct. 13.

Gas was scarce after a dayslong blockade had prevented tanker trucks from entering the capital, and a group of local residents trying to siphon gas from an underground storage tank touched off an explosion that killed four people.

But many also recalled the pride El Alto felt during the protests, when residents realized their bare-brick, hard-luck neighborhoods could rise up to demand real change.

Maria Vargas remembers with fondness the fires that burned on street corners every night during the protests.

"During the first days we built the fires out of fear," she said. "But then this understanding of solidarity was born."

On El Alto's chaotic streets today, many believe little has changed in the three years since the protests.

Benita Hilario, 43, grazes her team of burros on the trash-strewn remains of the exploded gas station.

Unheeded graffiti covering the abandoned station demands the site be turned into a memorial park, but dead bodies are periodically dumped there -- just regular street murders, Hilario says.

Could unrest on the scale of Black October happen again?

Hilario nods.

"They'll do it again," she said. "Soon."

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