Vieques - A young woman climbs the steep stairs, arrives at the Observation Post and stares at the immensity of Vieques, while a wild wind waves her long curls. The splendor of Vieques unfolds before her eyes: mountains and hills clothed in greenery where countless toxic bombs used to fall before, turquoise blue waters in almost virgin beaches; shimmering sands, endless coves, coconut palms, keys, all the wonders that nature brought to this unique place in the world.
We are at the former U.S. Navy Observation Post on Vieques. It was here that 20 years ago, on April 19, 1999,
a U.S. Navy pilot launched two 500-pound bombs that missed their target and killed David Sanes, a 35-year old security employee. That death triggered a campaign that ended four years later with the Navy leaving the island.
Yesterday, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Sanes' death, old-guard activists brought several dozen of young Viequenses to the Observation Post, the scene of the tragedy, to show them where the campaign that got the Navy off here came from, with permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now in charge of the area.
Andrea Malavé Bonilla, a 20-year-old Viequense who studies Environmental Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, was among them. Andrea, who was born two months before April 19, 1999, when the military presence here seemed inevitable, had never visited this area. She never imagined how much Vieques is out there, beyond the gates she has always known.
"I had never experienced what I saw today. My mom told me “you have to go because what you're going to see is awesome.” I didn't know I was going to see half the things I saw," Andrea said. "It did bother me a lot because it's Vieques land that we don't use because it's not ours. It's ours, but it's not ours," said the young woman, who says her life will not be the same since yesterday.
When she is told that some people still believe the Navy should have never left the island, Andrea sadly smiles: "There is no greater offense for me than to be told that or to see them on social media. I prefer not to have an opinion because those are people who simply don't know. I prefer not to argue with people who don't know. I tell them 'educate yourself and then we can have a conversation.”
The Observation Post was built for military officials to qualify U.S. Navy pilots- and occasionally its allies, to whom the Pentagon rented these lands – on dropping anything imaginable on this paradise.
From that post, people can see the 27.77 square miles the Navy gave to Fish and Wildlife Service when it left the island in 2003. It is larger than complete municipalities such as Quebradillas, Rincón, Florida, Cataño, Dorado, Toa Baja, Juncos, Luquillo, Maunabo, Arroyo, Loíza, Trujillo Alto, Culebra, Naguabo and Hormigueros and the same size as Naranjito, Toa Alta, Vega Alta, and Guaynabo.
While Culebra and St. Thomas open up on one side, the infinite blue sea appears on the other. Some of these fields were expropriated from Vieques families in 1948. Hundreds of head of cattle were killed so that the Navy could practice without interruption.
Beauty is incomparable but tricky. Jorge Fernández Porto, a legal environmental adviser who has studied Vieques for decades, said that although much has been cleaned up, this place will never have a normal life. "There is always going to be the risk of an underground explosive device," he said.
Fernandez Porto recalled that he chose, along with a Vieques fisherman, the place for the civil disobedience camp of Rubén Berrios Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), thinking that it was a safe place.
Berríos Martínez stayed in the area for 361 days, between May 1999 and May 2000. Months after Berríos Martínez, along with dozens of other protesters, were removed from the area by federal marshals, Fernández Porto returned and discovered an unexploded 1945 bomb just under the wooden house where the PIP leader was staying. "It came out after a very heavy rain that swept the sand away,” he said.
They even fired depleted uranium here. Some reports indicate that substances such as "agent orange" and mustard gas were tested here. When the first protesters arrived a few days after Sanes' death, the view was frightening, apocalyptic: all grey, dark, inert. Those who spent the night here in those first days say that there were not even crickets, as a result of bombs raining down here.
The area was full of old military vehicles, tanks and even planes that were used to practice shooting from planes or boats. At least two boats are known to have sunk on these beaches after being used as training targets.
Today, it is green and dry which is normal in these areas. Fernández Porto says that nature has been healing, but we can not speak of complete healing yet.
The beaches, from a distance, look like paradise. But the seabed of some of them is littered with unexploded bombs. The Navy has been cleaning up, but it hasn't reached the seabed yet. Although these beaches are restricted to the public, yesterday there were six luxurious yachts, in identical attitude to those that run "four tracks" along public roads although it is prohibited, docked in the beautiful cove of La Yayí and they were not precisely part of the civil disobedience campaign.
"They dropped anchors in between the bombs. It's very dangerous," Fernández Porto said.
The anniversary began yesterday with several people taking a floral arrangement to Sanes' grave. There, his sister Mirta Sanes thanked for the help during these 20 years and said she feels her brother's death "as if it had been yesterday. Activist Ismael Guadalupe said Sanes' death "changed everything in Vieques" and gave way to the campaign.
"The death of David Sanes was the final straw, but there were many things that led to that final straw,” said Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) leader Julio Muriente, in describing those long years of the campaign against the Navy bombing range.
But the most emotional moment was the visit to the Observation Post. There were several messages, a promise to continue the struggle, a poem written in 1979 by a Vieques resident who witnessed the arrest of 21 protesters, "Canción para Vieques," written by Tito Auger and Ricky Laureano and interpreted by some of the most important Puerto Rican and international artists, and the anthem of the island, "Isla Nena," by Silverio Pérez.
Abdiel Connelly, 18, had never been to the Observation Post before. He also was also touched by the experience.. "The word to describe how I feel is rage," he said.
The purpose was to tell them about the history and the campaign in favor of concluding the cleanup and return of the lands to the community. At least with Adbiel and Andrea, the goal was fully achieved.
"After what I saw today, they can count on me for anything, whatever it is," said Andrea clearly without doubts over her position.