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Protester Returns Home From Puerto Rico
By Rose Simone
April 16, 2002
WATERLOO -- A 49-year-old Waterloo woman has returned safely from a week-long mission of support for the people on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , where there was heavy tear gassing of demonstrators who want their island back from the United States navy.
Rebecca Yoder Neufeld was one of six members of a Christian Peacemakers delegation supporting the demonstrators when the navy resumed its bombing exercises on the island this month.
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, which expropriated the island in the 1940s. Since then, the navy has used the island for military practice exercises.
For decades, the island's 9,400 residents, who are mostly farmers and fishermen, have endured the frightening noise of exploding bombs, and devastating health and ecological effects from the heavy metals and chemicals used in the war exercises.
Napalm has been used in the past, and until the late 1990s, the navy was also dropped rounds of depleted uranium on the island.
The demonstrations intensified about three years ago, when a pilot missed his bombing target by about three kilometres and killed a Puerto Rican security guard, Yoder Neufeld said.
In a referendum, 70 per cent of the people on the island voted for a resolution demanding that the bombing stop immediately and that the navy leave.
Yoder Neufeld said U.S. President George W. Bush has verbally promised that the navy will leave by May 2003, but many islanders don't believe it, especially since the navy resumed bombing exercises this month.
"They'd like to see it in writing," she said.
She was the only Canadian resident in the six-member delegation. The rest were from the U.S. But Yoder Neufeld said she also has American citizenship and she wanted to go to Vieques because it represents the place where pilots are trained to bomb targets in Afghanistan and other war zones around the world.
During the first few days she was on the island, the navy lobbed heavy rounds of tear gas on demonstrators and arrested 14 people for trespassing on navy property, including a nun and an Episcopal priest.
Yoder Neufeld said two other members of her Christian Peacemakers delegation were with the camp of demonstrators who experienced the heavy tear gas. At the time, she was at another camp about a kilometre down the road, "but we could see these enormous clouds of tear gas from that camp and we heard the reports from people who were coming back."
Yoder Neufeld, who is fluent in Spanish, was an interpreter and provided background support for press conferences, peace vigils and communicating with the Puerto Rican police.