Iwalked out of the Hotel Embajador late in the afternoon, my small grip in one hand, my typewriter in the other, hailed a cab and after jumping in told the driver: "To the Hotel Comercial."
"Señor, that is in the rebel zone. There is no one living there. It is empty."
I had decided that the best way to cover the rebel zone was from there and despite the taxi driver's protests got him moving. I had stayed at the Comercial several years before and knew it was in the heart of old Santo Domingo. The nervous taxi driver told me he would have to hurry.
"They close the crossing at 6 p.m."
"Yeah, I know," I said as we drove off.
The man sitting in the empty hallway of the Comercial was surprised too. "There is no service."
"That's okay," I said as he rummaged around trying to find the hotel register. He finally located it, wrote in the date on the first blank page and I signed in.
I ran down the stairs a few minutes later, out into Hostos Street and around the corner of the hotel building into El Conde, the main street. The RCA office was on El Conde only a couple of doors up from the hotel. The surprised cable office guys were very nice and soon had me comfortably ensconced in a corner where I went to work on my day's file. The arrangement proved to be a good one. Though the zone was dangerous and I would often get trapped in the cable office for hours during the shooting, I filed easily. The poor guys at the Hotel Embajador queued up at the cable sub offices in the hotel, at times waiting for hours to move their copy.
I stepped out into the dark as I left the cable office. The city gave me a funny feeling. It was strangely quiet. There were few lights. On turning the corner I saw a feeble light and on getting closer I saw it was a bar. I could see several men talking and drinking beer. I was thirsty and hungry and decided to go in and have a beer.
I found three armed rebels talking at the bar. I ordered a beer and discreetly walked around the corner of the bar after noticing the rifle on the counter top pointed directly at me. One of the rebels showed another a revolver and the bar owner's assistant nervously asked the rebel not to point it his way. I said I had moved to avoid freezing my eyes on the barrel of the rifle on the bar. They laughed and I joined the conversation as my beer came. The three boys were on patrol. They were members of the "Comando Luperón," the Luperón Street Rebel Group.
"May I join you?"
"Yes," they said, "we'll pick you up after we come back. We're going home to supper."
I fell into conversation with the bar owner, Manuel Ramón María Displán, a wizened old man with a caved in chest, and began to look around the place. It was called "La Colmada."
"Yes. I notice you sell sandwiches."
Displán said he did not have any food left, but he got me a can of sardines, deftly opened it with a kitchen knife, and gave it to me with his last bun—I could have eaten a dozen.
"I cannot understand the Voice of America," he told me. "It reported the National City Bank had been looted." He took me outside and showed me the bank. There was no sign of its having been broken into. It was guarded by rebel soldiers. "I just can't understand it," he kept muttering to himself as we returned to the bar.
I took the open sardine can, bun, bottle of olives, and another beer with me to the hotel across the street and in my third floor room quietly enjoyed the feast. I didn't know I was a sitting duck until the next morning and never again ate in the room or ever turned on the room lights at night. But on this night, my first night in the rebel zone, everything was going all right, so I ran downstairs again and headed for the cable office.
A man in a white T shirt was standing at the corner. He had his back to me. I turned the corner inside the pillar, walking briskly, until I heard the bolt of a rifle being pulled back and the challenge: "Halt. Who goes there?"
I froze. The startled guard had not expected anyone to come up behind him from the hotel. We went back to the hotel together, found the hotel watchman who identified me and then, still together, to the cable office where the guard wished me well as I entered.
After finishing my work at the cable office I returned to the hotel, deliberately walking slowly and looking for the guards. The watchman silently gave me the key but called out as I started up the stairs. "Be careful, especially when you go out at night. You can never tell what these boys are going to do."
The phone rang at ten minutes to nine.
"Would you like to accompany us?"
One of the young men I had met at the bar waited at the hotel door. His rifle was slung over his shoulder and I noticed he was wearing fatigues and a steel helmet. I followed him to a new white Chevrolet, got in the front beside the driver. He followed me in. He turned out to be the leader and was a chemist by profession. The driver was a ladies handbag manufacturer. In the back were a university professor, a high school teacher, and a senior law student. All five were in their middle and late twenties and all carried .30 caliber San Cristóbal rifles made in Santo Domingo in a plant set up by Hungarian Alexander Kovacs for the late Generalissimo Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.
For the next 45 minutes we cruised through the eerie rebel city in the dark, barely crawling at times, racing across intersections, weaving around smoking refuse piles in the middle of the street, and coming to a dead halt every few minutes before menacing rifle barrels and an unusually loud chorus of clicks of bolts being yanked back in a hurry.
We rode along slowly along Hostos Street. The chemist gave orders.
"Race across this intersection," he barked at the driver.
"The American snipers are there, at Molinos Dominicanos," he told me after we reached the other side. "They have very good aim." The chemist explained to me that the American snipers were using the top floors of the Molinos Dominicanos Building across the Ozama River. They fired from behind sandbags and had clear fields down Luperón, El Conde, and a couple of other east west streets.
"Everytime you pass a checkpoint, flash your lights, then return to dim," the chemist instructed the driver. But it was obvious the rebels were not very well organized and lacking in discipline. There was some discussion about the car lights and in the end the driver decided to drive with them on, dimming them as we approached the checkpoints as the chemist shouted, "Pueblo."
That was the password, "Pueblo," literally, "People." This was a people's revolution. The people could pass safely.
"That is the headquarters of the security forces," the law student told me, pointing to the former Social Christian Party headquarters. "It is where we keep stolen goods taken from looters." As we drove by a line of parked cars, he added, "These are stolen automobiles that have been recovered."
The driver gunned the car and we shot across Arzobispo Nouel Street, another snipers' alley. Then we turned off Duarte and into Mella and headed towards the river and came to an abrupt halt in semi darkness.
"A theft. A theft."
We heard the shouts along with increasingly loud footsteps of men running and got out of the car in time to see three armed men running up to us, two with rifles and one with a pistol he kept waving at us as other figures moved in the shadows. All was confusion. The chemist quickly identified himself. The three men were rebel guards too.
"I was going to fire into the air," said the man with the pistol. He said he thought we were in a stolen car. The chemist, who outranked them, advised them not to shoot unless it was absolutely necessary, and then to shoot at the tires first if the challenged automobile did not stop. We continued east on Mella but we had only gone a couple of blocks before our blazing lights brought cries of, "Halt! Halt!"
It seemed to me the car was never going to stop. I had already caught sight of a crouched man wearing a helmet hiding behind the left front fender of a car parked to our right. His rifle was aimed directly at our car and I was trying to find some way to duck. Then I saw a second man—also aiming at us—to the left.
"Put out the lights," came the order, "and get out."
We got out and after a brief exchange and further identification we continued. The driver had turned on his lights again and as we turned back into Duarte, this time going south, we heard the order, "Put out the lights!" punctuated by a loudly clanging bolt. The driver doused them without any question. I was relieved.
"One cannot go around with lights around here," said the chemist as we rolled on. From the back seat a voice explained, "One cannot go up there." I could barely make out the speaker's hand right behind me on the left pointing towards the river. A different voice added, "The Yanquis are very close there."
"No! No names," answered the chemist. "If this is lost there will be reprisals." I had my small notebook cupped in my left hand on my knees and scribbled in the dark as we went along. "This is a dangerous zone," the chemist explained. "The guards don't have precise instructions."
We shifted into low and crawled downhill on Duarte, turning right into El Conde and continuing west. The chemist shouted, "Pueblo! Adelante!" as we rolled by in front of rebel leader Colonel Francisco Caamaño's constitutionalist headquarters.
The boys had become more friendly and began to ask me questions about the United States. Could a communist join the Army? What about the Negroes? Ninety per cent of the Dominican people, they said, dream of making a trip to New York.
"If the President of the United States had been who it should have been—Kennedy—this would not have happened," said one of the boys in the back. Another broke in to criticize Tap Bennett, the American Ambassador. They spoke very harshly about him but had good words for his predecessor, John Bartlow Martin, a Kennedy appointee. I was to see Martin later and found nothing in his subsequent performance in the Dominican Republic to merit the boys' admiration. I feel sure they later changed their minds about him.
We got another challenge on Padre Bellini Street as we rolled by Salomé Ureña High School, turned north on Duarte, sped across another intersection and returned to Hostos Street and the Hotel Comercial just as shooting broke out in Barrio San Carlos. This barrio occupied a corner of rebel territory bordering the "corredor," the strip opened by intervening American troops that provided access to the part of the city held by the Loyalists and served to seal off the rebels between the river and the sea. The rebels were very bitter about the American intervention. They appeared to be on their way to victory when President Lyndon Johnson sent the American troops in. The American forces, the boys said, were putting pressure on the Barrio San Carlos, encroaching on rebel territory, seeking to widen the corredor. They were right. I discovered this later.
I walked with them to their headquarters on Luperón Street where I met their ex Army lieutenant boss. He was bitter about the U.S. presence, and by way of explanation added: "We don't do anything because we are impotent." I found him reading an article by Juan Bosch, the writer and deposed constitutionalist president in whose name the revolution had been launched. Bosch, he said, had written that the high middle class had instigated the military coup against him and that they could have led the military to machine gun the people without pity. Then he looked at me right in the eye and said:
"What Bosch said came true."
I went back to the cable office. It wasn't too difficult to make out my big, bold notes taken in the dark, I wrote out my dispatch, handed it to the operator and told him I'd pick up the telex copy later in the morning. It was already five minutes after two. On turning the corner on my way back to the hotel I ran into eight rebels. We said good morning and as I walked past them and on to the hotel I heard one of them say, "That one is a newspaperman."
It was around 5:30 a.m. when extended bursts of machine gun and rifle fire, drowned out momentarily by the heavy, dull thud of an occasional cannon shell and the tinkling of glass breaking by my bed woke me up. The bright sun lit up the room despite the drapes. I pulled them aside, revealing a pile of broken glass, and on looking out the window saw a very tall building. Occasional bursts of smoke rose from its roof, and some of the machine gun fire was coming from there. It was the Molinos Dominicanos Building across the Ozama. I ducked, pulled the drapes together, and crawled on all fours to the bathroom, which was right by the hall door.
Looking out the bathroom door as I dressed, my eye caught sight of an odd shaped gray mark on the white wall of the room. I looked down and saw a bullet with a crooked nose and bits of plaster on the floor beside the desk, my feast table of the previous night. I darted to the door and walked down the stairs.
Despite an occasional shot in the distance, the morning was peaceful. It was fresh and cool in the early morning. The air smelled of smoke from trash piles burning in the streets. Verduleras, women hawkers of fresh produce, shouted down the street; a man hawked queso cremita, a local fresh cheese; women balancing big tin cans on their heads did a good business selling guandul, a pea like fresh vegetable; a man went about quietly delivering bread on a bicycle.
I walked over to El Conde and east to Plaza Colón. I saw people running across El Conde at the intersections but didn't pay much attention until I got to Isabel la Católica Street. As I walked along the plaza I noticed a big sign in rough black letters on the corner building at Isabel La Católica and El Conde: "Danger. The Yanquis and the CEFA are shooting from Molinos Dominicanos." The CEFA was the Armed Forces Training Center commanded by rightist General Elías Wessin y Wessin, the Loyalist strong man. It was unreal. One or two persons would dash across El Conde, then several, and then a sudden zinging of bullets from the snipers across the river would halt the flow.
I went on down El Conde, hugging the walls, to the next street, where I turned off to get out of snipers' alley. As I neared General Cabral street I saw a young man running in my direction on the other side of the street. He seemed to be running for his life, but I heard no shooting. I saw him turn the corner at the intersection ahead of me, hastily slip on his shoes and continue running. When I reached Cabral I discovered he had been arrested stealing a pair of shoes and a milk pail. He had gotten away from the inexperienced rebel guard who simply told him to stay in the store doorway after he caught him. He had entered the store from the roof and opened the front door from the inside. He had put down the new shoes and the shiny aluminum milk pail and escaped with his old shoes in his hands. It was tragic. Both of the new shoes turned out to be for the left foot. I was still there when a young boy came up. He wore blue jeans and a black shirt open down the front. The guard immediately spotted six brand new ball point pens in his left trousers pocket, took them, and began questioning the boy. Another guard nearby grabbed the boy by the arm and brusquely spun him around shoving him towards me, telling him:
"Aren't you ashamed, and before an American newspaperman?"
Occasionally sniper shots would ping as they bounced off Cabral Street or ricochet off with a whirring noise. I was still morbidly fascinated with the deserted streets and the incredible fact that death lurked there in the bright sunshiny morning. I mused: those snipers are tenacious, and had started to think they must look on their shooting as hunters do when a young man came up to me with the information that a mortar shell had landed on his house. It was number 7 General Cabral, and would I go see it. We walked and ran along the northside of Cabral, towards the river, hugging the walls and staying under overhanging roofs. We had reached the door, which he opened as he started to let me in when someone shouted:
"They wounded someone. They wounded someone. He's lying on the steps and no one can get him."
I jumped in a Jeep with two other men as they raced back to Isabel La Católica, which they followed for a short distance before turning back towards the river. We hopped out of the Jeep and proceeded on foot along the walls of the old Alcázar de Colón. The youngest of the two men in the Jeep, a gutsy boy said, "We must go with our hands up."
"You bring him here," said the driver. He stayed behind the masonry arch known as Puerta de San Diego.
We continued north, along General Cambiaso. Sniper fire crackled as the boy turned and began running east on Cabral. I ran down the steps on the river bank at Cabral where the man had been hit, but he was no longer there. Fire crackled again and I dashed into a customs warehouse where I could see four or five persons around the wounded man.
Lieutenant Federico Polanco Pérez, 27, of 14 Doctor Báez Street, sat shirtless on a swivel chair behind a desk on which his blood stained shirt lay. He had a very makeshift bandage across his chest and another over his left shoulder. The bullet had gone in high, at the front, and came out in the back. He perspired heavily. Flies landed on him.
"I'm getting nauseated," he said. "¡Ay, mi madre! "
"Does it hurt much? I asked.
"Yes, very much. You are a newspaperman? You are a newspaperman?"
"Tell the truth. Say what the Yanquis are doing. If Kennedy were alive this would not have happened." He wanted to talk, but his friends urged him not to, because it weakened him. I reassured him and stepped back through the open door of the building with three others, thinking this might let him catch his breath. A close miss by our feet made us jump back into the warehouse. The snipers in the American held power plant just to the north had spotted us. Now we were trapped.
An ambulance came screaming in along the quay. The word had somehow gotten to the hospital. The driver and his helper loaded Polanco Pérez on the stretcher and put him inside. They refused to let anyone else into the ambulance except me. I got in without having to face sniper fire again. With its siren wailing, the ambulance raced madly south, turned west on El Conde, surged miraculously through the large crowd before Caamaño's headquarters and then turned left to Padre Bellini Hospital while I tried to hold Polanco Pérez' stretcher from slithering all over the back of the ambulance.