Pungești is a small Romanian village right slap bang in the way of Chevron’s shale gas fracking operation. This hasn't pleased the locals, who protested against and actually managed to stall the mining operation back in October.
However, at 4 AM on Monday, Chevron's bulldozers returned to the scene, along with over 250 riot police. Catching the protesters while they slept, authorities raided their camp and now basically have the entire village under siege. Their tents have been stomped down by cops, and the locals are not allowed to leave their homes to get water from their wells or feed their livestock. According to the authorities, it was for the villagers' own safety that they were forced to stay indoors while Chevron security and installation teams rode roughshod across their farmland creating a fenced perimeter around their exploration ground.
Presumably it was also for safety reasons that 21 people—both activists and locals—were beaten up and another 80 dispersed by riot police in the middle of the night. Authorities, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta, are denying anything untoward happened, but the demonstrators have already acquired medical certificates proving that their ribs are broken. Zîna Domnițean was one of the activists who was attacked and subsequently accused of vandalizing a police car. I called her up to find out what really went down in Pungești on Monday morning.
VICE: Hi, Zîna. What the hell happened?
Zîna Domnițean: On Sunday evening, we got some calls warning us that the riot police would try to raid our camp in the morning, so we were on alert. At four in the morning, we got a call from some guys in Lipovăț—a neighboring village where Chevron was keeping their installations. We drank our coffees, charged our phones. We knew that—according to the law—the police aren't supposed to intervene before 6 AM, but at 5 AM they were already in the village. We sounded the alarm and the villagers started running toward the camp, but the village was already overwhelmed with riot police. They were either beating people, or blocking their doors so they couldn’t exit their homes “for their own safety.”
Did you manage to get any of this on video?
No, they took advantage of the darkness and the lack of electrical lighting. Besides, they sabotaged our cameras. They would stick flashlights in them, but we couldn't film anything clearly anyway because we don't have infrared cameras. They do.
How did you end up in front of the riot police?
Some of the locals sat down in front of the first van, which was guarding the Chevron trucks. Me and other women sat on our knees in front of it. I could see the fully armored police coming in the reflection of the car's headlights. As I hung on to the car's fender, a policeman forced my hands off it and threw me to the ground.
Is that when they hit you?
Yes, me and one more guy got stomped on with boots, shields, and batons. After that, they pulled me up by my shoulders and carried me to their van. I lost consciousness, because I couldn't breathe. They pulled my clothes over my face, and got to suffocating me with a Romanian flag that was around my neck. As soon as I came to, I had a panic attack. I kicked and screamed, and they told me that's when I broke the rear window of the police van.
So they basically strangled you with the Romanian flag on Great Union Day?
They hung on to the flag, to keep me immobilized. I stood there for an hour and a half. Then they took me to their precinct in the city of Vaslui, where they charged me and had me make statements. Normal police took over and they photographed the bruises on my legs. The ones on my stomach aren't that visible. I want to get the 21 people they beat up to get medical proof of the beatings and file complaints.
What are they charging you with?
Damaging state property and blocking a public road. They say they have it on film. We weren't blocking the road, just the part of it where the police cars were—any other car could have passed on the other lane. I think there were about 800 cops against 30 activists and 100 villagers. The rest couldn't make it past the police blockade.
Did any individual police talk to you?
I asked them why they arrested me. I told them they were obliged to show me their IDs. When they refused to do this, I called the normal police but they made fun of me. In the heat of the moment, I also called them traitors.
How are things now?
It feels like an Orwellian dictatorship. The villagers can't take their animals to the watering hole. They are told that this is because some very large tractors are working the fields and we can't pass for our own safety. Meanwhile, Chevron's private security forces are driving all over the people's farms in their SUVs.
Is the camp still intact?
The whole thing falls under violation of private property, but nobody intervened. The people's tents, which were on private land belonging to one of the protesters, were destroyed. A local bar where the protesters charged their phones and were given warm beverages was also closed down by the police.
Twenty people are still in the camp. Until 10 PM on Tuesday, people couldn't get in—not even the press. We weren't allowed to bring them food and they weren't allowed out. Some of them are old. Now the police are letting us pass but ID us every time, even though they know who we are. They also check our cars to see what we are bringing.
What are the Chevron employees doing now?
They finished setting up the large fences and an access bridge. A large truck came, but we don't know what was in it. Two hundred riot police are still in the area. Our information is that another 300 are occupying a fire station in Ivanesti, a neighboring village about 6 miles from Pungesti.
What are you going to do next?
We are calling for people around the country to come here and fight with us. But this is not just a physical fight, because we know that we are outnumbered. Chevron's land was actually given to them by the mayor who didn't even own it in the first place. At the beginning of his term, he just wrote off the village’s land as his own. But he doesn't have any documents for it. We went to court about this as well as their building permit. We are waiting for the trial to start, but the authorities keep stalling.