All the chairs are occupied in the waiting room of the eye department of Salvador Hospital in Chile's capital Santiago. FabiánZuñiga is also waiting in the room with his father. Zuñiga wears a black cap and sunglasses, she only covers one eye, the other he lost in November. A policeman shot him in the eye when Zuñiga took part in a peaceful protest.
"The policeman was about 15 meters away from me. I saw how he aimed at me and then pulled the trigger," recalls the 25-year-old. He was then treated by Red Cross helpers and taken to a nearby hospital where he underwent surgery. A day later, he came for a check up in the eye department of Salvador Hospital, where the doctor found that the bullet was still behind his maxillary bone. Now, three weeks later, it should be removed. "The last few weeks have been a nightmare for the whole family," says Zuñiga's father.
Fabian Zuñiga is one of 352 people who have been shot in the eye by police officers since the protests began in Chile on October 18. 242 of them were treated in the Hospital Salvador in the capital Santiago. Ophthalmologist Carmen Torres has been working there for 14 years. She usually operates once a week, but has sometimes had 15 to 20 operations a day since the protests started. "As an ophthalmologist, I'm used to removing eyeballs. But 15 eyeballs in a day is pretty violent," says Torres. The majority of patients are young people or students.
The ophthalmologist has removed more than 60 bullets since the uprising began. Actually, the police were only allowed to use rubber bullets in the protests, but Torres and her colleagues also found metal bullets. They therefore ordered a material inspection from the Universidad de Chile. This determined that the rubber bullets used consisted only of 20 percent rubber and 80 percent compounds made of silica, barium sulfate and lead. "The damage caused by these materials in an organ as sensitive as the eye is enormous," Torres says.
Since then, the prosecutor has been investigating the police for fraud. Police chief Mario Rozas was forced on November 19 to restrict the use of rubber bullets. They can now only be used in extreme situations and for self-defense of the police officers, theoretically, because many police officers do not adhere to this restriction. On the contrary: the number of eye injuries continues to increase. The majority is caused by rubber bullets, but also by tear gas grenades and police water cannons.
"There was tear gas all around me"
17-year-old Edgardo Valdés was also hit by a tear gas grenade when he protested in front of the government building together with schoolchildren and students at the end of October. "I covered my eye with my hand and when I looked down I saw drops of blood on my hand. There was tear gas all around me," he recalls. It was the students who sparked the Chileam Uprising on October 18 when they protested the rise in subway prices. In the meantime, however, there is much more: the protests are directed against the neoliberal economic system and social inequality in the country. Valdés knows them himself: "Where I live, it is normal to see pensioners collecting rubbish on the street to survive. We have no windows in the public school and it rains in in winter," he says. It is still unclear whether he will see both eyes again. He still goes on to the protests. "We have to keep fighting. I want nobody to have to experience what I have experienced."
The imposed eyes have become a symbol of the protest movement. At the protests that take place daily in Santiago, the signs of the demonstrators show photos of the protesters who have been shot, with eyes from which bloody tears flow. "No eye less" or "You wanted to blind us, but now we see more" is written on these posters.