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'Washington felt like a war zone'

By A GANESH NADAR
January 25, 2021 16:37 IST
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'Even as the National Guard kept up the show of strength, safety was kept in mind.'
'Their guns were not loaded. They didn't want to scare people unless they posed a threat.'

IMAGE: Nithya Ramani with soldiers from the United States National Guard. All photographs: Kind courtesy Nithya Ramani

As Washington, DC prepared for the Biden Inauguration, former Rediff.com correspondent Nithya Ramani, now a journalist in the US, gives A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com a glimpse of what it was like to be in the city on that day.

 

On January 20, the day the United States was set to welcome its 46th president after a tumultuous election and the chaotic and angry months that followed the voting, many of the roads in Washington, DC were closed.

The city was filled with armed troops and policemen. The National Guard was everywhere. The scene was both sad and surreal.

I live in the suburbs of Maryland and work in downtown Washington, DC. My office is less than two miles from the Capitol.

I mostly work from home and went into the city only for the Inauguration. It wasn't difficult to get in because the media are considered 'essential workers'.

If you are not from the media, driving in the days preceding the Inauguration was a nightmare. Cars were being diverted from downtown DC for at least 10 blocks from the White House and the Capitol.

As I was armed with my employer's letter and press card, I was allowed to proceed until a certain point. Yet, even with a press card, a one block radius from the White House and the Capitol was off-limits.

IMAGE: Armoured vehicles guard the streets.

You could spot the heavy armoured Humvees everywhere. The National Guard from all over the country had been deployed to DC after the January 6, riots/insurrection.

The city felt like a war zone.

There were very few people on the road.

IMAGE: Blockades had been set up.

I spoke to soldiers from the National Guard; most of them were exhausted.

They said they were embarrassed about what happened on January 6. Most of them, who had been called in from other cities, had never been to DC before. And to be here, deployed for this reason, wasn't what they had "signed up for".

They had been trained to deal with the enemies of the country, they said, not their brothers and sisters.

Seeing people's homes broken into and Senators and House members threatened... they had never heard something like this happening before.

IMAGE: Deserted Washington streets.

There were hardly anyone on the streets, barring the National Guard and us reporters.

The overall sentiment was that of embarrassment, even on the part of the common people.

No one really wanted to talk about what happened on January 6 and why, as a result, there was a war zone-like armed presence in a city considered one of the safest in the United States.

IMAGE: Soldiers man Washington's streets.

DC is predominantly Left or Moderate; it is a city cognizant of COVID and security restrictions.

Everyone I met was wearing a mask.

The citizens celebrated with fireworks in their neighbourhoods and on their rooftops after Joe Biden was sworn in.

IMAGE: More soldiers.

I entered Washington on the night of January 19 left on the morning of January 21.

On January 20, the restaurants were closed. I spotted one grocery shop that was open near my hotel and quickly picked up some basic necessities.

I had brought sandwiches from home and our office provided lunch.

The hotel I stayed in provided breakfast -- a cold sandwich, a banana, an orange juice box and a cereal bar.

I normally drive to work. This time, I left my car at the office and walked around.

There were a few Starbucks cafes open, but not close to the White House or the Capitol. I could see only employees, not customers, inside.

IMAGE: Nithya armed herself with something warm to drink.

I spent most of my time talking to soldiers of the National Guard.

On January 20, I was up at 6 am and went to bed around midnight; it had been a very long, severely cold, day.

Small business and volunteers were gathering money to help the Guards with food and drink.

The Guards rotated between standing on guard and sitting in their Humvees and armoured Jeeps and trucks to keep themselves warm. Each post (there was one post to a street) had nearly a dozen Guards; more as you got closer to the White House and Capitol.

Even as they kept up the show of strength, safety was kept in mind. Their guns were not loaded; the magazines were in their jackets and backpacks. They didn't want to scare people unless they posed a threat.

IMAGE: Selfie time.

I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of Guards. But once you talk to them, you discover they are very kind and smart.

The guards I met were from Idaho, Pennsylvania and other states.

Guards posted at the Capitol building were not given any lodging. They had to sleep on the cold floor. Volunteers collected money and donated pizzas to them.

Guards at various street posts were given catered food by the military. Some residents offered hot drinks to keep them warm.

IMAGE: A reminder of a historic day.

False alarms sent the city into additional lockdown and evacuation a day before the inauguration.

There was a small fire at a parking lot; the bellowing smoke increased the sense of fear.

After using drones to check the cause of the disruption, the DC police tweeted that there were no injuries and no cause to worry.

I retired to my hotel, exhausted, and left for home the next morning.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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