The battle to resist the Nato invasion of Yugoslavia | Maggie Helwig

On 26 July 1990, I ran into a small group of people, including Baroness Margaret Mountbatten and Andy Burnham. On that occasion, it turned out we’d both been arrested after protesting against Nato’s new…

The battle to resist the Nato invasion of Yugoslavia | Maggie Helwig

On 26 July 1990, I ran into a small group of people, including Baroness Margaret Mountbatten and Andy Burnham. On that occasion, it turned out we’d both been arrested after protesting against Nato’s new “Powell doctrine”. So, it was time to press ahead with the protest, just on the southern outskirts of Birmingham.

So we went to an old quarry block, near the town centre, that lay silent during the day, so that we could have the time to gather and to talk, and to hear the sounds of the day. I remember a lovely autumn day, warm and humid, with several hailstones so heavy they dented my car. Inside the car, my hands were stuck to the steering wheel because I couldn’t lift the open windows, and my legs were hiked up like on a medieval rampart, but I wasn’t daunted.

I told them: “We are coming down to stand in front of the gates – there are more than 300 people behind us. We are very difficult to be seen to touch or scare, but we are going to get as far as we can.”

As soon as we got within a couple of hundred yards of the entrance we were confronted by several police cars, horses and dog squads. One of the local policemen tried to get a little closer and grabbed my sleeve, but he had already started to slap me hard and hurt my face. I retaliated by slapping him back hard.

Everything was broken, in pieces and dust, as three police officers grabbed me and one of them produced a whip, whirling it and kicking me with it. I just wanted to get down on my knees and pray, but they did not hesitate in stomping on my legs with their boots. It was meant to be military bonding time – but it turned into a hideous prison-like punishment.

By this time I was convinced I was going to be taken away in a police van, after being unable to speak for nearly four hours. So when the wall was closed, we started to run. A few us started walking along the road, but three of us were among a large group of protesters, one of whom put his hands up and shouted: “I’m not doing it.” I was the first one to make a break from the group. I am telling you, it was like a wild animal fleeing; my legs and back were messed up. After 20 minutes, I collapsed and was carried back, with my hands down around my head to stop me from breathing. I felt like a dead man.

I was treated at a local hospital and given four stitches in the side of my head for a deep gash. Over the next two weeks I had excruciating back pain, bad chest pain and shaking hands and feet. It was all worse as the weeks wore on. The subsequent weeks were terrible. I was not allowed to go to hospital for two weeks and was refused time off. I wasn’t allowed any food other than bread, and I had to eat it twice a day. No toothpaste, or mouthwash, or snacks.

After they released me, I had to spend the next 15 months in a flat (hospitalised due to a bladder infection) and stayed out of touch for another 18 months. If you do not get an appointment with a doctor, it is difficult to get treatment.

Two years after the original arrest, I met one of the force’s doctors – they still maintained my injuries had not fully healed. We were allowed to speak to a counsellor and, over a period of several months, he slowly told me I was only at this moment holding on to consciousness by a thread. He told me my health would never be what it once was.

During the six months when I was in a coma, I don’t think I remember a night. It was extremely difficult for my family and friends, because I was in a rehabilitation centre in Luton. I moved out in March 1996 to a rehabilitation unit in Rye, New Zealand. I walked out at only 64 years old.

I would say now that my achievement was not that I got arrested. The struggle was not to be arrested. The struggle was to get the NATO forces out of Europe. We are still at it.

Maggie Helwig was speaking to Patrick Butler

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