From Auckland to Amsterdam, from Rio to Rome, millions of citizens poured on to the streets to make their voices heard
16 February 2003
By David Randall in London, Peter Popham in Rome and Ruth Elkins in Berlin
Millions of people around the world poured on to the streets of their towns and cities yesterday to protest against the prospect of a US-led war on Iraq.
The worldwide tidal wave of protest began in New Zealand and rolled around the globe, gathering, as it went, momentum, enthusiasm and a sense of being part of a universal movement. The largest turnout was in Rome, where organisers claimed an attendance of three million. By the end of the weekend, demonstrations will have been held in more than 600 places from Auckland to Iceland, and San Francisco to South Korea.
In Auckland, marchers cheered as a plane flew overhead trailing a giant banner which read: "No War, Peace Now". In Australia, where 150,000 had demonstrated in Melbourne the day before, 16,000 activists marched in Canberra, 10,000 in Perth, and 15,000 in Newcastle, north of Sydney.
There were further marches in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, East Timor, Pakistan, Taipei, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. Some of those involved were experienced veterans of protest, but many were taking their first uncertain steps on a protest march. Mariko Aoyama, who described herself as a Tokyo housewife, said: "What the United States is doing now is wrong. We are on the brink of World War Three."
The only trouble was in Athens, where several hundred anarchist protesters broke away from the tens of thousands on the main rally, smashed windows, threw a gasoline bomb at a news office and overturned a car. Riot police cordoned off the city's US embassy.
In South Africa, thousands marched in Cape Town and Johannesburg, where Ivan Abrahams, a Methodist minister, said: "We are saying to Bush, you are not the saviour of the world, and we will not bow down to you."
In the Middle East the protests were more muted, but even so, in Damascus 200,000 marched through the streets. In Baghdad, the crowds were strongly encouraged by the extensive military presence around the demonstration. "At times the fervour was almost messianic: as if in a kind of ritualistic tribal worship," Independent on Sunday reporter James McGowan observed.
Europe's demonstrations began in sub-zero temperatures in Russia and in Kiev in the Ukraine, and spread, via Berlin, to dozens of cities across the continent, including Amsterdam, Budapest, Lyon, Marseilles, Sofia, Brussels, Stuttgart, Toulouse, Thessaloniki, Warsaw, Bern, Paris and Copenhagen.
In Mostar, Bosnia, Muslims and Croats united for an anti-war protest, the first such cross-community action in seven years in a place where ethnic divisions still remain strong. And in Cyprus, Turks and Greeks marched together, briefly blocking a runway at a British airbase. In Tel Aviv, too, usual conflicts were forgotten as Israelis and Palestinians marched side by side against a war.
In Rome, a vast, dazzlingly colourful tide of people estimated by the organisers to number three million swamped the city yesterday afternoon, practically encircling the ancient heart and uniting monks and nuns, communists and anarchists and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Italians in protest against the policies of Bush and Blair.
"Stop the war" read a huge banner on the stage at march's conclusion on Piazza San Giovanni above a blow-up of Picasso's Guernica. Air-raid sirens wailed above Rome's streets in a reminder of the war fears agitating this country which today has a Muslim population approaching one million.
One reason for the massive numbers was the strong support given by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to the American line. But the Vatican's outspoken opposition to the war has sent tremors through Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
In Berlin, the biggest peace demonstration seen by Germany for 20 years brought much of the capital to a standstill. More than 350,000 people – more than three times as many as organisers had expected – took part in an event which culminated in a mass rally at Berlin's victory column, near the Brandenburg Gate.
In France up to 400,000 people, many carrying posters denouncing US President Bush as a "warmonger" and chanting anti-American slogans, marched through Paris and 50 other cities. Gerald Lenoir, 41, of Berkley, California, said he came to Paris, where 100,000 marched, specifically to demonstrate alongside the French. "I am here to protest my government's aggression against Iraq," he said. "Iraq does not pose a security threat to the States and there are no links with al-Qa'ida."
As night fell in London, no fewer than 15 marches were underway in Brazil, nearly a million were demonstrating in Madrid, and an expected 100,000-plus were beginning to assemble in New York.