NIGHTMARES TILL THIS DAY: Raoul Pantin

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A bloody anniversary

By by Raoul Pantin

The man who abjectly surrendered to a bristling Defence Force on August 1, 1990 in order to save his own life and that of his followers and who subsequently benefited from a generous interpretation of the law today sounds like someone key representatives of the State should be afraid of. But hardly likely.

When the local courts upheld the amnesty Bakr’s men had wrested from the government under the gun in the Red House in 1990, the government had appealed to the Privy Council, which ruled the amnesty “invalid” because, it said, the insurgents had continued to make new demands after agreeing to the amnesty.

But the Privy Council also ruled since four years had passed it would not be in keeping with “due process” to have the insurgents all rounded up and tried for their crimes. So they would remain free, as they have to this day.

But Abu Bakr’s threats last Wednesday aimed at the Minister of National Security and at least two senior police officers for detaining the Carapo members of the Muslimeen are unlikely to have any real impact. 

On the contrary, those threats are quite likely to land him and some of his key followers in even more serious trouble—because by today, July 27, 2014, as the country marks the 24th anniversary of Bakr’s ill-fated attempted coup the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen no longer has the dread reputation it first acquired in 1990.

This is largely thanks to men like retired Defence Force major general Ralph Brown—which is why I take strong objection to National Security Minister Gary Griffith’s recent rhetorical assault against Brown after he raised the issue of the legality of those army patrols in Laventille.

In fact, the late Colonel Joseph Theodore and Ralph Brown were the two key Defence Force officers who faced down Bakr and his minions in 1990. And it was mere luck of the draw, as it were, that saved Bakr and his men from a very long spell in prison.

Bakr and the 114 men he led in a surprise assault on a sitting session of the House of Representatives at the Red House late on the afternoon of July 27, 1990 certainly caught everyone by surprise—including the police, whose headquarters on St Vincent Street some of his men set on fire by exploding a car bomb after shooting dead the sentry on duty. (In all some 24 people lost their lives as a result of that attempted coup, including former MP Leo des Vignes).

Bakr led the simultaneous takeover of then Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) so he could announce, as he did at the 7 p.m. Panorama newscast time that evening, that he had “overthrown the government” of then-prime minister ANR Robinson, whose members he promised to “put on trial”.

As I related in a book, titled Days of Wrath, I subsequently wrote on that horrendous experience, I was at work as a freelance parliamentary reporter for TTT when, at around 6.15 on the afternoon of July 27, 1990 I was disturbed by: “Angry men, their voices raised, shouting. This was my first signal, not yet alarm, that something unordinary was going on outside the tiny cubicle in the recording studio at Trinidad and Tobago Television...

I looked out the tiny square glass window in the thick partially sound-proofed cubicle door and was instantly alarmed to see one, then two young men with very large guns in their hands come barging through the outer studio door..

“Out! Out!” they were shouting. “Everybody come outside now!”

I came out of the cubicle where I was working, my hands instinctively raised in the air. Out the corner of one eye I caught a glimpse of news director Jones Madeira, who had been working in the cubicle next to mine, tugging in his door against an advancing gunman.

A futile gesture. The gunman converged on the shut door, slamming his rifle butt repeatedly against it. Madeira quickly joined me and two young German television technicians who had been also working in the studio. They were at TTT to conduct a training course. We were led at gunpoint to the corridor outside the studio, and were joined by a couple of young female employees and one or two newsroom staff.

“Lie face down on the floor!” a gunman snarled.

We all went down, slowly, reluctantly, but down.”

That was the beginning of six days of sheer terror, instigated by one man whom I soon identified.

As I wrote in my book: “There striding up the corridor towards me, closely followed by a retinue of gunmen, was the familiar, tall, strapping figure of Yasin Abu Bakr, dressed in an immaculate white gown, a fez on his head, nodding curtly at me as he walked past.”

Prime minister ANR Robinson, now deceased, and other members of Parliament (MPs) had also been held under the gun in the Red House and Robinson would forever earn a reputation as an extraordinarily brave man when, ordered with a gun to his head to call off the attacking loyal forces, he shouted instead: “Murderers! Torturers! Attack with full force!” He was shot in the leg as a result. But the loyal forces certainly went on the attack.

By 2.40 on the following Saturday afternoon, as I wrote in Days of Wrath:  “The first sound of the army on the attack was a stinging hail of machine-gun fire spattering off the outside walls of TTT in a deadly rhythm....we (the TTT hostages) hit the floor, stretched ourselves flat out as the gunfire from outside the building roared and boomed. The sounds were deadly, a non-stop hail of machine-gun fire came at us...

And now the gunmen were to demonstrate something that both astonished and frightened me even more. Man for man, bullet for bullet, they stood up under that thunderous army gunfire and fought back without the slightest hint of fear or confusion. I thought, listening to them return fire, these men are trained combatants. No ordinary civilian stands up to heavy gunfire like that.”

But the unrelenting army gunfire, which lasted five hours that Saturday, eventually convinced the gunmen that they couldn’t beat the Defence Force in a gunfight. 

As I subsequently wrote: “These gunmen knew it was all over. The ferocious army gunfire from every point outside that building sealed all exits. Effective as of its first 24 hours, the Trinidad coup, as a military adventure, had ended.”

It eventually took another four days for the gunmen to agree to surrender or else all be wiped out because it was obvious the army wasn’t joking. You want to die for your cause? No problem. We are happy to oblige you.

There had originally been a lot of talk among the insurgents about fighting to the last man, going down as “martyrs” so they could go to “Paradise” and be rewarded with  “72 virgins”.

But that was just talk. As one of the more militant of Bakr’s followers said to me the day after the gunfight with the Defence Force: “Pantin, boy, yesterday I was prepared to dead eh but you see today, today is a different story.”

And the minute I heard that, my hopes for liberation from this nightmare soared. Because I knew this was the Trinidadian version of fundamentalist Islam I was hearing, which actually amounted to just so much bluster and bluff.

After days of tense negotiations, in which the Anglican cleric, Canon Knolly Clarke, played a key role prime minister Robinson was eventually released from the Red House on July 31, the beginning of the end of this horrific nightmare.

And for all his initial bravado on August 1, 1990, on the sixth day of this crisis, Bakr, having just spoken to Colonel Theodore on the phone from TTT, carefully related to his men how the army wanted them coming out of that shot-up, battle-scarred television station:

“Hold your gun in your left hand, above the trigger guard, above the magazine, with your middle left finger in the centre of the barrel, your right hand down by your side.”

As I wrote  subsequently: “Bakr didn’t have to add that any gunman walking out of TTT that day in any other posture would be leaving for Paradise, going straight up, without passing GO or collecting 200, instantly.”

Six days of sheer terror and it was finally over—except, of course, for the nightmares that would haunt me for years afterwards, even occasionally up to this day, 24 years later!

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