1990 - Twenty years later

An insurrection, two decades later.
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian, July 27, 2010.

The surrender and arrest of Yasin Abu Bakr on the evening of August 01, 1990 brought an end to the coup attempt of 1990. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

On July 27, 1990, the author was a few months into an appointment as the first Picture Editor of the Trinidad Guardian. His first effort at producing a revamp of the Sunday paper’s magazine section was on the presses when they were fired on that evening. He led the newspaper’s photographic response to the insurrection over the next six days.

Now that the coup attempt has slowly and inexorably slipped between the comforting pages of history, it is becoming one of those events that now serves as a benchmark in time.
“What,” it has now become possible to ask, “were you doing on July 27?”

I was, by turns, doing the following...

  • Waiting with my buddy Dexter Lewis for the results of a cruel atrocity committed on newsprint in Quark Xpress to roll off the Guardian’s presses.

  • Staring down the barrel of a gun levelled at my head by a member of the Jamaat al Muslimeen who shouted, after seeing my hands on my camera bag, “No pictures.”

  • Snapping a longer lens on my camera and photographing the crazy scampering barely visible in the dim dusk light as men scampered from the police building on St Vincent Street.

  • Staring in shock at the film “developed” by Lester Forde in photographic fixer, the strips of plastic perfectly clear in the reddish amber glow of the darkroom.

  • Trudging up the stairs to the roof of the Guardian’s building with Alva Viarruel, a rival from the Express, now a colleague in an upside down world of thumps and sharp, cracking pops to photograph the only thing left to take a picture of, the blaze of flame and plumes of smoke rising from the remains of the police station.

Within three years of that ascent into a turbulent new world of distant gunfire, howling sirens and a sky aglow with firelight refracted through billowing smoke, the memory of those terrible days began to fade.

All of my negatives from the coup attempt were gone from the Guardian’s archives by 1993. The astonishing scene in the Guardian's newsroom on the night of the 27th, as a senior police officer, half crazed with fear, declared the city lost and advised the reporters present to flee, would never be recorded or recalled anywhere.

Twenty years later that purging of the uncomfortable events of July 27 from the national memory is almost complete. A generation has come to adulthood with no memory of it at all.
Some new perspectives have begun to appear. Raoul Pantin's Days of Wrath was published in 2008. Dennis McComie's account, 1990 – The personal account of a journalist under siege, was launched two weeks ago.

But these accounts remain only part of a story that recalls the parable of the blind men describing an elephant. This is a chapter of Trinidad and Tobago's history that demands a unifying narrative to weave the skeins of perspective together into a more comprehensive tapestry.

Doing that will mean breaking undeclared seals on military and police records from those six days in 1990, information which has never been released into the public record.
When I walked onto Abercromby Street on the afternoon of July 27, I strolled right into a gun distribution. Dozens of weapons were being handed out from the trunk of a car parked right outside the Guardian’s rear entrance.

Those guns, accompanied by the implicit message delivered by the insurrectionists, entered the vernacular of the angry and disenfranchised. It was now acceptable to step entirely outside the system and murder any one who stood between you and your desires.

Young boys could enter a twilight counterculture of lavish living, preening women if they were willing to have a short, fast, exciting life. For undereducated, overambitious children, faced with a choice between easy, violent prospects and a slow slog through remedial education or waiting on hot oil frying chicken, it was no choice at all.

Successive governments have turned a blind eye to the bitter fruit the seeds of 1990 bore, making no distribution of their own to match the lure of the guns that entered the mainstream that afternoon.
It may be too late by more than a decade and a half to have the kind of dialogue that an open, revelatory discussion that the events of 1990 should have prompted.

But it isn’t too late to place in the public record the military logs and to record the perspectives of all the surviving players for the historians of the future who will be challenged to make sense of an event that continues to elude any attempt at a comprehensive understanding of the coup attempt. That must come before we can find acceptance and closure for this dark episode in our history.

Author's note: Since this story was written, the Government has announced the first probe into the events of July 27, 1990.
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