Remembering July 27

 

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Category: Trinidad Society 01 Aug 10



July 27, 1990. It was an ordinary day at NBS Radio 610. I was one of four “Programme Assistants”, along with Elizabeth Solomon, Dennis McComie and Sharon Pitt—a print journalist fresh from university, green to radio, in my first job. I learned on the job. Not just about radio but about this country and our people. Led by Wesley Gibbings, we were mandated to produce several hours of current affairs programmes daily. All the content was local except for the BBC Caribbean Service. When we were not clattering with the news team on a row of typewriters (copied thrice on carbon paper) for news bulletins, we were out there in Caroni talking to the sugar workers, on the streets, interviewing protesting trade unionists.

 

Then, incongruously, on the same day, interviewing the inimitable, central bank governor, the late William Demas, (a Cambridge man) who after summing up the state of our finances in a few pithy sentences spent hours ruminating over esoteric and obscure ideas of philosophy and literature, roaring with delight when he caught me bluffing. The first midday newscast I read, guided by the dulcet voice of Brenda de Silva felt like coming home. In the chilly sound proof studio where every breath is magnified and technical people gesticulate through the separated glass. There is a kind of intimacy never achieved in any other form of media. We were one of two radio stations, both state owned. People were always listening—in cars, offices, at the port, homes, remote rural areas, government ministries.

 

There were some hilarious moments like the announcer who read a long and involved story on science taken straight from Associated Press. She repeatedly read an unfortunate typo replacing organism with orgasm. The crew was rocking and newsroom clatter went still with incredulity. When we had our NBS in-house calypso competition, Wesley happened to be in a traffic jam. He gleefully reported that he saw car after car of people laughing uproariously at my attempts to extempore. Sans Humanite. Dennis McComie and Sharon Pitt were seasoned radio broadcasters. They were intimidating. Tall, articulate and elegant—they never needed scripts. Pitt threw me into the den of live coverage when then president of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Perez arrived in the country.

 

What do I say? “He is walking down the stairs of the plane, he is on the red carpet, he is still walking? Still on the red carpet, still walking.” As for my first carnival broadcast “I see blue, I see sequins, I see yellow, I see pink, I see dancing girls.” Then there was the humiliating interview with VS Naipaul recorded in a column by Judy Raymond, who called me the “girl from 610.” After a three hour wait to see him at the airport he barked into my tape recorder. On politics: “the politics of a country of 1.2 million people doesn’t interest me.” On tribal voting: “Indians, I don’t know any Indians, do you?” The late President Noor Hassanali called me at home to tell me how much amusement I afforded him at breakfast.

 

I was in awe of the smooth as silk Dennis McComie, who in clipped tones took charge as soon as the on air sign came on. What I didn’t know is he could do it when the sign went off. Dennis was generous. He entered my radio commentary “Tiananmen Square” to the RBTT Media Awards. I won. I didn’t know he entered me.’ On July 27 1990, I got a call around 3 pm. It was an Imshah Mohammed, (Elizabeth Solomon introduced us) who asked me to come to his office urgently for a cup of tea. There was no tea but as his father was out of the office, he was sitting at “the old man’s” desk with his feet on the table. “What are you doing next August?” He asked without any preliminaries. “I don’t know” I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing this evening.”

“Want to get married or what? After some level of chivalry was forcibly injected into the occasion, I accepted his hand. Elated, we drove to his parents. Before they could take it in, we heard shots. Ratatatat! We thought we saw bullets fly through trees in St Clair. We glanced at the TV and listened. Imam Yasin Abu Bakr was saying “The government has been arrested.” Sitting to Bakr’s left was Jones P Madeira, the then Head of News at TTT. The “Imam” explained it was a coup on behalf of people suffering from austerity measures, adding “Don’t loot.” The rest of the week is a segue, a single night’s dream. Everyone has their private memory of that time. (Documented by Raoul Pantin in “Days of Wrath” and Dennis McComie’s “1990.”)

 

Mine was of a crossfire between the Muslimeen on rooftops, and soldiers walking down a deserted street during the curfew with another journalist yelling “Media, don’t shoot” to soldiers pointing their guns at us during the emergency. I remember being hustled out of the station by my new and worried fiancé as we were stubbornly making our way back in with other journalists with a police escort. I recall crawling in commando style while the bullets flew past us, fires and looting in Port-of-Spain. For six days and nights, under the stewardship of Dennis McComie, who gave the first report from the roof of the station of the explosions and burning Police Head Quarters, we barred the doors to the station and kept it going.

 

Journalists, announcers, took turns on the FM station to stay on the air. It was the only link between government and the people. We did interviews with international media, (I told the BBC “mad” men who didn’t have the support of the country and got a threatening call from Bilaal Abdullah), played music, called TTT and the Red House spoke to the hostages, insurgents, pieced together the news and passed it on. The country did not support the attempted coup and preferred curfew parties. Even with a gun in his mouth, Arthur NR Robinson, the then PM, urged the army to “attack with full force.” An amnesty was being negotiated. By scolding the insurgents on the air, McComie set the bar for patriotism and heroism.

 

Starved for sleep, harsh rumours jolted us periodically: That the PM and all the hostages were shot, that many citizens were shot which was untrue. Finally, there was the dramatic surrender the release of hostages. 20 years on, as the denouement continues, we know this. Our people will not support lawlessness. But we never signed off on it. 24 people were killed. 30 million dollars worth of damage took place. 114 insurgents were responsible. They went free. The power between the gun and the law went askew, breeding crime. We need that power back. It’s why the inquiry announced by the Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar is so necessary. All anniversaries have their rituals. This is mine—a mixed bag of remembrance. I taste blood, salt, and tears, as memory stirs up the love, death, bravery, and brutality that is sweet T&T.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur