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Raffique Shah


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Army can clean up the country

By Raffique Shah
June 22, 2008

The telephone call came earlier than reveille-for-an-old-soldier, but it was not unexpected. At the other end of the line, "College", having apologised for blowing the telecom bugle a trifle too soon, said to me: "Raf, you must write something about these little punks who feel they can shoot soldiers just so! That would never have happened in our day. We took care of our own, even if it meant bending the law!" To cut a short conversation even shorter, "College", as the one-time private soldier was fondly known, felt that Corporal Ancil Wallace's colleagues should have acted with dispatch to deal with the toy-criminals who brazenly shot to death the soldier and his close friend.

Of course "College" was not aware that a large contingent of soldiers had already moved into the Richplain/Bagatelle district. Or that while most residents of the area were breathing sighs of relief, many were crying foul, accusing the military of brutality and worse. Soon, politicians, attorneys, civil rights activists and others chastised the military for setting up camp in the district, for acting illegally. And using the media to advantage, scores of residents complained of brutality on the part of the soldiers, of the innocent being made to pay for the guilty.

I shall try to inject some sobriety into this debate, but I should warn readers I cannot be as objective as I should like to be. For some time now I have had reports about young criminals and gangs taking control of parts of Diego Martin, Patna and Petit Valley.

Bear in mind that ever since the Defence Force was established in 1962, housing for married servicemen extended from the newly-established Diamond Vale district through Diego and the Valley. So today many pioneers of the Force along with second, even third generation servicemen live there. That's how I heard, repeatedly, and first-hand, about the degeneration of what was once a model community.

If anyone put the area "under curfew" it was the gangsters. Law-abiding residents locked themselves inside their houses early at nights, for fear of being victims of bandits or collateral damage from gunmen just shooting up the place. Worse, many people knew who the "bad boys" were-in the main, products of wayward parents who could not give a damn about the many good people who had lived in that haven for all their lives. They not only bred criminals. They encouraged and condoned criminality of the worst kind. Because the gunmen are from among them, they heaped scorn on other residents who could not fight back.

I imagine the servicemen and ex-servicemen in the area felt impotent in dealing with the thugs-for the very reason the military is today being flayed. Had they acted on their own, they would have been condemned, maybe prosecuted. And because they failed to act to stem the decline, they are blamed for having allowed the reign of terror, of acting only when one of theirs became a victim. It's a classical case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't".

I agree with those who argue that if the army could "lock down" Diego, why not do the same in other crime-ridden communities? In fact, when "College" alluded to "that would not have happened in our day", he was quite correct. Barring the odd soldier who used his uniform to "pull rank" on civilians, strong action was taken against the "badjohns" of that era who showed no respect for the military. As early as in 1963, a large contingent of soldiers unleashed belts and batons on Carenage residents for the sins of their bad boys who routinely beat up on individual soldiers. In my capacity as a platoon commander, I personally led two reprisals against persons who attacked my men-unknowing to my seniors, of course. Other junior officers and small groups of soldiers did likewise. We took care of our own.

Regarding what's taking place in Richplain now, if I have questions they would be: why has it taken this long? And why only Richplain? Government, which keeps groping for solutions to unchecked crime, should note the results coming out of one military "lockdown".

If the troops do their work well, by the time they leave the district, the people would thank them for restoring some tranquillity. Similar exercises should be executed in other crime-ridden districts. Oh, there will be cries of brutality, of Peter paying for Paul, and of the army calling the shots-quite literally.

But coming from the very people who shout that nothing is being done to protect the population from criminal elements, I say to the soldiers: carry on smartly, be fair but firm in weeding out the criminals, and show respect and love for the law-abiding. Win the hearts and minds of those who matter most, good people. To the Government, I ask: are you still against the declaration of a limited state of emergency to deal with the gun-toting scourge of the society?

Well, the army has done it for you. Let the troops be. Let them clean up the mess politicians and lawless civilians have heaped on us all.