The 1990 Muslimeen coup-a personal account
July 28, 2000
By: Raffique Shah
In retrospect, I've always wondered what might have happened if my car had not broken down at around 5.30 p.m. on July 27, 1990. I had just left the offices of the TnT Mirror and was heading into Port of Spain when I stopped off at the Barataria roundabout gas station to fill up. Riding with me were reporter Sherrie Ann De Leon and a photographer. They were on their way to cover the football match at the stadium, and I was giving them a lift. Me? I was on my way to a video club that's still located within spitting distance of TTT and what was then known as Television House.
At the very time I was about to leave for the club, Abu Bakr and his Muslimeen "soldiers" must have been in the process of taking over TTT. Now, what would the authorities have thought if Raffique Shah was seen in the vicinity of where the armed "coup" was being staged? Could I have convinced them that I was on an innocent mission to return some video tapes? Or would they, soon to discover that my youngest brother was part of the Muslimeen assault team (he was at the Red House), have not concluded that I was part of the "coup", given the level of their intelligence? Worse, what were the possibilities if Bakr's boys had seen me in the vicinity of TTT at the most opportune time, at least from their standpoint? Either way, I more than likely would not be around today to write this piece, since one side or other might have shot me to death!
But that was not to be. Having paid for the gas, I tried to start the old Commodore. It refused to "tumble". Embarrassed (hell, on that busy Friday afternoon, there was a sizeable queue at the station), I tumbled and fumbled, but to no avail. With the help of a few people, I pushed the car aside and proceeded to inspect the engine to try to determine what was wrong with it. After about 10 minutes of wasting time in that exercise in futility (hell, I am no mechanic), as Sherrie Ann, the photographer and I stood there aimlessly (they were getting ready to hop into a taxi), Daniel Chookolingo, who was the managing director of the TnT Mirror at the time, drove up to us, a half-grin on his face.
He called me aside and said: "Let's go back to the office. Abu Bakr just take over the country!" I looked at him hoping to detect the humour, the joke he was attempting to pass off on me. I laughed and asked, "What sh** you trying on me?": He responded: "He's on television! Let's go back to the office and you'll see!" Well, I thought, it was not April 1, and since Daniel did not dare try any stupid joke on me, especially on a Friday afternoon, which was known to be my "liming" day, I turned to Sherrie Ann and the photographer and informed them of what Daniel had said. Because the Commodore was immobile, I decided to leave it parked at the gas station and return to the office in Daniel's vehicle.
And yes, there on television was Yasin Abu Bakr sitting next to veteran journalist Jones Madeira, announcing that he had "taken over the country". In the background I recognised "Tom Jones", a Belmont man I had known since the Black Power revolution, armed with what looked like an ancient rifle. Others who stood behind Bakr and Madeira (who wore a look of amusement rather than fear) were also armed. I still could not believe this was for real: was it some comedy tape TTT had done and was the station palming off a hoax on its viewers? That couldn't be, I thought, as the few of us who were in the office watched the beginning of a drama that must remain etched forever in the minds of all who looked on.
Well, as they say, the rest was history. Bakr and one group of armed Muslimeen had indeed taken over Televison House and Radio Trinidad, another group under second-in-command, Bilaal Abdullah, had stormed the Red House while Parliament was sitting, and yet others had exploded an incendiary bomb at the entrance to the old Police Headquarters opposite the Red House. Once we had confirmed these facts, Daniel and I set about mobilizing staff, most of whom had already left the building. Hell, this was the biggest story in the history of the TnT Mirror, and we were not about to miss out on it. Little did we know how important a role that newspaper and some of its devoted employees would play over the next five days.
Rounding up editors and journalists was left to Daniel, while I worked closely with the editor of the now defunct Tuesday Mirror (which went "to bed" on Friday evenings), Edison Holder, in holding back the outside pages and seeking to get material that would reflect the crisis in the country. At this point, I wish only to make a few observations regarding the functioning of the TnT Mirror staff during the crisis. Daniel went to a "watering hole" not far from the office where he encountered one editor (we had three at the time-I was managing editor) and another senior editorial staff member. He broke the news to them and asked that they report back to the office immediately.
That was the last he-or anyone else at the office-saw of them until the dust had settled on Bakr's attempted coup. When that particular editor showed up in the aftermath of the crisis, he was suspended for two weeks for "showing cowardice in the midst of a crisis". Another editor could not be found: he had left the office earlier, but several telephone calls to his home and other contact points yielded nothing. In fact, because no one could say where he was, and he did not call the office, we began fearing the worst. It was only after he showed up on the second day that we learned he had gone into hiding immediately he heard about the coup-because of what he used to write about Bakr and the Muslimeen!
But most members of staff who were available immediately sprang into action. Journalists were eager to go into Port of Spain to assess the situation and get photographs (they had to be warned about their safety). I recall Holder, Irene Medina and a photographer going into the city as the looting got underway. At one point, when the looters realized they were being photographed in action, they turned on the journalists who had to beat a hasty retreat from Park Street, driving in the wrong direction!
Pressmen made no fuss about having to batten down at the office (little did they know it would be for five nights), and other support staff (paginators, proof readers, drivers etc) went way beyond the call of duty. We soon realised that The Guardian was virtually under siege and The Express, operating from downtown where there was grave uncertainty, might have come under fire. Which left only the TnT Mirror outside of the "battle zone". We immediately took a decision to go daily, which we did for about six days. I don't have to stress how newspapers sold-I almost wrote "like hot hops", but bakeries, too, had to stop operations during the coup. And when we got into a rhythm, which included getting some sleep on an exercise mat (in my case) or a simple piece of cardboard, we began to enjoy the pressures of "wartime" journalism.
At this point I need to indicate that on that fateful Friday night, I got a telephone call from my sister-in-law: my brother, a Customs officer who used to worship at the Mucurapo mosque, had left earlier that day for "Juma" prayers and had not yet returned. That was at around 9 p.m. Doubts and fears racing through my mind, I sought to reassure her of his safety, saying that he probably got stuck somewhere. It was only on Day Two of the crisis that I confirmed he was one of the group that had stormed the Red House.
I do not need to go into the trauma that my family, and in particular my mother, had to endure. For my mother, it was déjà vu. She had endured the crisis of 1970 like a "warrior mom", what with her eldest son (that's me!!) being the central figure in the army mutiny. But then my father was around to share her grief and whatever other emotions parents must endure when their children are caught up in crises like those of 1970 and 1990.
So even as I acted out my role as a journalist and managing editor of a newspaper that had suddenly gone daily, in my quiet moments I was absorbed in thoughts mainly about my mother and my brother's immediate family. Interestingly, although I had assessed the situation of the Muslimeen rebels as being wholly untenable-it was only a matter of time before the army either took them out or regained control of the country-I did not worry much about my brother's life. The main reason was, having experienced the 1970 mutiny, I knew that once one took the road of armed revolution, death was a distinct possibility. I had come to terms with that back in 70, and I imagine he had made his peace with Allah in 1990. But I did worry about my mother, who is probably the only woman in history who had two of her three sons involved in the only two violent political actions Trinidad and Tobago saw in the 20th Century, and these 20 years apart. My father died in 1978, so he was spared the double-trauma. But my mother remains a tower of strength to this day. (Incidentally, she has refused to be interviewed by any journalist-me included-about her experiences).
But back to the coup. When I received my first full report from the city, and when by the following morning I had heard of no Muslimeen action elsewhere, I summed up that the rebels would either be annihilated in a military assault or they would be starved into surrendering. You simply couldn't hold the Red House the Television House and expect to take over a country, not even with the Prime Minister as hostage. It was only a matter of time. But what happened during those critical hours was most revealing. Fortunately for us at the Mirror, we had a radio set that picked up signals from the police radio frequency, so we monitored their communications in order to follow what was happening and to get "inside" news.
As had happened in 1970, the police would once more bungle everything and only come out to "play hero" when it appeared that they were safe. For example, when the bomb and resulting fire struck their HQ, everyone fled the building (one officer broke his leg when he jumped a wall). Attempts to re-organise them failed, and it was only late that might that some of them had positioned themselves in the Hall of Justice and the CLICO building to provide some semblance of fighting back. It was on Day Two, I believe, that the most senior police officer at the time (was it Guy or Taylor?) gave the order for the policemen who were at the Hall of Justice to stop firing on the Red House so that negotiations could proceed. You should have heard the crude "cussing" he was subjected to, and that over the radio! Discipline had broken down, had given way to emotions and vendettas.
The army, too, took quite some time to mobilise. It was not until well into the first night that they began moving in on both positions. But once the soldiers had covered the two main points of action, I knew there was no way out for the Muslimeen save surrender or death. From as early as Day Two, the rebels made telephone contact with us at the Mirror. From the Red House, we got reports from them about people who were wounded, and later they confirmed that both Prime Minister ANR Robinson and Attorney General Selwyn Richardson had been shot and wounded. I remember asking whoever it was that spoke with me to ensure that no more harm would come to any of the hostages, and to allow the PM and AG to be let out of the building to receive medical attention. I was told that that was not going to happen until the rebels' demands were met.
At TTT, too, the now-deceased Omowale (Andy Thomas) made contact with us, which he kept going on a regular basis. Early during that phase, I enquired after the safety of my fellow journalists who were held hostage at the station, and it must have been on Day Three that I was allowed to speak with Raoul Pantin. He sounded as though he was in good spirits, asked if we could persuade anyone to get some food to them, and asked me to inform his brother that he was okay. I later telephoned Dennis (Pantin) and briefed him on what I was privy to.
I cannot in one article go into details of the five days of high drama. But there are some questions that I believe still need to be answered, 10 years after the fact. Why was the Special Branch totally unaware of the arming of the Jamaat, which was common knowledge "around town"? I mean, for months before the coup, there were numerous incidents of Muslimeen "soldiers" attacking "coke blocks". They were always armed. I suspect, though, that the Branch was at its usual level of competence-chasing crooked shadows and wasting taxpayers' money, much the way its officers did in 1970.
Once the looting got underway on Day One, there was absolutely no effort on the part of the police or the military to stop it. Hordes of looters took control of downtown Port of Spain, and what we saw was a city burning as the police fiddled with their pistols and rifles. In fact, one scene I shall never forget was the sight along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, immediately opposite the San Juan area, where there were many warehouses. I passed there on about three afternoons, late, trying to beat the curfew. Parked at several points were police vehicles with cops armed to the teeth. And standing next to them were looters, complete with their booty (new stoves, TVs and other appliances) awaiting transport. It was an unbelievable symbol of how law and order had broken down.
I recall vividly, too, the attempts to save Robinson's life. From the moment I was made aware (by one of the Muslimeen rebels-not my brother) that his health was deteriorating, I telephoned everyone I could think of with a view to getting Robinson out of the Red House while he was still alive. From the few NAR government ministers on the outside I could make contact with (Bhoe Tewarie was one) to senior army officers (I spoke with Hugh Vidal) and prominent citizens (I telephoned Archbishop Pantin and attorney Allan Alexander), I worked with a sense of urgency to have Robinson rescued. I believe the military authorities were at first reluctant to give any ground to the rebels, but they later relented when it was clear the PM's life was in imminent danger.
By the time it was all over, I didn't believe we had learnt any lessons, not even that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. For months afterwards, the police harassed innocent Muslims, storming mosques where people gathered only to pray. Meanwhile, in short time, those who were bent on their misguided "jihad" were allowed free rein, a most amusing stance by the State that continues to this day. Ten years later, Abu Bakr still fulminates from the minarets, and one gets the impression that everyone, from ordinary citizen to government, from businessman to the police, is scared of him and his group. That does not bode well for the future stability of the country, and most certainly not when we are in a politically volatile environment.
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