Voices from 1990
Image Source: CCN Tv6
This year, 2020, is significant for many reasons. In the midst of a pandemic we have experienced renewed calls for reflecting on history, and how history is interpreted and expressed. This year has also been an important year for Trinidad and Tobago in terms of historical anniversaries. 2020 marks 30 years since the attempted coup de état on the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. As time has passed, to many young people, the attempted coup has become just another historical event. To the people who had first-hand experience however, the events of July 27th, 1990 and its aftermath are imprinted clearly in their memories. The National Trust has asked its members to share their personal stories of 1990 with us. Some persons are still traumatized by the events of the attempted coup and cannot discuss it publicly. It is important to remember that the events of July 1990 impacted citizens across Trinidad and Tobago.
The following collection is only a snapshot of the untold stories of the attempted coup. These personal stories underscore the importance of the oral tradition, where stories are passed on from generation to generation verbally. Many accounts of the attempted coup have been told verbally but not documented. This blog is an attempt to document these personal experiences and add to the historical narrative.
The names of the persons have purposely been omitted
Image Source: TT Guardian
A terrified teenager
I remember July 27th, 1990 clearly. I was 15 years old and I went to Port of Spain with my mom, my sister and brother who were nine and four at the time. We had gone to town that day to shop for school things. I remember I was looking for a sneaker for school. After we had already passed through downtown, we were on our way to visit my family on St Paul’s street while the attack began, so we did not know what was happening until we got to my aunt’s house. Remember in 1990 there were no cell phones. From my aunt’s house we were able to see the Red House on fire. My mom decided that we would try to go home. We didn’t have a car and we were travelling to Carenage. We didn’t get very far because people on the streets told us to go back, that we should not try to pass through Port of Spain. We turned back and returned to my aunt’s house to spend the night.
That night my mom and the other adults sat in the gallery and told us to stay inside and go to bed. Instead my siblings and I peeped through the window because we wanted to know what was going on in the streets. I remember seeing people going by, carrying large appliances on their backs. They carried anything that they could carry. I mean there were individuals carrying refrigerators by themselves; on their backs. I was amazed because they had to go uphill and downhill carrying the appliances. They had to walk up steps.
On Saturday morning we decided to make our way home to Carenage. As we walked through Port of Spain, we saw the effects of chaos. People were running on the streets, and there were soldiers in the drains. There was no transport to go home. We tried two different taxi stands. As we were walking on Queen Street, my mom decided that she would go into a grocery, to get some things to carry home. She left my siblings and I outside the grocery and told us not to move from that spot. I remember we stood there, and we heard a very loud noise. We saw some people carrying a vault, they were trying to escape with it. My brother and sister started to cry. I was afraid for us. My mom came back because there was nothing in the store but blue soap. The shelves were empty.
We continued walking. We walked all the way to the stadium. We met a woman, a stranger, who was also going to Carenage. She was relieved to meet us, she was alone. We saw people looting as we walked through Port of Spain but I didn’t pay attention to them. I was anxious to get home. We were asking the soldiers where to go, but they didn’t answer us. They did not help us. It was so scary, it was like a movie seeing the soldiers with guns and the people running on the streets.
I remember that my secondary school teacher at the time lived near to the stadium. We walked to his house and he was able to find someone to drop us to Carenage. He had to make a few calls because nobody wanted to be on the road. We were so relieved when he got someone to take us. The lady who joined us was also relieved. We were able to get a ride to Carenage on the main road, and we walked the rest of the way home.
When we got home, we met my father. We talked about what had happened. It was a frightening experience getting back home. It was just my mom and the three of us. If it had been me with three children in that situation, I don’t know how I would have handled it.
“I do not go into Port of Spain on the anniversary of the coup.”
I remember what happened and I don’t want to be in Port of Spain on that day. My sister was in Port of Spain recently when the protests were taking place. She got separated from her daughter and at the point in time she relived everything from 1990.
A working mother
I was working at the National Housing Authority (NHA) at the time. We were aware that there was an issue with the Jamaat, because of the issue with the land and the army had moved into the Jamaat compound. NHA at the time had land around Trinidad and Tobago. There was land in Arouca that was being used by farmers, and the NHA wanted to regularize them for housing but they were resisting. I remember that week in July 1990 clearly. On Wednesday 25th July I was ill and I didn’t go to work. I got a call at home from my office. The same famers in Arouca were now reporting that some Muslim men had moved in nearby and had told the farmers that they needed to leave because they would be taking over the farmlands. The next day, Thursday 26th July I sent one of my staff to Arouca, to take a look and to report to me the next day, Friday 27th. He called me that Thursday night, after work, to say that the situation was very strange and that he was very concerned about it. I told him that on Friday morning, we would take it to the senior officers. On the morning of Friday 27th July 1990, I went to the head of the NHA, to tell him about the issue with the site. I was supposed to find out more and report back to him after lunch. I returned to my office and met with the staff member who had visited the site in Arouca. He gave me a graphic story about the Muslim men setting up a camp, near to the farmers and said they had what looked like military equipment. All the farmers were scared for their lives. I decided that the police should be involved in the matter. That afternoon I spoke to the police, I asked them to check it out over the weekend.
That afternoon I had a meeting and I spoke to the Chair just before the meeting started. I told him about the situation in Arouca. He seemed to get very serious and wanted to know every detail of the story. He made me call the staff member who had done the site visit to Arouca. I began to get worried. Soon after this the Chair postponed the meeting. I was glad because I immediately thought that I would be able to make it to see my children swim in a swim-meet (competition).
I left work and made my way to the swimming pool to meet my children who went there directly from school. I had almost reached the swimming pool when I heard the interrupted broadcast on the radio. It said that the Muslimeen had blown up the police station, they had taken hold of the Red House, and the politicians were taken hostage. I froze. I had known that something was wrong with the situation in Arouca. I stopped the car. I immediately believed the news that I was hearing on the radio. I was just outside the pool. I saw parents running into the swimming pool compound to get their children.
On the radio the announcer said that he had locked the door and was hearing shooting. I realized that people were running out of the swimming pool compound. I got out of my car and pushed through all the people who were rushing out, I had to get inside to get my children. By the time I got my children, all the people with cars had left aside from myself and one other person. There were about four adults remaining with about 17 or 18 children. I could not leave these children. One of the parents there was friends with the wife of the Attorney General. From the pool, she called her friend’s house, but the woman had no idea of what was going on. She was in shock; she dropped the phone when she heard that her husband was a hostage.
A few minutes later another parent arrived and thankfully she had a car. I could not leave all the children and go home. She agreed to help me take the children home. We fit everyone into three cars, children and adults. There were three people in the front passenger side of my car and about six persons in the backseat.
After dropping everyone off, I finally made it home and called my parents. They told me that Abu Bakr was live on TTT. I turned on the TV and I heard him say “There shall be no looting”. I thought it was a strange thing to say. The TV presenters were sitting quietly. I remember their bravery. Abu Bakr repeated himself. I was at home with my children, but I felt helpless in the situation. My daughter had a high fever. I was very worried, but I tried to be calm.
The next morning I went to get medicine for my daughter. My father had arranged it for me with a friend who was a pharmacist. I got the medicine, some groceries and I stopped to see my parents. After I saw them, I went to Port of Spain, to see what was happening. In 1990 we only had one tv station, no internet, two radio stations and no cell phones. Most people did not have cars, it was a completely different time. I wanted to see for myself what was going on because I had heard about the looting, but I had not seen any footage of Port of Spain. I parked my car at the hospital grounds and I walked down Charlotte Street. I stopped at Queen Street.
“I will never forget what I saw.
It was like I was in a war zone in the middle east.”
Najeeb Elias was gaping open and everything was gone. I saw a shoe store which had been stripped of everything except for one side of a shoe on the floor. It was if a bomb had exploded in Port of Spain. I had never seen looting before. I was shocked. I saw army and fire personnel but they didn’t pay attention to me. The road was wet and messy.
When I got to the corner of Charlotte and Queen, I looked across and I saw the devastation on Queen Street and I stopped. I turned around and I went home. I couldn’t understand how people could destroy so much so quickly. I don’t remember exactly when the electricity went but I remember packing up my children and the groceries and going to my parents’ house. I was stopped by the army but they eventually let us through.
After the attempted coup many business owners closed shop. The damages were so bad. I remember hearing a story about two workers who stood outside the door of the store that they worked at. The door had ornate glass. They stood all night through the looting from the Friday 27th into the morning of Saturday 28th July to protect the door.
A Life changing experience
My husband at the time worked at TTT. On Friday July 27th, 1990 he had called to say that he was going to the bank before he came home. I was at home reading a book. I did not know what was going on in Port of Spain because I was not watching the TV. My sister-in-law called and told me about the attempted coup. I was not immediately surprised because of Abu Bakr’s previous behaviour. We knew something radical could happen. Then my sister -in-law asked about the whereabouts of her brother. I ran to the tv. I turned it on just in time to see Dominic Kalipersad reading out all the names of the people who were being held hostage at TTT. I cannot describe the shock that I felt. I spent that night in panic mode. The next day my dad and my sister came to stay with me. I didn’t hear anything from my husband until Saturday night when he called briefly. He told me that he didn’t have much time on the phone, that I should listen. He said he was fine and that he couldn’t answer any questions. That was the only time I heard from him. I was very worried, I could hear gunshots outside as we lived near to Port of Spain at the time.
I tried to call as many people as I could to find out anything that I could. I even called someone who lived near to TTT to find out what was going on there. There were no cell phones to keep updated.
When the hostages from TTT were released I went to the Hilton to meet my husband. He had called the night before to say that he was at Camp Ogden and he would be at the Hilton the next day. I went to the Hilton and I was finally able to see my husband and our friends. It was very emotional seeing all of them. They were all traumatized.
“I don’t know if anything like that ever leaves you. You have to learn to live with it. So many years have passed now and I don’t think that any of them (the hostages) are fully over it.”
There are several accounts of the events surrounding the attempted coup of July 27th, 1990 which have not been shared. One reason for this is because people are still traumatized and do not want to relive the painful experience. We may never know every detail of the story.
If you or someone you know is willing to share your personal experience with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will document your story.
Written by Karishma Nanhu, Heritage Preservation and Research Officer, National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago