Fire on the frontlines: Ret Brig Gen Ancil Antoine recalls his 1990 experience

Brig Gen Ancil Antoine
Brig Gen Ancil Antoine

To many who survived the experience, 1990 is a tainted memory of fear and confusion, while to others the events would offer an odd sense of camaraderie, as communities were pulled closer together through what would be remembered as a traumatic chapter in TT history.

For retired brigadier general and former public utilities minister Ancil Antoine, the events of the evening of July 27 meant the cancellation of a presidential dinner to which he was invited.

Antoine, 65, was most recently the PNM MP for the D’Abadie/ O’Meara constituency, but even with his military career long behind him, he recalls with clarity his life before and after the event that defined him as a soldier.

Antoine joined the regiment in 1973, three years after the 1970 insurrection, making history as one of the first recruits to be allowed to enter the military after the mutiny.

An 18-year-old public servant at the time, Antoine said he decided to join the army because he needed to get more out of life.

He was working in the Ministry of Education, but then saw a newspaper report that said: “40,000 public servants: no promotion.”

The following week he saw an advertisement for recruits for the regiment.

“I know I caused my mother a lot of heartache. She kept telling me that I was in a good job as a public servant, but I already made up my mind. I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk every day for the rest of my life.”

While he admits his motivation was not lofty patriotism, he grew to love the regiment and its brotherhood, rising to the rank of major as the commander of Alpha Company.

Antoine was one of the soldiers routinely involved in firefights with criminals as part of joint army-police patrols, working closely with Police Commissioner Randolph Burroughs during the late 1980s.

His memories of July 27, 1990, begin with dressing for a formal dinner for the Handicapped Association at the residence of acting President Emmanuel Carter, as part of his duties.

Like many other Trinidadians, he became aware that something was wrong when he turned on his television to see not the usual presenters but Yasin Abu Bakr.

“I got on the phone, calling around to try and find out what was going on.

“I eventually got on to Col Hugh Vidal, who was my commanding officer, and asked for permission to head over to the Cumuto Barracks.”

Within minutes Antoine had changed out of his dinner jacket and into combat fatigues, ready for the worst.

His wife was still at work at the Bank of Commerce in San Juan.

“I told her to get home as quickly as she could because I had to go. That caused some problems, because my neighbours, along with my wife, lost contact with me in the days that followed.”

By the time he got to Cumuto Barracks, the camp was abuzz. Antoine, as a senior officer, was responsible for organising the soldiers into patrols to secure the eastern half of Trinidad.

He had a sleepless night, as he and his team had to lock down Piarco Airport and the smaller Wallerfield airstrip, as rumours were circulating of possible outside assistance for the coup-makers reaching TT.

“I took the troops with me and secured the airport. I spoke to the fire service and had them put fire tenders on the runway because there was talk of Libyans coming to land to support the insurrectionists. So we made sure the airport was secured.”

Throughout the night Antoine and his soldiers visited police stations from Matelot to Morvant to assure them that despite Bakr’s claims of having military support, the army was on the side of the government.

Early on Saturday morning, Vidal instructed Antoine to gather about 36 men and report to Camp Ogden in St James, where was ordered to escort Canon Knolly Clarke to the Red House for negotiations with the Jamaat al Muslimeen.

“I watched him and told him, ‘You’re a brave man to be doing this, walking in there by yourself.’

Meanwhile, “When I linked up with Capt Bishop, who was positioned in the Hall of Justice, there were some gunfights between the soldiers and the insurgents throughout the day.”

After taking Clarke to the Red House,  Antoine was ordered to the police Traffic Branch, where he was thrust into the firing line as the police, undermanned and outgunned, called for help in securing the TTT building on Maraval Road. Members of the Jamaat were free to move in and out with little resistance until Antoine and his men got to the scene.

“When we tried to close in the perimeter, from Alexandra Street towards TTT, that’s when we came under effective gunfire.

“Near Radio Trinidad we got pinned down by some guys who were on top of the studio with some machine guns. The rounds were going through the walls we were taking cover behind. Fortunately, because of the angle they were firing at us from, they couldn’t hit us.”

For the next hour and a half, Antoine and his team fought a seesaw battle along Maraval Road, in a bid to secure the area around the television station.

During the shootout, Antoine remembered hearing the insurgents cursing the soldiers as they tried to retake the building.

“They shouted, ‘Allah u Akbar,’ ‘You soldiers will die for not supporting the revolution,’ and all kinds of things.”

Eventually, the soldiers gained the upper hand when a Woodbrook resident allowed them to use the top floor of his house to shoot back.

“We asked him if he was sure. He told us that his family already left and he was the only one at home at the time.”

By constantly changing positions at the windows after shooting, Antoine and his men were able to drive away the insurgents from the water tank where they were positioned – the first step towards retaking the street.

They knew they could not leave the position unguarded, as the insurgents would be back. But they had inadequate equipment (he and his men did not wear helmets) and rations. The soldiers relied on nearby residents for supplies, including food, water and access to washrooms.

“We left Camp Ogden after 10 am in the morning. We just went to drop off Knolly Clarke – but now we were in it.

“The neighbours were very supportive of us. They gave us things to eat. We didn’t have a lot of our heavy weapons, because it was just a patrol mission.  (But) we were able to move up to the second floor and disperse the shooters.”

By Saturday evening the soldiers were uncertain of their next course of action. While the Radio Trinidad studios were secured, there were still questions over exactly how many buildings the Muslimeen occupied. On Sunday Antoine and his men stormed the building and he realised the insurgents had retreated to TTT, where they were contained.

While this was a pleasant surprise, there was still the question of whether the Tatil Building was occupied. He took a bold decision to send four soldiers to do a floor-by-floor sweep of the building for insurgents. Much like the Vietnam war-era “tunnel rats” who had to crawl through narrow spaces in search of enemy soldiers, these men risked ambush and death.

It was a difficult decision, but Antoine could not risk a full assault on TTT, as the Jamaat were monitoring the movements of his soldiers.

“I knew it was a hard order I was giving them, but that was the work. I told them they were trained people and instructed them to go in Tatil Building and go floor to floor to ensure there were no insurgents.

“These were guys in their twenties. Of course, I was concerned for their safety. But this is what they signed up for. I couldn’t do it, they had to do it. So I told the staff sergeant to choose four of his best men, and that was the mission.

“I couldn’t make any move unless I was sure there were no Muslimeen in the Tatil Building watching our movements.”

After what felt like the longest four hours of his life, Antoine got the all-clear.

By 4 pm that day, he gave the order to set up weapons on the veranda of the Tatil Building, effectively surrounding TTT and marking what he described as the last step in the Jamaat’s defeat.

But the situation would not end until three days later, and much more had to be done to ensure the crisis was defused, as the threat was still very real.

Being far from their base, Antoine and the rest of his men did not have access to showers and eventually, on Monday, he got to use a nearby resident’s bathroom. His shower was cut short when he heard gunfire and explosions from outside, where he had left his men.

He got to the command post and asked what was going on.

“One of the soldiers told me the Muslimeen tried to escape, so they shot at them to get them back.

“Two of the soldiers, Staff Sgts Adams and Permell, took the B300 rocket launcher to the top of the Radio Trinidad building and fired it.

“The explosive is meant to go outwards, but they didn’t hold it properly: they fired it up into the ground, causing the blast to damage part of the building (and)  causing a fire in the TTT building.”

No one was hurt, but the fire services had to be called.

“We had to escort the firemen to (put) out the fire and they were scared to approach the TTT building. But I had to tell them this is their job.”

With limited movement, no supplies, and no popular support, Bakr and the other Muslimeen surrendered on August 1, five days after the assault on TTT and the Red House.

Outside, Antoine said, emotions ran high among the soldiers. He cautioned them not to fire at the surrendering insurgents.

“I was criticised for that by people who said we should have killed them.

“I went to every soldier, because one of the women who was killed at the Red House, her cousin was a soldier with me on the ground. By then news that she was killed got back to him.

“I went to each soldier and took the round out of the chamber of their rifles. I warned them because someone was shot by accident at the Red House, I didn’t want any ‘accidental’ firing.”

After the coup attempt, Antoine remained in the military up to 2011. He witnessed firsthand the changes made to the regiment to better quell another attempted coup.

He said the outcome of the uprising could have been very different if the Jamaat had sent various units of insurgents to communities throughout TT, rather than staying confined within Port of Spain.

“They could have destroyed the police stations in south and east Trinidad while maintaining a force in Port of Spain. We (the army) would not have been able to focus on Port of Spain.

“In the aftermath, we created the Second Battalion. We decided we could not afford to have all our army personnel in one area.”

The Second Battalion is based in La Romaine, and the First, at Camp Ogden, now serves as the last line of defence against terrorist threats; a very different situation from the five rifle companies during the attempted coup.

There are contingency plans and a strategic tactical framework, and Antoine says he is confident in the ability of the authorities to put down another similar incident.

Looking back at the crisis, Antoine said he was proud of his soldiers and their colleagues in the police.

He feels the soldiers did what they were trained to do and were able to contain the situation, preventing widespread chaos.


"Fire on the frontlines: Ret Brig Gen Ancil Antoine recalls his 1990 experience"

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