No regrets: Former insurgent holds fast to the ideology behind 1990 insurrection
“I will never forget her face.”
One insurgent, who stormed the Red House on July 27, 1990, says he has been haunted by the face of the woman who was killed by a bullet meant for him.
The first person shot dead during the coup attempt, she was later identified as Lorraine Caballero, a parliamentary clerk.
The insurgent spoke to Newsday after requesting anonymity. He said his children did not know of his involvement in the 1990 uprising and he hoped to keep it that way.
The interview took place at a dilapidated wooden house in St James, where he had spent his childhood. As he gazed at an unpainted wall, he cast his mind 30 years back, recalling the incident involving Caballero.
“This police officer I met inside there, I think he was Robinson or one of them fellas’ personal bodyguard.
“I went to disarm him, because we had orders not to hurt anybody unless they first try to hurt you, which is to kill...that were the orders. We not supposed to destroy any buildings or hurt anybody or no women or children. All these questions people don’t ask.
“He throws his gun on the ground and I bend down to take up the gun. I heard a noise behind my back but I didn’t take it on. But behind him had a woman. When I raise up I see the woman on the ground bleeding.
“They try to shoot at me – God knows best – I bend down to pick up his gun, and the woman get shoot.”
For many Trinidadians, memories of the 1990 attempted coup are tainted with fear as the nation was plunged into six days of chaos and unrest.
But 30 years later, this man still believes the Jamaat al Muslimeen’s actions that Friday were justified.
“Nobody won’t like no loss of life, no one. Anytime a man says he likes loss of life and he glad, something wrong.
“But would I apologies for defending myself? For defending what I believe in? No. Defending what I will die for? No. That will make me a liar.”
The man was born in Port of Spain in 1960 and raised in a Christian household, but lost his faith after a motorcycle accident.
”I remember coming up on the mountains and I just asked God to put me in a place to worship him the way he would like me to worship him. But things didn’t change for me.”
Over time his physical injuries healed, but the feeling of spiritual emptiness remained.
While working as a handyman in Morvant, he remembered hearing a sound that made him curious.
“I kept hearing this noise. I wanted to know what this nose is that was happening at a certain hour and it was attracting me.
“The man I was working for was a Baptist and I ask him ‘What is that noise?’
“And he say, ‘That’s the Muslim and them calling to prayer.’”
One evening, he went to the Jamaat’s Mucurapo compound, where he silently observed the worshippers.
He took the Shahada – the Muslim creed declaring “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah” – repeating the words that would confirm his conversion to Islam, that very evening.
But more than the traditions and customs of Islam as a religion, he was inspired by the social activism of the Jamaat in addressing rampant drug use in at-risk communities.
“They stopped a lot of drug flow that was coming through the country and that started to affect people, especially a lot of big people who were involved, because a lot of big names started to call after. I’m not going to mention this because it’s not my place.
The Jamaat, he said, presented a clear threat to the interests of corrupt public officials who had stakes in the drug industry, something he believes contributed to the harassment they experienced from the police.
In one instance, he recalls one night when the police stormed the compound while members were sleeping.
Heavily armed police and soldiers entering and searching the prayer rooms became a regular occurrence over the next two years, something he described as a grave disrespect to the religion and customs.
“The breaking point was when the police and the soldiers used to walk through the compound all hours of the morning looking through little dorms we turned into homes...People didn’t know, but they sent police and soldiers on the land with high-powered guns, with women and children living on the land.
“All Muslims who were members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen know it was brewing because (Arthur NR) Robinson (prime minister at the time) wasn’t backing down and Yasin Abu Bakr wasn’t scared of him.”
And most of Bakr’s) followers weren’t scared of Robinson, he said.
He remembered the Muslimeen tried to resolve the matter through the courts, suing the State over land they said it had given to them. After two court battles, the Muslimeen walked away successful, only for a move to have them evicted sent to the High Court.
That prompted a more extreme response to the raids. One night the man received a message about a meeting with other members.
Faced there with an ultimatum – to take up arms against his own country – he opted to fight, despite the protests of one member, who predicted a disastrous end to the coup.
“The majority of us that gave our opinion decided to fight, including me.” All the signs were that the government wanted a fight he said: the court cases over the land and the frequent police searches at the mosque.
“The people in the meeting were disgusted with the first and second court cases. Even though we got the privilege to win, remember it was a system that is run by the government.”
So he considers the Muslimeen response justified.
“Sometimes you have to look at the big picture. The big picture is this; sometimes you have to do what is right. it might look wrong, but you have to do what is right to stop evil, even though it costs you your life and your family life because dying is better than oppression.”
It was in that room 30 years ago that he and 14 other members made the decision that would thrust Trinidad and Tobago into six days of chaos.
Unable to say how or when the Jamaat sourced the weapons used in the insurrection, he simply said men were entitled to protect their homes and saw the arrival of the rifles as the signal that war was imminent.
In the lead-up to the attempted coup itself, all 115 members who participated were reportedly hand-picked by Yasin Abu Bakr himself and underwent training up for to a year before the events.
He realised that there was a good possibility that he might not return to his daughter and pregnant wife – a risk he was willing to take.
“We know it was coming but we didn’t know what day it was. It was after Juma, which is the Friday (July 27, 1990) a certain set of us were called and told, ‘Today is the day.’ I went to war on a hungry belly. They say a hungry man is an angry man.”
When the bus arrived, he got on and sat among 30 other members, each silently unsure of what lay ahead. One spoke up: “I hope you all made your peace with God.”
At the time there was no heavy police presence at the Red House, so he and the others made quick work of storming the chamber.
“Heading towards the building, we reached a certain level, no big set of confrontation was dealt with and we went in.”
Within a matter of minutes, they took control of the Parliament building.
Receiving instructions from their leader, who had taken over TTT’s station on Maraval Road, they held captive TT’s most influential men and women.
Before long, soldiers from Teteron Barracks, Chaguaramas, responded to the crisis. He recalls when Robinson, using a radio taken from a captive police officer in the chamber, was ordered to have the military stand down.
Instead, Robinson said, “Attack with full force,” and was shot in the leg by Bilal Abdullah, leader of the Muslimeen in the Red House.
“He buss the word to ‘attack with full force.’ He really said that.
“When the first bullet hit him in his foot that was it...When he get the first piece of lead going through his flesh, all attack done.”
This marked the beginning of a tense six-day standoff with the authorities as the Jamaat trained their guns at the MPs captive in the Red House, anticipating the worst.
Later that night the insurgents learned that there was more to fear than the military who kept watch. He reported that one of them experienced something he believes was supernatural.
“What I’m about to tell you, you may not believe…I saw a man get possessed in the Red House, actually, get taken over by a demon. And everything the demon say was going happen come and happen.
“The demon say, ‘Allyuh kill them, because they going to betray allyuh.’
“Well, men rush him (the possessed man) and take away his gun, tie him up…You have to be in my world at the time at the moment there to fully understand what we experienced.”
It shook the insurgents to their core. They said prayers to try and “exorcise” their comrade.
“When that thing come out of that man, it hit against a window in the Red House like a gunshot went off. The window fly open and close back without a crack on it. Experiencing that wasn’t good enough.”
Between the occasional gun battle with security forces outside, he recalled another instance when he himself hallucinated spectral figures in the Parliament chamber.
“Some of my Muslim brothers who had to escort some of the hostages to the bathroom say they seeing shadows. We shake off that until they say it sounding like people coming from downstairs.
“So they sent a certain set of men. I went.
“While we downstairs, I went down raised my rifle and watching. They asked me what happen to me.
“I saw two men glowing; two tall men, glowing, with a long gown on and they watching me and smiling.
“I told (the others): ‘Allyuh not seeing the two men there?’ and they say, ‘Let’s go upstairs.’
“They take off my two guns and put me to sleep.”
He was disarmed by his own comrades because they thought he was unstable after his hallucination.
His next memories of the event are a blur, as he struggled through limited rations and physically exhausting conditions.
He knew the standoff would not last much longer.
He was right. On the sixth day, the insurgents at the Red House laid down their arms and surrendered, marking the end of a brutal six-day siege that claimed the lives of at least 24 people.
He told Newsday his mother was the first person to check him in prison, and she would walk to the prison every day until he was released in 1992.
Now 60, he reflects on his life after the insurgency.
“Most of the killings that take place where they went and blame the Muslims for was never done by the Muslims in 1990. Muslims fight against the police and soldiers, and that was it.”
After the dust settled and the men were released, he fitted back into society.
But he says the battle only further strengthened his faith and is still an active member of the Muslimeen.
“I need to be honest to myself as Muslin and as a human being. Nobody likes war. But sometimes you have to stand up and do something to let people know you not taking any advantage. When you accept advantage it means you give up on life.”
Approaching retirement age, he works as a handyman.
After a close brush with death shortly after his release from prison in 1992, he says he has a new lease on life and values his family much more than he did before.
“A second chance? God gave me a million and one chance. This is just one of them. I crash, I was to die. I was to die when I was smaller. I come out here, they set up people to try to kill some of us, one try to shoot me and his gun going, ‘Click, click, click.’”
Does he have any regrets?
“A certain statement Abu Bakr made: ‘Sometimes you have to cut the woman to take out the child to save the woman and the child.’ That’s one thing you will never get me to answer.”
To this day he believes the truth behind the attempted coup is being held back by the government.
But he insists, “Don’t matter what you want to call it – coup, jihad, whatever – it was based on the land, protection and fighting for the rights of what is yours.”
After all these years he also still does not believe people understand what the central events of those days were really like.
“Everybody tries to give their opinion of 1990, but no matter how I try to tell you, when I go into the details about this thing, you can only imagine what I’m talking about. Some of the things were like fantasy. You can only imagine, but it was real death and destruction...
“After seeing all that death and destruction it will be hard for anyone who was there to go back.”
"No regrets: Former insurgent holds fast to the ideology behind 1990 insurrection"