Six days of terror:
The 1990 attempted coup
30 years later
On Friday July 27, 1990, the Jamaat al Muslimeen stormed the Parliament, TTT and Radio Trinidad. They bombed the police headquarters, held hostages, including the Prime Minister, at all three locations and demanded the Government and military surrender. They demanded that the prime minister resign and their leader be made Minister of National Security. They also demanded elections be called within 90 days. This resulted in a standoff which lasted until their surrender six days later. The following story has recreated that time, based on interviews with people who were there, research in newspaper archives and the 2014 report of the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 coup attempt.
At the precise moment, the Central Police Station in Port of Spain started burning, footballers were at the Hasely Crawford Stadium for a Caribbean Cup match between Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. Col Ralph Brown and several off-duty members of the defence force were at the game, ready to watch TT trounce their opponents. Brown was a house announcer for the game and was enjoying the first half of the match.
While the Jamaicans tried to keep TT from scoring any goals, a group of men holding guns and saying silent prayers, were on a bus heading to the Red House in the capital city.
“I hope you all made your peace with God,” one man on the bus said. Eric,* a Jamaat “foot soldier,” who felt he had done just that, nodded but stayed silent.
When the bus arrived near the Red House the men got out and walked inside and toward the Parliament chamber, where a debate was ongoing. They did not need to fight their way in, as there were few police.
Selby Wilson had missed the morning session of Parliament, as he was planning a trip to Jamaica for a meeting with that country’s finance minister. A finance minister himself, he walked to the chamber around 3pm to debate a number of corruption issues in the House of Representatives.
He was preparing his notes when he heard gunshots. Next to him, Gloria Henry, the minister of social development, stood up. He pulled her down.
The men who stormed the Red House were part of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, and they were led by the Jamaat’s second-in-command, Bilaal Abdullah. After the shooting had ended and the men felt they had control of the building, they started asking people their names.
When they got to Wilson, one of the men said, “Oh, so you are Mr IMF?” and slapped him across his head.
As Finance Minister, Wilson had made the decision to seek International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance resulting in austerity measures. It was not a celebrated decision.
While this was happening at the Red House, Mark Lyndersay, a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, felt the building shake. He dismissed it as an earthquake until someone in the newsroom said there was a fire. He heard gunshots and looked out the window to see men taking out guns from the trunk of a car. Some wore bandanas, some wore masks. Lyndersay grabbed his camera and walked downstairs through the back exit. When he got outside the first thing he saw was the muzzle of a rifle pointed at him. The man holding the rifle said, “No pictures.” Lyndersay said okay, shrugged and turned back. Minutes later the glass at the side of the Guardian building was shot at.
At the stadium, it was just after halftime and heads began swivelling away from the field and towards the sky. Brown, who was still announcing for the football game, noticed people in the crowd looking away from the field. He looked east towards the city and saw thick black smoke rising. No one knew what it was, yet he could sense the nervousness and felt everyone was on edge.
Before long, Felix Hernandez, who was the assistant secretary of the football federation, ran up to the announcer’s booth. Hernandez also worked at TSTT and had heard from the Nelson Exchange that police headquarters had been blown up. He kept saying the Muslimeen was associated with it.
That was the end of the football game.
Brown left and drove to Camp Ogden in St James.
At Camp Ogden, he and Chief of Defence Staff Brig Joseph Theodore discussed the rumours, but had no real and reliable information. They knew they needed all the soldiers they could get. Brown returned to the stadium and used the PA system to alert soldiers, sailors and airmen to report out front. He asked them all to report back to Camp Ogden. Those who had vehicles drove. Some others commandeered a Carib truck and made their way there.
By then the military intelligence confirmed the Red House had been taken. By 7.15 pm they sent soldiers around the perimeter. Brown turned on the television, hoping to get information from the country’s only television station, TTT. Instead of news, he saw leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, Yasin Abu Bakr.
The military ordered a group of soldiers to head to Maraval Road. Brown went to Cumberland Hill, where a television transmitter was stationed, and interrupted communication, at first addressing the nation, then facilitating acting president Emmanuel Carter’s address.
At the Red House, Eric* watched as other members of the Jamaat spoke to prime minister Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson. The group had taken a radio from a police officer and had instructed Robinson to tell the military to stand down.
Robinson instead ordered the military to “attack with full force.”
Selby Wilson heard the words, and then heard a shot. By this time, he was lying on the ground, arms tied behind his back. He turned to see Minister of National Security Selwyn Richardson lying under a white sheet. Wilson thought Richardson was dead. He did not realise Robinson had been shot.
Bilal Abdullah had shot Robinson in the knee. Richardson had also been shot.
Later, as Robinson lay on the floor, hands tied and bleeding, he watched as Canon Knolly Clarke, dean of the Anglican church, walked into the chamber to function as a messenger between government officials, the military at Camp Ogden and the insurgents to discuss negotiations.
Clarke left the Parliament with a message, taking with him too Winston Dookeran, who was the deputy political leader of the ruling NAR party and Diego Martin MP Leo Des Vignes. Des Vignes, who had also been shot in the earlier melee, was taken to hospital, but later died.
Major Ancil Antoine was dressing for a formal dinner at the residence of acting president Emmanuel Carter when he turned on the television and saw Abu Bakr. He heard him say the military was on the side of the insurgents.
He called his commanding officer and asked for permission to head to the Cumuto barracks, then called his wife and asked her to head home.
By the time he got to the barracks there were rumours that the Muslimeen had organised support from Libya for the attempted coup. He spent the night with other soldiers securing the airport. They called the fire services and asked them to put two fire tenders on the runway and drove to police stations in eastern Trinidad to assure them that the army was supporting the country’s legitimately elected government.
On Saturday, July 28, Carter went to Cumberland Hill to declare a state of emergency and the implementation of a 24-hour curfew. Antoine and other soldiers went to join their colleagues at TTT.
There, Antoine and his team tried to get closer to the building. Insurgents shot at them and they shot back, the exchange of gunfire continuing for over an hour. Antoine and his team made little progress, until a resident offered to let them use the upper floor of his house. The soldiers did not have enough supplies but residents in the neighbourhood gave them food.
Antoine gave an order to set up a position in the Tatil building, near TTT, and the soldiers did this by 4 pm.
They had the building surrounded.
At the Red House, Abdullah had rounded up the hostages and was preparing to execute them, after hearing a rumour that US forces were going to storm the building. Clarke returned with an amnesty agreement and Abdullah agreed to it.
In newsrooms across the world, journalists rushed to report the stories and government officials across the region declared their support.
On Sunday July 29, at the Piarco runway, the army ordered the fire tenders to be removed and a United States aircraft landed in Trinidad. Brown went with US Ambassador Charles Gargano to meet the aircraft.
He boarded the plane to discuss whether the military needed the support of the US army. Brown declined repeatedly but left with hostage management personnel and eavesdropping equipment sent by the US.
Inside the Red House that evening, Eric watched as one of his fellow Jamaat members gripped his gun and started shouting that the Government would kill them. Eric also started seeing what he described as demons. His gun was taken from him.
It had been three days with no sleep and very little food.
Wilson, who still had his hands tied, had taken to praying with the insurgents, and noticed when one of them started walking around in a daze. Bilaal Abdullah asked NAR minister Dr Emanuel Hosein to attend to him.
The insurgent was tied down. Wilson believed had he not been subdued, the man would have shot them.
The next few days were filled with negotiations as the insurgents agreed to release the hostages and surrender in exchange for an amnesty.
But they were not prepared to surrender their weapons.
On Tuesday July 31, Abdullah released Robinson and he was taken to hospital.
The other hostages were released afterwards.
Photo credit: From the personal archives of Mark Lyndersay
On August 1, Lyndersay, who had been photographing the coup attempt over the six days, walked down Maraval Road to TTT in pouring rain.He watched people coming out and surrendering, and laying down their weapons in a big pile in the street. He took photos as Abu Bakr came out with his hands in the air, followed by other members of the Jamaat, before being patted down by the police and led to a bus.
Lyndersay took photo after photo. But after days of gunfire all he could think about was being wet.