Minutes after the Government announced the lockdown on non-essential activity in March to prevent the spread of covid19, Ria Carrera-Toney became emotional.
“I was a hot mess, crying,” she recalled.“Something was triggered in me and I was just shaking, shaking.”
Carrera-Toney, 43, said she took footage of her deeply emotional state, “because I wanted to remember the reality of what I am still dealing with.”
She had seen the intimidating images of the Jamaat al Muslimeen insurgents who had held hostage her father, former minister Joseph Toney, and other members of the then National Alliance for Reconstruction government in the Red House during the 1990 attempted coup.Covid19 was an invisible threat, she reasoned.
“There was something lurking on the outside that could come at any point in time that you cannot see. The threat was an unknown thing.”
So, 30 years after the coup attempt, it brought back the trauma Carrera-Toney has grappled with since she was a teenager.
“No matter how good you may feel and how many years might have passed, trauma is a multi-diverse thing, and you may have dealt with certain elements or levels – but you never really know when you have totally processed a trauma, even if that is a possible thing.”
One thing is certain, though: Carrera-Toney is fed up of the “regurgitation of facts” that she feels has defined the national discourse about the attempted coup over the years.
She observed questions about how the guns entered the country, and whether or not the insurgency was justified, still prevail.
She has also noted the lingering animosity towards the Jamaat al Muslimeen among large sections of the society.
For Carrera-Toney, it’s time to change the narrative from one of constantly revisiting the details to an acknowledgement of the “healing” that was never truly addressed but which is still needed, especially for those whose parents were held hostage.
She said others, like poet and musician Muhammad Muwakil, whose father was one of the Muslimeen insurgents, also have their stories to tell and needed healing.
Carrera-Toney recalled reaching out to Muwakil on social media one day, telling him bluntly: “Your father held my father hostage.”
Muwakil, she said, simply responded: “I am not my father.”
The statement, she felt, was profound.
She reasoned if she and Muwakil could attempt to heal the emotional scars left by the incident, the country could as well.
“If he and I were among the groups most directly affected, why is the nation not forgiving?” she asked.“Why are they not taking steps towards healing? Why are they still so antagonistic?”
Carrera-Toney moved to Tobago over a year ago to manage the new Children’s Court in the Family and Children Division of the Judiciary.
Apart from her professional life, she has also been deeply involved in culture and activism.
Before covid19 arrived, she, MandisaPantin (daughter of the late journalist PaoulPantin, held hostage at TTT in 1990) and others were preparing to make a “comprehensive” documentary, detailing the emotional trauma they have experienced since the attempted coup.
Muwakil was also part of the project.
“We realise that nobody has been treating with the hurt and lived experiences of the children at the time.”
Carrera-Toney said the project was intended to set the tone for a fresh conversation about the coup attempt.
“This conversation is about the heart of the issue, how humans experience things, and how trauma lingers. We need to tackle it from the heart.”
Aware the documentary might also provoke emotional meltdowns, she said the filmmakers had identified a psychologist to provide support.
Carrera-Toney was a 13-year-old student of St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph, when Muslimeen insurgents stormed the Red House on July 27, 1990, taking hostage Prime Minister ANR Robinson, members of his Cabinet and other MPs.
Her father was on his feet at the time contributing to a debate over a US Court having said high People’s National Movement officials had taken bribes in the sale of the Tesoro oil company to the TT government.
As the Muslimeen insurgents stormed the Parliament chamber, Toney asked, “Who is your leader?”
He and other MPs then ducked under their desks.
Carrera-Toney recalled she went to a creative arts camp that day with her ten-year-old sister. The camp was at UWI, St Augustine, but that day they were going to Port of Spain.
She recalled the bus carrying the children shut down several times during the trip.
As a result, the camp directors decided they would have the driver drop off the children at their parents’ workplaces if they could not get back to St Augustine.
Carrera-Toney said she had already decided to go to the Parliament and wait for their father.
As fate would have it, the bus completed the journey and they made it back to St Augustine around 3pm, she recalled.
“So we would have almost been in Parliament, waiting for the session to finish, if that bus had continued to shut down.”
When they returned to their home in the “Arima/D’Abadie/Arouca area,” Carrera-Toney recalled she and her sister were waiting for the 7pm news to begin when Muslimeen leader Yasin Abu Bakr, whom she did not know, appeared on the television screen.
She knew something was wrong.
“I realised something strange in the body language of the man and I think at that time we also saw Jones P Madeira (then TTT head of news) come on, and even his body language was more tense.”
Carrera-Toney did not understand what Bakr was saying.
“When you are 13, you don’t know what a coup is. But I knew that something was not right.”
She recalled going outside to tell her mother about what she had seen.
“Mummy came inside and saw it and then she disappeared for a bit in the house. She may have been on the phone.”
Her mother, a schoolteacher, then told them to bathe, put on decent clothes and pack some bags.
She recalled her mother said: “When they have coups, they come for the families.”
Carrera-Toney said the bath she took was the scariest she had ever taken in her life.
“I kept thinking, if anybody is going to barge in the door at the same time that I am in this very vulnerable state…”
After they packed her mother said a prayer in the living room.
“My mother has always been a church person and we read some reassuring scriptures from the Bible. Then she said, ‘We are moving tonight.’”
The family went to stay not far away. The next morning, they moved again, to her paternal grandfather’s house in Sangre Grande, where her father was MP. David Toney was a well-known and respected educator in the district. They stayed at his home for several days. Police kept watch over her grandfather’s house.
There, Carrera-Toney said she tried to listen to the adults’ conversations. She knew something strange was happening in the country.
“The adults are behaving in a particular way that is not normal. There are phone calls and hushed conversations. So as a child you are eavesdropping to find out what is going on.”
It was then she and her sister learned there had been an attempted coup and that MPs were being held hostage.
She recalled also being bombarded with images on television of looting in Port of Spain.
People started to call her mother at the house, saying they had heard “Joe” had died.
“There were a lot of reports. But we soon learned to take information from the official channel.”
Carrera-Toney said she did not feel any emotion.
“I do not recall feeling fear at that point in time. Perhaps my emotions did freeze for that uncertain period…those days when we did not know what was happening.”
Towards the end of the coup attempt, though, she did feel to “fight.”
“There was uncertainty everyday, and then I am seeing my nation looted and burnt. I am also seeing Jones P Madeira getting slimmer and slimmer and weaker and weaker on television.”
“That is where my fight response kicked in, because I felt it had been going on for too long.”
Carrera-Toney recalled her father had called the house around Day Four.
“That is where we found out that an amnesty was being done, because he was an attorney and part of the agreement was that he would draft it, but he must call his family. Then we knew he was okay.”
On hearing that her husband was alive, Carrera-Toney said, her mother immediately wanted to go to the Red House to get him.
After leaving the Red House, Robinson and the other MPs were first taken to Camp Ogden, St James, before being relocated to the Hilton Hotel, St Ann’s.Carrera-Toney reasoned, then, the choice of the Hilton was strategic, for security reasons.
“The Hilton had everything. There were rooms, food.
“It had a building located on a hill so you could see anything, more or less, coming from any direction.”
Carrera-Toney added: “At 13, that is what I was analysing thanks to the coup.”
The experience has left her hypervigilant and aware of her surroundings as an adult.
“I am very security-oriented, aware and alert at all times. I think like a bandit, a criminal. I am always on guard for spaces and persons. That has been a constant.”
Her mother had left her grandfather’s house for several days. During that time, her grandfather took the children back to their own home to get more clothes and passport pictures, because they had to leave the country.
“I even remember he went by someone to endorse the images on the back.”
David Toney later took them to see their parents at the Hilton, an experience she would never forget.
“This was a big thing, because we grew up in the country picking portugal and harvesting cassava. Grandpa also had a cocoa shed in the back of his house and he used to have us dancing cocoa for him.”
While waiting for the elevator to go to the floor where her parents were staying, Carrera-Toney saw about 30 soldiers in full gear with guns.
This was another turning point.
“At 13, something in me said, ‘This is your new way.’
“We then saw Daddy and Mummy in the hotel.”
Although she was happy to see them, Carrera-Toney said she was more fascinated with the cable television in the room. The show Red Sonia was showing at the time.
Soon after the visit, the family left for the United States, using diplomatic passports “under my mother’s family name.”
They went to Washington and later to her father’s sister Patricia’s house, in New York, where several other relatives had gathered.
Her father had taped his version of the attempted coup on a voice recorder.
“But I was in and out of listening to him.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t fully attentive to what he had to say. Maybe it was because I was again fascinated by my aunty’s TV, that had channels. This time was Teen Witch.”
Carrera-Toney said Teen Witch and Red Sonia were metaphors for what she was experiencing as a teenager, three decades ago.
“At that time when there was a lot of uncertainty, and a normal person would be curious about the facts of the thing, I kept seeing messages of female, strong, independent, powerful.
“In 1990, that was not what women were taught. You really didn’t see that type of imagery. But somehow, via this TV in Trinidad and in New York, I kept seeing these images of strong, warrior women.
“And maybe as a 13-year-old girl in that moment, recognising those attributes within myself, may have been more important to my spiritual and emotional survival than hearing the recollection of an event which I knew was being taped.”
Over the next two years, Carrera-Toney said, the police guarded their house 24 hours a day.
Her father did not speak much about the ordeal.
“He is not really a talker in terms of how he feels about deep things. To me, I have never really seen that side of him.”
But she noticed he had bought several books on Islam.
“I understood that to mean that he was trying to understand what happened and why it happened.”
For her part, Carrera-Toney became paranoid and started sleeping with knives.
“I still do today. I am not sure if it was triggered or amplified by the experience. But I became very aware I was female, a teenage girl, that threats came from all directions.”
She thought constantly about ways to protect herself.
“If they come in the house, who is helping me?’…The ‘they’ is not an identifiable community or entity. Now they could get in and come from anywhere.
“So instinct will tell you if they come inside the house you need something (knives).”
She also started to lock all doors in the house.
“That would be one more thing they have to get to before they get to you.”
Life at St Joseph’s Convent presented challenges too, because, apart from her father, the parents of two other students had also been held hostage.
She remembered being deeply concerned about the principal. If there were “follow-up activities” to the attempted coup, “three of us in one school would have been an easy target.”
The school had an auditorium with a chain-link fence and a bougainvillea hedge.
“The girls would sit around the auditorium and have their lunch. They talked about music, the volleyball team.
“But I remember while they were talking about it, I was watching the chain link fence because I wanted to see where the bougainvillea was not growing too good, how prickly the bougainvillea is and the height of the fence if I needed to plan an escape.”
She again went into fight mode “because the threat could come out of nowhere.”
That has never changed. As an adult, Carrera-Toney said she is constantly on guard.
“I don’t like anybody knowing where I am…and my sense of fight is in hyper-alert all the time.”
Over the years, she has learned several martial-arts techniques, including taekwondo and judo.
She is versed in Japanese sword, bois and Capoeira, a form of martial arts from the streets of Brazil.
“I am at home in fight arenas. It is just peaceful and joyful.”
Asked if enough had been done to help the children of the 1990 hostages, Carrera-Toney said she does not recall school psychologists being an integral part of the education system at that time.
“I don’t even know if people were attuned to the idea of psychological damage generally. Now, in 2020, we are more aware of how certain things affect us.”
Her healing is still very much a work in progress.
“I don’t even know if trauma specialists can give timelines for healing.”
She said there were times she felt she had crossed that hurdle.
Carrera-Toney worked with Jones Madeira at the Judiciary about ten years ago.
“He would often tell me that I needed counselling and I would say, ‘I good man?’
“But, like all trauma, things happen randomly to make you realise, ‘I thought I dealt with it. But I didn’t deal with it, because look how I am responding to this ordinary thing.’”
Even now, Carrera-Toney has no opinion about the attempted coup.
“The coup itself is just something that happened to our nation. What has never been an issue for me is a people or community’s right to express themselves in particular ways.
“The wrongness or rightness of that expression is not something I have an opinion about. That has never been my concern.”
As she sees it, it is not her right to tell someone how best to express themselves, or show their opposition to something.
“I never judged the event in that way…
“Regardless of the trigger or circumstances, my father was held hostage, so it could have easily been that he was driving to work one day and a car pulled him over and took him hostage.
“In my mind, the emotion is not different. At the end of the day, whatever the reason, you took my father hostage. You put me in a position, and now I have to process that. The reason is irrelevant.”