On July 27th, 1990, I had spent a strange afternoon sailing with my father and sister in the Gulf of Paria. It was a celebratory sail as my sister (14) and I (16) had just returned to Trinidad having lived in England for the previous three years. The afternoon was overcast, and our boat, which didn’t have an engine, was becalmed a stone’s throw away from the Carrera prison island, and we were drifting ever closer to the rocky outcrops that surround the island. A prison boat pulled up alongside ours, concerned that our intention was to spirit fleeing prisoners away. Nothing like this had ever happened to us before, and I remember my father, who always had a sixth sense about him, was uneasy.
When we got home to St Augustine that evening, Daddy’s answering machine was full, the phone ringing off the hook. He was a columnist with the papers at the time, and his journalist friends had been trying to reach him to tell him about the explosions in town. Unbeknownst to us, by this stage of the day, the Parliament had already been invaded by gunmen, and the Police Headquarters firebombed, both resulting in many casualties. At home in St Augustine, we turned on the television and a bizarre, inexplicable and shocking sight greeted us — newsman Dominic Kalipersad flanked by armed men and Abu Bakr.
In the days that followed the coup, there was so much uncertainty and fear — who else was in danger? Were other violent attacks imminent? Who was injured? Who had been killed? And then there was the frenetic looting. Years later, in one of his columns, my father, Wayne Brown, would write: “July 27, 1990, was the day that Abu Bakr and his Muslimeen stormed TT’s parliament and for three days held hostage the prime minister and members of his government, while an epidemic of looting and arson spread through Port of Spain and out along the east-west corridor. The civic wounds from those traumatic four days were deep: there are those who affirm that Trinidad had not yet recovered from them.” For my part, I remember during those bewildering and endlessly boring days under curfew, becoming aware for the first time that the police now had automatic guns, which they would blithely point at ordinary people just going about their lives. I thought presciently then, ‘Things will never go back to the way they were’.
Since then, and increasingly so, the 1990 coup attempt has held a fascination for me. And as a documentary filmmaker and a Trinidadian who lived through it, I have wanted to explore the story for many years. In 2008, I made an abortive attempt to start the research, but I was younger then, and, I realise now, not ready to undertake the telling of such a difficult story.
I picked up the mantle again in 2018 — determined to make a series to mark the 30th anniversary of what is now known colloquially as, ‘the coup’. But attempts to raise money for the production through corporate sponsors in Trinidad proved depressingly, if understandably, futile. I wrote a post on Facebook, in July of 2020, sharing my desire to make the series, and was so pleased to get some really encouraging feedback. One comment, in particular, struck me. Calypsonian David Rudder wrote, ‘Just after the coup, a lady came up to my home and begged me to write the ultimate song, aimed specifically at the young people of the nation. The song, she said, when played, and [heard by] the nation, will wipe out all knowledge of the coup. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I explained to her why I had to decline.’
Difficult and painful histories — I can understand why the idea of forgetting is so attractive. And yet, how can we forget the coup? I keep coming back to the fact that people, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, our people, were killed during the attempted coup; and many others were profoundly damaged during those terrible days. And yet, over thirty years on, we’re still not sure how many were killed. As columnist BC Pires wrote in 2007, ‘17 years after they died, we have no idea how many people were killed by the Muslimeen. But it is a source of ongoing distraction to me, and must be a deep, unresolved pain to their loved ones.
‘On this anniversary day of the day, then, two things come to mind… The other point, or nine, depending on how, or even if, you count them, are: Leo Des Vignes; George Francis; SRP George; Loraine Caballero; Solomon McCleod; Malcolm Basanta; Arthur Guiseppi; Mervyn Teague; the people we know for sure were killed in 1990.’ For me, making ‘1990’ is about honouring, remembering, marking, questioning, understanding and never forgetting what was done to us and taken away from us that year.