It was shocking! It was gripping! This unassuming Grenadian-born teacher stole the show at the Dominica Boosters sponsored panel discussion at Goodwill Parish Hall this past Tuesday. We live in a time when our airways are jammed with trash-talk about taking away peoples’ guns and an imminent sequel to May 29. That is precisely why Dominica Boosters launched a series of outreach programs aimed at improving national dialogue. All we knew was that historically, Dame Eugenia Charles’ bold action saved Grenada. Now we get an intimate look at the dramatic events from one person’s perspective and the twists & turns of our interwoven lives:
I was born Sylvia Joseph in the late sixties and grew up in the seventies and eighties. Much of that period was dominated by the reign of the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP) of Eric Gairy and his opposition, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) led by Maurice Bishop. Eric Gairy was a past trade unionist that fought for the rights of estate workers and later used his charisma to enter into politics. As a child, I always heard my parents and older brother talking politics and this made me very aware of what was going on in the political arena. My parents were opposed to Gairy because they believed that he was a corrupt dictator and so supported the struggle for justice of the NJM.
During the Gairy era there was a high rate of illiteracy in the country and so the followers of Gairy would say things like: ‘Uncle Gairy make me know money.” Whenever Gairy had meetings his supporters would turn out in large numbers and would sing choruses like: “God bless Uncle Gairy.” “We will never let our leader fall, for we love him the best of all!” He himself would use vocabulary way above their heads and they would applaud him. It is said the he went to a rural community and told the people there, ‘75% of you are illiterate.’ They had no clue what illiterate meant. Gairy made himself into a god. He would say to the opposition, ’He who opposes me, opposes God.’
There was the Mongoose Gang, the Defense Force (called Green Beast) and Secret Police, Gairy’s own henchmen who harassed, intimidated and brutalized opposition members and supporters. They carried out these acts of violence on the instruction of Gairy himself and or others in his hierarchy. Some of these acts included, shootings, imprisonment with severe beatings resulting in broken bones and head injuries. Long before the CIA was condemned for water-boarding, Gairy’s private army mastered the art of flushing peoples’ heads in toilets as a means of getting information.
I remember a Sunday in November when my parents had to attend a LIONS CLUB function and had to meet other members at a particular spot to travel together. They had to go seek refuge because the police and other elements of Gairy’s special security forces had raided an NJM executive meeting causing them to run for rescue at a prominent businessman’s home. The police held the area under siege and demanded that the businessman put the NJM members out, when the members left the premises and surrendered to the police they were severely brutalized, before being thrown in the back of a police jeep and thrown in jail to rot.
Once there was supposed to be a political meeting of the NJM, planned long in advance and because Gairy saw that this meeting would expose him and the popularity of the NJM was growing, he banned all activities around the island on that Sunday even church activities!
Other things like sexual exploitation of women, squandermania, neglect of the country, mysterious disappearance of persons and associations with the likes of Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Forbes Burnham of Guyana caused Grenadians to lose confidence in Gairy’s leadership. I think his undoing came when he published a list of Catholic priests to be deported because he claimed that they preached against his government. It was shortly after that that his government was overthrown by the NJM.
The Revolution burst upon the people of Grenada on March 13, 1979. I was just getting ready to write the Common Entrance Exam to enter secondary school. The revo came with its socialist ideology of free secondary education, mass rallies with long speeches (for which free transport was provided), free milk and butter oil, literacy program, military maneuvers, slogans, youth groups, women’s organizations, army and militia.
It was a new era, the government established diplomatic relations with countries like Cuba, the USSR, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Tanzania among others. Grenadians travelled to these countries for various types of training and people from these countries visited Grenada as well. There were Cubans in every sector of the Grenadian society – doctors, dentists, engineers and teachers). In fact, the large Cuban community in Grenada swelled further with building of the international airport. It was the first time that Grenada had so many trained professionals available to them. Many Grenadian students went off to Cuba and other socialist countries be trained in various fields.
During the revolution, if you spoke against the government, you were considered a counter-revolutionary, a CIA agent and subversive among others. You would be closely monitored and could be arrested and detained without trial for years. That was what it was like to be ‘put under heavy manners.’ This happened persons like Allister Hughes, a well-known journalist, members of the past government and anyone else who openly opposed the socialist ideology.
By the fourth year of the revolution there was talk of infighting in the leadership. It all came to a head when the Central Committee of the Peoples Revolutionary clamped Maurice Bishop under house arrest. This did not go down well with the people of Grenada because they loved Maurice Bishop more than they feared Bernard Coard. On October 18, 1983 a demonstration led by secondary school students shut down the town of Grenville and prevented operations at the then Pearls Airport. Emboldened, a follow-up demonstration was planned for the next day to free the Maurice Bishop.
My father seemed to have a premonition. I was dressed and ready for demonstration on October 19, when he ordered me to go to pay a bill at the bank for him. Disappointed, I started walking down the road, but my father changed his mind. Sensing I might eventually end up in the demonstration anyway, he called me back saying that he would go instead. He wanted me to stay and close down our furniture store.
I understood euphoria reigned as the demonstrators accomplished their goal that day. Maurice and other freed members of his then cabinet headed to Fort George to speak to the world.
Then pandemonium broke loose! The order was given to shoot and re-arrest Maurice. When he saw them shooting at the unarmed civilians, Maurice reportedly lamented, “My God they have turned the guns against the masses.” People jumped off the forty-foot wall of the fort to escape. Others jumped on them resulting in serious injury and death. Some people were taken to the nearby hospital, some remained in hiding for fear of being killed. Even in the hospital, the soldiers came looking for certain persons who they thought might be patients there. There were cases where some patients had to be hidden in cupboards!
My friend Gemma Belmar with whom I was marching with the day before, did attend that fateful follow-up demonstration. She was shot in the head (she was marked). I went to see her at the hospital. Her head was bound up; eyes were open, but she could neither speak nor move. I can never forget the unimaginable pall of grief that blanketed our school when the principal announced in assembly that Gemma was no more.
The period between October 19 and 25 was a very agonizing one for me because I was worried about my older brother who I thought might have been shot and lying somewhere dying or dead. I also feared for some of my teachers who were detained for demonstration against the government. Many others perished. The bodies of Maurice Bishop and his cabinet members were never handed over to their families for Christian burial and closure. I even thought they would come for me because I had demonstrated on Oct 18. I had reason to believe that because a dusk to dawn curfew was imposed, “anyone caught violating the curfew would be shot on sight” famous words of General Hudson Austin. This made it easy to keep people in place so they could come arrest them. But thank God for the Intervention.
The events of October 19, 1983 will be forever etched in my memory; it has made me, like many other Grenadians more politically aware and wary of the socialist models of government. As an adult and a mother, tears of healing come every anniversary of October 19 as I reflect on how my father unknowingly saved my life.
Today Grenada is a different country with a stable government genuinely striving to serve the real needs of the people. Personally, it seems like I am repaying a debt to Dominica in more ways than one. Two Dominican nuns, (both deceased), taught me at Convent in Grenada: Sister Sylvia Toulon of Anse De Mai and Roosie Douglas sister, Sister Pat. Then of course, is the remarkable life of Dame Eugenia Charles chronicled in Gabriel Christian’s ‘Mamo.’ https://www.amazon.com/Mamo-Life-Times-Eugenia-Charles/dp/1450709737 He details how she completed high school at my alma mater where she is since much beloved as an ‘honourary Grenadian.’ God works in mysterious ways indeed! Who would have known that I would marry a Dominican and be teaching Nature Isle today?
Dr. Sam Christian is surgeon who runs the Urgent Care on 137 Bath Road. He is a syndicated columnist focusing on development and health-related topics. Dr. Christian can be reached at whatsapped at 767 265-0886 or logging on to his website http://urgentcareda.weebly.com/