By Raffique Shah
Sunday, April 20th 2008
THIRTY-EIGHT years ago tomorrow, a group of us comprising young officers in the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment (TTR), along with a few hundred soldiers, etched our names in history by revolting and seizing control of the army’s HQ at Teteron Barracks. We would hold the camp for ten days before subjecting ourselves to being arrested. We were charged with mutiny and treason among other serious offences. Of the 80-odd men arrested, around 40 faced court martial, with 25-or-so being sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. After 27 months in jail, we would walk free, thanks to the judicial system that remained fiercely independent of the political directorate.
At the time, the average age of the officers and soldiers involved was 24. The mutiny was not an isolated act of defiance. For many months before, tens of thousands of equally young people marched up and down the country demanding respect for Black people, crying out for a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, appealing for unity among the nation’s ethnic groups, more so the two main races, Indians and Africans.
Looking back at what can now be deemed halcyon days, we were part of a movement that revolted against the global established order. In America, young people were engaged in bitter struggle for civil rights for Afro-Americans. Racism was rampant and brutal in that “land of the free and the brave”. White supremacists still lynched “niggers”, hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded with impunity. In Europe, young idealists massed against governments that still wielded colonial power across the world. The protests would gel into a counter-culture of song, music, marches and sit-ins condemning America’s war against Vietnam.
What was amazing, and this in the context of today’s sub-culture, is although we were young and maybe reckless, we valued human life as being sacrosanct. With millions across the world showing people-power as never before, you’d think violence would erupt, that hundreds if not thousands would be killed-on both sides of the divide. Of course there was some mayhem: inner cities across America burned, streets in Europe’s biggest cities looked like battlegrounds, flaming vehicles littering them.
But actual deaths were few. In fact, more protestors were killed by police than the other way round. And few targets of our collective wrath met their ends at our hands. In our case, we packed sufficient fire-and-explosive-power to level the Coast Guard HQ and wherever else we chose to vent our anger. But that did not happen. We decided there would be no bloodshed. So noble were the ideals we held, women, the aged and children were given the kind of respect they’d never had before. The 1960s and 1970s saw the coming of age of the feminist movement. It was that era that ushered in respect of our elders: indeed, the latter occupied a special place in our hearts, they having endured the worst facets of colonialism. And we saw ourselves as warriors fighting for a better world for our children to inherit.
Today, as we ourselves graduate to the status of “elders”, we look with dismay at the senseless mayhem and murder and violation of women and children that have enveloped not just this country, but much of the world. We wonder aloud: are we responsible for this absence of basic human values? Why has human life been devalued to the point where killing another is like swatting a fly? How can anyone who calls himself man look at a helpless woman, kidnap and rape and kill her, and think he still has his manhood?
In our youthful exuberance, we’d never dream of violating women that way-or in any manner. Oh, among us were many “village rams”. But to earn that title one had to make women happy, not violate them. Children were cherished. Sure, parents did not spare the rod. But however harsh the punishment that was meted out for errant behaviour, it was done out of love, of caring. Even when “deans” at college whipped our backsides, they did it to keep us on the right behavioural track.
Something, or many things, went awfully wrong between those romantic days of the 1960s and 70s, and today. Young people no longer fight for what they believe is right. They kill for what they know is wrong. The rebels of the 1970s fought for a better tomorrow for ourselves and generations to follow. The bandits of today terrorise ordinary people to acquire “bling” for themselves, such is their selfishness, their greed.
Interestingly, as the rebel soldiers of yesteryear gather for yet another reunion, a weekend filled with nostalgia and the happiness of having remained brothers for close to four decades, we can, with pride, look at our children and grandchildren, and say: we’ve done a damn good job. This year, the passing parade has taken yet another from our ranks, Herman Holder. We shall cherish fond memories of this rebel-with-a-cause under whose hands many boy recruits were transformed into proud soldiers. He was a disciplinarian who remained a soldier until he breathed his last. Farewell, brother. We shall always celebrate your heroic life.