On Tuesday, May 11th Prime Minister Bruce Golding made a public announcement stating that the Jamaican government was going to sign the papers approving the extradition request made by the US government for local gang leader Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke who is wanted in the States for gun and drug trafficking. This came after a tense 9-month period following the first extradition request, which the PM refused to sanction. Jamaica claimed that not enough evidence was available and the evidence that supported the case was obtained illegally. Pressure mounted as more information leaked out linking Dudus to political parties and the controversy surrounding the government’s decision to hire a US based law firm to help lobby for Dudus didn’t help the situation.
The week following the PM’s speech all of Kingston was on edge, to say the least. Each day the papers highlighted new protests filling the streets of downtown surrounding Coke’s main affiliated community, Tivoli Gardens. At first, this community showed their support for their leader by peacefully wearing white shirts and holding signs saying things like “I’ll die for Dudus” and then, that’s exactly what started happening. On Friday, roadblocks went up closing off Tivoli Gardens from the rest of downtown, readying for the police to force their way in to find Coke. This community was so ready to defend their leader because they felt that he had protected and provided for them in times of war and need when the government had consistently failed to do so.
Tension came to its height on Sunday night, May 1st, as all of Jamaica listened in to hear Golding declare Kingston and St. Andrew, the surrounding parish in which I live, to be in a state of emergency in preparation for the army and police raid of Tivoli and obtain Coke. Sunday evening through Tuesday afternoon was a whirlwind of violence and death. I do not have a TV, and didn’t have Internet at the time, so my only way of keeping updated with the downtown happenings was by constantly having on my cell phone’s radio and flipping through the local news stations. One thing I’ve always had a hard time adjusting to here is the media’s trivial attempts at censorship. This was all the more evident in the coverage of the war in Tivoli, with women calling into radio stations describing in detail the bodies they saw burning in the street outside their houses. I made the mistake of going over to a friend’s house and watching some of the evening news on Monday. After only a few minutes, I had to turn it off. With live footage they were recounting the growing death count of Tivoli Garden residents and I was witnessing live murder on television. All in all, these are the numbers so far: 73 dead, 30 hand guns, 29 AKs, over 12,000 rounds of ammunition and 90 explosive devises found, and one Christopher 'Dudus' Coke still at large.
We have no Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the Kingston communities, and it was set up that way based on the growing amount of violent incidences occurring in the downtown area – go figure. My site is one of the closest to the capital city and was directly affected from the war in several ways. First, it cut us off from our lifeline of Kingston. None of our farmers’ crops were able to sell in town and no food was making its way up. Those working in a corporate setting weren’t able to go to work for a week, as all business is run out of Kingston, and high schools were closed for that time as well. Second, it became real personal real fast. Because of our close proximity to town, a lot of families had relatives right in where the action was. That made it a very mournful atmosphere up here and then a very apprehensive one as those relatives started to make their way up to our community, carrying the anger and confusion of the city with them. I was also personally affected, as I have worked with many downtown community groups and had a few friends caught up in the war, as well as had my supervisor’s husband on the other side of it all fighting with the army. Sunday night I ran out to my veranda and looked up into the dark sky to see a swarm of army helicopters leaving the training base by my house to bring in soldiers to fight and on Tuesday I found out that a Rasta from our community was shot and killed after going downtown to get his wife and kids out of harms way. Needless to say, I was pretty much in zombie mode for that week and had my fair share of dark hours doubting the system and my continued service in Jamaica. Lots of love was sent from Cali and elsewhere and I was able to talk it out and make sense of it all.
Things are definitely calmer now, as all volunteers are able to move around again, with the exception of travel into and around Kingston. Which, for me, means I am still in community arrest, as the only road leading out of my town leads straight into Kingston. The state of emergency was put in for a month and should be concluding next week sometime...hopefully. For now I am depending on community members helping me get food and the like from Kingston and staying put as much as possible. For a while it was tough to even just sit in my town square and chat with people because all I heard were more stories of death and destruction. But one thing Jamaicans are definitely good at is the art of distraction, so we’ve had plenty of dominoes and rum around town lately to take the edge off a bit. I have never felt so Jamaican as I did during these last two weeks of mayhem. There was a point when I had to start describing incidences in a matter-of-fact sort of way and tune out all emotion that I’d normally have associated with them just so I could mentally go on with my day. Jamaicans have for so long had to deal with times of war and corruption and wickedness; they’ve just become accustomed to dealing and finding a way to move on. And so, that’s what I’ve decided to do as well. Coke is still out there and trouble will always be around the corner until the government straightens itself out, but all I can do is have another day in Jamaica, land I love, and hope that my being here will provide some sort of bridge in understanding the American peoples and foreign policy issues.
Side note: I have the best dad ever, as he was bold enough to go as far as to contact a charter helicopter company down here and have them ready to pick me up on my request, just in case things got real rough. Love you pops...and might be using that come hurricane season, FYI!