Saturday, 3 March 2012

EVERYBODY HAS A STORY TO TELL, All You Need To Do is: ((( Listen )))

14 year old Jermaine and his 10
year old brother, Rahem at
Alpha Boys Home
in 2006, four years after being
placed there by authorities for
their safety. Their mother had
repeatedly endangered them
by sending and taking them on
the streets with her to beg to feed
their family. They  had been their
family's only source of income
and were not attending school.
In 2003, one (1) year after entering journalism full time, I won the Press Association of Jamaica's Investigative Journalist/Reporter of the Year Award for a series of articles I had written the year before. The reports, published in the Sunday Herald Newspaper where I worked at the time, looked at a spate of cold-blooded murders which had occurred in Kingston that included the murder of defenceless women and children in late 2002 and early 2003.

Those killed included, two twin sisters nicknamed SILK & SATIN in the PNP garrison community of  Rema (which was Omar Davies' constituency at the time) and their 8-month pregnant 15 year old sister and her unborn child.

The morning of the triple murder when the photographer and I arrived Rema, the mangled bodies of the two young girls (about 3 years old) were lying on a blood soaked mattress in a one room board house in a tenement yard overflowing with gawking onlookers.

Their sister lay spread-eagled on the bed. Robbed of final dignity in death, her once swollen belly was a mass of twisted, bloodied flesh where her unborn baby had been. The gun men had turned their high powered weapons directly on her belly and emptied it into her after kicking off the flimsy door that she shared with their two baby sisters and her mother. The bullets aimed at the young mother must have also killed her two sisters as well as it appeared the gunmen sprayed the bullets in a careless arc, killing everyone in sight. Their mother, managed to dive escape though a back door as the front door caved in. The gunmen had come to settle a score but no one knew for sure or would say what the grouse was, but for years, a spate of violence and gun murders had haunt the family as explained by Gleaner Reporter at the time, Claude Mills. Read his chilling and detailed report here on The Gleaner's website. (The Sunday Herald, which is a small, weekly newspaper, did not publish online then, so my article is only available from their physical archives.) Claude Mills went to the community the day after the killings and interviewed the grieving mother of the three girls who was also mourning the untimely death of her unborn grand child.

A grieving Sharon Thomas, mother
of the three young girls who were
murdered in Rema in 2002.
As the community teemed with people who had come to try to get a glimpse of the three bodies, I spied men with high powered weapons restlessly pacing on the high-rise apartment buildings. The head of some were barely visible above sand bags they had piled in front of them as protection as they poked their rifles over and between them.

These were the GHETTO SOLDIERS who had NO permits for those guns but who patrolled in BROAD daylight, in FULL VIEW of the heavy contingent of soldiers and police officers who were out in large numbers due to the morning's triple murder +1 and the fact that a curfew was in effect in the volatile community which had been experiencing sporadic outbreaks of violence.

As the Sunday Herald photographer, Ricardo Makyn and I concluded our information gathering and made our way through the throng of people who kept streaming into the community, having; I kept scanning the faces around me. As I made wide visual sweeps I said to him: 'What if the killers are here among us? I would love to know what could cause a gunman to kill children and a pregnant lady like that!"
A framed photo of  one of  Sharon
Thomas' twin daughters, one of three
gunned down together as the sleep
in Rema in 2002.

 In my mind, I had moved beyond the WHO, WHAT, WHERE & WHEN of route reporting to the ((( WHY ))) which embodies INVESTIGATIVE journalism. Yes, the murders had occurred and would continue, but I wanted to know ((( WHY!??)))

Poor Ricardo, anxious to get out of the very tense community with his life and limbs intact, begged me to be quiet and "come on!" LOL.

He looked at me as if I had lost reason and asked incredulously: "Andrea you really believe say a gunman ago talk to you 'bout him deeds? You madd!!" I did keep quiet, but my mind would not shut down.

As we got into the car to leave I said reflectively: "You know, too often journalists assume that they WON'T get certain information if they ask, My job is to ASK! Let them tell me no or don't answer. Did you know that some of these killers are dying for someone to ask them why they do these things? But because everyone feel they WON'T answer, they NEVER get a chance to say.!"

So, I went back to The Sunday Herald, where I was working at the time, filed my 'who killed who' story, but my mind kept searching for more.

A few weeks later, I was back in that area, just a few few roads down, talking to relatives of a grandmother whose weeks old grand baby had been shot and killed while he was in her arms, (I think she survived). That killing was reprisal for the Satin & Silk's and their sister's and her unborn child's death. So yuh know say di ting get ((( TUN tha UpPPP!))

Within a few weeks, the area war had extended across King Street to the fringes of Fletcher's Land when a 12-year old boy was shot and killed while he sat getting a hair cut in a barber chair. A single bullet went through the back of his head and exited through his forehead. Click this link to read a Letter to the Editor of the Sunday Gleaner about that murder and of the murder of a baby that I mentioned a few lines above this.

It was theorised that his was a random killing; a stray bullet fired by feuding gunmen from the neighbouring communities. If the inner city 'war' did (( tun uppPP before, that latest incident BUCK IT!!)) Now Fletchers Land, a tightly packed hand middle of a community, squeezed between North and King Streets in Down Town Kingston, had been yanked into the the war. It was 'hot head' season.

In just days, the war ballooned even further to include Gold Smith Villa in August Town, as men from the by now EXTREMELY tense communities near down town Kingston, had tried to seek refuge in the hills behind the University of the West Indies in Mona. But their rivals found them and early one morning while three of them slept, three men, members of one family, a son, his father and uncle I believe, were all shot to death in their two-room board house.

The ((( WHYYY!!??))) I was carrying around in my head, by that time had reached deafening decibels.

After partially viewing the bodies that lay scattered in morbid abandon on the dirty board flooring in the house and talking to weeping relatives, I did what had become customary for me at those crime scenes; I started looking around, mapping out the place. My eyes and curiosity, hungry for more, searched for some sign of something that would help me make sense of all the recent senseless killings, ALL within a ONE MONTH time frame.

That day, my inner instinct nudged me to walk to the top of a small incline a little away from the house. I stopped at a Y junction in front of a wiry black youth who was sitting on some concrete building blocks, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep and God knows what else.

I hailed him kornazz style: "Wha gwaan my yout!? Everything kriss?" and kick-started a disarming conversation which led to the most chilling confessions I have ever heard as a crime reporter.  He told me his name was Fidel and that he got the name after he was sent to Cuba in the 1970s by the then, Michael Manley-led PNP government to be trained in guerilla warfare.

By then, I had begged him to move over on the concrete building blocks a little and kotched on the blocks  right beside him. I didn't want to miss a word!! Story did a pap! And as ole time people say: 'Yuh can't stay far fling salt inna pot! You feel me!?

Not wanting to distract him or draw attention to us, as the place was still swarming with police and curios onlookers, I didn't even bother with my note book. My selective memory that has served me well, kicked into high gear! As the words began to flow unchecked from Fidel's lips, I almost couldn't believe my ears! He seemed hungry to share what he knew and had experienced, as if he NEEDED to unburden himself to someone, and me?!! Nope! I had NOWHERE else to be! The Sunday Herald is ONLY published on Sundays and my story about who got killed and wondering who had killed them was in no particular hurry to be written! Trust me, it could wait! Here was a tortured self-confessed guerilla NEEDING  TO TALK! Mann!! I GREW ABOUT THREE MORE EARS! And I am not even kiddiing!!

So, like too long time bredren and sistren, we sat there in the nook of the fork in the road and reasoned for quite a bit.  And God is soo good that no one disturbed us or came close to us during the entire exchange. All activities and focus were centred around the death/crime scene several yards down the road.

Fidal talked and talked and talked. And I listened and listened and listened. I can't really tell you how long it lasted, because Lord knows, I wasn't checking the time!

He told me about how he was recruited and sent to Cuba, and how he came back and started utilising his improved killing skills when required. He spoke about an underground cocaine industry in Jamaica where police men use innercity youths as drug runners, coming to collect agreed sums of as much as JA$30,000 per month to pay mortgages and loan payments for high end motor vehicles.

"All when we no make so much money on the streets we have to find it to give them," Fidel told me, his voice weary, his eyes vacant. "And you can't tell them nuttin! Dem naah teck no talk! Is either them money or you life! And when dem kill you fi dem coke, dem plant the coke they gave you to sell and the gun they also gave as protection on you! And say you are an illegal drug runner killed in a shoot out with police!"

Sounding trapped, Fidel lamented: "Mi have a brand new queen size bed inna mi house and you know how long mi no sleep een deh!? Mi haffi a keep watch a night time and move from one yaad to the next."

He eased up his shirt and showed me and angry scar in his side where he said a policeman's bullet was still lodged. He said he still walks with a limp after her fractured his leg when he jumped a high wall in a bid to escape cops pursuing him.

It appeared that with the deaths of the three men in his community who still lay prostrate just a few short steps away and the deaths of others in similar manner in recent months, Fidel felt his days were numbered and he NEEDED to tell all or MOST of what he knew.

Secrets can become a heavy burden to a man who feels he is headed to his grave. They can slow him down, especially if he is anxious for the misery that has become his life to end as soon as possible.

Fidel confessed that he was only one of several persons sent to Cuba by the Manley administration as a move to equip an informal, deadly, ghetto army and implied that these guerillas, those who were still alive, were all a part of the mix that was creating the cauldron of seemingly senseless murders.The Manley administration had vehemently denied the allegations of the clandestine Cuban guerilla training project at the time, but on the streets it was an open secret; 'man and man' know say suppm go so fi real!

I still remember that years ago, while I was a student at Kingston Technical School in down town Kingston and boarded with a family on Spanish Town Road, the lady I was boarding with had a daughter who was dating one of those Cuban trained hit men. She confided the dreadful secret to me in hushed tones in one of our rare girlie confidante sessions as she was much older than me, (in her early twenties). The guy lived in the Denham Town community of the volatile West Kingston and always wore army style combat boots with his pants tucked in and a perpetually serious look on his face although he was not in the Jamaican army.

I have never forgotten him or how sinister his presence appeared whenever I would run into him when he came by to visit or pick her up.

But Fidel was now telling me about when he committed his first murder as a teenager living on the streets of Kingston. He said he had hidden his good clothes and shoes and gone to hustle on the streets in his regular clothes when another street boy stole them. Explaining that the street boys of Kingston are really organised gangs, he said, out of principle, he stabbed the boy who stole his clothes to death one night while he lay.

"I couldn't let him steal my things and nuttin no come out of it," he explained. "If I did that, then I would become an easy target and others would want to do the same thing. But after mi dun him, mi ratings get high and I was promoted to gang leader," he continued.

He explained how he ended up in Gold Smith Villa in August Town after growing up in Denham Town in Western Kingston.

"One day mi see police murder mi bredda inna mi yaad after dem come ketch him a 'lock' a gun inna one hole inna di yaad. The police dem no ask no question, dem just tun it onn pan him. They knew I had seen them kill my brother so I had to run and keep running as they would come back for me," he explained

After unburdening himself, Fidel told me that while the gunmen where currently wreaking havoc in Kingston, in a few months to years the violence would get even worst!

"Trust me! Unno no see nuttin yet!" He warned ominously. "Me a tell you say dem man yah have some gun whey no touch road yet whey ago meck the police gun dem look like foolishness!" He stated convincingly. "If you no believe me, mi can carry you go show you them enno!" he offered. Telling me he couldn't let anyone else know he was showing them to me and that I couldn't take anyone with me.

We agreed to meet on the grounds of the University of the West Indies (I felt that was a safe place) the coming Saturday and exchanged telephone numbers and promised to keep in touch. He would take me to where the guns were stashed.

However, when I got back to the news room, my usually fearless, bully of an editor, Desmond Richards, asked mi if mi mad!

"Downer," he thundered as he fixed me with a piercing gaze. "Yuh tink dem man deh a people fi ramp wid!?? I would not advise you to meet him for him to show you any guns as we may not see you again," he advised. "This information you have is enough!"

So how soon mi can get mi story!?" He queried. Having displayed uncharacteristically 'human' traits, he was back to being his story-hungry, editor self.

Sigh. On his insistence, I threw away Fidel's phone number and never spoke to him or saw him again. I wrote his story, which was titled: "The Making of a Murderer" and was published by The Sunday Herald the following Sunday, but I have carried Fidel with me all these years.  Sometimes in my subconsciousness, sometimes in the fore front of my mind. I wonder how he fared. Is he dead yet and if not, how is he doing? How is he coping with his demons? Ever the journalist, I have often wondered if I had gone with him to see his fearsome guns if I would have gotten a bigger story or, would I, like my editor feared, be long dead??

I guess I will never know. But I do know that I managed to prove my theory that is you ask the RIGHT questions and assume NOTHING, you will surprise yourself and others with the answers you receive. I also know that my instincts led me to meet a young man who just needed some one who he deemed important, to listen to him.

I am glad I was there that day.

The PAJ's Press Association of Jamaica
Award - 2003
So the following year I won the Press Association of Jamaica's Investigative Journalist/Reporter of the Year Award for the body of work I submitted on the killings and the self-confessed recollections of a killer - Fidel.

I share the distinction of having received that award with Cliff Hughes of Nation Wide News Network who won it the year before I did, Dionne Jackson-Miller of Beyond the Headlines fame and Garfield Burford who now heads the CVM newsroom. I have not kept up with the annual awards so I have no clue who else have won it.

I had made winning that top prize my personal goal as I told myself that I wanted to win a major journalism  award before I attend university to be formally trained in Media and Communications.  In 2004, the year after I won that award, I applied to and was accepted by the University of the West Indies. By then, I had left The Sunday Herald and had been working at The Gleaner for six months.

In all, I spent five years in main stream journalism and won more than15 awards over that period, including nine from the United Nations between 2008 and 2009 and Fidel is not the only person I carry with me. There were several other award winning stories that I pursued and wrote and which haunt me to this day. But I have learnt to make my peace with them, even though some people's lives were severely impacted because of some of the issues that I highlighted.

One mother had her two young children, six and two years old taken from her and placed in children's homes after I saw her with them begging at a traffic light in Kingston and I wrote a series about how she repeatedly endangered her children even after she had been warned by me and police officers to discontinue. She was pregnant with her fourth child at the time and would huddle in a corner while she sent the six year old to beg at the windows of cars that stopped at the traffic lights at the intersection of Balmoral and Maxfield Avenues.

In order to appease and assure myself that I had done the right thing, I would visit the two boys at the Alpha Boys home at South Camp Road where they had been placed on several occasions and talk with them. Read a re-cap of their story here which I wrote several years after I had left The Sunday Herald and was writing for The Gleaner. But this, and the other stories are for another time. I promise, I will tell them! :)

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