Guyana stunned by savage killings

By Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, January 29, 2008 – Tension had been building for most of last week, but when it happened, no one could have imagined the sheer barbarity of the attack that left 11 people dead, including five children.

Heavily-armed men stormed the village of Lusignan

Early on Saturday morning, a band of about 15 heavily-armed men stormed into a sleeping village on Guyana’s eastern coast and savagely murdered 11 people, including three elderly citizens and five children under age 10. Many died in their sleep, unaware that gunmen had attacked Lusignan Village 11 kilometres east of the capital. Others were shot point-blank as they huddled under their beds or after being made to sit in chairs, begging for mercy. It made for stunningly graphic press photographs.

The brutality of the murders left a nation in such shock that Georgetown and coastal areas resembled ghost towns for days after the attack, with bars, night spots and hang-out areas deserted once the workday was over.

Political spin put on the massacre

Some overenthusiastic authorities ventured to put a political spin on the massacre even though the signs were there that something was amiss. Few thought it would have reached such savage depths.

Warnings not taken seriously

Early last week, Rondell Rawlins, the country’s most wanted man and a notorious gangster, telephoned police headquarters accusing them and the military of abducting his heavily pregnant girlfriend to lure him into a trap to kill him. He warned about mayhem if she was not returned unharmed. His warnings were clearly not taken very seriously, as neither the military nor police even bothered to issue a denial. That was midweek.

Rawlins, after all, is the gangster that the East Indian-dominated governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) blamed for the April 2006 assassination of Agriculture Minister Sash Sawh, Sawh’s brother and sister, who were visiting from Canada, and a security guard. The government had not hidden its desire to ”hunt down and kill” Rawlins and his gang, but the tactics used by authorities or rival gangsters to flush him out appeared to have backfired badly.

Police headquarters attacked

Late on Friday night, unidentified gunmen believed to be part of the Rawlins gang staged an unprecedented attack on police headquarters as Commissioner Henry Greene worked in his office. Two sentries were injured by bullets from assault rifles.

As police and soldiers shifted resources and focus to the city, the gunmen picked out the working-class section of Lusignan Village, attacking the eastern-most street and slaughtering 11 people from five neighbouring houses before disappearing into the night. The wailing from surviving relatives has not stopped as yet.

Deadliest attack in 30 years

It was the single deadliest criminal attack in the country in 30 years, surpassing eight deaths in one day at a village on the other side of town two years ago. Police blamed the same marauding gang.

Up to midweek, Rawlins’ 18-year-old girlfriend was still presumably in the hands of her alleged abductors. The state, meanwhile, has said it will meet all funeral expenses and to ”take care of the education of all the remaining children.” That was the promise of President Bharrat Jagdeo as he addressed angry east coast residents on Sunday. Belatedly, police and the military have issued assurances that they are doing everything in their power to locate the missing woman.

Violent protests by residents and relatives

The attack and the so far ineffective response of law enforcement triggered violent protests by relatives of the dead and residents in neighbouring villages. Police tear-gassed protesters who had blocked the two main east-west highways from the city to the border with Suriname. Several were arrested as they demanded better security from the state.

But even as the mourning and protestations continue, much of the nation’s sympathy has been devoted to a construction worker named Raj Harilall. In tears and barely able to walk, Harilall flew home from Trinidad around midday Saturday to find that the bodies of his wife and two sons, 4 and 10, had been taken to a morgue from their modest two-bedroom wooden house.

”It is like I am a stranger. I have no one left. My life is at a standstill. I fainted when I got the news. I blacked out,” said Harilall, who had been working in Trinidad and sending back money to keep his family going. ”I don’t know if I am ever going to recover from this.”

Efforts being made to prevent racial clashes

As the hunt for the gang continues and as police strive to keep angry protesters at bay, religious and other leaders have been trying desperately to ensure emotions do not boil over into racial clashes between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese.

Blacks are quick to point out that the same gang had slaughtered eight blacks two years ago during a row with a rival gang with links to the state, arguing that they did not see any racial motive behind those murders. The latest dead are all Indians.

The Ethnic Relations Commission, charged with keeping a lid on racial tensions, itself appeared to have thrown fuel on the embers. Chairman Juan Edghill talked about ”a political agenda” despite the fact that authorities are viewing the situation as simple revenge by criminal gang. While pleading with authorities and the public to ensure ”we do not slide into anarchy”, his other references to ”terrorism with a political agenda” have stirred anger.

Jagdeo forced to give in to demands for guns

As the country digested the reality of the weekend atrocities, Jagdeo was forced to give into demands for handguns and shotguns for community policing groups, even as he bemoaned the fact that many villagers appear uninterested in being part of such teams. He had asked for 600 local volunteers, but just 200 have enlisted so far despite the fact they are paid like full-time police officers. The difference is that they work in own neighbourhoods.

”We can’t do it alone. No one man can be responsible for security in a country,” he said, appealing for calm and vigilance.  (IPS)