"Violence is everywhere. So please help," wrote the principal

The state of Trinidad and Tobago is hotting up. There is a political impasse caused by the two main parties winning an equal number of seats in parliament. The prime minister, Patrick Manning, refuses to accommodate the power-sharing that the opposition leader, Basdeo Panday, demands.

Panday has raised the political temperature. In a speech to his supporters, he warned that, unless there are elections now, there will be "a long hot summer", with demonstrations, marches and boycotts. Rumour has it that the government intends to arrest one of Panday's MPs on corruption charges. To this, he storms: "You touch one, you touch all. What you will witness is social strife of a kind that this country has never seen."

As I have written before, the island is divided 50:50 along racial lines. Epithets fly across the racial divide. "Niggers" (for Africans) and "coolies" (for Indians) are the basic terms of racial abuse; the population uses them consistently and insistently. As I write, the Indian population - most of whom support the United National Congress, now in opposition - is threatening to march into Port of Spain with machetes at the ready.

All is set for a violent insurrection, and for an equally violent reaction from the army and police. I had intended to stay in a council flat in the urban slums of East Dry River. But the community is swarming with bandits who are carrying out an insurrection of their own. They rob anyone, plunder anything that moves late in the night. During the carnival, they murdered, maimed and violently robbed hundreds of masqueraders. More than 500 incidents were recorded; the victims included members of the armed forces and the police.

A policeman friend advised me to move out of the area forthwith. I packed my clothes and fled. Within 48 hours, the minister of national security launched Operation Anaconda. (An anaconda is a snake that squeezes its victims to death. During the operation, some wiseacre broke into the zoo and stole two anacondas.) Troops and police, heavily armed, surrounded whole areas, tore through them with an aggression that the country had never witnessed before.

A group would alight from a vehicle led by an army private who would announce: "This is my fucking turf. Lay on the floor and don't fucking move." He fires a volley of shots, his heavy boot planted on his victim's neck. Then the searching of each apartment begins.

Whole sections of the East Port of Spain ghetto are to be placed under curfew, 6pm to 6am. All legal rights are to be suspended. No spitting on the streets, no peeing in doorways. As they say in these parts, the people are under manners. Yet the entire population, even those whose homes have been torn apart, approves - including human rights lawyers who have been friends of mine over years of toil and struggle.

One evening, I was standing on the nearside of a car as one of the combined police-army squads drove into an area of council flats. A voice came from the van: "Is that you, Darcus Howe?" "Yes," I replied.

"Are you leaving now?" "Yes," I replied, "I am."

"Then make it quicker than that."

I witnessed another horror. The police stormed into a house and brought out a young woman by the scruff of her neck. An officer announced that this woman's son had robbed an army officer of his pistol. He pointed to a funeral home across the way, and told the mother to choose a coffin. I am sure he meant it.

Then I visited a friend, and his son came home from school with a letter from the principal. "We have lost control of the school," it said. "It is our civic duty to the students to regain control. Violence is everywhere. Please help." Such is the nature of Trinidad and Tobago.

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