Darcus Howe goes where murder is normal

The Islamists reach hearts and minds on the island of Trinidad

A close friend of 46 years has passed away. Despite my warnings to NS readers to avoid the place, because it has become a murderous terrain, I have returned to Trinidad, the land of my birth.

My friend left little else but his last fortnightly wage and, in a country that sets store by the quality of the funeral ritual, he could have ended up in a pauper's grave. I had to intervene and organise. It was a gruesome experience. In the 200-yard stretch of street on which my friend lived there were two murders by gunshot within 48 hours of my arrival. Everybody in the neighbourhood thought this was normal. I retreated to the Northern Range and tried as best I could to organise the funeral from a distance.

The chattering classes who largely constitute members of the government were hostile to my warning to readers not to visit the island, though they themselves avoid large areas of the gridlocked capital city, negotiating it from their air-conditioned vehicles. But they reserve the bitterest hostility for Baroness (Valerie) Amos, minister at the Foreign Office. She paid an official visit to the island and then returned to London and advised UK citizens to avoid Trinidad because of an Islamist terrorist threat. This was a death warrant to the tourist industry, as the minister for tourism admitted. Some Trinidadians accused Amos, who is Guyanese by origin, of prejudice, since the situation is worse in Guyana.

I never thought I would defend the Foreign Office. Trinidad did have an armed Islamist revolt in 1990. It took over the parliament and the only television station. Not much has changed. Only weeks ago, there was a huge scare that a chemical factory was supplying local al-Qaeda supporters with bombs.

Nothing has reached the hearts and minds of the urban unemployed as the Islamists have done. The al-Qaeda threat is slightly overrated; Amos's advice needs modification. And the government has done much in the carnival season to protect the innocent from bands of alienated youth. A newspaper headline said "It's police like peas", meaning the city would be flooded with officers over the carnival weekend. It was, too. But I stayed in the Northern Range, far away from the social antagonism, crawling out of my hole only to send this piece to you.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, America is no longer invincible