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Preventing another Tivoli disaster

Published:Sunday | December 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I heard the loud, low-frequency, thundering explosions from miles away. I saw the gleam of a gently banking aircraft as it slowly circled high above the military-like 'action' going on in Tivoli Gardens. It was all so surreal - like a scene out of an action movie or the televised CNN coverage of a war zone during a military skirmish or the suppression of an uprising in some volatile corner of the world.

I still don't know whether to call it a siege, an incursion, an invasion, a suppression, a rescue/liberation, a military exercise, a dismantlement, a police action or a security force mission to execute an arrest warrant for the popular, influential and infamous don, Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.

Some people from that small sector of the Jamaican society attempted a secession. This didn't happen overnight; it slowly built and grew and strengthened until the dissidents and hired mercenaries became bold enough to erect potentially deadly booby-trapped barricades and arm themselves to defend 'their territory', its 'President' and their way of life. Some asserted, "We will die for Dudus!"

This was the antithesis of the peaceful, prosperous and humble model community that Tivoli Gardens was meant to be. This was the unexpected and unwanted fruit of the seed of hope for an entire community.

Tivoli Gardens was the brainchild of Edward Seaga. He converted 'Back-o-Wall' (a criminal-infested, squatter settlement of cardboard and wooden shacks, with no infrastructure) into Tivoli Gardens - an organised residential community espousing sports, culture and education (circa 1963). Such utopian dreams are doomed to fail horribly unless the stakeholders are empowered, untethered and self-sufficient.

But politicians held sway there until they could no longer afford to nurture and support the dependent/needy masses. Soon, from within the rank and file, there arose a leader who employed 'unorthodox methodologies' to support and control that entire community.


Blind eye


Given the antecedent social programming of our garrison citizens, it took a strong will and strong-arm tactics to manage such a precinct. Although it was common knowledge that ill-gotten gains were being used to finance the Tivoli administration, some weighed the good against the bad while others turned a blind eye to the stronghold that was favoured by so many politicians. The security forces, having been warned off and repelled repeatedly, hibernated in idle mode from a watchful distance and the utility companies labelled it a 'red zone', where fees remained uncollected.

But, as is the case when things run counter to law and order, the 'President' overreached his boundaries, international and local pressures were brought to bear, and the administration was forced to enucleate that nefarious nidus in May 2010.

The defence force and our militarised police force fought their way into Tivoli - homes were damaged, some destroyed, citizens were injured, many were traumatised and dozens of lives were lost. Pictures of dead bodies piled into trucks leaked into cyberspace. Questions about the circumstances of homicides swirl to this day. Were they armed combatants, extrajudicial victims, executed by gunmen or collateral casualties?

I expect that the findings of the West Kingston commission of enquiry will contain many truths, but some falsehoods will remain. In the meantime, we ask ourselves, how we can prevent a recurrence of those horrendous events?

- A country must never ignore any community, no matter how unstructured.

- Politicians must empower constituents and never just support them financially.

- The law of the land must be manifest everywhere; never accede to any local area leader/strongman/don.

- Sustained social programmes are of paramount importance.

- Security forces must entrench themselves deep within the social fabric of poor communities, gain trust and be present outside of conflicts/emergencies.

- If all else fails and there is necessary police/military action, each squad should be accompanied by security force personnel who are trained ethicists.

- All detainees should be immediately transported to a central holding point. Rounding up people in small groups supervised by limited personnel lends itself to potential atrocities.

- Immediately following any action, there should be a specially convened civilian accountability committee to hear and document all occurrences, non-fatal and fatal casualties. The recollections of events are severely warped by external influences and the passage of time.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and