Tuesday, 23 February 2010

25th October 1983. Still before midday ...

When this is all over I'll freak out, I tell myself. If I survive. Right now I just need to concentrate on living in the moment and getting through.


We've been smoking since the first wave of helicopter gunships appeared over the hill opposite at 6.30 this morning. But not cigarettes. Spliffs are rolled 'ital' - pure ganja without tobacco - but we're all now feeling the need for an ordinary ciggy and there are none in the house.

So just before midday, when PC ambles up our path oblivious to the gunfire for the second time that day, we hope he'll be able to help. He can - but only up to a point. Yes, he has a friend who owns a shop nearby and would be able to sell us cigarettes. No, he won't get them for us and bring them back. One of us will have to go with him. All eyes turn to me.

Looking back, I wonder about this. Any one of us could have gone with him ... I guess we all have our roles to play and this was mine at the time. It doesn't make me braver - or even more stupid - than the others. It just is what it is.

PC is so chilled and laid back it's impossible to imagine anything terrible happening to him. Or to me while I'm with him. Anyway, I'm acutely aware that every decision - small or large - is potentially one of life and death. I could stay in the house with the others and it could suffer a direct hit at any time. If this were to happen while I'm out with PC, it would save my life. On the other hand, leaving the comparative security of our four walls for the unknowable outside world would seem to hold a greater risk. But not necessarily.

You just can't know the consequences of any action - or inaction - and in the end you have to do what you have to do. We need cigarettes. I'm prepared to go. So I do.

And here's a thing. Most of this day is crystal clear in my head, the memories as fresh - or fresher - than yesterday's. But there are gaps and I think they're significant. For example, I have no recollection of saying goodbye to the others when I left with PC. Did we all hug and kiss, knowing we might never see each other again? Or did I just give a cheery wave and set off with false bravado, refusing to acknowledge the awful possibility? I really can't be sure ...

At first it's OK. I follow PC through the bush though within minutes I'm confused and disorientated with no idea where we are. But there's no close fighting and I don't feel particularly scared. We emerge at his friend's shop and go up the stairs and into his house at the back for a smoke. The guy (whose name I don't recall) tells us he's been on the phone to someone in town who says the PRA are still holding St Georges.

To my disappointment, PC sits down and makes himself comfortable and the two men chat. They're drinking rum and acting like it's just a social call. Now I've got the cigarettes I feel like my mission's accomplished and I just want to get back to my own friends. But my companions are not budging. I sit and twitch for a while until I pluck up courage to tell PC I want to go home and can he please take me? He's in no hurry. With no clear sense of where we are, I can't just leave without him. Besides, I balk at the thought of going through the bush on my own.

He tells me to go downstairs and wait for him outside and, hoping it will increase his sense of urgency, I do as I'm told. But this is not good. I'm alone now, in unfamiliar surroundings and outside. Though there appears to be no fighting in the immediate vicinity, I can hear the sounds of gunfire and the grinding of tanks not that far away. I can't go back in and risk irritating PC. But I can't set off on my own either. I have no choice but to stand and wait. And wait. And wait.

With no means of telling the time, I have no idea how long I stand there alone, my heart pounding as anxiety wells up in my chest. It feels like forever but the rational part of my brain knows it must be far less than it feels. After several lifetimes have been and gone, PC emerges at last and comes down the stairs. Red-eyed and staggering a little, he's chirpy as ever, but I no longer believe he's invulnerable. I'm torn between hugging him in relief or shouting at him in frustration. Neither are really options, so I just follow meekly as he leads me back through the bush.

This time I'm shocked at how close I've been to home all this time. If only I'd known, but since I didn't there would have been every chance that if I'd set off alone I could easily have wandered in the wrong direction and got completely lost.

And, of course, as soon as I arrive bearing nicotine, I'm greeted as the conquering hero by the others, who have been suffering their own versions of the same anxieties all this time. Small triumphs.

Although there's still no close gunfire, we're shaken when fighter jets screech overhead in the direction of St Georges. My diary tells me that at 12.40 we switch off the radio for twenty minutes. I have another memory gap here and can't remember why we do this.

At 1.00pm two helicopter gunships circle low over Mt Parnassus firing down. The house judders again as there's an immediate response from ground fire. In shaky writing my diary records that I think one chopper has been shot down, but as this is directly overhead and we're indoors, I can't be sure.


Excerpt from my diary: Jets and ground fire. Loud explosion - we all think it's the chopper coming down. 1580 still off air - has it gone on longer than expected? Shooting lasts perhaps 5 mins. 1.40 - more firing - not so close. 1.55 - more firing - jets. Vehicles go up our road v fast. Jump jets circling right over. Firing overhead again - for about 10 mins. 2.20 - circling over Queens Park. Groundfire. Overhead again. Heavy artillery fire. Circling Mt Parnassus, Richmond Hill, Queens Park. 2.38 - 2 bombs dropped on Richmond Hill. Force to throw you against wall. Great red flash and debris spraying out then smoke. 2.43 - still firing on Richmond Hill - Forts Matthew, Frederick and Adolphus. 2.46 - 2 more bombs. Walls in my room cracked. Then silence.

I said earlier that some parts of this day I recall with absolute clarity. The last events recorded in that diary entry above fall into that category. Richmond Hill, rising just beyond my bedroom window, has huge strategic importance. As well as the three forts, the prison and the mental hospital - the 'crazy house' - are also lined up along its summit.

L, P and I are sitting on my bed, our eyes fixed on the horror we see unfolding through the window. The others are all sitting on the floor in the hall outside the toilet. They've succumbed to attacks of the giggles - everyone talking about what a good cure for constipation war is, but how none of them dares to go into the toilet.

After the first two close blasts, L panics. He throws himself down to lie prone on the bed with his hands over his head.
'I don't like the bombs. I don't like the bombs,' he moans.

P and I are the only ones still looking through the window, watching with mounting horror as the blasts move along the crest of the hill, each closer to us than the last. I'm alternately scribbling notes and taking photos. When the final bomb throws us away from the wall, I feel as though my heart has stopped. I can still see the vivid flash and the black debris hurl into the air at the point of impact. The image is burned into my retina.

'Oh my god,' I breathe, before raising my camera and taking a couple of quick shots. In the lull that follows, we can hear the sounds of bawling. My mind shuts down to avoid imagining the source of those terrible cries. I'll freak out later, I tell myself. When all this is over. If I get through this time ...


The ghastly almost-silence is shortlived. At 3.06 the choppers start circling again, higher this time, and there's distant shelling. At 3.28, PC comes back yet again. He's been checked by the PRA, who say they are looking for a radio technical operator. He says the US now control Region1, but I'm not sure what that means. He also tells us that either Fort Rupert (where Maurice and the others were murdered - can it be only 6 days ago?) or Butler House (he's not sure which) has been bombed. He's going to hide out in the bush now and may not see us again for some time. While he's there we hear PRA armoured cars grinding up the hill behind the house.

Soon after PC leaves, tensions spill over and there's an argument between B and W.

Excerpt from my diary: 3.50 - 4 jets high circling over NW. 4.39 - rapid gunfire out the back. Tank? Sounds like the armoured cars we saw. Yes it has to be - deep heavy rumbling behind shots. Planes circling still. 4.57 - fighter jet overhead.
5.00 radio 610: 'invading forces have strong advantage. Cuba acknowledges unknown number of casualties ... 2 choppers crashed. Sporadic fighting in St Georges. Fort Frederick and Govt House still being fought over. 3 civilians killed. Thatcher has very considerable doubts about the invasion. HMS Antrim to stay clear of operations.'


At 5.05 the radio goes dead and we realise the current has been switched off.

At 5.25 - PC returns with a dire warning. Don't drink the water! There's a rumour it could be poisoned. Right. So now we have no electricity and no water. We try to assimilate this latest information and the implications. And that's not the only dreadful news. PC also tells us that he's heard that three hundred people died at the fort on the 19th.

The evening continues in the same vein. Sporadic close fighting and then lulls of varying length. With darkness falling and no light apart from candles, no radio or music and no water, we have to decide whether we want to spend the night huddled all together in the dark. Another argument breaks out, this time between P and L, and W and C decide to return to their own home.

To be honest, I don't like this. I preferred it when we were all together. But I can see that the tension is just too great and we can't carry on like this through the night.

L and I go to bed and spend the night making love with a desperate passion and then just lie holding each other. Without saying it aloud, we both know we're thinking the same thing. Could this be the last time? Will we be alive in the morning?

Each of us have different coping mechanisms and mine has been to keep busy busy busy at all times. The enforced inactivity of lying in the dark, never knowing if the next instant could be our last, is harder for me than any part of the day itself had been.

NOTE: APOLOGIES FOR THE POOR REPRODUCTION OF THE IMAGES ON THIS POST. I'VE SPENT TOO LONG TODAY TRYING TO CROP THEM AND HAVE BEEN FORCED TO GIVE UP.