Tuesday, 23 February 2010

25th October 1983. Invasion - the first two hours

It's 5.00 am, just after dawn, when H emerges from her room and draws my attention to the distant buzzing overhead of what we know must be a US reconnaissance plane. Moments later, we're joined by C and W. L, his belly ache forgotten, P and B all converge and we gather together in the one room.

Nothing's happened yet but we know - just know - that's going to change any second now. I slot a blank tape into the machine, load a black and white film into my camera, grab my diary and a pen and switch on the radio.

I have a compulsion to record. To bear witness. Somewhere in my brain I'm thinking that if I die, the tapes ... or the photos ... or the diary ... will survive as a record.

And then it starts. 5.30 am. First the fighter jets, spewing fire as they cross overhead, with the immediate response from batteries of anti-aircraft fire all around us. The windows rattle. The house shakes. We don't know whether to sit, stand, run, huddle ...

The announcers on Radio Free Grenada, a man and a woman, give the news in voices trembling with suppressed panic. They know the radio station will be a prime target.

'Our country is under attack! All Grenadians report to militia bases. All health workers go immediately to the hospital. Foreign troops landed at 5.40. Our troops are engaging them in battle. Grenadians - go out and block the roads to obstruct the enemy's progress!'

(NOTE: My diary says here that radio 610 reports a nuclear-powered ballistic sub has just left Barbados. Did I fiddle with the radio dial? It seems unlikely, but I suppose I must have done.)

A swarm of helicopter gunships swoops low over the hill opposite, almost touching the tops of the palm trees. All around the house there's an instant response from PRA fire. I press my camera to the window and fire off a few shots of my own.

I've seen this movie, I remember thinking. Apocalypse Now. And I know what happens.

There's a feeling of being in the epicentre at the end of the world. This can't be right. The sky should be boiling. The earth should be ripping apart. The sun should explode into a million fragments and cast us into darkness.

But none of this happens. While the jets roar, the bombs drop, the guns spurt, the tanks grind and the chopper blades clatter - the sky is still blue, the sun still shines down regardless and the palm trees still wave - even if the breeze is manmade.

Lines from Bob Marley's Redemption Song run through my head.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Have no fear for atomic energy -

Cause none of them can stop the time.

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?

Some say it's just a part of it

We've got to fulfill de book.


I remember distinctly standing in the middle of the room and making a short speech, shouting to be heard above the tumult.

'Look now. We don't know if we're going to live through this,' I say. 'We could be dead by the end of the day, or in the next hour or the next minute or before I get to the next word. Now is not the time to hang onto your ganja! Break it out, guys!'

And so they do. All the men have sizable stashes and we go about the serious business of getting out of our heads. And it helps, it really does. You can understand why, throughout history, soldiers have turned to drugs to get them through.

W panics for a bit and dives behind the settee, freaking out, but together we calm him somehow. B, who has been so ill and withdrawn these past weeks, is more animated than I've seen him for ages. Adrenalin, I guess.

We have surreal discussions. Is it better to keep the windows open, or shut? We rack our brains to access the common sense response. We know that if we close them, the glass is more likely to shatter. But leaving them open feels more vulnerable, illogical though we know that to be. We go with emotional over rational and decide to close the windows, in spite of the heat. But then a bird, panicky and disorientated, flings itself repeatedly against the glass and we don't dare open them again.

Should we take cover? Where? How? We try crouching down for a bit. I glance up and am impressed to see C sitting, apparently calm and composed, on the settee. (She tells me later that she was paralysed by fear and unable to move.) After a short time our cramped muscles start to protest and we feel silly, so stand up again. But what do you do in this situation?

'We all stay together,' C says. 'In the same room. It's what my mum told me they did during the blitz. If one dies, we all die.'

This seems a good plan and we all agree. Surviving, possibly injured, while those we love lie dead in another room seems a far worse alternative to death.

'US paratroopers are invading Grenada with helicopter gunships,' the radio announcer informs us with barely-contained hysteria.

But Grenada is so small that we see confirmation through our own window, instants before we're given the information over the airwaves and so we know. We know.

And then the broadcaster's voice is replaced by music!

'Let them come. Let them come. We will bury them in the sea.'

The defiant song that epitomised the spirit of the Revo, the words so hollow now. If this invasion had happened just a week earlier, Grenadians really would be out blocking the roads, fighting back with antiquated weapons, laying down their lives for the Revo rather than submit.

But the Revo is already dead. It died on the 19th up at the fort with Maurice.

More panicky radio announcements, this time punctuated by reggae - songs we've heard a thousand times before. Bob Marley's War. Peter Tosh's Peace Treaty.

And - how bizarre is this - standing in the centre of that concrete room, not knowing if we will live or die, time having shrunk to the merest milli-second (we could die now ... or now ... or now) but also high on the spliffs we've been chain-smoking - I find myself skanking to the familiar rhythms.

It's 6.50 am and the close fighting has slackened off a little when I glimpse a mind-bending sight through the window. PC is walking towards our house carrying a pumpkin! I shake my head, but it's not a hallucination. As though protected by an invisible cloak of invulnerability, he saunters up the steps to our balcony and into the house. He's so relaxed and cool (though also very high, I note from his bloodshot eyes) his presence has an instant soothing effect and any vestiges of panic dissipate.

PC tells us he's been through the bush and saw paratroopers dropped by rope from the helicopter gunships onto the Governor General's house at the top of the hill and also onto Richmond Hill, on the other side of the house. He saw equipment dropped too, in massive cylinders. How many different ways there are to kill people.

PC leaves and it's a bit quieter now. We have no idea if this is just a lull and if so, how long it will last. At 7.10 am, inspired by PC's example, I go to the end of the gap to fetch ice from the fridge in C's house. An ambulance screeches past on the road.

The scared voices on RFG keep making the same announcements.

'All health workers and volunteers to the hospital. Paint red marks on your cars.'

We have to do something. We can't just sit and there's only so much time you can spend fiddling with the radio and scribbling notes. So what do we do? We cook porridge and eat it standing, shoveling it into our mouths in haste. You never know when we might next eat, we reason. We have to keep our strength up.

In truth though, it's just for something to do. No one says that it might be our last meal.

Ten minutes later, at 7.45 am, RFG abruptly goes off the air without warning. We hear a disembodied voice with an American accent, seemingly coming from the sky. (Where did that come from? I never did find out ...)

'Tune to 1580 frequency. Please stay inside for your own safety. The American soldiers have taken over.'

In my diary, I write in large capital letters: IT TOOK 2 HOURS!

But of course it was far from over yet.