On a beautiful island where tourists flock to enjoy sandy beaches and hear reggae music wafting through airwaves, a huge cloud of smoke could be seen billowing out from one section of Kingston, Jamaica earlier this week.
The smoke, which could be seen from many of the locals’ backyards, told only a small story of the violence that erupted there beginning last Sunday, May 23, when Jamaican soldiers and police launched a bloody offensive on Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens, which has resulted in dozens of deaths.
The bloodshed began after Prime Minister Bruce Golding reversed his position on the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who is wanted in the U.S. on drug and gun charges. For nine months Golding had refused to turn Coke over because, he claimed, the wiretap evidence used in the indictment was illegally obtained.
Golding announced his decision to no longer block the extradition on Monday, May 17. According to the Associated Press, Jamaican police received a warrant for Coke’s arrest on Tuesday, May 18.
Since the prime minister’s announcement, armed thugs loyal to the reputed gangster have been trading bullets with the security forces in that area. Numerous street battles have also rippled across other areas of Kingston, having spread to one neighboring parish.
Golding has imposed a month-long state of emergency in the country’s capital.
“It’s not a good feeling but you have to pray and hope for the best,” said Vinny Rich, the Jamaican-born owner of South Florida’s WICP Gospel FM radio station. “At this point, only prayer can change things in Jamaica and it doesn’t make me feel good at all.”
Since hearing of the attacks, Rich, who is also a minister, has arranged a public prayer vigil and has taken to his station’s airwaves appealing to Jamaican-born city officials, pastors and civilians to attend.
When not on the telephone with relatives and loved ones in their homeland, many Jamaicans in South Florida have been glued to their TV screens for the regular updates from local news channels.
Most of them, though, have had to go online for more up-to-date information, viewing live streaming videos from the Jamaica Live channel on the www.ustream.tv website and getting regular updates from Facebook groups that have been dedicated to posting confirmed, and unconfirmed but corroborated reports from people on the island.
Colleen Clarke, a Jamaican who now lives in Wellington, gets her updates from a friend who has been caught in the middle of the melee since it started. She said the friend, who lives in Tivoli Gardens, has been keeping low in her home to avoid stray bullets while waiting out the violence happening just outside her doors.
“[My friend] Lorna has been telling me that electricity has been going on and off down there… as I was talking to her, there was nothing but the sounds of gunshots in the background. So far they’re fine, but no one is daring to go outside.”
Before the attack, residents from the Tivoli Gardens community and other neighboring slums staged a peaceful march in protest of the arrest warrant that was issued for Coke. Many of his supporters could be seen waving placards stating, “Jesus died for us… we will die for Dudus” and “Leave Dudus alone…he’s next to God.”
The Jamaican security forces reportedly gave those residents a deadline to leave the area, and began attacks when the deadline was not met.
Asked about the current violent situation in her homeland’s capital, Clarke said, “If [Coke] truly cared about the people in West Kingston who marched in protest about his extradition, he would have given up himself a long time ago. People are dying there and he doesn’t care.”
According to The Jamaica Observer, a local newspaper on the island, dozens of injured people have shown up at Kingston Public Hospital with gunshot wounds, increasing the demand for blood.
On an international level, the negative impact on the island has already begun. Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have all issued travel alerts for Jamaica. And though the major violence is limited to just one section of Kingston, tourists have canceled their vacations to other areas of the island, and many airlines have been canceling flights to the capital city.
Dale Holness, vice mayor for the city of Lauderhill, said, “I never thought it would come to this level to be honest. I’m deeply saddened by what is happening there.”
Holness, however, pointed to the deeper issue behind the violence. “[These situations] have been a challenge for the people of Jamaica and for their government, and it has been allowed to fester for too long. The people of Jamaica, the government, the local business entities and even other nations should work together to end ‘garrison’ communities.”
Marlon Hill, chairman of the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board for the Southern United States, held a meeting last Wednesday, May 19, to offer support and discuss ideas among board members.
“The most important role for our network is improving communication and enhancing dialogue about issues that affect Jamaicans here and back home,” Hill said.
In response to the violence, he said, “It breaks my heart. It would sadden anyone to see their country under instability or unrest… A lot of countries go through nuances to get to a better place. This is Jamaica’s moment and Jamaicans need to assert that that’s what we want now — to fight for the greater good.”
Photo: Prime Minister Bruce Golding