Jamaica: "Jamaica looks to its children to end the days of killing"


October 31, 2003, 01:47 AM
from the Observer (don't know from where) via the Taipai Times

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/edit/archives/2003/10/31/2003074067Jamaica looks to its children to end the days of killing

By Mary Riddell
Friday, Oct 31, 2003,Page 9

The Canterbury killings shook even Jamaica, a country steeped in violent death. The first bullet was fired at dawn on a Wednesday morning, when police approached the inner-city ghetto, planning to pick up guns, drugs and wanted men. Ambushed by gunmen positioned on the hillside, they pressed on through fire from M16 and AK47 assault rifles. By the afternoon, three policemen were injured, and three other men lay dead. One was later named as Ronald Young. The others were identified only by their noms de guerre, Che and Mad Dog.

In Chaucerian fashion, Canterbury supplied assorted tales. To sceptics, it offered further proof that the police are merely gunmen in uniform. For Susan Goffe, head of Jamaicans For Justice, the lack of indiscriminate shooting was tentative evidence that officers had learnt respect for ordinary citizens' lives. But the fallout spread further than the watchdogs of human rights.

The squatters' suburb of Canterbury lies close to the center of Montego Bay, Jamaica's tourist center. The holidaymakers ferried from the airport to their resort hotels would have known nothing of the shoot-out. Seven kilometers separate hibiscus-fringed beaches and the blood and dust of Canterbury, but they might as well be in different universes. The frontier of paradise had not been breached, but suddenly it seemed more vulnerable.

Canterbury needs the tourists it never sees. If poverty and its offshoot of violence are to be reduced, then more holidaymakers must be attracted. Jamaica needs their money to help it stop producing desperate people for whom the gun offers answers to all the questions life throws up. Canterbury was a warning, delivered as the focus on Jamaica intensifies.

A Scotland Yard inquiry commissioned by the island's authorities will deliver its report soon on the deaths of two men and two women, in May this year, at the hands of the police. An eight-year-old girl hiding under a bed in a house at Crawle in Clarendon was ordered from the room before her mother and the three other victims were gunned down.

Since then, the country's crime management unit has been disbanded. Superintendent Reneto Adams, the black-clad, quasi-mythical king of law enforcement, is away from the front line, pending the Met's verdict. A UN report last week condemned Jamaica's record on human rights and extra-judicial killings by the police. An average of 140 people have been shot dead every year of the past decade in a country of 2.6 million, according to Amnesty, whose international initiative, Control Arms, was launched earlier this month. International scrutiny on Jamaica is now intense and campaigners hope the will for change may at last begin to remove the triple blight of guns, drugs and corruption. But where to start?

Runaway Bay All Ages School is an unlikely forum for change. Its low-rise, dun-colored classrooms were built in 1954 and extended to accommodate 600 pupils aged between six and 15. The old part of the school is divided into three classes, of up to 50 pupils each, separated only by blackboards. A mission statement painted at the entrance reads: "To foster great changes that will create an environment of tolerance, peace and love at the school and in the community." It is not an easy target.

Many of the pupils at this quiet, rural school, not far from the glamorous beaches on the north coast of Jamaica, come from a squatter settlement similar to Canterbury. Some arrive hungry, some with cuts inflicted by belt-wielding fathers.

In a small office decorated with AIDS posters and a text from the Book of Proverbs, Beverley Gordon works on pastoral care. Runaway Bay operates Pals (Peace and Love in Schools), a national charity. Gordon has been successful at rooting out pencil stabbings, a common crime in Jamaican playgrounds, and in teaching boys about conflict resolution. As we tour the classrooms, she asks pupils whether they are now on speaking terms with adversaries, and they all say: "Yes, Miss."

There is no hint of the rude boy image of the disenfranchised urban male, or the bad man protecting his political turf. Nor is there a hint of the dance hall image and the bling-bling culture of materialism. But the neat school uniform, beige for boys, blue for girls, is sometimes camouflage for a less tidy life of child violence. For some pupils, this is City of God in navy gymslips.

In the front row of a remedial reading class, 14-year-old Bobby watches idly as a teacher chalks up polysyllabic words on the blackboard and spells them aloud. Emancipation, she writes. It is not a word with which Bobby is familiar. A year ago, his older brother, Peter, then 15, was taken to the principal's office, with a home-made gun he had tried to hide in a lavatory cistern.

Peter said he had saved all his money to buy the gun to kill his father. He had watched him beat up his mother and, although she never complained, he had vowed to protect her and his siblings. The gun was at school because he wanted to show it to his friend before he committed murder.

Peter's case is now winding through the courts and Bobby and his younger sister, Sandra, are making desultory progress. As far as Gordon knows, their mother is still beaten daily.

"Children grow up in one-room houses, watching adults fight or having sex. We have a high rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea, although we educate children in the realities. I do not know whether any of our pupils are HIV-positive, though it is possible, because such things are never spoken of in our culture," Gordan said.

Gordon, young and inspirational, hopes she has made progress.

"But sometimes I feel I am only scratching the surface," she said.

In the capital, Kingston, where the murder rate is the third-highest in the world, reshaping society through its children is a greater struggle. In the shantytown of Majesty Gardens, families, mostly fatherless, live in corrugated iron shacks sagging on sewage-flooded tundra by the sea. Here, the impresario of salvation is Pastor David Chang, a convicted murderer. In 1990 Chang, then 22 and the local gang leader, attempted to rob an 80-year-old householder and, finding he had no money, shot him dead.

"I had never killed before, but I felt nothing," he said. "There was no remorse."

Chang served eight years of a 10-year sentence before emerging a born-again Christian, determined to save the people he once terrorized.

Today Chang is a respected charismatic preacher, eager to show off a peaceful slum, free of guns and violence. His superiors are more cautious. The dons are still operating in Majesty Bay, a community loyal to the government. But the state gives no help to mothers, while the local warlord offers the cash needed daily for school lunch money, plus a fee for books and uniforms. When collusion in crime is the price of education, the innocent have little option but to pay.

In Trenchtown, street boys are learning to read in a run-down classroom. Again, there is no public money available from P. J. Patterson's government. Action relies on local volunteers, often linked to the churches. A trickle of foreign visitors' donations is sometimes the only bulwark against the cruelty of a ghetto.

Joel Fox, a Kingston boy, barely outlived his schooldays. He was 18 when the police arrested him as he fixed his bicycle and took him to the station in handcuffs. Four hours later, he was delivered to a local hospital, wearing no handcuffs and with a bullet hole in his chest.

When his father, Barrington, was shown his son's corpse, he noted the scorch mark, indicating the gun had been fired at point-blank range.

"It happened three years ago, and it is as if it was yesterday," he said. "These things do not go away from you. They are not stopping crime. They are just making enemies."

Barrington Fox founded a group called Families Against Terrorism with Yvonne Sobers, who also lost a relative. Sobers is visiting London, where she has met government officials and Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles, head of Scotland Yard's Operation Trident, and Lucy Cope, of Mothers Against Guns.

Jamaican mothers are no more partial than British ones to seeing their children slaughtered. This, and the recent outbreak of UK gun deaths, has increased the closeness of police and politicians and reinforced the idea that bilateral assistance, as opposed to a wholesale neocolonial export of a justice system, may offer some way forward. David Belgrave, of the Foreign Office, argues that "Jamaica's problems impact directly on the UK."

Real change will demand a top-down approach, in which the warlords of Canterbury and other ghettos lose their status, their money and their guns.

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