Remembering the Eventide Home fire victims

Monday, May 21, 2018

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Yesterday marked the 38th anniversary of the Eventide Home fire — a tragedy that not too many Jamaicans easily remember, but one which occurred during the country's darkest days.

Older Jamaicans will recall that more than 153 elderly women were killed in the fire on May 20, 1980, the year when this country was engulfed in a civil war triggered by bitter political rivalry between the governing People's National Party (PNP) and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

More than 800 murders were reported in that year as an election campaign dragged to its climax on October 30, resulting in a massive defeat for Michael Manley's PNP by Edward Seaga's JLP.

Although it was never officially stated, the general view was that the Eventide fire was the work of political thugs.

Indeed, an article on the Jamaica National Heritage Trust website notes that: “There were, in fact, a number of reports to the police from persons living at the home that gunmen had entered the premises more than once, claiming they had come to kill the staff and inmates for reasons connected with their alleged political affiliations.”

The article also said that six months after the fire, gunmen invaded the premises and injured two people. “One of them, Mr Harold Tefler, a meal van driver for the home, was stabbed and then beaten while unloading the meal van. The other victim was a 63-year-old female resident, Miss Vera Wynter, who was sitting on the verandah 'taking in a little fresh air', she said, when the gunmen opened fire on the premises, hitting her several times.”

The horrific deaths resulted in then Prime Minister Michael Manley declaring May 26, 1980 — the day on which the Eventide fire victims were buried in a mass grave inside National Heroes' Park — a day of national mourning.

We are pointing to this sordid event because we hold firmly to the view that our country should never again be dragged into such bitter ideological, political or social conflict that results in the loss of life, particularly those of the more vulnerable.

Thankfully, we are seeing signs of a maturing of our politics, as supporters of both political parties are often seen on nomination and election days having a good time in each others' company.

However, there still remains some element of animus among political rivals which comes out during what is correctly referred to as “the silly season”.

While we expect any campaign for votes to be lively and competitive, we must ensure that we do not erode the gains made over the past few years in significantly decreasing political violence.

Indeed, we should, each year, reflect on the horrible deaths suffered by the Eventide fire victims, using it to guide our moral compass as we continue to strengthen and protect democracy that is extremely vital to the growth of our country.

This newspaper was not in existence at the time of the Eventide Home fire. However, we extend our belated condolence to the relatives and friends of the victims and hope that they have been able to overcome such enormous grief, knowing that time heals all wounds.

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