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A night of unbelievable terror

Friday, May 27, 2011    

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Claudine Clarke, who describes herself as the proud (older) daughter of the late Keith Oxford Clarke, recounts the events of the night of May 27, 2010 when her father was shot dead in his Kirkland Heights home by members of the security forces.

EARLY May 2010, days before what is now referred to as "the West Kingston incursion", I watched intently with the rest of Jamaica as the 'Dudus' saga unfolded.

It was not unlike reading a mystery thriller, with questions swirling in my mind pertaining to potential plot twists. What was going to happen next? What will ultimately happen to the main character? How would the other characters fare out?


I turned to a chapter called "Foolish Sacrifice". I watched women on TV pledging to die for Christopher Coke, constantly pondering if this was reality. Were people really willing to sacrifice themselves to protect one man? I remember hoping it would not come to that.

I read on to a chapter called "The Incursion". Admittedly it was almost a little intriguing. The scene was set for the usual 'good' versus 'evil' war scene. The so-called opponents of the state had previously mounted their pre-emptive strikes by setting symbols like a police station ablaze.

Like many Jamaicans at that point, I figured these persons had laid down the gauntlet for war. Dispassionately my belief was to stop "them" before they could kill "us". I watched the news reports about the actual "mission" by the police force and military. I had numerous BlackBerry conversations about it, spoke with friends and read Facebook postings; the usual reactions that an ordinary Jamaican my age would have.

I put down the book. My father came by my house to visit his granddaughter. He did the usual, made silly noises with her, commented on how big she was getting, spoke about how smart and great this 1-1/2-year-old was, hugged and kissed her. We turned on the news, and like most news broadcasts in that same week, the spotlight was on Coke and Tivoli.

My husband asked him, "Uncle Keith, what do you think about what is happening in Tivoli?" (By this time the battle had started). He responded, "The police and soldiers have to do what they have to do, I just hope they do it with compassion and integrity."

My daughter did something cute, and then all focus was on her again and off the TV. It went back to being a normal night. At the end of it all he hugged and told my daughter bye, I looked up from my computer screen and said casually "Lata, Daddy". My husband and daughter went to let him out. My daughter seemed to have been clued into the fact that this was the last time we would ever see him again; as daddy was driving off, she dragged my husband by the hand and ran to the car shouting "Gramdad, gramdad!".

"Granddad soon come back," my husband said to her as he lifted her up and carried her back into the house and hushed her crying. 'Gramdad' never came back.

I once again picked up my engaging book and flipped the pages to a chapter called "Risk of Collateral Damage". I watched a news report that showed two nurses walking to or from work at KPH. They were holding on to each other for dear life. Panic and fear were stamped on their faces, but courage clear in their eyes. I began to cry. "It is not fair, it is not fair," I remember saying between sobs. I did not know I would be repeating those words until this very day. For the first time it really occurred to me that innocent people could end up dying. This book which started out as a mystery-action-thriller became a tragedy after I saw those nurses; I did not want to read anymore.

Thursday, May 27, 5:00 am I opened my eyes. I found that either the book came to life or I jumped into the book; either way, tragedy was now reality. Violent flashing of a red light on my phone alerted me immediately. It was not unusual for me to receive a message or miss a call in the night, but something urged me to check my phone. I saw several messages. The last was on the top. It was from my sister. It said, "Pray!"

I immediately woke my husband and told him something was wrong. Already in a state of panic, I scrolled down to the other messages and tried calling my sister with another phone at the same time. I saw messages from some of my friends saying, "Pray, that's all I can say." I got no response from my sister. I tried calling my parents... no response... one of them could not respond. Five minutes (which felt like five hours) later, I got my mother. I could hardly recognise her voice. It was hoarse like she had been crying for hours.

"What happen, what is going on?!", I screamed. "Give (my husband) the phone," she responded. "No!" I shouted, "What is going on?! Is everyone OK?"

"Keith," she answered.

"What happen to daddy? Let me speak to him!"

Silence.

"Mommy!" I shouted.

"He is dead," she replied.

My mind, my heart and my life went blank.

I heard voices around me: "Lift her off the ground. Put her to lie down." Whispers and more whispers. I could not make out the voices but some sounded familiar. I heard my husband; he kept calling my name. I opened my eyes and I saw a toilet in front of me. I was carried out of the bathroom. I looked around and saw my closest friends. I realised I was not dreaming. My father was dead. I heard my husband's voice telling someone he was murdered.

A million thoughts came to my mind but I could not speak. Was he held up? Did thieves break into the house? Is mommy okay? Is my sister okay? Who shot him? Why? I began to wail. The next thought I had was to get to my mother and sister. But I could not move. I was being restrained. It is on the news, someone said. The volume went up. "Businessman Keith Clarke was killed by security forces in pursuit of the fugitive Christoper 'Dudus' Coke." I was confused! Killed by whom?! Police? Looking for Dudus?! It made no sense ... it still makes no sense.

Eventually I was allowed to go and see my mother and sister. As I approached Kirkland Close I immediately saw hints of something gone terribly wrong. A crowd was gathered, there was a buzz of persons giving different recounts and accounts of what had happened. I tried to follow the stories but none of them made sense.

The crowds and cameras and media personnel did not matter now. All I wanted was to be with my mother and sister. But 'they' stood in the way. I looked beyond the yellow caution tape and saw 'them' standing erect, guns in hand, staring straight ahead. Every muscle in their bodies stood alert, I knew they were committed to their job of standing guard and not letting anyone in the "unauthorised" zone which started several yards from my father's home.

My brain told me they would not let me through, but my heart told me that surely they would listen to reason. I, an unarmed female, posed no threat to the battalion of soldiers that surrounded my childhood home. I attempted to walk towards them, but a million arms held me back - these were the arms of friends and family. Why wouldn't they let me go? I just wanted to reason with these humans standing guard.

I would soon find out that these tall, erect beings were very far from anything human at that point in time. Eventually I had my moment with them. I begged them, "Please, sirs, my mother and sister need me,. Allow me up."

Response

"Step back!" was the response.

"Sirs, may I speak with your commanding officer? Surely he will at least speak with me."

"Get back!"

A wave rushed up my spine and fear gripped me as I saw him tighten his grip on his firearm.

We waited, and waited, and waited some more. We waited for at least four hours before the tape was pushed further back, and it would take days for them to completely remove it. During that wait I saw and experienced a lot of things. I saw truckloads of soldiers drive by from the home and make their getaway. I will never forget those eyes. It was all that could be seen of these soldiers whose faces were completely covered ... yes, except for the eyes. Those eyes bore no emotions. Those eyes bore no resemblance to those of the two nurses I had seen on TV a few days earlier. I had wondered if they yet understood the gravity or the impact of what they had done.

Eventually I was reunited with my mother and sister after they had been interrogated for hours. The family met immediately off the hill and away from the scene. My mother retold the most horrendous, painful and astonishing horror story I have heard or will ever hear in my life. A story so terrifying and disturbing that only a novel authored by Stephen King could come close. But it was not fiction, it was no book, it was nothing close to a movie, it was not even a nightmare. It was undeniably, incredibly and quite simply my family's immediate reality.

As my mother and sister described what occurred that terrible morning I vicariously experienced the terror. As she spoke, I could feel myself on my knees grabbing and gripping on to a soldier's ankle, "Please, please you have the wrong house! Do you hear me, you have the wrong house!"

As she described the sounds of explosions and rapid high-powered non-stop gunfire, I could see myself grabbing on to a soldier's torso from behind, "Stop, stop, please stop!" As my mother described how she and my sister shouted for help through the windows, I could hear myself shouting, "Please listen, they are crying out to you, please!"

And as my mother called the police and neighbours from her phone for help out of fear of the 'gunmen' outside, I wish I could have told them that it was not heartless gunmen there to steal, rape and murder, but that it was those who were entrusted to protect the innocent, law-abiding people of this nation. I wish I could have assured them that it was Jamaica's men and women in uniform who were there to be their heroes and rescue them. That these protectors of the country and enforcers of the law meant them no harm. But it would have been a lie.

Finally, and more than anything, with all my heart I wish that after they cut through the doors and burglar bars, made their way to my parents' bedroom, barged through the bedroom door, after my mother clearly identified who she was and who lived in the house, I could have screamed, "Daddy, look out! Noooooooooooooooooooooo!" I would have screamed as the 22 bullets pierced the skin on his back and the side of his face and the side of his arm. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22.

Not many people in life have touched near-death experiences. My mother and sister did. I have asked them what went through their minds as they waited for their death. Being Christians, they prayed. They prayed, and prayed and prayed. They prayed on the phone with our pastor and friends. I have no doubt that even in the midst of so much pain and wickedness, God was there. He gave my mother, a stalwart of a Christian, the wisdom, courage and conviction of spirit to face the soldiers head-on as they invaded her bedroom, and clearly articulated who she was and where they were.

I often wonder what my father's last thoughts were. Knowing him, I can make an informed guess of what his first thoughts would have been at the start of the disaster. He would have thought that his home, his castle, his safe haven, was being attacked by "blood-sucking viper criminal elements" as he often called criminals.

His thoughts were centred on protecting his wife and younger daughter. But my speculations concerning his last thoughts pierced me to the core. You see, by the time the soldiers entered my parents' bedroom, for the first time my father, mother and sister would have clearly seen the source of their three or four-hour terror. They would have seen the uniforms.

My father must have thought, as my mother and sister did, that they were safe. He must have breathed a sigh of relief and whispered a prayer thanking God that the terror was over. He no doubt would have been confused why soldiers waged an attack on his home, but the most predominant thought would have been, 'My wife and daughter are safe, they will live, I will live, we will all be OK.'

He would have had only seconds to think all of this, because in a flash those 22 bullets of hate and betrayal pierced his flesh. I can't help but think he died believing that his wife and younger daughter would have died a horrible death too. Oh, how that thought alone would have killed him! I pray that the shots were so fast that he died still believing his loved ones were saved.

That night of terror was so unbelievable. The soldiers were so certain, so sure they had the right house. So sure that they were going to nab the fugitive who held the country ato ransom. As I struggled for it all to make sense and as the rumour mills spun out of control, the left side of my brain forced me to look at the event logically and dispassionately. Was it at all possible that my father had any association whatsoever with Christopher 'Dudus' Coke? After all, I did not have surveillance on daddy; I could not possibly know every single thing he did in life.

It is true that I do not know all he has ever done, but I do know who he was! Keith Clarke was a passionate believer in good governance and order. He was a man of integrity with an almost fanatical respect for the law and good values. As a child I remember being picked up from school and having to drive by a wide cross section of pedestrians. If men were happening to go by with ears pierced, pants at their knees and underpants showing, no shirt on, walking with a bounce to an imaginary rhythm, he would frown, bring the car to a crawl, point his finger towards them and, while shaking his head, would say, "Look at them, ole criminal elements," much to my embarrassment!

He hated criminality and indiscipline more passionately than anyone I knew. He was orderly and strict. He always spoke the Queen's English and made it his point of duty to correct me, and anyone else, if I slipped into mixing patois and English as I frequently did and still do. He was passionate about politics, governance and the moral issues of the day. He would drive, with his radio turned up, listening to the morning and evening radio news shows and argue ardently with his radio when persons were, in his opinion, being "stuuuupid!"

He believed in academic excellence for himself and his family. He himself set a very high bar, having studied at some of the best Jamaican secondary and tertiary institutions and gained first class honours in his first degree and excellence in his second degree. Though he did not pressure us, all his children knew that studying and working hard in school and life was the way to succeed and make a meaningful contribution in society. He stood as such a role model for his children, so much so that all our fields of study aligned with his in Economics and Accounting.

I also knew what he was not. He was not a criminal, nor did he have any association with any criminals. He was not Christopher Coke's father (if he were, then this story would have been different. Christopher Coke, for one, would now be a successful accountant or economist sitting in an office in corporate Jamaica). He was not Mr Coke's accountant or business partner. He has never been involved in any criminal activity. He has no criminal record. He has no associations with the JLP or Tivoli Gardens whatsoever. And, for the record, no member of my family has or ever had any association with Christopher Coke or any criminal whatsoever.

There is a Jamaican saying that goes, "If it nuh go suh, it near go suh!" I have heard many outlandish rumours; let me state categorically, it neither go 'suh', nor near go 'suh!' Words cannot express how I feel when I hear my father's name being slandered. Persons from all corners of society sit at bars, at the hair salons, at the lunch rooms, on their phones or on some social network, irresponsibly discharging bullets of ignorance in the same manner as the trigger-happy soldiers who murdered my father.

However, it is almost understandable that in the deafening silence of the Government and security forces, society feels compelled to fill the void with their erroneous conclusions. (This does not excuse persons for making up and passing on blatant lies just to try to justify the illogical to themselves.)

I had always been a nationalist. I never had a desire to leave Jamaica for any extended period of time, not even to study. My parents raised me to love my country and to seek to contribute to its growth and development. In fact, my family is filled with examples of exemplary Jamaicans who have served this country proudly. What do you do when the country that you love so much betrays you in such a manner? When agents of the state, after murdering your father by shooting him in the back, destroying your family home that your father spent years to build (parts with his own hands), have remained silent... well, at least in the public domain. And after one year, no charges have been laid against the soldiers, no attempt to give an explanation of what happened. No apology, nothing.

How do you face and interact with security forces who cut through the doors and burglar bars, destroyed my childhood memories with their bullets and murdered my father? They were actually cutting and destroying my trust and faith in them and the system that they represent. How can I sing "Justice, truth be ours forever" when my family can get no justice, and the powers that be seek to hide the truth?

So now, what am I left with? I am left with haunting guilt over not being able to protect my father or to spare my mother and sister from experiencing such a traumatic event. I am left with the bitter taste of the feelings of being betrayed by the country that I grew up loving for so many years. My mother is left without a husband; my sister, brothers and I are left without a father; my daughter and nieces without a grandfather; my uncles and aunts left without a brother; my cousins without an uncle; my husband without a father-in-law, many persons without a friend and Jamaica without one of the finest sons of her soil.

But I am also left with my faith in God, left with the love and support of family and friends, and with the hope that justice will prevail and that the truth will set my father's spirit free.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." — Martin Luther King Jr.

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