SAVANNA-LA-MAR, Westmoreland — Complaints have surfaced that soldiers operating within the zone of special operations (ZOSO) in Savanna-la-Mar South are being heavy-handed when they engage with residents of Coke Street.
A ZOSO was declared by Prime Minister Andrew Holness on January 16 for the areas of Russia, Dalling Street and Dexter Street following ongoing flare-ups of violence. The move was eagerly welcomed by many in the parish who hoped it would be a fix, even if only temporarily, for the murders that were rocking the parish with frightening regularity. Just a little more than a week later, though, the complaints have begun.
President of the Coke Street Citizens Association, Bishop O'Neil Russell, said residents have complained of being physically and verbally abused by soldiers.
"You cannot be a big man who a father dem pickney — and them can't lick dem pickney because di Government seh you nuh fi lick dem — but little young soldiers a beat you up. It cannot work, it cannot work," said Russell, who is known for his efforts as a mediator and peacemaker.
One resident of Coke Street who operates a business in the area said the sight of soldiers approaching now makes many people nervous. He made it clear that while he does not have a problem with the soldiers working in the community, his issue is with how residents are being treated.
"To how dem a operate, you only waan si di rocky van a come. You nuh waan run you know, but based pon how dem a operate, you have fi… run go inna you yard. Because a by force dem a duh things. We nuh believe seh dem ting deh right," said the middle-aged man who chose not to give his name.
Russell noted that while he has encouraged the young people in the area not to run when the soldiers approach, he understands why they do. He said he knew of one incident where a soldier slapped a young man in the face. The churchman said the incident happened near his home.
"When mi come out of mi yard, him [soldier] pretend like nothing nuh happen. Those are the things [that create a problem] and it has to stop," he urged, adding that other men from the neighbourhood have told him that they have been tasered.
One resident told the Observer that soldiers beat him on January 21 after they searched his phone and saw a text he had sent. The message, he said, was sent to his cousin. He told him there were soldiers in the area and he should stay inside his house.
He said the soldiers took him from his house, tied his hands and beat him with their hands and guns while calling him names. The man said he was taken on a five-minute walk to the security forces checkpoint. They then took him into nearby bushes and continued the assault while asking him to take them to the individual he had been texting, he said. He added that the beating stopped after another soldier intervened.
The man said he followed the soldiers' instructions and took them to his cousin's house. He said his cousin was beaten by the soldiers who smashed his phone after checking his messages. The beating stopped when they called out for help to his sister who was inside the house, the man said.
He told the Observer that he and his cousin were then taken for processing at the Savanna-la-Mar police station. They were reportedly released without being charged.
The man claimed that because of the beating received at the hands of a set of abusive soldiers who patrol without the police, he had to seek medical attention on January 22 and again on January 25.
Russell is concerned about the impact these alleged incidents are having on youngsters in the community.
"It is hard for the young people to be able to stand as a group and have a friendly discussion," he complained. "They need protection from the gunmen and then, from the soldiers, especially. It is sad and something must be done."
He said he has raised the issue with Senior Superintendent of Police in charge of Westmoreland, Robert Gordon. Efforts to reach SSP Gordon were unsuccessful as his phone rang without an answer on Tuesday.
A meeting was reportedly held with representatives from the Jamaica Defence Force after the matter was brought to the attention of Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The issue, it is said, was raised on Tuesday by National Security Minister, Dr Horace Chang, and Member of Parliament for Westmoreland Central, George Wright.
Custos of Westmoreland Reverend Hartley Perrin told the Observer that he is aware of the allegations and he is optimistic that the issue will be addressed.
"The powers that be, having heard of the situation, have pledged their willingness to address it. The prime minister, in the meeting, made it very clear that he doesn't want to hear anything of that sort because that is not what the ZOSO is about. [It is not about] abusing people and their human rights,” said Perrin.