“I was very resigned to whatever fate the Lord had determined for me. I had already made my peace with my Maker. I had no control over the situation. I couldn’t fight anybody.”
Selby Wilson, finance minister in the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government (1986-1991), was reliving the hellish experience he and six other parliamentarians endured when Jamaat-al-Muslimeen insurgents stormed the Red House on July 27, 1990, and held them hostage for six days during the attempted coup.
“It was no longer how we survived, it was how the Lord would keep us. Relying on the strength of the Lord is what took me through those six days.”
It is 30 years later today and Wilson is 81.
During an interview with the Express yesterday, he relived the ordeal of that fateful day in which a reported 24 people died and several others were injured, some with lasting psychological effects.
“If there was a blackout that night, we would have all been dead. It would have been a bloodbath,” said Wilson.
He said then-prime minister Arthur NR Robinson, also a hostage at the Red House, was allowed by his captors to make telephone contact with the Defence Force on the outside.
Robinson was supposed to negotiate but instead shouted to the army: “Attack with full force!”
Wilson recalled: “The plan was the army would turn off all the lights in the Red House and disorient the insurgents with flares and then attack.
“And that’s when Bilal Abdullah (in charge of the Red House rebels) ordered us to be hog-tied and lie on our stomachs.
“He gave instructions to his men to shoot us once the light goes out. They were already positioned above us with their guns ready to shoot.”
But the lights did not go out.
“It was a hell of an experience,” Wilson said.
There was another terrifying time.
“There was one guy (a Muslimeen) who looked like he was going off, parading with his gun, looking very unstable.
“Bilal asked (government minister) Dr Emanuel Hosein if he could attend to him. And they had to hog-tie him for Dr Hosein to administer an injection to him to keep him cool.
“But if that hadn’t been done he could have started shooting up the place.”
No food or water
Wilson said for most of the six days none of the hostages were given food or water.
“We got a little water coming down to the end.”
They were not allowed to use the washroom either.
“The women relieved themselves in a bucket behind the Speaker’s chair and the men used water tumblers. Some of the men were urinating on themselves.”
He said he did not sleep for the six days either.
Wilson had gone to Parliament as usual after the 4.30 tea break that Friday.
Not long after, the Jamaat gunmen stormed the Red House shooting in the air.
“I spent all of Friday night with a weapon in my back, poking me, with the insurgents telling me what they would do to me,” he said.
“They said if anything went wrong, I would be the first to be shot and thrown through the window of the Parliament.”
Drastic fiscal measures
A lot of national anger was directed at Wilson at the time because of drastic fiscal measures the NAR government was forced to take, including going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and cutting workers’ cost of living allowance (COLA).
The oil boom had ended and the economy was in a crisis.
Wilson came out of the ordeal with an injured ear after he was “slapped around the head”.
Robinson and Diego Martin MP Leo Des Vignes were shot during the Red House attack. Des Vignes died soon after.
Wilson recalled walking past dead bodies after Jamaat leader Yasin Abu Bakr, who had taken over TTT on Maraval Road, and his men surrendered.
“I saw the body of a driver of an MP lying on the steps at the Knox Street entrance and the stench was very high.”
It was after they were taken to the army base at Camp Ogden on Long Circular Road that Wilson broke down.
“Some of the MPs broke down and cried, including myself.”
After spending ten days at a Jamaican resort, he fought the 1991 general election as the NAR candidate in his hometown of Point Fortin.
He was unsuccessful.
Wilson again contested the 2007 general election for the Congress of the People (COP) and lost. He has been out of politics since.
Riling up the population
Asked if he felt any political party was linked to the attempted coup, Wilson said the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) and United National Congress (UNC) were certainly riling up the population.
“They were describing Robinson (who was from Tobago) as evil and wicked and not liking Trinidadians.
“Then, you had the Summit of the Peoples Organisation marching with the Jamaat.”
Wilson, a father and grandfather, said after three decades, “the coup is totally out of my mind.
“I have put the coup behind me. I don’t think I’ve suffered any long-lasting effects.
“It was a terrible experience but I was fortunate that I didn’t suffer any mental disability.”
Wilson said he still enjoys playing golf and works with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, a Caricom organisation.
He testified at the 2010 commission of enquiry into the 1990 coup attempt, established by the former People’s Partnership government.
But he remains disappointed that the recommendations of the commission have not been implemented by any government.
The commission’s report was laid in Parliament in 2014.
He said there were recommendations on how to treat with victims and the relatives of those who died.
Commenting on President Paula Mae Weekes’s call last week for Bakr to apologise to the nation, Wilson said justice is what is needed.