Almost 40 years after the Rupununi uprising, the bloody insurrection in which six people were killed when armed ranchers overran Lethem, Steve Sagar can still remember the heat of the sun on his face as he lay on the road, uncertain whether the men pointing shotguns at him would shoot.
He is now in his late 70s. He was the assistant District Commissioner of Rupununi District at the time. He doesn’t remember all the names. He doesn’t know what happened to everybody afterward. But Sagar does remember the small details leading up to the attack and then the sound of the police station being fired upon by a bazooka. The Lethem Police Station was destroyed and five policemen were killed by the rebels, who were armed with bazookas, automatic rifles and shotguns. Policemen and soldiers eventually forced the rebels to flee across the Takutu River into Brazil.
In his first public interview on the ‘uprising,’ Sagar was still very emotional as he spoke with Stabroek News about his ordeal as one of 40 people who were taken hostage for just over 24 hours.
It started on a Thursday. It was January 2, 1969, the first working day of the new year and he and cashier Dennis Rodrigues had just completed balancing the cash books, which the survey board had to review before any business could be transacted. Before the board members checked the sub-treasury books, Sagar took them across to the nearby ‘trade store’ to buy the District Commissioner (DC) Motilall Persaud enough time to verify the cashbook. The trade store came under the administration of the DC. The board comprised the agricultural officer Harold Ragnauth and the officer-in-charge, Police Inspector Braithwaite.
It was about quarter past nine when they were done and Braithwaite stayed behind in Sagar’s office. “He told me that he wanted to see the District Commissioner. He asked me if I heard about any unrest in the place. I said ‘no’ I heard nothing.” A gang of mostly young, unemployed Amerindian men had shot at the police station. They were deemed to be drunk at the time and Braithwaite ruled out any political motive.
While they talked Valerie Hart, one of ring leaders of the uprising, turned up and went to Persaud. Her husband, the owner of the ranch Good Hope at Pirara, was also believed to have been involved in the plot. The Roman Catholic priest in the area Fr Keane also arrived to see Persaud and after Hart left he went to him. Braithwaite continued to wait. It was then that a bomb exploded on the western side of the building.
“Braithwaite turned to me and said the police station is under siege again,” Sagar said. “[He] and I got up and went around to the western door of the building to look down the road. There in the middle of the road was a mini-mook with a machine gun on the bonnet. Someone was alongside it. While debating whether it was another attack on the police station, a big explosion went off. Later we learnt it was a bazooka. It may have hit the gas tank of the police station. We turned to come in back into the office.”
There, they saw two men armed with rifles coming through the eastern door. “Nobody moved. Everybody put up their hands. One was Neville Junor and the other, Kenneth Melville.” There were several people in the office: “…‘Old’ Junor; Fr Keane had come out and was sitting down near to ‘Old’ Junor; Barry, the customs officer; another clerk who used to make up the pay sheet for the public works people; Jackson, who was the messenger; and Stanley D’Aguiar, whose daughter was working at the trade store at the time.
D’Aguiar’s daughter is the only other survivor held hostage, who I know; Victor [Hernandes], who was a political assistant to the PNC. There was one other person but I can’t remember who he was. I believe it was Nandlall.”
Junor jumped over the counter into the office. He asked for Persaud and fired three shots in the direction of his office. The shots went through the door. Before he got to Persaud’s office he walked by the office of the secretary, who was his (Junor’s) wife. “Junor went into her office and started to hit and verbally abuse her before pulling her out through the western door–the same one that we were looking through earlier,” Sagar said. “We learnt that as soon after Fr Keane had come out and the second bomb went off, the DC left his office through an exit at the back of his office and went across to his house, which was next door. His wife was there. She was very pregnant. She got the baby the next day.”
When Neville Junor left, Kenneth Melville jumped into the office and landed next to Braithwaite who disarmed him. Sagar said, “When that happened, Hernandes, Barry, Nandlall and Rodrigues ran down to the [Persaud’s] office to exit the building. Braithwaite turned to me and said ‘Sagar, what are we going to do.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what we gun do.’”
Sagar eventually suggested that Braithwaite use the radio phone in Persaud’s office to alert Georgetown and get instructions as to how to proceed. When Braithwaite started walking towards the office, however, Melville ran out on the road shouting, “A man in there is armed!” Then the shooting started. They were shooting at Hernandes and the three other men–Rodrigues, Barry and Nandlall. “They were shooting at them. In the shooting… If I tell you what I did… I would be ashamed to tell you… Anyway, I ducked in a corner in one of the rooms on the western side of the building and eventually when I looked through one of the windows, there was a man with a rifle coming straight at me. I looked somewhere to hide but I couldn’t find anywhere to hide. I just went back into my office and sat down. I said that if anything is going to happen, they will find me here. I could not lock the door. It was glass-panelled office.”
Hernandes tried to scale the fence to get to the DC’s house but was shot five times and killed. Braithwaite was also shot dead. Rodrigues and two boys were trying to make it to Persaud’s house and he was shot on one of his calves. The two boys returned him to the office. Meanwhile, Jackson, the messenger vanished.
Sagar said there were some cooking utensils stacked on some shelves in a room and Jackson hid on one of the shelves and stayed there for about a day and a half. “He couldn’t come down because the rebels, quite a lot, were patrolling all around all the time.”
Ian Melville, who he called an important leader of the plot, turned up after the shooting abated and ordered those remaining in the building out on the road. They included Fr Keane, Junor, Stanley D’Aguiar and Sagar. Melville told D’Aguiar to get the girls–including D’Aguiar’s daughter, a Zammitt, and a Brazilian girl from the trade store–and take them home. Fr Keane asked whether he had to go too and Melville told him he had to line up with the rest of the prisoners on the road. “Ian Melville told ‘Old’ Junor, who was about 60, to go home and he promptly went home and got drunk. He was not known to be politically affiliated but after he took up his drinks, he went round the place talking about how things changing and we (referring to the rebels) taking over the place now,” Sagar said.
Sagar and Fr Keane joined the crowd on the road. Among them were the manager of the trade store and two or three policemen. The policemen were in a state of shock. Bombs had been detonating around them, while their colleagues had been shot dead. The body of a sergeant was pelted out of the station, while a man who was set on fire ran around before jumping into a barrel of water to douse himself.
On the road, they were made to stand up with their hands in the air then later to lie on their backs. “There we were, watching, the mid-morning sun in our faces. We could not lie down properly because it was a brick road. Ian Melville went into the DC office and saw that Braithwaite was shot dead. When he came out he told Fr Keane to leave. He left. In the meantime, Rodrigues returned with his calf bleeding. We were all lined up on the road as hostages/prisoners about 15 of us. There were a few Amerindians who were not with them. We asked if Rodrigues could go to the hospital and they refused.”
Eventually Melville asked them to empty their pockets to get keys to two new trucks the district received to complete construction of the road to Karasabai. Sagar was taken back to the office where he showed him the keys. “When I went in I saw Inspector Braithwaite. He had crawled from the DC’s office through the passageway right up to where we were when the first two men entered. He died there. I did not know he was shot then. They would have shot him from the outside having seen him on the radio phone calling Georgetown,” he said, barely audible.
Asked how he felt at the time, Sagar responded, “Numb.” He rejoined the prisoner line and after a while, the guards told them to turn on their stomachs, forcing their faces into the prickly bricks. “You couldn’t lift your head up. They were poking us with their rifle and telling us to ‘put you heads down’.” When the group grew to about 20 prisoners, they transported them to the abattoir.
In real life
At the abattoir they found another set of hostages including Persaud, Johnson the power plant manager and his wife, three other women including Braithwaite’s wife and a visiting member of the Roman Catholic Church, who was doing some voluntary work with the young people. They arrived at the abattoir about three o’clock in the afternoon, with no food and no water. The place offered no respite from the blistering heat because they never kept the abattoir functioning. There numbered forty. “We spent the night at the abattoir with five young Amerindian men guarding us with rifles. About midnight the rifles were replaced with shotguns. We did not dare to sleep,” he said.
Around two in the morning all the lights went out because Johnson and his wife were locked up. During the night they looked around the abattoir and Johnson found a knife. “They asked me what to do. Three policemen, who were not willing to do anything risky, were there. I saw no reason why we should go and fight five guns. I told them not to do anything because all of us would get shoot up. We had no back up to the one knife so it made no sense trying to overpower the guards. This was no movie. This was real life.” Persaud was in no condition to give advice as his wife was in the hospital where the gunmen had moved her to give birth.
Morning came and they became agitated for food and water and to use the toilet. They eventually persuaded the guards to allow them to use the washroom at a nearby mechanic shop and later they got food from an Englishman who lived next door with a Brazilian woman. He also had a wild pig that drank beers. “He brought across sardines, corned beef and aerated drinks and we had that for lunch. We were locked up and we did not know what was going on elsewhere.”
After they ate, Kenneth Melville came with another rebel armed with a shotgun. Melville had a rifle and a grenade attached to his shirt. He was restless and paraded up and down. The Roman Catholic woman spoke with him at length and dissuaded him from setting off the grenade. “They started to speak and he definitely did not want to do what he had come to do. We learnt that he had come to discharge the grenade because they weren’t getting the response they wanted from the government. They had expected surrender. We were hostages and they were using us as a bargaining block,” Sagar explained.
He said they later found out that while Melville was talking to the woman, members of the Guyana Defence Force had landed at Manari ranch owned by a woman named Orella and they were on their way to Lethem. (There are conflicting stories about Orella’s role. It was said that she had informed then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham about the plans but he ignored them. Her son, who was at the ranch at the time, did not take part in the uprising.)
Melville was still unsure about the grenade and the place was beginning to get dark. His accomplice saw the troops coming and he left quietly. Melville only realized what happened when noticed the rebels who were guarding the prisoners were gone. Sensing something was wrong he quickly made for the border.
Sagar recalled the mood: “This was the evening of January 3. We were left in limbo. We did not know what was going on or what was coming down. We weren’t seeing any of the rebels anymore. They had all gone away… We were hungry. Then the soldiers started to appear one by one. Some of the people wanted to run out. I told them not to do so. They might mistake them for enemies.”
The soldiers kept them at the abattoir until the police came. He later found out that the rebels looted the daily cash section of the sub-treasury but they did not manage to break the lock on the safe. Sagar, who had the keys to the lock, had earlier taken the chance of throwing them away when the guards were not looking. The trade store was looted but the rebels did not get the shotguns and ammunition that were stored there.
Sagar believes the Amerindians joined the uprising because they were being abused by the police, while the Melvilles and Harts wanted a better deal from the government. They did not like the PNC government since as ranchers they had no lease to the lands under their control.
Asked whether he knew if any of the rebel leaders were still alive, he said: “Ms La Rose, forty years later, how would I know where they are. They would probably be in Brazil if they are alive. I don’t think they would want to come back. They don’t know what fate would befall them even though I don’t think there are any charges against them anymore.”