Out of the corner of my vision, I notice the faded maroon Camry with bits of rust and sanded unpainted gray patches suddenly pulling off the main street to park at the curb just in front of me. In the glare of the early afternoon, I am holding my young son by his right hand and we are walking on the pavement towards the private customers’ car park, along Independence Avenue, in San Fernando.
Not yet four, Zubin is again absent from school, being sick with another severe round of influenza, in the endless battle of ceaseless childhood illnesses that seemed to torment us each month with our migration from Barbados to Trinidad. On our way from the doctors, with us trying hard to entice our feverish son to think of food, he eventually agrees to Chinese so we stop at a favourite eating place amidst the hilly contours of the busy main southern city.
My husband, Tony, is merely a few yards away, oblivious, waiting within the Pagoda restaurant to pay our bill for a delicious meal, having urged me to go ahead and switch on the air conditioning in the hot vehicle to help keep Zubin’s temperature down during the far drive home. It is after the lunch rush and the short stretch of pavement is empty in the lull. I am aware no one is behind me but ever conscious of traffic speeding past on the road I keep my son on the inside. Growing up in southern Georgetown and having to often tread through tough areas like the many adjoining hazardous streets of notorious Albouystown as a child and teenager, have left me with a natural nose for peril and a wary sense of preservation.
A thin man with narrowed slits for eyes and a long, ugly scar on his pockmarked cheek leans far out of the front left window and loudly summons me to stop, roughly demanding directions to the post office. I realise the Camry is still running when we come abreast and he starts to open the door, then turns to the driver briefly and plants a foot out. Sensing danger, I consider turning round but I am more than halfway, and that would mean our backs would be to them. Instead I hurry up, studying him carefully while coaxing and worriedly pulling my son. I shout an aggressive reply “Don’t know!” trying and failing to attract attention. A stream of vile obscenities flows from the enquirer.
He is out of the Camry now, lurking tall and hurling vicious abuse about my far too obvious Eastern ethnicity and not so obvious dead mother’s body parts. Nearby, the fat, unarmed watchman is looking at us curiously, but remains sitting and says nothing as I make a split-second decision to bend down, grab my child and run, finally stumbling past the little guard hut towards our white Vitara visibly parked in the back, keys in my shaking hand.
“Yuh *#&! Yuh think I want to kidnap yuh $^*#&!” Scarface screams enraged sending out a collection of crude curses and coarse condemnations. I am panting as I shove my baffled son into our vehicle and lock the doors, relieved that we are safe. Desperately trying to think of what else besides the keys I could use as a potential weapon, I anxiously watch until the angry man slips back into the Camry and the pair speeds off. In those days there are no cellphones to record anything, yet his frightening face, threatening tone and that close encounter have stayed with me for years haunting my fears and dreams. By the time Tony casually emerges, I am trying to keep back the tears and our normally loquacious son is sitting too quietly in the backseat.
We would leave the twin islands soon after. There were a reported 29 ransom kidnappings that year of 2002, under ten noted in 2001and 51 by the conclusion of 2003 when we eventually fled. By year-end 2005 the tally had reached 58 and come 2007, it would rise to 155 as against 385 murders sending Trinidad and Tobago further into the top ten record books. The following year, abductions would decline officially to 11, but killings would soar to a record 550 in 2008 and drop slightly to 509 in 2009, according to TTCrime.com.
By the start of 2017 an average of 415 victims would die annually over seven years with the murder rate shooting back up to 463 by the end of 2016 even as the yearly number of acknowledged kidnappings remained in single figures. On Halloween this week, the bodies continued to pile up like in the worst horror house movies, with alarming ghoulish regularity. Given the upcoming Christmas holidays and a whole two months to go, and the count of over 400, it seems the amount may exceed last year’s in a small country with a population of under 1.4M.
A study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) based on a survey of 3,000 crime victims in The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and Suriname identified these countries’ violent crime rates as “among the highest in the world.” “Nearly one in three said they had lost someone to violence. Guns are used about twice as often in robbery and three times as often in assault in the Caribbean as compared with the global average,” the report revealed. Almost half of all crimes go unreported to the police.
Seven incidents of kidnapping were registered so far for 2017 by TTCrime.com, including that of San Fernando businessman Gregory Laing, owner of the popular Puff and Stuff bakery, released after payment of substantial cash. Concluding that the latest August kidnapping for ransom of two teenaged cousins was fake, the TT police in September charged five including a minor.
Maybe it was in the spirit of the trick and treat season that the unemployed Trinidadian “reliability” engineer, 33-year-old Sawak Maraj who travelled to Guyana, last Friday morning on a Caribbean Airlines Flight, ostensibly for a job interview with oil giant Exxon Mobil, obviously got carried away by his grand plans and miscalculated on the payout. Allegedly staging his own ill-advised comic abduction with “captors” quickly demanding US$700,000 in ransom from his traumatised family, Maraj wrongly thought he would star in a Thriller and be better able to get away with clumsy dance moves around the clueless authorities in Georgetown than in Port of Spain.
He is a qualified mechanical engineer having indeed graduated in 2013 from Wollongong University in New South Wales, Australia, and claims to hold an earlier degree in biomedical/medical engineering from the American University of Alabama, in Birmingham. A project engineer with the Venezuelan firm Petroleos de Venezuela, South America (PDVSA) from January 2014-2017, Maraj is said to have worked on the Plataforma Deltana programme to help develop the rich gas field in Venezuelan coastal waters adjacent to the country’s maritime border with Trinidad. This project comprising offshore facilities in varying stages of production, drilling and completion, “was in disarray” when he joined, Maraj stated in an online post.
Yet one would have to be as blind as a sonar-less bat not to notice a loafing Maraj shows nary a sign of distress or restraints while staring ever so calmly straight at the camera, his hands resting freely on his legs in the WhatsApp photo sent to frighten his relatives at their residence in exclusive Sandyways, Fairways, Maraval. Hardly a death-trap image, it could have been taken anywhere judging from his deadpan expression and sinister undressed state, was it not for the extended dark-skinned arm posing with the new cutlass perfectly poised to his neck. Startlingly small socked feet are shockingly visible, Maraj’s chilling shoes planted neatly to the side, flabby arms plainly disproportionate to his immense pot-belly dastardly hanging above too tight boxers, an intimidating photograph guaranteed to fluster the most hardened beer drinker and hedonistic heathen.
Alerted by Maraj’s terrified kin, Guyana’s lawmen should be commended for being able to solve the puzzling case within hours. Tracking the ransom phone call, studying surveillance tapes and identifying the mini-bus driver who transported Maraj and accomplices to the restful Madewini Gardens Resort likely rated by the trio as the perfect ghost town, not far from the international airport, the black cat was out of the bag when the cops found the mastermind inexplicably “relaxing and sipping on beverages.” In his mugshot, Maraj finally appears fearful and with free accommodation at Lot 12 Camp Street he will be no doubt scared stiff at not keeping his head when his career canned and wickedly prepared plans lacking originality, to hastily supplement his bank account and lifestyle, suffered a similar fate.
Maraj is charged for giving false information and conspiracy to commit a felony. On Tuesday, even as his lawyer argued that Maraj is a real victim twice over, the engineer was remanded to spend witching hour not cold canned with choice liquid refreshments such as Bloody Mary, Witch’s Hat Punch, Poison Apple Cocktails, and Smokin’ Skulls Shot at the hotel’s bar, but behind solid steel as a restless night owl in the hot hellhole of the high-security rebuilt prison exorcising the demons until November 16 next, after being deemed a flight risk and denied bail. Two other “Trickydadians” Maraj’s friends 40-year-old Anil Antonio Mahabir and 42-year-old Vejhy Ramdass, believed to have helped him execute the crime, remain on the run and have been blacklisted at Timehri and Piarco airports.
While there are unconfirmed media stories of Maraj having being “snatched” twice before in Trinidad and the United States, the skeletons are tumbling out of the closet and this third grave deed has indeed come back to haunt him, and the vaporised Ramdass and Mahabir. The latter’s birthdate? All Fools’ Day, April 1, 1977.
ID’s blood is boiling as she wonders what possessed this trio of Trini professionals to avoid sauntering along a certain street in San Fernando.