Jamica: Poor prospect for ballots as bullets fly in Marley's yard

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The Independent Online
Trench Town, the Kingston neighbourhood where Bob Marley grew up, was immortalised in several of his songs. But in those days it was a sleepy suburb. Now, it is a battlefield, barricaded, run by heavily armed warlords, patrolled by army tanks and a no-go area to outsiders. On the eve of Jamaica's general election, our correspondent got in for a rare look.

"Oh, I remember when we used to sit in the tenement yard down in Trench Town." It is probably Bob Marley's most famous opening line, starting the song "No Woman, No Cry". In some versions, Marley changed it to "the government yard", since the tenement blocks in this Kingston neighbourhood were low-income housing built by the state.

Marley spent some of his early years here, learning the guitar, learning how to roll marijuana spliffs and "observing the hypocrites" from the steps of his house on Upper First Street. Those were peaceful days in Trench Town, but not any more. The neighbourhood is a war zone, the Marley house and most others pock-marked by bullets.

Only a few hundred yards from downtown Kingston and passing tourists, the area has become legendary not because of Marley but because of the turf wars between armed locals, sometimes political, sometimes involving drugs, sometimes for the lack of anything better to do.

Scores of people have been killed in Trench Town and hundreds wounded since the violence erupted in the early eighties and got out of hand within the past three years. The shots that ring out nightly, and often during the day, are not pistol shots. They are bursts of automatic-rifle fire, often accompanied by bomb blasts. Locals say the violence began around 1980, after Edward Seaga, of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was elected prime minister.

Mr Seaga's predecessor, Michael Manley, of the People's National Party (PNP), was defeated after upsetting the US by initiating socialist reforms and moving closer to socialist countries, including Cuba.

Mr Seaga is running again in today's general election against the incumbent Prime Minister, Percival J Patterson, of the PNP, in a vote to replace the 60-member parliament.

Fearing election-day violence, edgy troops stepped up patrols through Trench Town, rumbling through barricaded streets in tanks, armoured cars and jeeps.

"When Seaga take over, that when the heavy artillery start coming in," said Devon Rowe, a resident of Brickway, in Trench town. "A lot of guys come back from the US. They deck out (dress up) and start calling this place Lickle (Little) New York. And that when people start buying big guns."

His critics say Mr Seaga was soft on drugs, leaving dealers with the opportunity to flourish and to move from marijuana to cocaine and heroin.

Partly because of the Marley house, I had wanted to visit Trench Town for years but could find no Jamaican prepared to accompany me. On Tuesday, I went with Pastor Bobby Wilmott of the Covenant Community Church, a hands- on-healing charismatic group which has opened a church, a kindergarten and a community centre in the heart of Trench Town. Opinions vary as to whether the neighbourhood was named because of the sewage trench that runs through it or after a gentleman called Mr Trench.

Also with us was a representative of Air Jamaica, which is sponsoring a pulpit exchange programme between Trench Town and London.

Passing through "The Jungle," the name of the first section, then "Angola," "Pegasus" and "Mexico," we were checked out regularly by youths on foot, on bicycles or in cars, not visibly armed.

"Easy, easy, easy, man, this is my turf," Pastor Bobby would shout as we drove slowly down the central Collie Smith drive, named after the late cricketer, zigzagging around abandoned cars and other obstacles aimed at making it difficult for the nightly drive-by shooters.

The church on Seventh Street, renamed Joy Town by the pastor, looks like an aircraft hangar but was originally a YMCA centre.

"The local youths used the building to play indoor football. It also became a kind of community toilet," said Pastor Bobby as two armoured cars pulled up on the corner, apparently curious about the two rare white faces. "It was all bushed up and all, but I disinfected it and cleaned it up in 1991.

"That kind of made it my turf. I said to the gunmen, `You want your kids to grow up firing guns like you?' " About 60 people attend the church's hand-clapping services and 180 children attend the kindergarten.

The church is in Wilton Gardens, known locally as Rema, long a kind of no man's land or buffer zone between warring factions.

"Over there, the north, has always been PNP territory," said local resident Mr Rowe. "Down there, the south, is JLP. Tivoli Gardens is the JLP stronghold, part of Seaga's constituency. Their guys drive by every night, sure as the clock ticks, and shoot the place up. Sometimes during the day.

"They've got M-16s, AK-47s; you got to get down pretty quick when the bullets flyin' thick. But we got the heavy artillery, too; we shoot back and hit them sometimes. They upset now that Rema used to be JLP but has switched to the PNP. The other night, they throw a bomb over there and kill a 60-year-old lady. Her face was bust open like this," he said, throwing his hands in the air. "It's bitter, bitter, bitter, yeah, man. It's like Bosnia."

Mr Rowe explained that each block has look-outs, who will watch for outsiders' cars. "Anybody drive up from down there, we now that's bad news," he said.

"We run get our big guns pretty quick." There is a police station close to where we stood but "the police lock themselves in and put up the shutters when the bullets fly. They're not stupid, those boys, no, man. They badly outgunned around here."

On the steps of Marley's old house, Mike Ellison showed me where his brother Dennis, a local DJ known as Massive, was shot.

"Everybody think I go down Tivoli Gardens and get revenge but I no go," said Mr Ellison. "I no want to go back to jail."

A little farther along First Street, the only other white face in Trench Town, a Canadian, Roslyn Ellison, was encouraging a handful of locals to "put down a gun, pick up a book." She runs a tiny library, mainly for children, in a shack next to Lawrence Park.

"I came here with a local friend several years ago and noticed that a lot of kids weren't going to school. I came back with four boxes of books and have built it up since.

"Music and sports have traditionally been the only way people get out of here. With books, you can prepare people and make some real changes."

Beside her, her Rastafarian helper, Devon "Ziggy" Bedford, plucked on a battered black wood acoustic guitar on which, he insisted, Bob Marley, his friend an neighbour, wrote one of his most famous songs: "No Woman, No Cry".

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