`Let the wicked be no more', plead the Concerned People of Montserrat

Phil Davison reports from Oveston as the islanders face up to `voluntary evacuation'
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The Independent Online
It could have been a Fifties English film, with Alec Guinness as the colonial governor, but the crowd in front of him was deadly serious. Above them, black smoke and ash billowed from the Soufriere Hills volcano. A few hundred yards offshore, the frigate HMS Liverpool lay at anchor, ready to help evacuate the remaining 4,000 inhabitants of Montserrat.

The volcano has gradually squeezed these people into a small area in the north of this British Caribbean island. The protesters were angered by what they consider the British government's vacillation and lack of clarity over whether to evacuate the island and, if so, how much assistance they should receive.

Angry and frustrated over their emergency living conditions and confused about a "voluntary evacuation" offer, they banged bongo drums, marched to the British Governor's office and demanded his resignation. They blamed the Queen for "trampling her subjects" and threatened to declare independence if their demands are not met.

There were only 150 of them this time, but they were very upset and they'd never done anything like this before. They promised to do it again every day until their plight is improved and their number is likely to grow. Most Montserratians later expressed sympathy with their actions.

Flanked by his local police chief from Sussex in khaki colonial uniform, Governor Frank Savage came out into the driveway, pushed his police officers aside and walked into the crowd armed only with a stiff upper lip. As a dreadlocked rastafarian protester shouted out "let me kill the boy," Mr Savage, the only man on the island in a striped Harrods shirt and dark blue tie, declared: "Thank you for coming to see me today."

The governor, who is due to leave the post next month, tried to placate the demonstrators, but with little success. He was relatively popular until the volcano turned serious last month, killing around 20 people. "Mr Savage, we're not only dissatisfied with Mr Osborne [Bertrand Osborne, the island's local government Chief Minister], we're dissatisfied with you," said one. "You are not representing us any more. We, the people are representing ourselves."

"Resign," came a shout from the crowd.

They carried placards saying: "We are not animals. We are human beings" and "No more lies." "We used to salute the Queen," shouted Julian Romeo, a local businessman behind a new group called The Concerned People of Montserrat. "Let her respect us. Let her understand that either we are British citizens or she can let us go."

Diplomatic as ever, the governor thanked Mr Romeo, shook his hand and referred to him as "the moderator". Apparently forgetting that the natives speak the same tongue, he used that particular brand of special, slow- motion and extra-clear English which diplomats generally use in front of foreigners. The group presented an 11-point proposal to the Governor, rejecting the voluntary evacuation package proposed by Britain at the weekend, demanded restitution for their lost homes and businesses, insisted Montserratians maintain their nationality after any evacuation and called for assurances that Britain will develop the previously little-inhabited north of the island, considered the only safe zone left.

"In the event of a total evacuation, we want to make it clear that we are not abandoning our country but expect to return here when it is safe to do so," said group spokeswoman Teresa Silcott as the governor listened. If Britain did not respond, she said, Montserrat, one of a dozen British Dependent Territories, would demand independence.

The Governor laid out the package on offer. First, those wishing to evacuate to Britain would be put up in hotels in nearby Antigua, fed three meals a day and transported to Britain within about a week at Britain's expense. Second, he supported a package put forward by Chief Minister Osborne the night before, under which a family of four would receive pounds 27,500 over a period of 18 months as evacuation compensation. Britain was considering the proposal, he said. Third, Britain would support anyone who remains on the island.

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