How do you introduce yourself? As a Christian? A receptionist? A Law student? An activist? Or, maybe just a mother?
When we’re born, we’re first identified by sex. Our biological make-up is what differentiates us, after which our birth certificates authenticate our nationality; one of the most powerful instruments in the international community.
More often than not, we tend to overlook the fact that we belong to a domestic community; that being the country of our birth. It is not often that we are proud to say we are Guyanese. Unless of course, there is a national event with a 50ft flag soaring 200ft high. And an introduction of ourselves is usually limited to the group we want people to associate us with.
After all, our right of association and liberty are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which empowers us; the same declaration which stipulates that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3).
Last week our beautiful country recorded history when 17 ‘persons’ in a prison were roasted to death by a fire which they reportedly started (or so sources have said).
On the said day, I stood outside the walls of the 132-year-old Prison, known as Camp Street Prison, which has experienced several occasions of unrest over the past decade. As one writer pointed out just recently, these were caused by a number of factors, including poor conditions of the prison and lengthy periods of incarceration without trial for prisoners on remand. Coupled with that is the fact that the prison was built to house about 600 inmates, but currently holds over 900.
I stood and watched families of inmates wait with bated breath for news about their loveD ones; whether they were now carcasses or life had granted them a second chance. Cries of women and children pierced the atmosphere as they were called in family-by-family to meet the Director of Prisons who broke the tragic news.
I lived my entire life in what is described as a “Ghetto” (Albouystown) and I saw just what I have been exposed to for 21 years – broken families; physically, morally and emotionally. 17 men – none of whom were convicted, though most, if not all, were probably guilty of the heinous crimes they had allegedly committed.
And how does Guyana respond?
Two Ministers meet with current inmates to listen to their concerns; admirable, I’d say.
The Head of the Prison apologises for the death of these men who all died under his watch; again, admirable.
The Deputy Director of Prisons is sent on immediate leave pending investigations. (Note: In 2008 this same Deputy Director of Prisons was charged with manslaughter after a prisoner whom he had given a “sound beating” succumbed.)
A Commission of Inquiry (CoI) is launched to immediately investigate the circumstances which led to this tragic incident.
And then we have the commentators; the man-in-the-street and the social media commentators, all of whom I agree are entitled to their opinion.
(Two of the many Social Media posts made by Guyanese about the incident)
So here’s mine:
What I found to be disturbing was the fact that fellow Guyanese, even while active strides are being made to foster social cohesion, were openly celebrating the death of 17 Guyanese; 17 men, who, even though remanded, (some as long as 9 years) were not convicted. Ironically, some of these people were the same ones who, just about a year ago, supported the #BlackLivesMatter #AllLivesMatter cause.
Acknowledge though that this is not an attempt to say that the alleged criminal actions of these prisoners were justified and or should be tolerated.
So I reflected on the fact that when attempting to transact any form of business in Guyana, our birth certificate is one of the most important piece of document which we are, more often than not, required to produce. I reflected on the fact that a man must first be a citizen of a country before he is entitled to benefits that country has to offer. And I reflected on the fact that even though these 17 men were Guyanese, we completely ignored that, labelling them only as prisoners devoid of anything good.
And then I thought about my life. I thought about my primary school best friend who was remanded on a murder charge and was subsequently released. And I thought about my high school best friend who was remanded on an armed robbery charge and was subsequently released. And I remembered also, that I was robbed thrice, at knife-point; the last time having my neck cut by a man who subsequently stole my phone.
So I smiled every time I saw someone commenting “only who feels it knows it,” indicating that they were satisfied that these men were dead, since it served as some form of justice for their victims.
And even while I smile, I weep internally for a nation that continues to fail our youths. A nation where “ghetto youths” feel marginalized and are not “privileged” to have three meals a day; a nation where these youths lack access to basic facilities which can empower most of them. I weep too for the culture of broken families which has been developed and fostered in these depressed communities. And most of all, I weep for my fellow Guyanese who preach love and unity but celebrate the death of another human being behind the keys of a message board.
“No one is born a good citizen” Kofi Annan