Photography by Nyssa Chow
Debe was a two hour journey from the capital. As I drove east, the highway, flanked by undulating green hills, narrowed to cracked roads that cut through large swathes of impersonal government housing settlements, narrowed further into crumbling streets that wound haphazardly around small farms and family compounds, and finally petered out to dirt tracks. It was a maze and impossible to navigate without a guide. There were no street signs, and the residents christened roads according to the families who’d lived there for generations.
“Take a right by Ramlal an’ them, turn off by Singh and a left by Mohammed, you’ll find Ragit an’ his sons out on the land.”
A similar story echoed from house to house.
“We is simple people,” Ragit, said when I finally found him. He was missing every other tooth in the bottom half of a broad smile. The older women had grown tired, he explained. They cried often now, and stayed in their beds past the hour. The men were weary too. They spoke in mournful tones, the fight growing dim in them. They looked at their sons and grandsons and saw visions of concrete being poured over their footprints in the mud. They were to be severed from the land, their land - this seemed inevitable now. Ragit remembered the year he bought each brick on his house. That was the way they did it back then, “banned their belly and worked,” saved a penny and when there was extra they bought 5 bricks, ten bricks some years, and built up the house, top down, piece by piece. Now they had a two story house. The grandchildren lived downstairs with the mother. In the annex in the back his brother and his wife, and upstairs with him the matriarch and his father. They plant dasheen and pumpkin, melon when the rain is good, pepper, peas. There is some citrus for the family. The land even has a river, when other people hosing, he have no want for water. It was good land, still good from when his grandfather first start to plant for himself, back when he bought the first brick to build around the tapia house (a traditional house made of cow dung) and one room became seven. It was good land, paid for with money that could have educated his father and uncles, good land that made his family land owners instead of “coolie” indentured laborers, it was ancestry, wealth, legacy, manhood. So when the two men came in their fancy car to say the government was going to buy they land, he say no, he not selling this land. So when they showed him a piece of paper, he asked what it was. They say, “Is so we could survey and see what the land is worth,” they say, “Is so we can know how to compensate you if we take the land.” So he signed it with an X, thinking it was a survey, they went to their car and made a copy and handed it to him. They drove away, “and now the government own me’ land.”
Section 14. The Land Acquisition Act. It says the government has the right to seize land in the interest of the public good, and provide commensurate compensation. It is a law so tricky with loopholes that a good lawyer would need three cups of coffee to decipher it. This is what Ragit signed, he waived his right to query the acquisition. Now the government had six months to come onto the land or they would lose their claim.
The incursions started in November. They came, “like a thief in the night.” At around 11pm farmers would wake to the rumble of bulldozers in the darkness, distant headlights. They came during Diwali, a holy day as inviolable as Christmas, when “they know everybody would be out celebrating and no one would be on the land,” says Terrence Bhodhai, an unassuming man in his thirties. He’d left his father’s farm life, and become an engineer. They’d raced back to the farm to fend them off, playing cat and mouse with the bulldozers for four, maybe five hours, blocking its path onto the land with their bodies, their Sunday best covered in mud. Finally, the bulldozer relented and started to drive away.
“We were so tired eh, but as soon as we left the land we see them double back, before we could catch them again they were inside we land.”
Back then they didn’t know about the incursion clause. But they knew about the neighbors who had signed, the ones who were forced to rent now, no means of income, no compensation, “their family scattered” - and they were afraid. It was then that they’d called Dr. Kublalsingh.
“He organize we, he give we a plan,” Mr. Boise explained. He was the genial patriarch of twenty-six: wife, children and grandchildren, all living in a row of houses built on one parcel of land. “We had try everything. Is he who say we should go on protest. We built the camp and hold the rallies to organize the people. We had the law on we side but they bulldoze we anyway.”
There is a shaky cellphone video that had been shot in June, five months before the hunger strike. Its daybreak. Wayne is twisting like a snake being forced into a bag as two soldiers drag him along a road, one at each arm. At one point he wriggles away, making a mad dash back towards the ruins of a camp they’d built on land earmarked for construction. Three bulldozers worked in the distance, leveling the encampment. The people had been sleeping and praying there for the past month in protest. A makeshift temple lay flattened, a place too holy to enter wearing shoes, its sacred contents ground to dust. It was a sacrilege and the old women gathered there wailed, holding their handbags.
“This is a holy place- please! Mr. Warner! You have no conscience?” A woman’s voice rings out. Minister Jack Warner is standing off to the side, rocked back on his heels, arms folded like at artist studying his latest work.
Wayne is netted by six soldiers as he tries to intercept the bulldozer again. They drag him, dispassionate as sleepwalkers, back onto the road. The coiling begins again. They wrench his arms behind his back and he loses his footing.
“The man is unarmed! He’s unarmed!” the novice cameraman cries out. Wayne has been silent, though a fury sounded in his expression, and drew his lips back from bared teeth.
“Is on that same tractor right ‘dere,” Mr. Boise was pointing at a tractor parked far out on his land. Five months had passed since the camp had been destroyed. Mr. Boise had just shown Wayne the final notice to take possession of his land.
“Is when I show him that, he just walk off. He went and sit right ‘dere on that same tractor. He stay ‘dere for the whole day, just studyin’. We say, ‘What Kublalsingh doin’ out ‘dere, boy?’ Is when he walk back he say, ‘That’s it. I not eating again. I on strike.”
This was Day One.