Trauma specialist: The coup was attempted, the trauma happened

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Shane Superville, Julien Neaves, Corey Connelly

Ria Carrera-Toney and Muhammad Muwakil both slept with knives in their beds for years. Carrera-Toney still does.

They have never met, yet are connected by one of the most traumatic experiences in this country’s modern history.

Carrera-Toney’s father, then national security minister Joseph Toney, was a hostage in the 1990 attempted coup in Trinidad and Tobago. Muwakil’s father, Salim Muwakil, was an insurgent.

Clinical therapist and clinical traumatologist Hanif Benjamin said while the coup in 1990 was “attempted,” the trauma actually occurred, and is an experience many “unsuspecting” children need to live with.

On the evening of the 1990 coup, while Toney famously said the phrase “Who is your leader?”, directed to a member of the Opposition at the Red House, and Muwakil held hostages at TTT, their children were dealing with the emotions inspired by the fathers’ respective roles.

Carrera-Toney recalled she and her sister were at home waiting for the 7pm news to begin when Jamaat Al Muslimeen leader Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, whom she did not know at the time, appeared on the television screen.

She knew something was wrong.

She recalled going outside to tell her mother about what she saw on the television.

Carrera-Toney said her mother, a schoolteacher, told them to bathe, put on some decent clothes and pack some bags.

She recalled her mother said: “When they have coups, they come for the families.”

Carrera-Toney said the bath she took was the scariest she had ever taken in her life thus far.

“I kept thinking if anybody is going to barge in the door at the same time that I am in this very vulnerable state…”

After they packed, Carrera-Toney’s mother said a prayer in the family’s living room.

“My mother has always been a church person and we read some reassuring scriptures from the Bible. Then she said, ‘We are moving tonight.’”

The family moved temporarily to another house not far away but relatives, at that point, still were not sure what was happening.

While these events happened 30 years ago, Carrera-Toney is still going through the healing process.

“No matter how good you may feel and how many years might have passed, trauma is a multi-diverse thing and you may have dealt with certain elements or levels but you never really know when you have totally processed a trauma, even if that is a possible thing.”

In her attempts to reconcile with what happened, she recalled reaching out to Muwakil on social media one day, telling him bluntly: “Your father held my father hostage.”

Muwakil, she said, simply responded: “I am not my father.”

On July 26, 1990, Muwakil, then six, his mother and two sisters left the Jamaat al Muslimeen’s Mucurapo compound to stay with his paternal grandmother.

On July 27, his father, led by Yasin Abu Bakr, and 70 other insurgents, stormed TTT’s building on Maraval Road, Newtown.

Muwakil’s earliest memories of the time are of looking at television in the living room and seeing a man he would later recognise as Abu Bakr, announcing something that he didn’t understand.

“We started laughing, because we thought it was a game, but then my mother, who was also watching the television at the time, told us to quiet down and she began listening to what was being said.”

There was an explosion at TTT studios and my mom went and put out my dad’s funeral shroud on the clothesline.”

From this Muhammad realised that even though his mother may not have known exactly what was going to happen, she anticipated the worst.

In the days that followed, the family ate, slept and watched television, on edge, careful not to draw attention to themselves, as the authorities were on the prowl for the families of insurrectionists.

That was when Muwakil began sleeping with a knife under his pillow, a habit he now attributes to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by the insurrection.

“I think as a child I went inside at that point. I became very introspective and quiet, because I started to think about what my position was, what was my role now for my mother and two

sisters, me being the only boy for three generations in this family.”

Benjamin, who is also the CEO of the Centre for Human Development Ltd, has offered to work with the children of the people involved in the coup.

“We treat all forms of trauma. If anyone would like to come, I would be more than happy to work with them. Additionally, group trauma therapy is also powerful, as there are those who through their stories can help others. We are also willing to have a special group therapy session to help with this past trauma.”

He said for children, trauma was different.

“In most instances, the social environment may not be able to help them develop the coping necessary for survival. As a result, they create their own coping mechanism, based on what they see around them.

“Children who have experienced complex trauma often have difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing emotions, and may have limited language to express how they feel. They often internalise and/or externalise stress reactions and as a result may experience significant depression, anxiety, or anger.

“As a result, complexly traumatised children may behave in ways that appear unpredictable, oppositional, volatile, and extreme. A child who feels powerless or who grew up fearing an abusive authority figure may react defensively and aggressively in response to perceived blame or attack, or alternatively, may at times be overcontrolled, rigid, and unusually compliant with adults.

“Traumatic experiences in childhood have been linked to increased medical conditions throughout the individuals’ lives.”

He said for children who grow up under conditions of constant threat, all their internal resources go toward survival.

“They see life through a ‘trauma lens.’ When their bodies and minds have learned to be in chronic stress-response mode, they may have trouble thinking a problem through calmly and considering multiple alternatives. A child with a complex trauma history may have problems in romantic relationships, in friendships, and with authority figures, such as teachers or police officers.”

Benjamin said the account from the survivors makes it is clear they all experienced the trauma of 1990.

“What you can understand from this and the major takeaway is regardless of which ‘side’ of history you were on during this coup, you experienced some form of trauma.

“The challenge for many who have experienced this level of trauma is how to move on. Based on the accounts, you can see some are even today, some 30 years later, still finding it very difficult to move on. Some may ask, what does it mean to ‘move on’? How can some really move on from something like this?

“The challenge for many is living in the trauma or the traumatic incident or event. For many of us, we are not sure how to move from the traumatic incident to traumatic recovery. We live as if the trauma continues to be a part of our everyday life. As a result, we plan and execute our life from that perspective.”

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