Camp Street Prison escapees: the Amelia’s ward shoot-out - another personal account

Updated: May 26, 2021

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Some of you may have read my last blog post about my recent trip to Guyana which was a personal account related to the Camp Street Prison fire and my brother being caught up in that tragedy. What follows is first an attempt to bring to attention and thereby clear up 'misconceptions' and 'misinterpretations' about my brother’s involvement in ‘harbouring’ the escapees Uree Varswyck and (Mark) Royden Williams. Second, in doing so I hope to make clear that some elements of the Guyanese media owe the public a much better duty of care to ethically report facts rather than perpetuate sensationalism that burden the collective Guyanese psyche with trash, violence and wanton disregard for the loss of human lives. It might best serve the reader to read the previous blog post as the two are linked and I won’t have space for repetition – this already will be like some kind of necessary sermon.

Friday 1st September - the phone call

I woke up that Friday morning acknowledging that since my return from Guyana I had been feeling distracted, unfocused, unsettled. I was aware my brother was due to appear in court on 6th September for the marijuana charge which had landed him in prison and subsequently caught up in the Camp Street Fire on July 9th and for which I had bailed him whilst there for the Diaspora Engagement Conference. I can’t say if this was the reason (at least not soley) for my feeling unsettled and distracted but I marked the feeling.

Later that morning my cousin called to say that there had been a shoot-out in Linden between the escaped ‘bandits’ and police; that this was on the news and on social media (Facebook); that it had taken place at my brother’s place in Amelia’s ward. It’s impossible to describe what went on in my body and my mind in that moment, so I’ll not try. My mother was in the room when we got the call. I was just about to go out, so advised my cousin to call back once he was able to confirm the ‘story.’ I was trying not to think my brother had lost his mind and had told the prisoners, with whom he’d been cooped up in the stink Camp Street Prison (as he’d described it), where he lived.

My cousin called back saying – ‘it’s true.’ He had seen the video, which by now had circulated on facebook, of my brother’s little house in Amelia’s Ward featured on a report by Travis Chase.

Some years ago I made a conscious decision to limit my use of expletives. But before I’d even seen the video and because my cousin would not make up or embellish a false report I went a little outer body with my curses. For those few hours, I thought my brother had lost it. He had over familiarised himself with the prisoners and for reasons only he could explain found compassion for them enough to offer them refuge when they made their way to his house. Had he planned it prior to his own release?

I had dared imagine if the thing was true that the escapees he was supposedly helping were those who had maybe fled from Lusignan, maybe ones imprisoned for minor charges as he had been. But when I heard that the escapee who had been shot was Uree Varswyck – the expletives turned to art as I unleashed my utter vexation and the anger that I’d be the one to have to tell my mother about the seriousness of the charge my brother would face.

5118 Central Amelia’s ward and the blue and white house

A friend shared a news article of the shot Uree Varswyck which I now had to process was real, and that this shooting took place on a joint plot of land my brother and I bought over 20 years ago. At that time it was all bush and big trees. We were among the first people to be given land there. I was a student at the time, neither my brother or I had/have money to build on the land, but were told by the Housing officer (can’t recall his proper title) to make sure we built something ‘proper’ there because they’d earmarked that area as a front facing well-to-do street. He must have imagined we could do something ‘proper’ there as we were from ‘outside.’ In any case, we cleared it down, sprinkled our high wine and ting to hail up the land. We were helped by the very cousin (a young teenager then) who had called to let me know the extent of the story. We were proud that this was not inherited land that was tied up in historical disputes but our very own and finally transported (as of 2015). When I heard the story and realised that blood had been shed on this very spot my heart became heavy. Why of all the possible places in the whole of Guyana did this act play out on the land that we had bought? I was later reminded that Guyana in its most violent and negative expression is really what it is through blood shed and conquest. Somehow this little portion of land had come to share in the violence that proliferates, of course along with the sure signs of peace.

My brother’s house is the small blue and white cabin (really) that’s almost diagonal to where the Amelia’s Ward police outpost is located. The two are separated from direct view by bush and trees. It’s wooden, unlike other big houses that surround it, that are made from concrete. It was not meant to be a permanent residence but it’s my brother’s home, until such time that he’s able to build a different house there.

When I was finally able to watch the Travis Chase video wherein he was interviewing the Police Commander about the shooting, I thought I was in a nightmare. I watched as though entranced. Only weeks previously I had been to the house, the day I had paid my brother’s bail. It was the last time I saw my brother. The Commander responded to Chase’s questions with cool composure, he was careful, I observed, not to give too many details because clearly investigations were ongoing. But I watched, my stomach disappeared somewhere and heard him say that Uree Varswyck was shot and killed in an exchange of gun fire with the joint forces, that Royden Williams was there too but had again escaped, that they had taken a man in custody. He told Chase that investigation was ongoing about whether this man – who lived at the property, was involved in aiding the escapees. Royden Williams too? What? Had my brother lost it for real?

Then I watched, in silent anger, as Chase trampled around this ‘crime scene’ (!), scaled the cut out wire mesh fencing, landing no doubt where the dead body of Varswyck had earlier lain, trudging around to the back of the blue and white house, edging his camera into it to give viewers WHAT exactly. It didn’t seem, he said, almost under his breath that the escapees had been there for long, then he hopped back through the opening, turning his camera to a bag of tennis roll the escapees had allegedly dashed in the shootout. The back door to my brother’s home was left open all the while, his bicycle (now gone) was bracing against the house. Those who know this house and the Rasta who lives there would be left with the impression of his complicity in aiding the escapees. They were not alone, for I knew my brother knew these men from his Camp Street experience. I know my brother’s heart too. I wanted to believe that they might have forced him to aid them, he would have no choice. But a part of me felt that my brother would maybe have sympathy for them too. In truth I was thinking all kinda ****. Yet, there was a beacon, flimsy as it was, of hope. My brother’s name or image was not in the reports. There had to be a damn good reason why. A reason that yet might save him.

I had to tell mum

Like most working class and single mothers, my mum has been through a lot; her own experience documented in my book Mama Lou Tales. Each time she experiences a new tragedy, she would call her prayer friends at Unity (school of Christianity) to ‘uplift her in prayer,’ and she would grow stronger, spending every moment in prayer. She prayed for everyone, feeling that her children are not only biological.

It was after I had watched the Travis Chase video that I lugged my body into her bedroom and broke down. I couldn’t tell her actual words then, I just bawled, bawled as though my brother had died. And that was precisely what my mother most longed to find out – if my brother, her son was alive; she did the Guyanese lopsided questioning – ‘Orien is alive?’ to which I shook my head, yes. Then I persisted in bawling, finding it impossible to actually tell her that he was taken into custody. This she would learn when my tears were spent and I could speak.

A few hours passed between us consisting of varying emotions - ‘if that’s how my brother wants to play like he is big criminal there’s nothing we can do; that’s it’ – to me trying to find a defence that the system had to answer why someone would go to prison for a minor offence and end up facing a more severe one upon his release, albeit on bail. Had my brother himself, having associated with the hardened criminals become hardened? It wasn’t making sense. But this argument was running around my mind. He should have been released sooner if the system had worked as it should. He should not have been denied bail countless times, since 20th April. That is tantamount to victimisation, straining his emotions as well as putting a financial burden on his family. It was serving as some kind of pseudo punishment, psychological as well as physical. At least by now I had stopped cursing.