By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On January 2, 1969, when most Guyanese would have been recovering from the festivities of Old Year’s Night revelries and New Year’s Day overindulgences (food, partying, liming) a group of cowardly terrorists brought chaos and death to the Rupununi region and affected the entire country.
These terrorists did not slink into the country from some neighbouring territory, no, they were all (traitorous albeit) Guyanese. It would seem that these (mostly descendants of Scottish immigrant, Harvey Prideaux Colin Melville) disloyal Guyanese were not comfortable living within a country which had an African-Guyanese as its leader.
The conspiracy to secede from Guyana and form a separate nation was apparently planned by Valerie Hart, who was married to one of the Melville descendants. She reportedly declared that the “Rupununi District had seceded from Guyana and that they would set up a Government of the Republic of the Rupununi”.
The devastating New Year’s news rocked the citizens of the fledgling Guyanese nation which was barely two and a half years old. The Cooperative Republic of Guyana had gained its political independence from Britain on May, 26, 1966. The traumatic news was especially difficult for those of us who knew people on both sides of the conflict.
It was devastating to hear that young men with whom we had attended school were involved in the terrorist attack and murder of policemen who had been my father’s colleagues. We realized that if our family had been living in Lethem on January 2, 1969, our father could have suffered the same fate as Inspector Whittington Braithwaite #4412, Sergeant James Anderson #4590, Constables James McKenzie #5611, William Norton #5691 and Michael Kendall # 7178.
Even more traumatized were the children of the slain police officers, some of whom more than 40 years later find it difficult to speak about the murder of their fathers by a group of traitorous, disloyal Guyanese.
The reporting of the secession attempt named mostly the descendants of Harvey Melville as the ringleaders of the terrorist gang. In the 1960s the large Melville clan and their relatives seemed to think that they owned the Rupununi. Melville had apparently entered then British Guiana as a prospector sometime in the 1890s. He set up house with two Wapishiana sisters (Mamai Mary and Mamai Janet) and between the two women begat 10 children.
The Melville clan expanded when those children became adults and had children. Melville’s eldest daughter, Amy, married American adventurer Basil Lawrence “Ben” Hart, who entered the Rupununi in 1913. Old Melville gave his daughter and son-in-law the Pirara Ranch and surrounding land and they begat six sons and one daughter.
All ten of old Melville’s children begat several children and they were all given land and ranches. By the 1960s the Melville clan/descendants was spread across the Rupununi savannas and included the Orellas, Gorinskys and Harts. Valerie Hart was one of Ben Hart’s daughters-in-law and named as the mastermind of the secession plot. She imagined herself a politician since she had been a candidate for the United Force (UF) political party in the Guyana general election of December 12, 1968.
However, her days as a politician were numbered because five days after the terrorist attack (on January 7, 1969) she was expelled from the UF party because of her involvement and “for acting in a manner inimical to the territorial integrity of Guyana and the aims and objectives of the United Force.”
Hart fits the description of a traitor to her country of birth (one who betrays one’s country, a cause, or a trust, especially one who commits treason) since she knew that there was some tension between Guyana and Venezuela over Guyanese territory and she exploited that tension for her own gain.
Venezuela has claimed land in Guyana since the country was a British colony but they became aggressive after Guyana’s independence. Hart was very aware of this and it probably pleased her little traitorous heart. The people who she oversaw/directed and who would eventually attack the police station at Lethem and murder five policemen and two civilians received military training in Venezuela.
And there is more evidence to convict Valerie Hart of traitorous behaviour. It has been reported that at 8 a.m. on January 3, 1969, she contacted a U.S. ham radio operator and made an appeal for help on behalf of “Guyanese rebels”.
In a reported phone conversation with Jerimiah O’Leary, a reporter from the Washington Star, she identified herself as President of the Association of Procedures and Representative of Free Peoples and the Free State of Essequibo, in revolt against the government of Guyana and the government of then premier, Linden Forbes Burnham. She appealed for weapons, medical supplies and moral support and declared that she and her cohorts wanted to be free to rule themselves.
Hart made several other broadcasts that morning reiterating the appeal for U.S. or any other foreign assistance. She and some of her supporters were eventually flown to Venezuela, where they remained for many years before drifting back into Guyana for periods of time. No one has ever been convicted of this terrorist attack and certainly Valerie Hart has never been brought to justice for her part in the attack on the Lethem police station and the murder of seven people in that debacle.
If she is still alive cowering somewhere in Venezuela, this woman should be brought to justice. Most likely she has been living the good life for the past 43 years hoping that everyone has forgotten the carnage for which she is partly responsible.
It was a horrific sight as described by eyewitnesses when early in the morning of January 2, 1969, the police station at Lethem was blown apart by a bazooka attack. As the surprised police ran out of the disintegrating building they were mowed down by gunfire from the gang of cowardly terrorists.
As we see and listen to the grieving families and friends of the victims of the several acts of domestic terrorist attacks that have occurred in the U.S. this year, I cannot help but remember January 2, 1969 and the murder of seven people in Lethem, Rupununi in the Guyana hinterland.
As we come to the end of 2012 we need to give thanks that we have survived in spite of everything that has transpired. The children of the police officers who were murdered by Valerie Hart and her gang of terrorists survived and lived to adulthood. No one knows how they suffered after their fathers were killed.
Humans have a great capacity for survival after suffering from traumatic events. Faith, family, friends and support systems help. We can give thanks in our various ways to whatever higher power we believe in and look forward to a time when we will not have to be reading about terrorist attacks.
We are almost at the end of 2012 and look forward to a New Year that will hopefully be less traumatic than 2012. Happy New Year to all!