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Old sugar worker recalls June 16, 1948

“WELL, wah ah gon tell yuh. Awee prapa punish dem days dah, son. Wait, wait leh meh throw li’l water in the curry.” That was Khairool Yassin, 78, of Enmore, East Coast Demerara, as she recalled June 6, 1948.

Kaieteur News visited her on Saturday, just before noon and in time to get some hot fish curry and rice. She was solicited to tell the story about the Enmore Martyrs. She was about to begin the story when she forgot about the curry on the kerosene stove.

Mrs.Yassin is a widow. She lives alone. She spent most of her early years in the Enmore Sugar Estate as a representative of the weeding gang. She agreed to tell me all about the 1948 tragedy which her late husband, Mohamed Dawud Yassin, a sugar worker, witnessed from a mule stable on that fateful day.

It all started on the morning of June16, 1948. Pregnant with her third child, Mrs. Yassin went on her daily journey, supplying cow’s milk to a customer who lived next to the sugar factory.

“That mornin’ meh carry the milk and meh see a lot a police surround the factory like if they goin’ to war. Dem marching up and down in the compound by the ‘Laddi’ gate”.

I asked her if she remembered what the police looked like. “All kind. Indian, Black and Whiteman wid lang, lang gun. Is so dem deh.”

The sugar worker then said that she found it strange and feared that something terrible was about to happen.

“Where were the striking sugar workers” I asked?

“Dem bin pun the punt trench dam. Field workers, factory workers, yuh know, everybody come together”. She said that after fearing the worse she left for home. Then just before noon that day, rapid gunshots rang out. She said that her late husband was standing upright when the shooting started:

“He seh how he see Lallabagee standing up pun the punt when he suddenly fell. He tell heself that dis nah blind bullet, dis a real bullet”.

She said that her husband then ran for his life and hid in a mule stable not far from the scene of the shooting: “After he run and hide in deh, a stray bullet pass he and cut he belt and he hand get a burn”.

The belt, she said, was misplaced after all these years, but for as long as it was around, it reminded them of the horrors of that day. She told me that from a vantage point in the stable, her husband witnessed the unfolding horror as one by one his comrades fell to the colonial bullets.

“Some a dem workers try fuh jump the fence by the punt slip, after the shooting start, and dem leff right deh. Dem get shoot in dem back. Pooran from Enterprise, one of the five who get kill, leff sling up pun the fence” she added. The other workers were lying dead on the dam. There were those who cried out for pain from the wounds.

She continued: “Meh see a lot a people runnin’ helter, skelter and decide fuh go back to the estate when the shooting ease. By that time, dem bin already bring out who get shot and spread dem out at the main gate of the factory.”

She said that she witnessed the condition of the dead and the injured. She recalled that a worker called Dookhie, who was shot in the knees, bled profusely and cried out in pain:

“Shooting dem wasn’t enough. Dem torture some of the workers who get injury”. The dead and injured were taken to the Georgetown Hospital.

News of the tragic events reached the late President Dr.Cheddi Jagan who was then leading the Political Affairs Committee (PAC),which later in January 1950 was transformed into the People’s Progressive Party.

He, along with his wife Janet Jagan, rushed to the Enmore Estate. Mrs.Yassin who was by this time getting a bit emotional uttered; “Meh hear dah pledge wah Cheddi mek and on to dis day meh never forget it.”

On June 17, the funeral of the slain men saw a massive crowd of people marching behind their coffins from Enmore to Le Repentir Cemetery in Georgetown, a distance of more than 16 miles. This procession of thousands was led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the PAC and the Guyana Industrial Workers Union leaders.

The tragedy and the ultimate sacrifice of those sugar workers greatly influenced Dr. Jagan’s political philosophy and outlook. At the grave site of the Enmore Martyrs, and surrounded by thousands of mourners, Dr. Jagan made a pledge that he would dedicate his entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and exploitation.

“Although meh bin pregnant, meh catch train and go down a town fuh see wah bin a happenin,” the former sugar worker recalled.

She said that Dr.Jagan honoured his pledge until his last days: “Suga workers punish a lot in me days son.”

The records show that the crowd of sugar workers, on the day of the shooting, had grown to between 500 and 600 persons and was led by one of the workers carrying a red flag. They attempted to enter the factory compound through the gates and through two trench gaps at the rear by which punts entered the factory. But they were prevented from doing so because the locked gates and the punt gaps were protected by policemen.

A section of the crowd then hurled bricks and sticks at the policemen, and several persons managed to enter the compound at the rear of the factory. The policemen tried to push back the crowd, but after this effort failed, they opened fire and five workers were killed and fourteen others were injured.

Lallabagee Kissoon, 30, was shot in the back, 19-year-old Pooran was shot in the leg and pelvis, Rambarran died from bullet wounds in his leg, Dookhie, also called Surujballie, died in hospital later that day, and Harry died the following day from severe spinal injuries.

These men, through the years, became known as the Enmore Martyrs. A huge monument bearing their names was erected in Enmore where every year a ceremony is held to honour them.

(Zaheer Abbass)