The cremation takes an unexpected turn. The ceremony goes from traditional Hindu to hybridised Hindu-Creole. As the pyre burns, Hindu music is replaced by reggae. At first, my bias made me think it was dancehall music, maybe "gangsta". It turned out to be gospel reggae singer Jason Nurse’s Fed UP. "Because me fed up ah dem friend killa. Why can't we just live like brother brother..." This was last right of passage at the Waterloo cremation site for Hemraj Alex Sooknanan, a 19-year-old fisherman.
The deceased’s friends stand nearest to the pyre, dressed in simple white T-shirts and jeans, and sway to the music. They light up what seems to be a huge marijuana cigarette. Earlier, a Zip-Lock sized bag, with what looked like soon-to-be decriminalised but still illegal ganja, was placed on the funeral pyre.
Later on, I would think back to this moment when I went to sea, at night, with an Orange Valley fishing crew to learn about the life of a fisherman in the Gulf of Paria. I was told that a large part of a fisherman’s income is spent on puncheon and weed.
There is a generational divide. The older mourners, conservatively dressed, stand back, while the youths are grieving for their lost brother, cousin, friend, boyfriend. In the background, a music truck with a DJ. Is this a funeral or Carnival?
Hemraj Alex Sooknanan was one of seven Orange Valley fishermen killed in the Gulf of Paria by pirates on July 22. In a re-enactment of the ancient custom of walking the plank, the fishers were given two choices: probable death by jumping overboard and swimming, or certain death. One fisherman didn’t comply fast enough. He was stabbed multiple times before being thrown into the dark waters of the Gulf of Paria.
The men (two women were held as suspects for the robbery) who killed Sooknanan were allegedly Trinidadians. The threat here doesn’t come from Venezuelan pirates as in the south of Trinidad. Instead, they say the pirates come from neighbouring fishing depots. Often it’s petty crime. Sea robbers steal fish or shrimp but normally leave the crew unmolested.
How did the Gulf of Paria become the dangerous place it is? T&T’s surging crime on land is well documented but what happens at sea is less known. The T&T Police Service was contacted for data on robbery at sea but none was received.
Dr Ian Ralby, consultant, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, non-resident senior fellow, The Atlantic Council and an adjunct professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has warned about the escalation of violence and lawlessness in T&T’s waters.
He coined the term demi-governance to describe the idea "that there is not enough governance to maintain the order of the State, but still enough to organise criminal activity as a means of providing income."
He stated in an email, "Trinidad and Tobago has one of the most significant maritime security challenges in the hemisphere. It is the first stop on the island chain out of South America, and thus a major destination and transshipment point for drugs, guns, and humans being trafficked, as well as for goods and minerals such as fuel and gold being smuggled. The waters around T&T are replete with low level and high-level smuggling and trafficking. They are also becoming more violent."
There are increasing attacks on fishermen for one of several reasons, he stated:
1. To rob them of cash.
2. To rob them of fish for food.
3. To rob them of fish to sell.
4. To rob them of fish to use to mask trafficking/smuggling operations.
"The abundant presence of arms in both Venezuela and Trinidad mean that the situation is escalating. Fishermen are arming themselves for protection against attack—a development similar to what was seen off Somalia in the lead-up to the piracy crisis a decade ago. Furthermore, the (April 2018) massacre of 20 fishermen off Suriname further supports the notion that the waters in the region are getting more dangerous," Ralby added.
On sea with Orange Valley fishermen
I meet Shawn Moses at the Orange Valley fishing depot. The fishing depot is located among mudflats and mangrove. The setting is spectacular. A flock of pink Flamingos shares the tidal zone with the Scarlet Ibis. Large petrochemical industries operate behind the mangrove. A large portion of the mangrove seems to be partly dying but nobody knows why. He was sitting on a crate under a shed and looks out to sea. I ask him if he was a fisher. He invites me to sit in the hammock next to him. I’m surprised by how educated he speaks.
He was supposed to go fishing with Hemraj Alex Sooknanan and the other fishers the night they died. Instead, he was offered a day job on land which he took. He says, "When I went to bed and woke up the next morning and I heard seven men were dead, I knew my God is real." I ask him if I can come fishing with him. I expect to have to convince him but he just says "Meet me here at 3 pm."
Hours later, I set off to sea with Shawn Moses and his mate Oliver Brainso in a 28-ft pirogue. I don’t think "Brainso" was his real name, but it was the only one he would give. Moses and Brainso didn’t want to go far out. They are still shaken by the murders at sea and no Coast Guard vessels can be seen. We spotted a civilian-looking helicopter which loops over the sea once. It is still during the day when the threat of piracy is low.
From our pirogue, we have a wide view of the Gulf of Paria. We see everything, from San Fernando Hill to Trinidad’s southwestern point, Cedros. The office towers of Port-of-Spain look dark under heavy clouds and a deluge of rain. We, however, remain dry. I imagine that with a binoculars I can detect the Coast Guard bases farther west in Chaguaramas. The coastline of Venezuela’s Paria Peninsula, a source of refugees, human trafficking victims, drugs, weapons, and pirates is clearly visible.
As darkness falls Moses and Brainso set the net and switch on the buoy strobe lights which will allow them to find back the net. Moses, looking at the strobe light, says, "This is what killed Alex." The killers used the same strobe lights to find their victims at sea. "Now is the time when the monsters come out." It was unclear if he meant the fish or the pirates.
Moses is worried about boats hiding in the dark. He tells me that I can use my flash to take photos but I think he’s just pleasing me. It is so dark I’m not sure it is even safe to use my phone.
Moses and Brainso don’t feel secure. We leave the net to drift and head to a large shrimp trawler. They plan to spend a couple of hours here while, hopefully, the net fills with fish. Onboard are seven men, including Terry Sooknanan, Alex’s brother and his uncle, Deochan Padarth. It’s a tight-knit community. I see Indian and African faces but everybody calls each other cousin, family.
Some men smoke marijuana while they talk about the need to arm themselves if the Coast Guard can’t protect them. They may have another reason: Strangers have been coming to the village to ask for a fisherman who had witnessed and survived the attacks. That fisherman has since gone into hiding. Trevor Sooknanan says that fishing became more dangerous at the end of 2018. Violence increased from beatings then, to murder now.
There are no stories of financial despair driving fishers to crime. The houses in Orange Valley are simple but neat and tidy. It’s a community worth saving. Deochan Padarth says he raised four children, one of whom lives in Venezuela, and the sea bought him two houses and a car. He still asks himself why the robbery was so bloody. He thinks the boat engines were stolen to be bartered for drugs in Venezuela.
Around 2 am we leave the trawler to bring in the catch. It’s mostly Whitemouth Croaker better known as cro-cro. This is the prized fish that Moses and Brainso hoped for. They end the night with a small profit. As we head back to shore we hear the noise of an approaching outboard engine. Moses opens the throttle as a precaution. There’s a moment of tension as the two craft approach each other. Soon he realises the other boat belongs to a fisherman he knows. With a relaxed grin, he continues.