The Ecphorizer

Letter From Suriname II
Katherine Mitchell

Issue #20 (April 1983)

The Gathering Storm, Third World style

Editor's Note. Our January issue carried a

No more than four people may gather in public. The airport and borders are closed.

from Mensan Katharine Mitchell of her arrival in Suriname as a US Foreign Service Officer. Here are her further adventures.

21 November 1982. Thanksgiving dinner for the Embassy staff was nice, although we had fewer guests than anticipated. The PAO made a terrific stuffing, substituting jacknuts for chestnuts. I gather jacknut is the local name for breadnut (not breadfruit).

[quoteright]The American technicians are back in town to complete the installation of our alarm systems, closed circuit TV, etc. I talked them into taking the day off tomorrow to go to Paranam for our "North-South" football game. I understand I am to be loyal to the North, since I claim northern California as home, but the principal of the American School plays for the South, because he comes from southern Oregon. It sounds like it will be good fun.

22 November 1982. The "Turkey Bowl" Sunday was won for the first time by the team calling itself "North." All in all, it was a pretty good game, and not as physical as it might have been if the American School principal hadn't broken his jaw in a practice session. After the game we congregated for lunch at a swimming pool and everyone cooled off.

Someone in my neighborhood keeps chickens and the roosters seen to like to crow at about 4:30 am. At first I was annoyed, because I wanted to sleep later than the hens, but I'm used to it now and don't hear them very often.

Sometimes you see young men around town carrying a small bird cage, with the bird in it. I understand there are singing competitions, and the birds are being taken for walks so they hear different sounds and are encouraged to warble.

Once again there are rumors of further strikes. There has been a strike at the University since the beginning of the term, and the students have been more actively demonstrating in the past week. We're never sure just what is going to happen.

6 December 1982. I guess Christmas must be coming. There are no geese to get fat, but some decorations are appearing in stores and on houses and there is some Christmas music on the radio. They used to have a Santa Claus arrive by boat at the ferry landing, but since the revolution they've dispensed with that as a holdover from colonial days. The first year they tried to replace him with some "ethnic" figure (Amerindian? Bushnegro?) but it was not a success. The kids wanted their Santa Claus.

I understand that the celebration of New Year is the big thing. I have heard tales of the fireworks going on for hours all over town, creating a smoke haze to rival LA smog. People who really can't afford it spend hundreds of guilders on them. I'm glad I was warned or I would have thought another revolution had started.

8 December 1982
.   Well, here we go again. During the night the military burned the headquarters of the Moederbund (the labor organization) and two of the independent radio stations, as well as the offices of one of the newspapers. The government radio station is just broadcasting music and occasionally repeating a taped announcement. It says the military leadership is in place and everything is under control. In front of the Chancery are three armed soldiers who say their orders are to permit no one without a passport or diplomatic identification to enter the building.

One of our technicians will probably never agree to come to Suriname again. He was here in March for the counter-coup attempt, again in October when the Moederbund instigated the big strike, and here he is now! He is really starting to feel like an albatross.

9 December 1982. Yesterday the government announced a curfew from 7 pm to 4 am. At 2:45 am I heard gunfire and explosions that lasted about ten minutes. From my bathroom window I could see the "rockets' red glare" arching high in the air. One of my employees peeped out and saw people firing into the air with hand guns.

Later this morning The Bevelhebber, Colonel Bouterse, made a speech claiming that he'd learned of a plot by an "economic elite" to take over the government, this justifying the actions of the night before. No more than four people may gather in public. The airport and borders are closed.

In the afternoon they announced the resignation of the civilian Council of Ministers. They also said several of the people arrested yesterday were killed as they tried to escape. Rumors are that all were killed and the number mentioned varies between 16 and 24. No one seems to believe or accept the story. People are very upset.

11 December 1982. There have been lots of inquiries about our perception of the situation and some few who insisted that we should organize an evacuation. As we see it, there is no real danger; none of the activities seem directed at foreigners. The latest information on the killings is that probably 24 were involved. It seems that the explosions we heard Wednesday night were designed to cover the executions. The radio said they were a military exercise, which was a "great success."

There is a group of travel agents at the Torarica Hotel who came in last Monday to check out Suriname as a tourist attraction. What incredible timing! The group members are all liberal blacks, media types, academics, travel professionals, etc., looking for a place closer than Africa where Afroamericans can see a successful black regime. Hah! I'm afraid they're not taking back the kind of impression they'd hoped for.

The local people are stunned by the brutality and savagery of what's been going on. This is a fine country, with great possibilities and wonderful people, and it should be happy! They don't know what to do and wonder what life will be like for their children.

20 December 1982. There was a protest march last Thursday which was turned by the police away from its intended route just after it passed the Chancery. A lot of the marchers milled around for a while in front of the building, calling out "Help us, help us" as they had in front of the Dutch Embassy the other day. On Saturday I made my first airport exchange of diplomatic pouches since the emergency. A special flight arrived about 2:30 pm, turned around and departed for Miami at 5:00. The airline people had a hard time believing the courier was going right back.

21 December 1982. Christmas is not what it should be here. With the curfew, most entertaining has been cancelled. The Surinamers like late night affairs. As the curfew begins at 7:00 pm, you hear horns honking all over town as a gentle protest. Even the sale and use of fireworks has been banned. That really puts a damper on things, but I'm not surprised. It would be too easy to cover some other kind of activity with the noise.

22. December 1982. Colonel Bourterse lifted the curfew for Christmas Eve; that is, he only enforced it from 2 to 4 am on Christmas Day. The stores were open, as they normally would be on a Friday evening, from 4:30 to 9. I heard the discos were open, and since it was the first time in weeks that Surinamers could have any public night life, I gather they were jammed.

3 January 1983. There were a few get-togethers, dinners, open houses, etc. to celebrate the New Year, but no one felt very exuberant. When I left Julie, my household helper, a note with qreetings, her reply was a wish for a "bearable" year. That pretty well expresses people's frame of mind. 

Career diplomat Katherine Mitchell originally got interested in the Foreign Service while mucking about in pre-Russian Afghanistan.

More Articles by Katherine Mitchell

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