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An eye witness account of the 1968 riots

An eye witness account of the 1968 riots

An eye witness account of the 1968 riot

Plaine Verte is a suburb of the capital of Mauritius. Until 1968, it was home to a heterogenous community of Muslims and Christians. This closely intertwined community of two ethnic/religious groups who co-existed for over a century found itself at the centre of the riots which took place in that year. Shawkat Ally Gozeer was very young at the time, but provided the following account of what he witnessed to the late Norbert Benoit.

I recall being outside on the balcony with the family one day, the atmosphere was tense. We heard that there was a scuffle at the Venus cinema. This is how it all began …

People believed at the time that this tense atmosphere had been instigated by some people; but the reason behind it is not very clear. What I know is that there was a division in the Muslim community regarding politics. To this day it has never been ascertained how it started – people would rather forget about it. No one is interested to know, not because it is not important, but rather because of the fear that it might engender.

We have heard that a riot had broken out. We saw fire burning in the distance. There was smoke everywhere. As tension escalates, one person dies, then two… then things take a turn for the worse; people got together in groups. I saw the Muslim side of events, as I was living in Plaine Verte; I lived through it, I lived the fear itself.

After the riots, some Muslims who did not live in the Plaine Verte region before came to live there. Not all at once just a few. We did not notice it at the time. The atmosphere remained tense but we did not have any more riots. However, when people learnt that some Christians had killed a Muslim, people here would kill a Christian. That is how it went on; then the violence increased.

I did not go to school, the school closed down, I believe. Plaine Verte was dead. We did not go very often to the market. My father did not even travel for his work. How long did this last? It seemed a long time. One week? Two weeks? It was through people who came to my place that I knew there was a rioting. They fled their homes, as their homes were at the foot of the mountain. They all believed that the Christians would come that way. As a result people believed that those who lived in close promixity to the mountain would be the first victims. People came and went. How long did it last? I do not know, but their presence in my place symbolised something.

There were many wooden houses at that time, and that our house was in concrete. People came to our place because they felt secure in a concrete house. People wanted to gather together. Especially the women and young girls, because the men were going out to fight. They were afraid, very afraid. In day time they would go back home to eat then before nightfall they would come back to our place, to sleep. There were days when they even stayed the whole day at our place. Some days we ate together. Other days they brought food to eat, then we shared amongst ourselves. There were forty to fifty people at our place. Each person brought his blanket and pillow. They slept in our living room and the verandah. We moved some furniture and put them at the back of the house. It was a change, an upheaval. For example, there were people who we did not like but who were here in our place, who had free access and we had to accept it.

People came after the “namaz magrib”. At times they would perform the “namaz e-sa” at the house. Afterwards my father would ask for tea to be made in a large bowl, and served everybody present. Some men went through the house to access the top of our garage, as they could have a good view, far and wide, from up there. From there they kept a look-out with their weapons. They took turns for the look-out; three stayed on top of the garage, while three others would go out to the ‘English canal’. However the Christians did not come through the ‘canal anglais’. They did come but not all the way to the ‘canal anglais’. They were just rumours. During those nights we were all afraid. Some were praying; the majority of us were women and children. They were praying and weeping. Some women feared their husbands would not come back. Fortunately no one we knew was killed, but some in the group were sent in prison. They spent three years in jail after the riots, because they were arrested for carrying sabres. Following their arrest, weapons were also found at their homes. In certain cases, my father had to help while they were in prison.

Some men came back at one o’clock in the morning, others at two o’clock in the morning. Personally I was not that afraid of Christians; I was afraid for those who were going to fight. Among them there were youths of fourteen to fifteen years of age. Among those who left there were heads of families. We were insulted because we did not go to fight. My father did not want it.  The children who went out to fight were afraid. However when they heard that a Muslim had been killed somewhere else, it was different, they wanted to make sure that a Christian was also killed. But at my place, they were praying a lot; they did the ‘taabi’. Some men wanted to commit suicide during the riots. Some left their wives and children at our place. The riots were then coming to an end, sometime before the British troups arrived and started to search the houses. Some men came early morning, very quietly. Some kept a lookout in front of the house. There was a house, the first after the mountain, which had two lights, one red and one green. The green one was always on, but if ever there was some news, if the Creoles were nearby, the red light would be switched on. Then all the men would go toward the ‘English canal’.

I recall being sat down on the flat roof of our garage. Some Christian neighbours dressed like Muslims, clothes given to them by Muslim friends. I remember three women and one child, who lived opposite us, wore their ‘orni’ and their ‘tius’, accompanied by four or five Muslims. The men were carrying baskets with Molotov cocktails and daggers.  There were people who we knew, but with whom we were afraid to talk lest they say we were hiding Creoles.

There were cases where a Muslim family would hide some Christian men, and not let the other Muslims know about it. When the British troops arrived, they searched all the houses. The Muslims began to dig holes in front of their houses to hide the sabres and other home-made weapons. The British used metal detectors and soon were able to find the weapons. Some houses were set on fire. One could see them in flames. Some people were carrying away tables and beds. They were burglars who saw an opportunity. Some men would remove the rubber sheathing off copper wire and then wrap it around the house to keep burglars away. If you touched it, you could be electrocuted. Those are things that I have seen.

The riots destroyed the area where I lived. The Cité Martial was no longer what it used to be. Once Muslims and Christians lived together there. Among the Christians there were ‘understanding’ people. The houses were beautiful, adorned with pots of flowers. The stucco was well-polished. One does not see this anymore. The people who moved in came from Roche Bois; they were Muslims who came only with the things they brought on their backs. They have changed this area a lot. In those houses there were people who worked and lived well. They were replaced by those who are destitute. The place has been transformed.

This scar has taken a long time to heal. The Muslims think that some people benefited from this scenario. They manipulated the situation, getting people to fight against their brothers. They are bad memories, which I personally would not like to relive.

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THE BRITISH TROOPS WHO FLEW TO MAURITIUS IN 1968

The British regiment which was called into action on Mauritius in 1968 was the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry [KSLI], under the command of Major Brian Lowe. At the time, the regiment was stationed in Malaysia and were ordered without warning to leave for Mauritius. The following account was prepared within a few weeks of the riots, by Major L W Huelin of the KSLI.

The troops went by road to Singapore and from there in three Hercules aircraft to Mauritius.  The KSLI company went straight from the airport to the police barracks in the capital and immediately out on patrol. The soldiers worked in conjunction iwht the civil police and the island’s Special Mobile Force to restore peace.  The SMF which had been established in 1960 was at this time led by Major Ward of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, but the force under his command was composed of young Mauritian men.

The army’s perspective was that “blind hatred between Port Louis’ ‘Istanbul’ Muslim gang and the rival ‘Texas’ Creole gang had led to a situation in which atrocious acts of violence were rife and many people were being killed and injured”. However the trouble had not spread to other parts of the island, but was contained within the Port Louis area. After the 140 men of the KSLI hit the streets, it was reported that ‘mob alarms’ dwindled but that looting and burning of abandoned houses continued. The combined forces of law and order initiated “a non-stop series of cordon-and-search operations” during which dozens of arrests were made and quantities of “crudely-fashioned weapons, acid bombs and Molotov cocktails were unearthed”.

Operations were directed from Port Louis police barracks by Commissioner Bernard McCaffery and as well as the KSLI troops, men from a British navy vessel HM Euryalus, were landed and placed in guard of the island’s petrol storage depot. The KSLI deployed two Sioux helicopters and the navy now added a third.

The British governor of the island, John Shaw Rennie, and the man then waiting to become Mauritius’ first independent Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, welcomed the assistance of the British troops.

 

TWO COMMENTS FROM READERS

Sydney Selvon The riots started in the very month that I began my career in the media, at L’Express. I remember a crowd of armed people running towards our bus at the Vallijee bus stop and the bus had time to get away as they were still at a distance. I remember the intervention of the British troops and having to stop at military checkpoints in Port Louis during the night. Dr Philippe Forget, who was at the wheel of the car we were in, once thought a soldier was Mauritian. The two military men had their guns at our temples on each side of the car and it was a horrible feeling, their hands were on the trigger. Dr Forget made a joke in creole and the man just pushed his gun against his temple; he had an English accent. We showed our papers, they had a license to shoot and kill in case of any sign of resistance. Our papers were OK, of course, as journalists, but the feeling of having loaded guns near your temple and seeing the fingers on the trigger is awful. I was 19 and learning to be a journalist. Can’t forget.

Every day we had reports of killings, horrible killings on both sides. I pray God this never happens again in Mauritius. The 1999 riots were nothing in comparison. In the media we all cooperated with the government and the police whatever our political angle, to help bring back peace and this eventually worked.

Raffick Mamodeally bonjour a tous, c’était une periode et une année que je n’oublierai jamais. J’avais 14 ans on habitait à la rue Wellington juste dans la descente qui va vers tranquebar. J’ai vu l’horreur devant moi, des voisins qui tuait d’autres voisins. ON VIVAIT dans la terreur, DANS LA PEUR; ça c’etait l’enfer. À cette époque là on pouvait rien faire pour entretenir l’ordre, alors il nous a fallu faire venir des soldats anglais pour nous aider. J’ai vu les policiers de l’ile courir à toute vitesse; les gens étaient armés avec des sabres, des couteaux et des armes qu’ils ont fabriqués chez eux. Chacun essaye à sa façon de protéger sa famille. Dans chaque communauté il y a des bons et des mauvais; on habitait parmis les chrétiens, des gens vraiment bien. Ils nous ont sauvés la vie, ça je ne l’oublierai jamais. J’ai aussi vu un chauffeur musulman faire marche arrière dans sa voiture, depuis l’église Sainte Anne, Tranquebar jusqu’à la rue Wellington; ils l’ont enlevé de sa voiture et ensuite ils l’ont battu à mort…

Did you take part in the riots as a British soldier, or do you have any recollections as a Mauritian on the island at that time? Please send us your comments and opinions either via facebook or directly to info@mauritiusmag.com

 

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7 Responses to “An eye witness account of the 1968 riots”

  1. melt says:

    6 weeks before Independence Day, Muslims and GP clashed in a vicious civil conflict, the worst Mauritius has ever known. As in May 1965, violence was expected between GP and Hindus; who remained neutral but through rumour mongering inflamed the bloodshed. Chiefly confined to Port Louis and its suburbs, the Baggare Raciale (Race Riot) lasted a month. Mauritian police, especially the Riot Unit, was largely GP and mostly supported their brethren. SARM threatened to bring Pakistani troops to intervene on behalf of the Muslims. With the conflict threatening to engulf the entire island, SSR appealed for British forces as per a prior defence agreement. Gaetan Duval the ‘Patron’ of the GP Texas gang together with Mafia another GP mob, battled the ‘Muslim’ Istanbul for control of the capital’s lucrative extortion, drugs, smuggling and prostitution rackets. January 1968 saw Mafia & Texas clash with Istanbul at the Hindu-owned Venus Cinema in the Western suburb of Port Louis, sparking off the Baggare. Rabidly anti- independence, Duval had a vested interest in instigating and inflaming the conflict. No.15 Constituency contained a large number of Muslims who had voted for independence, thus tilting the balance of the 1967 elections. King Creole as Duval styled himself, contrary to his later denials, gambled on the conflagration, timed to disrupt the British handover of power. Hence, proving its inability to govern itself, Mauritian self-determination would be delayed indefinitely. 30+ dead and hundreds injured, Muslim females raped, Masaajid desecrated, property destroyed (Taher Bagh, in Port Louis was burnt down) and thousands displaced, was the cost of Duval and his intransigents malevolent caprice. However, on 12th March 1968, an apprehensive Mauritius became independent as planned.

    Questions have to be asked about the 1968 conflict. For too long now our heads have been buried Ostrich-like in the sand. Afterall weren’t the ‘Kaya’ riots in 1999 subject to public and government scrutiny? I have given my take on events above.

    • Kalpol says:

      It’s true that the motivation behind the Bagarre 1968 has never been elucidated. It is natural to make personal inference. Having lived at Vallee Pitot and being involved in social work, I could as well tell my part of the truth.
      No doubt there was grouping of GP people by politicians of the Duval group at Vallee Pitot. The motivation behind was to group them for a purpose. That purpose remained sacro-saint as nobody from the meeting dared impart it to others. All that I could learn from a certain Alexy, inhabitant of the locality, was that there would be “baise”. Alexy being one of the ruffians of the region did not elaborate. It was therefore clear that the motivation behind the Duval Group was to create a disorder.
      On the other side I noted on the walls of certain buildings at Vallee Pitot were drawings of swords with drops of bloods in red falling and the word “ Vallee D’accaba”. It was evident that there was also the motivation to convert Vallee Pitot into a Muslim region with the departure of GP and Hindus and that would be made by dropping of blood.
      Before the Bagarre some incidents were noted. Maraz Manton, a peace loving Hindu of Vallee Pitot, while returning from the shop was stripped off his dhoti by a group of Muslims. Cars with Muslims ruffians were patrolling Vallee Pitot , usually at night,and attacking the Hindus. There was thus some motivation to get the Hindus out of Vallee Pitot.
      To day with flash back, with the population of Plaine Verte having grown from 8,000 to 22,000 thanks to the land formerly occupied by GP and Hindus and the squat land from the Crown, this constituency is still being maintained as such within the electoral boundaries or else it should have been merged with others, namely Long Mountain to be reasonably represented as compared to Savanne- Riviere Noire which has more than 60,000 electors and is as Constituency No 3 getting 3 deputies.

      • melt says:

        Thank you for you take on ‘Baggare raciale 1968′ Kalpol. To corroborate on you mentioning of the ‘pre-planned’ aspect, the late Dr. Cader Raman wrote in his book: “Mauritius not a paradise; I love you”, as to how PRIOR to the outbreak of rioting, one of his patients from the GP, broke down and divulged to him (Dr. Raman) that Duval was planning an attack on the Muslims. Strangely, Dr. Raman’s warnings to the authorities went unheeded.

        Alex Rima, Duval’s right hand man/henchman literally got away with murder, he emmigrated to Australia where he got a diplomatic positon. Rima arguably had more blood on his hands than anyone else. Duval’s disciple had a metal factory in the region, readily providing swords, knives etc. to the Creole rioters. NB. the then ‘Riot Unit’ was overwhelmingly GP and more often than not sided with their co-religionists. Inspector Hyder-Khan, the 2nd highest ranking policeman in Mauritius and effectively head of the PL police, in comparison, mainted a strictly neutral stance which earned him the rancour of many Muslims.

        From what I recall, along with information from both the police and those ‘in the know’, the Hindus eagerly ‘contributed’ to the baggare by rumour mongering. If Muslims and GP destroyed each other, wouldn’t that make the Hindus stronger?…..as their reasoning went!

  2. Liam Holden says:

    I was a soldier in the KSLI who spent 7months on Mauritious. I was sent from Malaya as a member of the advance party which was,”B Coy.”

    We went straight to Port Louis where we were billeted in the Police Barracks, and it was from there that we started to patrol both on foot and vehicle.

    I remember moving from port louis to an old prison,”the bastille” as it was known to all and sundry,I also remember moving up to Vacua to work with the S.M.F. which was good fun driving over the island in mini rovers.

    I played rugby for the DODOs and had a really great time once the work was finished,I found the majority of the people of mauritious to be extremely friendly,and helpful.

    Mauritious is also a beautiful country with loads to do.

  3. English Creole for Life says:

    I was serving in the Royal Navy in Bahrain and due to marry my Mauritian fiancee in Mauritius on 23rd January 1968. After hitching a ride to Majunga and onward to Mauritius I arrived just as the first curfew was introduced. Our wedding ring was at a jewellers shop in Port Louis and the wedding dress in Rose Hill. Our honeymoon hotel, the Le Chaland RN rest camp, had been taken over by the army and the wedding (and reception) had to be advanced to allow us to get to an alternative by the start of the curfew. In spite of it all, we were met with a wonderful spirit by all concerned, nothing was too much trouble and we left with an abidingly positive view of the island. While none of this has anything to do with the riots, it reminds me of the constant dichotomy of friendliness and turmoil that epitomises the country I knew then and see now.

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