This past Friday, Albert Street and surrounding areas were bubbling over with activity. Residents were out in the hundreds, finalizing the last of the shopping for the start of primary school on Monday. It was also the beginning of the traditionally festive September celebrations. People were in a festive mood; it was the end of the month.
Later in the evening the carnival revelers really put the old capital in the September mood, with a “teaser” through the streets of the City. Saturday night was going to be the eagerly anticipated Carnival King and Queen competition and the traditional pageantry of the Queen of the Bay.
But as Friday slipped into Saturday, September 1, a few minutes after midnight, a 41-year-old Belize City woman was shot in her house, through a kitchen window, as she prepared for a night out on the town. This was the third female shot in a little over 30 hours.
A 14-year-old student had been shot on Thursday night when a bullet targeted for a group on La Croix Boulevard ricocheted and hit her as she ate her supper inside her home.
The second and third shootings were unlike anything we had seen before – there were no males in the vicinity of the females targeted. Police report that the second young lady was shot late Friday night while sitting with her mother and sister at the corner of Vernon and Sibun Streets.
Fortunately, the first two victims were not seriously injured: they were briefly hospitalized and released.
But Dana Augustus, a mother of 7, was not so lucky. The bullet through her window hit her in the abdomen, fatally wounding her. Hers was not an accidental shooting. Police say the alleged gunman called her name, then discharged a volley of bullets. She was both mother and father to her daughters in a wooden house at the southern end of Mayflower Street. Dana was well known, and popular, in the neighborhood.
The killing of Augustus marks a new low in the spiraling gang warfare. We cannot recall another time when a woman was murdered in this fashion by alleged gang members – a woman who is not known as a gang member, a school warden since 1999. We have had children as young as eight killed in the line of fire, some in their sleep, as gunmen recklessly shot inside their homes hoping to hit their rivals. But we have never seen one like this before.
Southside residents are shocked. This was a woman who knew people, who was well loved. How could this happen? For what reason? The consensus is that no one is safe anymore.
Our people seem resigned. There seems no end in sight. We wade through the days like people about to have an accident, and we know there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t avoid it: we simply wait, waiting to see what deadly damage will come our way.
In many ways, the Gang Truce Program has not worked. Things seem to be getting worse. The ranks of the gang members are swelling and the jobs from the Government have not resulted in any lessening of the murders.
Restore Belize seems out of their league; these street-side conflicts are not so easily solved. And CYDP appears on life support. In its earlier incarnation in the mid-1990s they were active mediators – not anymore, it seems.
In the La Croix Boulevard area of Lake Independence, a previously peaceful neighborhood, shots ring out all hours of the day and night. Six persons have been killed in the last few months and several others injured. Police presence in the neighborhood is heavy, but they can’t be everywhere at the same time. As they approach one block, the shooters emerge on another.
To residents, hoping the rival groups will find common ground seems a pipe dream, even though the youths know each other, have grown up with each other, and have played on the same basketball courts with each other. The beef is not the result of some multi-generational blood feud, but it’s the intractable problem of our era.
All the talk over the years about the Battle of St. George’s Caye seems a tad trifling nowadays. More people were killed last month than were killed in September of 1798. And more people have died by bloody murder in Belize over the last 10 years, than died in the previous 30 years. We have a real crisis, Belize. This is the battle of our times.
One of the great tragedies of our time is that we know so little of each other. We in Belize City know so little about the struggles of the Maya in Toledo to preserve their communal lands, and the rising unemployment of our brothers and sisters in Cayo. Those in Orange Walk and Corozal know so very little about the urban warfare raging in the old capital, except what they see on the nightly news or read in the newspapers.
We know very little of the hopes and aspirations of our fellow citizens, so nothing really binds us together anymore, even as there is so much that should.
Because we are urban, we see not the value of farming and feeding ourselves. Because we are rural, we neglect to understand how unemployment in a city is different from unemployment in the countryside. We unwittingly cling to what makes us different.
In this context, it is easy for us to see the problems in Belize City as happening in someone else’s home. We see our neighbors’ problems as their own; it is not our children killing each other. But today all can be well with your family, and tomorrow a spouse or a child gets ill, and suddenly, you are classified as among the “have-nots.”
We have to begin to see our neighbors’ problems as our own. We have to begin to see the problems of the Southside as the problems of Belize. Today you may be safe in your burglar-barred home in your little enclave; tomorrow, the criminals may be knocking on your door, or coming through your window.
That’s because for all the remorseless cruelty they inflict, the gang members we see as uneducated souls are evolving into organized groups. Our sources say some gangs are organizing themselves like never before, paying tithes into a fund, to be used in times of need. These groupings will be with us for a while, it seems.
We don’t have all the answers. We are just some newspaper folk who have been doing business in these neighborhoods for 43 years. We love Belize. This is all we’ve got. So we cannot sit idly by and not point out where we see peril. What we see around us today frightens us – leaves us disconsolate.
In South Africa, black miners are being killed for demanding a raise in their wages from the London-based owners of the mining concessions. And Haitians are dying in scores on the Caribbean Sea trying to reach the shores of the United States. But we Belizeans are killing each other in scores each year, for no good reason at all.
We keep thinking it didn’t have to be this way. We, from a relatively peaceful past, without anything near the historical bloodshed of the aforementioned South Africa and Haiti, are today drenched in blood. It is a sad start to the September season, Belize. It is written.