The final journey home

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Marking Cheddi Jagan's 10th death anniversary - by Odeen Ishmael
Posted March 14th. 2007

Thursday, March 6, 1997 had arrived. It was twenty five minutes past midnight in Washington as I made a telephone call to Prime Minister Sam Hinds. Only two minutes before President Cheddi Jagan had passed away at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, located just outside Washington DC.

I had left the President's bedside a few hours before where his immediate family had gathered to await his final moments. The doctors had already told us since two days before that he was just clinging on to life and that soon he would slip away. Earlier on the afternoon of March 5 I went to the hospital where the doctors felt that he would not survive the night. Before I left for home, I arranged with Mark Brancier, Nadira's husband, to telephone me immediately after the doctors pronounced the President's death.

Preparing for the end

At the Embassy in Washington, we had, from three days before, already commenced preparations for this eventuality. Mrs. Janet Jagan had discussed with me plans for preparing and transporting his body back home. I had also discussed the logistics with the hospital authorities, the US State Department and the Guyana Government. Out of my discussions a senior protocol officer of the State Department, Mrs. Maria Sotheropoulos, was assigned to help with official arrangements. Around midday on March 3, Mrs. Sotheropoulos informed me that President Clinton was offering an American military plane to fly the body and accompanying relatives to Guyana. In addition, the US Government would hold a ceremony and grant military honours just before the plane's departure.

I thanked her for this offer of the US plane, but informed her that the Guyana Government would prefer using a Guyana Airways aircraft. And since it would have to land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, I requested her assistance in obtaining clearance and landing rights from the appropriate authorities.

At the Embassy, despite the gloom of the impending situation, we were still involved on March 5 in concurrent meetings of the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States and the Summit Implementation Review Group. While I was at the Summit meeting in the morning session, Gillian Rowe and Tavita Hannif, the two Foreign Service officers at the Embassy, alternated attendance at the other. I had also sent another staff member, Ann Ramlogan-Rice, along with Sheik and Tabitha Ishmael, a Guyanese couple living in Washington, to check out three different funeral homes which the State Department had recommended. They finally assured me that the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring, Maryland, would provide the best service.

Actually, the small Embassy staff worked assiduously to handle the extraordinary situation we faced. In particular, my confidential secretary, Mrs. Annette Harris, was in constant contact with the State Department on logistical matters and had an uncanny ability to locate persons in the US government with whom I needed to speak urgently. She, as well as the others, also fielded numerous calls from newspapers and radio stations and Guyanese in the United States and elsewhere seeking updates on the President's condition. And as night descended, numerous calls for updates poured in to my residence in Bethesda, Maryland, where my family took turns to answer the phones.

The two drivers, Vinnay Massey and Raj Rathor (both non-Guyanese), were especially helpful as they worked long hours in transporting the President family to various points in the Washington area. And with my own hectic schedule during the period, including making snap visits to the hospital even late in the evenings, Vinnay was especially efficient in getting me to my destinations through clever manoeuvring through the sometimes congested traffic.

Death of the President

But now death had finally arrived. The life of one of the world's legendary fighters against colonialism had come to an end. My conversation with the Prime Minister did not last long. I informed him of the President's death and told him that it was important that he should announce this information to the Guyanese people as quickly as possible. Within five minutes, I made quick calls to the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon, (who told me that Mrs. Jagan had just spoken with him), Information Minister Moses Nagamootoo, and presidential advisors Kellawan Lall and Navin Chandarpal. A separate call to Foreign Minister Clement Rohee did not go through, and no one was answering the phones at Freedom House when I called there.

Since it was important that news of the President's death should be announced immediately, I expressed to both the Prime Minister and Dr. Luncheon my concerns over any delay in releasing this news - especially since the Guyana radio stations were not yet broadcasting at that time of the morning. As a result, it was agreed that I should make the announcement in Washington immediately. This I did when Reuters's correspondent Sharief Khan telephoned me from Guyana at about 12.40 a.m. (1.40 a.m. Guyana time). I was at the time checking the "wire" services on my computer and, amazingly, within two minutes, I read the Reuters report of the President's death.

Immediately after, a number of news services based in the US telephoned me. Rohit Jagessar of RBC radio in New York also called and he was able to broadcast our conversation to his listening audience. He had spoken to me almost every evening night "on air" from around the time the President was taken to the Walter Reed Memorial Hospital.

I also received calls from the Guyana Broadcasting Service and the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) and the BBC. Knowing that there was a tough day ahead, I tried to get some sleep, but the telephone calls kept coming in, not only from the media, but also from Guyanese in the US, Canada, the Caribbean and Guyana who wanted verification of the President's death. My wife Evangeline and my children, Safraz and Nadeeza, helped effectively through the rest of the night in providing information to those who called.

Preparations in Washington

A chilly but sunny Thursday morning crept in on the Washington area. Just after seven o'clock Dr. Luncheon faxed a copy of a tentative funeral programme and he followed up with a call asking me to pass the plan to Mrs. Jagan for her comments. This original plan called for shipment of the body by Guyana Airways on Saturday, lying in State on Sunday, State funeral at Parliament on Monday and cremation on Tuesday. Kellawan Lall also phoned information that the Cabinet met very early that morning and that Sam Hinds had been sworn in as President.

At around nine o'clock my wife and I went to the Mrs. Jagan's living quarters at the hospital to discuss the funeral arrangements with her. Also there with her were her children, Joey and Nadira, and son-in-law Mark Brancier. Mrs. Jagan did not want to wait for Saturday and preferred the plane to come the following morning (Friday). She also expressed some disagreements with the tentative funeral programme and telephoned Dr. Luncheon to suggest some changes. I took the opportunity then to inform the family of the funeral home which would prepare the President's body for shipment to Guyana.

Regarding this preparation, Mrs. Jagan asked me to purchase a white long-sleeved shirt-jac for the President. At 10.30 a.m. my wife and I left the hospital and proceeded to Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home where I had asked Ann (from the Embassy) to meet us. There we made arrangements with the director of the establishment for the body to be picked up from the hospital morgue and to be prepared for shipment. We examined a choice of caskets, and it was my wife who finally selected one with a glass widow in the upper half which we thought was the best for the public viewing of the deceased President.

On leaving the funeral home, we checked for white long-sleeved shirt-jacs but could not find any at the department stores and small clothing stores we visited. Knowing that shirt-jacs or guayaberas were plentiful in Florida, I telephoned Hilton Ramcharitar, our Honorary Consul in Miami, to find one in a hurry. He said he would get one and send it by special delivery on American Airlines that afternoon. In the meantime, Ann was making calls to some Guyanese nationals in the Washington metropolitan area to help find a white long sleeved shirt-jac. Soon after, we received a call from Mrs. Rohini Sharma of the Hindu Society in Silver Spring who said she had found one. Ann hurried to Silver Spring to collect the shirt-jac and then to the hospital where Mrs. Jagan gave her a few items of the President's clothing - all of which she dropped off at the funeral home. In the meantime, I called Hilton Ramcharitar to cancel his arrangement.

By midday I returned to the hospital with some documents (given to me by the funeral home director) for Mrs. Jagan to sign. These pertained to applications for a death certificate and the permits to move the body from the hospital morgue. I dropped off these signed documents to the funeral home on the way back to the Embassy. Within an hour, the director of the funeral home telephoned to inform me that the body was already being embalmed. By this time, I received news from Georgetown that the Guyana Airways plane would be arriving in Washington on Friday morning.

Initially, I had intimated to the funeral home that shipment to Guyana would be on Saturday morning (March 8), but now that Mrs. Jagan wanted this to be done one day earlier (Friday, March 7), I had to inform the funeral home of this change in plan. The director was most willing to help and he told me not to worry. However, this proved to be a great disappointment for the Guyanese nationals in the Washington area who had hoped that a Saturday departure would allow them to pay their respects during a public viewing of the President's body on Friday.

Managing the logistics

But then, while everything was moving at this fast pace, a problem cropped up. At around 3.00 p.m., the State Department began to see difficulties in obtaining the permit for the plane to land at Andrews Air Force Base. Apparently, the State Department officials were under the impression that it was a commercial flight. They had been informed by the US Embassy in Guyana that 121 persons were listed on the flight, but somehow they did not understand that these persons would form the official escort to take the body back to Guyana. Most likely, the State Department officials thought that these persons were passengers on a regular flight.

I made a series of telephone calls to Mrs. Sotheropoulos at Protocol, the Department of Defense and officials at the White House to clear up this issue, while Dr. Luncheon discussed it with the US Ambassador in Georgetown. Eventually, the matter was settled by 6.00 p.m. when the bureaucrats finally understood the purpose of the flight.

Originally, the plane had to depart from the Air Base by 8.30 a.m. But since President Clinton's special representative at the departure ceremony could not be there before that time, the Department of Defense and the State Department agreed to extend the departure time to 10.00 a.m.

Earlier that Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Sotheropoulos had dropped in at the Embassy to inform me that the departure ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base would include speeches by Mr. John Hamilton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America and the Caribbean, who would also be representing President Clinton, and Mr. Reepu Daman Persaud, the Minister of Agriculture of Guyana, who would be the head of the official party coming from Georgetown. There would also be a US honour guard and a 21-gun salute would be given. She said the hearse would also be escorted by military outriders from the funeral home to Andrews Air Force Base.

Just after 7.00 p.m., the director of the funeral home telephoned to say that the body was already embalmed and that he had all the necessary permits, including the certified and notarized death certificate, required for the shipment of the remains to Guyana. He informed me that by eight o'clock on Friday morning the hearse would be at Andrews. With this information at hand, the Embassy made arrangements for a limousine service to pick up Mrs. Jagan and her family from Walter Reed and transport them to the Air Base in the morning.

Meanwhile, the Embassy staff members were busy as ever finalising all the logistics. The main problem that remained was to get permits from the Department of Defense for Guyanese nationals who wanted to go to the Andrews for the departure ceremony on Friday morning. In addition, we were also receiving calls from relatives of the President who wanted to travel on the plane to Guyana. These lists had to be prepared and sent to the State Department, and constantly we had to make changes as new names were added. Numerous calls were also coming from Government officials in Guyana. By 9.00 p.m. when we believed that all the logistics were finally covered, the staff departed for home. I made a final check with the funeral home at around 10.30 p.m. and was assured by the director that everything was in order.

Andrews Air Force Base

A biting wind blew across the sunny landscape on Friday morning as my family and I departed for Andrews where I would join the plane for the journey to Guyana. We arrived at around 8.30 at the same time as Mrs. Jagan Janet and her family. Waiting for us was Mrs. Sotheropoulos and two other officers from State Department Protocol. The GAC Boeing 757 had already arrived and was standing on the tarmac with the black glimmering hearse parked beside it.

We went into the small departure lounge which was packed with persons, including Ministers, government and opposition parliamentarians, military and police officers and media representatives who had arrived from Guyana to escort the body home. Some of the Jagan relatives from various parts of the United States were also there to join the flight to Guyana. In addition, there were UN Ambassador Rudy Insanally, High Commissioner to Canada Brindley Benn and Consul General in New York Brentnol Evans, who had all arrived in Washington the evening before to travel to Guyana for the funeral. Among them were about thirty Guyanese residing in the Washington area who had come to bid final farewell to the deceased President.

The lounge was strangely quiet and all had sombre expressions, understandable indicative of the occasion. I greeted many members of the Guyanese contingent, and explained the programme for the departure ceremony to the Ministers. Their facial expressions revealed that they were deeply affected by the passing of their President and political leader. Sash Sawh, the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries, was particularly emotional and he hugged me and wept bitterly.

Shortly after, two US military officers escorted me to the hearse to ensure that the casket containing the President's body was properly draped with the Guyana flag. My son wanted to go with me and I obtained the officers' permission for him to do so. With the funeral home director and his assistants, we ensured that everything was in order. At the same time, 36 GDF soldiers, resplendent in green camouflage uniforms and red berets, exited the plane and arranged themselves in guard of honour formation near the aircraft. They had come to a foreign land to take the body of their Commander-in-Chief back home. A contingent of US military personnel, dressed in blue uniforms and blue coats, and a military band had already placed themselves also a separate honour guard.

The frigid wind was blowing the entire morning, and even though I wore a coat, I could feel the coldness in my bones. That morning I developed a new level of respect for the amazing toughness of our GDF soldiers; they stood at attention dressed in military attire befitting a tropical climate but exhibited no outward sign of discomfort on that cloudless, cold, wintry morning.

The departure ceremony

The ceremony inside the lounge began at 9.30. John Hamilton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, spoke for the US Government and expressed President Clinton's sympathy to Mrs. Jagan and her family and to the Government and people of Guyana. He also noted Dr. Jagan's important role in Guyana and the Caribbean and his close ties with the United States since he was elected President in 1992.

Minister Reepu Daman Persaud, responding on behalf of the Guyana Government, thanked the US Government for its efforts to save our President's life. He expressed special appreciation to the Walter Reed doctors - two of whom were present - for their sterling and valiant efforts. And speaking for the Jagan family, Joey Jagan also thanked both the US and Guyana Governments for all they had done for his family during the crisis days. He could not hold back the tears as he read a poem in tribute to his father.

With this part of the activity over, everyone then proceeded to the tarmac where the military band played a slow but touching rendition of the Guyana national anthem. This was followed by a 21-gun salute from five cannons booming behind the plane. The US honour guard then removed the flag-draped casket from the hearse and loaded it on the plane.

Immediately after, The Guyanese civilian contingent boarded the plane to be followed a few minutes later by the GDF honour guard. The US military honour guard remained in position as the senior protocol officer escorted Mrs. Jagan up the stairs. As the Ambassador, in keeping with protocol arrangements, I was the last to board.

A flight attendant closed the plane door and the stairway outside was wheeled away. The Guyana Airways jet taxied to the southern side of the air base and turned on to the main runway. Just about half past ten it revved its engines and sped towards the north. In less than minute it was climbing in the clear azure sky and banking south-east towards Guyana.

President Cheddi Jagan was making his final journey home.

(Note: The writer was Guyana's Ambassador in Washington at the time of Dr. Jagan's hospitalisation and ultimate death at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.)

6 March 2007

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