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The riot that claimed a life

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, March 03, 2014

IT is an event that changed the lives of hundreds of people 23 years ago.

The decision to go on strike did not augur well for about 420 workers at the Vatukoula gold mines.

While they may have expected a solution to be found to their grievances soon after the strike began, they were wrong.

As a result of the strike on February 27, 1991, the lives of the gold miners and their families were shattered. It resulted in there being very little or no food at all in homes, families breaking up, social problems and 81 striking miners dying over the years.

The events after the strike also resulted in a court sheriff losing his life while performing his duty at the mines. Today, we bring you the story of sheriff Mani Lal, as told by his widow. It is a story that has never been told, something that she kept to herself since the tragic incident.

FEBRUARY 4, 1992, was a normal working day for Mani Lal although he didn't feel like going to work.

His reason for not wanting to go was an alleged threat made on his life.

On February 5, 1992, The Fiji Times reported that Lal, a sheriff of the Ba Magistrates Court, had died at the Vatukoula gold mines during a riot by the striking miners.

It was almost one year after the strike began by the goldminers that Mr Lal went to serve eviction notices to some of them.

He died during a stand-off between the striking miners and police officers at the mine.

The tragic incident was caught on camera by this newspaper's veteran photographer Jai Prasad.

Mr Lal's widow Lila Wati did not hesitate to reveal what she knows when I tracked her down to her home at Wailailai in Ba.

She claimed he informed his superiors of the situation that his life was under threat and he did not want to go.

"We left home together at about 7:30am and it was a Tuesday (February 4, 1992)," she said.

"He didn't want to go to work on that day because he was allegedly threatened by some people at the mines a few days earlier.

Ms Wati said her husband's friends from nearby Vadravadra Village in Ba had also told him not to go to work because of the threats.

She said the villagers told her husband to think about their children, especially about who would look after them if something happened to him.

"We went to Ba Town together and got off at the bus stand. I headed to the hospital and he went to the Ba Court where he worked.

"I wasn't feeling well and my husband told me to get checked up by the doctor quickly and go back home.

"He told me that he had to go to the Vatukoula goldmines.

"He went to work, had a basin of yaqona with his workmates and left for the mines.

"I came back home later in the day and I wasn't aware of what had happened at the mines.

"A villager from Vadravadra came and told me my husband had died in the riot at the mines. He heard it on the radio and came and told me.

"I was shocked as we had left home together and I knew that my husband was hesitating to go to work on that day because of the threats."

Ms Wati said after being informed about the tragic incident by the Vadravadra villager, some court officers visited her home with the bad news.

She and Mr Lal had six daughters and three sons at that time; a son and daughter were married then.

Their youngest children were twin daughters who were in Class Three when their father died.

Ms Wati said only one son was working in a hotel when tragedy struck the family on February 4, 1992.

"I received my husband's FNPF money and I used part of it to pay off the $16,000 home loan to a commercial bank.

"I gave two sons their share of the FNPF money and I used the rest to pay for my children's education, as most were in school at that time.

"From whatever money I had left, I managed to put food on the table for my children, with some assistance from my working son."

Ms Wati said her eldest daughter died in a road accident at Nawai in Nadi about 10 years ago.

"Our family house is free and I'm lucky that my husband had enough money in his FNPF account to pay the remaining loan for our home."

She said a son lives with her while the rest of her children are married and live on their own.

"While I received my husband's FNPF money, I've yet to receive compensation for the loss of his life while he was performing his duty as a civil servant.

"I filed a case for compensation through a lawyer, who has yet to inform me on what has happened so far.

"My age is catching up on me and I desperately need the compensation money for my needs. I really need the money which should have been given to me long ago."

Ms Wati said she was unaware of anyone being charged in connection with her husband's death.

However, some miners were jailed for their part in the riot at the mines.

Fiji Mine Workers Union president Joseva Sadreu said a striking miner was charged by the police in connection with Mr Lal's death.

"The striking miner was charged with murder but he was later acquitted by the Lautoka High Court because the medical report didn't prove Mani Lal died after being hit by a stone," he said.

* NEXT WEEK: The success story of a miner on strike.

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