The 33rd Anniversary of the Death of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop
Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s Boo Radley
An elegy for the disappeared and spicy lamentations for the families carrying the burden of loss
Nine years ago, I came across this article. It was the 24th year since the killing of the Grenadian prime minister and his cabinet members on Fort Rupert, in the parish of St. George’s, on that small isle of spice. I have since carried this clipping with me; it is now stained with age and fingerprints and it has a jaundice yellowish glow from use but mostly from storage in my desk drawer. The sadness in his eyes, the richness in his hair, and the visible signs of aging in the whiteness of his beard have haunted me ever since. I have carried the story of this man with me across borders and geographic landmasses, from Europe, to Asia, and across the United States, and back to Grenada. He has roamed in my mind until I was mentally exhausted from trying to piece it all together, yet, I remain puzzled. Writing in memory of the 33rd year since his political assassination is my way of saying hello and good-bye.
This piece is not a historical background on the Grenadian Overthrow and the consequences of the U.S inter-vasion. One can simply read up on one’s own. However, my task here is to encourage a dialogue between the few who’ve researched and studied these events and the many who participated as a family member, soldier or journalist in the events between September – November, 1983.
Maurice Bishop was gunned down, execution style, on the fort which he renamed after his slain father, Rupert. On 19th October, 1983, Maurice and his cabinet members—Jacqueline Creft, Evelyn Bullen, Fitzroy Bain, Norris Bain, Unison Whiteman, Keith Hayling, and Evelyn Maitland—were all liquidated shortly after 1 p.m. as the Grenadian sun blistered against their brown bodies. Their bodies, now stained with blood, minced flesh, and fragmented bone were riddled with high powered metal bullets. They crumbled upon the ground, in a heap, next to and on top of each other. In an attempt to wash away the evidence, the female soldiers were asked to hose down the bodies, filtering bodily fragments down the drainage. The washing away of the evidence is not only an act of cleansing but also an erosion of history and comradery. This simple act of killing is more than just a solitary event, because like the blood on that hot and sunny day, it congealed, making everything around it messy and sticky.
There is a lot written on the overthrow and the subsequent invasion in the form of an intervention by the U.S. led by President Reagan, as well as the aftermath. However, what I am interested in is the days leading up to 19th October. My search is for a comprehensive display of the actions taken and why. It is hard to separate fact from truth so I write with caution (Puri 2014). I will refrain from terminology like “Marxist”, “Leninist”, “Socialist”, “Communist” and “Leftist”, “intervention”, “invasion”, “C.I.A” and the “United States Government.” These words have been ‘corrupted’ (Marshall 2010) and ‘overused’ (Ingold 2014). Understanding what truly happened requires a stripping away of superficial jargons, the spices and seasonings that mask the true grit of the entree. It is easy to get intoxicated and carried away by the aroma of easy terminology blanketed for easy consumption and digestion. However, the risk of indigestion is at its highest when food is flavoured to death. Thus, I will speak plainly, sincerely, and in a manner congenial to separating truth from fact. This is an elegy for the slain, for the forgotten, and for the living whose daily existence rests on lamentations for their loved ones, still missing, still unburied.
There are two reasons for this piece: (1) to bid farewell to Maurice Bishop and (2) to remember the slain. I chose the title with precision and care. “Boo Radley” because Maurice was misunderstood. He was only a mockingbird who wanted to sing, and for this, he was liquidated. An elegy because this is a poem of sorts, in remembrance of the departed. And spicy lamentations to represent the isle of spice which is Grenada but also, it represents the sting in the expression of grief by the family members: there is a fiery and burning nature in their cry, in their need for answers and for justice.
This year marks thirty-three years since the liquidation of the prime minister, government officials, soldiers, civilians and students on Fort Rupert. The massacre left rippling effects on Grenadians and foreigners who endured the human travesty of that day in 1983. There are many unanswered and unasked questions that surround the days leading up to the day of the liquidations and the days that followed. The scars and blemishes from that day are open and festering, like Kick ‘em Jenny herself, lying dormant, waiting, patiently and silently. If you are wondering why I use the term ‘liquidate’, I am using it to stay true to the period. The People’s Revolutionary Army/Government used it freely in those days to signify political deaths either through executions or assassinations. I am also using liquidation because it matches the manner in which the bodies were shot and disposed of—it was inhuman and heartless. There were no bodies left, but just fragments of what were once whole bodies, bodies that were once living, breathing entities with hopes, dreams and life. The bodies were shot to a pulp, burned, buried, unearthed, delivered to various facilities, and disposed of—the secrets of the missing remains, remain.
I have been to Fort Rupert as a child but I was unable to grasp the weight of History. I was unable to comprehend the history that I have inherited and how it will shape my understanding of self. One felt the awry stagnation that history left on the stone walls—the bullets that ricocheted from bone, flesh, and muscle tissue to be embedded within the fabric design of the walls, leaving one stunned and mesmerized. Most of the bullet holes have since been cemented over. Those that haven’t been cemented in an attempt to whitewash history show signs of plant and animal life—ironically, in death, these forms of life strive to live. The visible wounds on the walls, I guess, mirrors the wounds of the people, and there can only be so many open wounds on such a small island for sanity to prevail and for history to stay at bay and not be repeated.
I have been wondering and wandering for quite some time on the massacres of the 19th of October. The more answers I have, the more questions bloom. It is cyclical, frustrating and complicated. I am not sure anyone fully comprehends the events leading up to the massacre, the actions of the massacre itself, and the comedown from the massacres on Fort Rupert, literally and emotionally. There are many versions and many unsaid truths and innuendos; together, they weave a history that is as messy as the reasons why the massacre occurred. For example, one thing is certain, the investigation carried out on the bodily remains were botched at various junctures, from the removal from the fort by the People’s Revolutionary Army, to the excavation by the U.S Army, to the storage at the make-shift facilities by the U.S Army (some say unrefrigerated), to the forensic examination at S.G.U., to the burial by the funeral home. In between these posts, it is clear that evidence was lost, stolen and severely tampered with. The remains were manipulated from their initial burial on 19th October to their removal on the evening of 9th November to the second burial, on a date no one remembers. The lack of care leaves me grasping for comprehension at the utter disregard for human life—disregard that connects Bernard Coard to Ronald Reagan. It is interesting when Fidel Castro seems to be the most earnest and sincere leader in a moment of crisis. To this day, the belongings of the liquidated have never been returned to their loved ones—no jewellery or clothing, not even a tooth or a fingernail. Not even a piece of hair. On an island that small, where could they have disappeared to?
As Grenada sets the stage for its constitutional reform and referendum on 27th October, 2016, where eight Bills will be voted on, I hope voters are attentive and accountable to the history they have inherited and the blood that has been shared for this right. I hope they pay attention to what is required of them, as citizens and as humanitarians. These changes have been years in the making and will alter the way rights are allocated. This is quite monumental because it is calling for sovereignty and self-determination and it is severing ties with the British government and offering rights to its citizenry. In a way, it is living up to the legacy of the revolution, in terms of self-reliance and legal rights to its people. Though time will tell if this is done with the intention to service the people or to create private, political ascension, which has been the bedrock of politics in the small island dating back to Grenada’s Independence and Eric Matthew Gairy’s dictatorial rule.
I wrote this with the intention to give reconciliation to the victims’ families. It is also written to give a feminine perspective on the revolution, during which the mothers and daughters were left to carry the burden after their husbands, sons and brothers were killed. I use the word “feminine” because so far, the documented accounts of the massacres on that day are male heavy, meaning that the accounts are told from the masculine perspective in ways that neglect the families and the burden on the progeny. When men go to battle and die in battle, it is the mothers, wives and female members of a family left to pick up the pieces. Therefore, it is inaccurate to describe war and revolution without including the experiences and voices of women. I write to remember the lives lost and the blood shed on 19th October, 1983. But mostly it is written to remind us all that love heals and that love always wins. To this day, the exact number of deaths is unknown, the bodies of the liquidated are still missing, and the families remain in a state of perpetual lamentation.
Montaigne, in his essay On Sadness, said, “In truth, the impact of grief, to be extreme, must stun the whole soul and impede its freedom of action; as it happens to us, at the hot alarm of some very bad news, to feel ourselves caught benumbed, and as it were paralyzed from any movements, so that the soul, relaxing afterward into tears and lamentations, seems to unbend, extricate itself, and gain more space and freedom.” This lamentation is present in every person I have interviewed over the past few months. It doesn’t matter which side they stood on at the time; today, they all cry a familiar cry, shed the same tears and feel the same thing. They are still stunned and in shock that these events occurred on such a small island, in their beloved isle of spice, Grenada. Shalini Puri elaborated on this by writing, “Jacob Ross has observed that in their struggle to understand October 19, some people focus on different things, however, for him ‘his question as a novelist is this: what is it that enables people who worked together, lived together, and slept together, to do this to one another?’” The inability to comprehend this question and its incommensurability fuels the trauma of the Grenadians alive who’ve endured the revolution and the deaths on 19th October. However, hope is not lost. I have realized that within the spaces between and amongst the words used, one can decipher where the truth lies in wait and where so-called facts blur the distinction between what occurred and what didn’t. If one pays close attention and reads attentively with honest intention, the truth is illuminated like Luminol at a crime scene: the blood, though supposedly washed away, remains and is more translucent than ever, lighting up what happened and how it occurred, giving voice to the dead, from beyond the grave. Like love, justice will always prevail.