What Do You Do with a Massacre?
Grenadians Vote on Constitutional Reforms 33 years After the Assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop
Nine years ago, I came across this article: “Remembering That Fateful Day” by Michael D. Roberts, published in Carib-News (October 23, 2007). It had been 24 years since the killing of Grenadian prime minister Maurice Bishop and his cabinet members on Fort Rupert, in the parish of St. George’s, on that small “isle of spice.” I have carried this clipping with me since; it is now stained with age and fingerprints, and has a jaundiced pallor. The sadness in Bishop’s eyes, the fullness of his hair, and the whiteness of his beard haunt me. I have mentally exhausted myself trying to piece together the events that led to his death. I remain puzzled. Writing now in the 33rd year since his political assassination, as Grenadians prepare for a referendum on constitutional reform, is my way of saying both hello and goodbye.
Maurice Bishop was gunned down, execution style, on the fort he had renamed after his own slain father, Rupert, on October 19, 1983. He and his cabinet members — Jacqueline Creft, Evelyn Bullen, Fitzroy Bain, Norris Bain, Unison Whiteman, Keith Hayling, and Evelyn Maitland — were all liquidated shortly after 1:00 p.m. under a blistering Grenadian sun. Their bodies were riddled with high-powered metal bullets. They crumpled upon the ground, in a heap, next to and on top of each other, reduced to blood, minced flesh, and fragmented bone. In an attempt to wash away the evidence, female soldiers were asked to hose down the bodies, filtering bodily fragments down the drain.
This washing away of the evidence was also an erosion of history and camaraderie. The killings were part of an overthrow of Maurice by his rival within the Marxist New Jewel Movement, Bernard Coard. The killing has become more than just a solitary event. Like the blood on that hot and sunny day, it congealed, making everything around it messy and sticky.
I use the term “liquidate” to stay true to the period: the People’s Revolutionary Army and government used it freely in those days to signify political deaths. I also use it because it matches the inhuman manner in which Bishop and his cabinet were disposed of. There were no bodies left, really, just fragments of what were once living, breathing entities with hopes, dreams and lives. They were shot to a pulp, burned, buried, unearthed, delivered to various facilities, and disposed of — the secret of the missing remains, remains.
A lot has been written on the overthrow of Bishop and the subsequent United States invasion, led by President Reagan. However, I am interested in the days leading up to October 19th. I have been searching for some comprehensive account of, and explanation for, the actions taken that day, through research that includes countless hours of interviews and face-to-face conversations with people connected to that day. I am not interested in words like “Marxist,” “Leninist,” “Socialist,” “Communist,” and “Leftist.” These terms have been corrupted (see Alex Marshall’s How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken) and overused (see Tim Ingold’s “That’s Enough about Ethnography!”). Understanding what truly happened requires stripping away jargon.
Tillman Thomas, former Prime Minister of Grenada, said to me in an interview that “the guys [the killers] lost themselves. They became godless under this Marxist thing.” Tillman was imprisoned for an extended period of time during the revolution, and was released only after the United States and the Caricom nations intervened on October 25th. Tillman was the prime minister when Grenada’s international airport was renamed from for Maurice Bishop, and was present along with Nadia Bishop, the daughter of the slain prime minister, during the ceremony.
I have also spoken to the victims’ family members. The wife of one of the ministers killed on the fort said to me “They had all been to my house. I fed them. We trusted them…how could they have done that? I cannot understand.”
As noted in The Motorcycle Diaries (Ocean Press, 2003), Che Guevara once wrote in the margins of his journal that revolution “will take [people’s] lives, even utilize their memory as an example or as an instrument for domesticating the youth who follow them…Revolution is impersonal.” But is it ever impersonal? In the Grenadian case, the perpetrators of the crime refused to inform Maurice’s mother of his death because they feared facing her. The question remains, how could they have done that to their brothers and sisters?
In The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present (Palgrave Macmillian, 2014), Shalini Puri elaborated on this in her comments on Grenadian novelist Jacob Ross:
Ross has observed that in their struggle to understand October 19, some people focus on different things, however, 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 more accounts I hear about the massacre of October 19th, the more questions bloom. It is cyclical, frustrating and complicated. I am not sure anyone fully comprehends the events leading up that date, the massacre itself, or the aftermath. The investigation carried out on the bodily remains was itself botched at various junctures, from the bodies’ removal from the fort by the People’s Revolutionary Army, to later excavation by the US Army, to the bodies’ storage at make-shift facilities by the US Army (some say unrefrigerated), to the forensic examination at SGU, to the burial by the funeral home. Evidence was lost, stolen and severely tampered with. The remains were manipulated from their initial burial on October 19th, to their removal on the evening of November 9th, to their second burial, on a date no one remembers. The lack of care leaves me shocked at the utter disregard for human life — disregard that runs from Bernard Coard to Ronald Reagan. 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 November 24th, I hope voters are attentive and accountable to the history they have inherited and the blood that has been shed. I hope they pay attention to what is required of them, as citizens and as human beings. These changes have been years in the making and will alter the way rights are allocated. The reforms call for sovereignty and self-determination, and severing ties with the British government, as well as offering rights to the citizens of Grenada. In a way, the constitutional changes are living up to the legacy of the revolution, in terms of self-reliance and legal rights for the people. The new bills seek protection for citizens under arrest, by enforcing their fundamental right to council. They protect intellectual property and children “born in or out of wedlock.” They guarantee public funding for education for children under sixteen, and up to eighteen for those with disabilities. They guarantee “gender equality…and rights in all spheres.” And lastly, they seek to protect the environment, and the disabled from maltreatment.
Corruption has dogged Grenadian politics, and scandals have become commonplace under the current administration. These amendments will presumably uphold democracy and transparency. But time will tell if this is being done with the genuine intention of serving the people, or whether it will abet private, political ascension, which has been the bedrock of politics on the small island dating back to Grenada’s independence and Eric Matthew Gairy’s dictatorial rule.
The change of a nation’s Constitutional Bill of Rights is never a light matter and should be taken with caution and care. My hope is that the Grenadians remain fully aware of the political responsibilities — theirs, as citizens, and the government’s — that lie ahead.
But I wrote this mainly to remember the lives lost and the blood shed on October, 19, 1983 — as an elegy for the slain, and a consolation for the living, whose daily existence still involves lamentations for their loved ones, still missing, still unburied. Not just government officials, but soldiers, civilians and students were killed on Fort Rupert that day. To this day, the exact number of deaths is unknown. The wounds from that day are still open, like Kick ‘em Jenny herself, the active volcano just north of the island.
But the same tragedy that pitted brother against brother on that day in 1983 also unites Grenadians in their grief. The lamentation is present in every Grenadian I spoke to 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. This alone forms a common ground from which the people can move forward on November 24.
I went to Fort Rupert as a child but I was unable to grasp the weight of history. I saw the marks on the stone walls — from bullets that had ricocheted from bone, flesh, and muscle. Most of the bullet holes have since been cemented over in an attempt to whitewash history. Those that have not show signs of plant and animal life, flourishing in the traces of death.