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The Challenge

No-one respected us, no-one feared us. We inspired scorn, or at most pity.

We lived in terror of the night and the jungle. The most vulnerable creatures of the earth’s zoology, we were useless as kids, not much better as adults, bereft of claws or fangs or quick feet or a long snout. To be a mouth or to be a mouthful, hunter or hunted, that was the question. We didn’t rise above the category of an easy lunch for tigers and lions and wolves and bears and boars and the rest of our voracious neighbours.

Against all odds, we were able to survive, because we knew how to band together against the many dangers we faced, and because we knew how to share whatever food we found.

That’s how it was, that’s how it worked in the early days, long before our save-your-bacon and what’s-mine-is-mine civilization.

If back then we had been the way we are now, we would not have lasted 15 minutes in this world.

The Cemetery

The cemetery of Chichicastenango dies laughing. Death wears a thousand colours on the flowering tombs, perhaps to celebrate the end of the earthly nightmare, this bad dream of bosses and being bossed that death terminates in a single blow when it makes us all naked and equal.

But in the cemetery I don’t see a single headstone from 1982 or 1983, the time of the great killings in the indigenous communities of Guatemala. The army threw those bodies into the sea, or into the mouths of volcanos, or incinerated them in who knows what common graves.

The happy colours of the tombs of Chichicastenango salute death, the Equalizer, who treats the beggar and the king with the same courtesy. But the cemetery does not hold those who died for wanting life to do the same.

The Loser

Many did not return. Of the North Americans of the Lincoln Brigade, many were buried in Spain, in the soil for which they fought.

Abe Osheroff was one who did return. With one lame leg and the other good, Abe came back. A bullet had ruined his right knee.

Spain was the first war he lost. Ever since, carried along by his relentless left leg, Abe never stopped. Over the decades and against the current, despite betrayals and defeats and beatings and jailings, he never stopped. The right leg refused, as the left leg insisted. The right leg said, ‘I’m staying right here,’ but the left leg decided, ‘I’m taking you there’. Time and again Abe hit the road and travelled the United States from end to end, from sea to sea, always getting into trouble, by marching against McCarthy’s witch-hunts, the Korean War, racial segregation, the Iran coup d’état and the crime of Guatemala, the Vietnam butchery and the Indonesia bloodbath, nuclear tests and the Cuba blockade, the death penalty, the military overthrow in Chile, the strangling of Nicaragua, the invasion of Panama and the bombing of Iraq.

Abe was nearly 90 when his friend Tony Geist asked him, just out of curiosity, how he was doing. He raised his lion’s head with its big white mane and smiled from ear to ear. ‘I’m still walking, with one foot in the grave and the other one dancing.’


At reveille everyone was up.

No-one had slept a wink in that immense prison yard. After a day of beatings and threats of execution, the prisoners lay awake until dawn. Rumours of a massacre were rife.

‘Today is Easter Sunday,’ reported a recent arrival from Montevideo who had yet to lose track of the calendar.

The Christians spread the word: we have to celebrate. They knew gatherings were not allowed for any reason, and they’d learned in their own flesh that the rule was no joke. But something had to be done.

The other prisoners, the non-Christians, helped. Several of them sat on their cots and kept an eye on the barred gates. Others walked about, without apparent purpose, forming a human ring around the celebrants. The ceremony took place in the middle of the yard.

Miguel Brun whispered a few words. He evoked the resurrection of Jesus, which promised redemption for all captives. Jesus was persecuted, jailed, tormented and murdered, but one Sunday, one Sunday like this Sunday, he made the walls shake and tremble so that in every prison there would be freedom and in every solitude an encounter.

The prison yard had nothing. No bread, no wine, not even cups. It was a communion of empty hands. Miguel made an offering to the one who offered himself. ‘Eat,’ he whispered. ‘This is his body.’

And the Christians raised their hands to their lips and ate the invisible bread.

‘Drink. This is his blood.’

And they raised the non-existent cup and drank the invisible wine.

Then they embraced.

New Internationalist issue 335 magazine cover This article is from the June 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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