It was a scene reminiscent of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, recalls Gus John. Thousands of people had advanced on the prime minister’s home and released him from house arrest. But as they waited to hear Maurice Bishop address them, he was seized by the army and executed by firing squad along with 10 of his loyalists.
His killers were the very comrades with whom he had seized power to form a radical government in Grenada four years earlier. Hundreds lost their lives in the chaos that preceded and followed the executions, including John’s sick father who had been unable to get to hospital for vital treatment because of a military curfew.
Then, a few days later on October 25 1983, the US embarked on its first major military operation since Vietnam by invading the tiny Caribbean nation, making the most of the anarchy to remove the regime that had been supported by Cuba and by extension the Soviet bloc. It was to be one of the final episodes of Cold War brinkmanship.
When the grief-stricken John managed to return to Grenada from London a few weeks later, he kept a diary detailing the deep pain and confusion his compatriots felt over the horrific end of the ‘Revo’ – not the US invasion but the betrayal of those who had decided to end their political differences by the gun.
The release last year of the last of the 17 people convicted of involvement in Bishop’s murder prompted John, a former education director of Hackney council, to publish his diary. In it he calls on them to “cleanse their souls” by explaining their role in the executions and why unarmed civilians were gunned down, including children.
Time to Tell: the Grenada Massacre and after… has already prompted an island-wide debate on the events of 1983, which almost three decades on remain an open wound on the national psyche. “We want closure to this most catastrophic episode in Grenada’s history,” he says. “To this day, many people don’t even know where the bodies of their loved ones [killed during the massacre] have been buried.”
Grenada’s “man-made hurricane” began after Bishop was placed under house arrest following ideological differences between him and his deputy Bernard Coard. “When 60 per cent of the population went to release Maurice, it was a scene not unlike what we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt,” said John at the book’s UK launch last week. But the bloodshed that followed was unprecedented in the Caribbean. Among those shot dead with Bishop was his pregnant wife, the education minister Jacqueline Creft. As the crowds tried to flee the horrific executions, up to 200 were killed.
Two things strike you as you read the book. Firstly, that the People’s Revolutionary Government that seized power in a bloodless coup in 1979 had enjoyed widespread support among Grenadans, who wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity of being active participants in the running of their country.
Secondly, contrary to the condemnation of the US invasion adopted by progressives everywhere, the majority of Grenadans welcomed it as rescuing them from the terror that had engulfed them. In a country no bigger than the Isle of Wight where most people have some sort of connection with each other, the sense of betrayal and anger was all the more intense.
John describes Coard and Bishop as “school mates” whom he later worked with in London during anti-racist campaigns the 1960s. He had every reason to be optimistic about the future of a government led by them and the health, housing and education reforms that followed seemed to confirm his instincts. It remains a mystery as to why it all went so horribly wrong, although the saying ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ springs to mind.
When Coard and his 16 associates were handed down lengthy prison sentences, they were regarded as victims of an improper trial and a campaign sprang up to free them. Judging from John’s book, they would have attracted little sympathy from Grenadans themselves.
“Coard and the rest have said nothing about what happened,” says John.
“The diary calls on them to tell the people of Grenada their story, to provide answers about their part in the massacre of the revolution and the massacre of the people’s vision of building a more just and equitable society.”
Published: 24 February, 2011
Time to Tell: The Grenada Massacre and after