The people of Grenada need answers

Twenty-seven years ago, on 25 October 1983, US president Ronald Reagan – with the active encouragement of his allies in the Caribbean region, Dominica, Barbados and Jamaica in particular – invaded Grenada with more than 8,000 land, sea and air forces. They were responding to the execution of prime minister, Maurice Bishop, who had led the island’s revolutionary regime for four years.

The US troops battered the island for several weeks, amid fierce resistance from the Grenadian people’s revolutionary army and the 1,000 Cubans who had been building the island’s international airport.

Earlier that month, Bishop had been placed under house arrest by other members of his own party – including Bernard Coard the deputy prime minister and Hudson Austin, the head of the army – after a leadership struggle. His house arrest destabilised the country. On 19 October, the masses who remained loyal to the charismatic Bishop and had grown increasingly suspicious of the Coard faction, marched in their thousands to free Bishop before carrying him triumphantly to Fort Rupert.

Armoured trucks appeared, shooting started — and Bishop, his pregnant partner Jacqueline Creft, and several members of his cabinet were lined up against a wall and executed. Over 100 civilians, many of them children, also lost their lives in the massacre.

The previous day my father had died at home – amid all the turmoil it had been impossible to find a doctor to treat his strangulated hernia.

And when my mother ventured out to take him to hospital, she was confronted by militia ordering her back into her house. His body was still in a funeral home when the Americans invaded. Some time after the invading forces had knocked out the electricity supply in the island, bodies were taken from the funeral homes by soldiers in army trucks and buried.

Shortly after the invasion I went to Grenada to be with my mother and find out more about the circumstances surrounding the massacre and my father’s death. I found a country traumatised, frightened and confused. People everywhere spoke of how they felt betrayed by the leaders of the revolution. They were confused because the same Americans whom they’d been told were the revolution’s greatest threat, were the people who had come to rescue them from those who had put the whole country under house arrest.

Seventeen people — including Coard and General Austin — who were jailed for the Fort Rupert murders have recently been released from prison in Grenada. Coard now lives in Jamaica. Some of their fellow prisoners, including Austin, are employed by the Grenadian government.

But the released prisoners should not be embraced by Grenada’s civil society without answering the many questions that still remain about the events which led to the Fort Rupert massacre: questions to which the island’s long-suffering people need answers. Who gave the orders that live ammunition should be used against unarmed children and adults at Fort Rupert? Who ordered the execution of Maurice Bishop and the members of his government? Where were the bodies of those killed taken on 19 October 1983, and why were they not given to the public mortuary for relatives to identify, claim and bury? And for me, that to which I shall probably never find the answer is: who buried my father?

25 October is a public holiday in Grenada to mark the start of the «rescue mission» (as Reagan dubbed the invasion). Those who still mourn the victims of the massacre are calling for 19 October to be declared «Martyrs Day» and a public holiday, as a reminder that they have yet to bury their dead.

Most countries spare no effort in recovering their dead from conflict zones, or at least ensuring that they are identified and given a decent burial – often many decades after the particular hostilities ended. The people of Grenada have the same need.

Professor Gus John, a fellow of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London and visiting faculty professor of education at the University of Strathclyde.