Burial Lessons: From Che to bin Laden

IN FOCUS, 9 May 2011

Jon Lee Anderson – The New Yorker

There are some uncanny analogies between the story of Osama bin Laden’s life and death and that of another charismatic political outlaw, who, once upon a time, “declared war” on the United States. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary and close confidante of Fidel Castro, was no terrorist, but he was a Communist ideologue who espoused violent political change, and who defied America by seeking to start guerrilla wars around the world—to create “one, two, three, many Vietnams” to draw in the U.S. military, sap its strength, and ultimately bring about a new, socialist world order. Guevara’s whereabouts had been a topic of international mystery and intrigued speculation since he had vanished from public view, in Cuba, in 1965; it had been rumored that he might be leading the fledgling guerrilla forces in Bolivia or somewhere else, but nothing was certain. When the U.S. eventually tracked Che down and helped kill him, in Bolivia, there was also a great deal of secrecy about the circumstance of his death and the disposal of his body.

When, on the morning of October 9, 1967, Che was executed by Bolivian army rangers in an operation overseen by the C.I.A., his bullet-riddled body was airlifted by helicopter to the nearby town of Vallegrande. That afternoon, after nuns had washed his corpse, the dead Che was put on public display in the laundry house of the town’s hospital. Che’s corpse was viewed by hundreds of curious locals and a handful of journalists, who photographed it and filmed it. By that time, Bolivia’s military high command had issued a communiqué that Che had died of wounds suffered in battle. Guevara had, in fact, died of bullet wounds—but not in battle. After being wounded and taken alive, he had been held overnight, in the dirt-floored schoolhouse of a tiny rural hamlet. He was interrogated by a C.I.A. agent and Bolivian officers, and then executed, shot to death at close range by a Bolivian sergeant, who volunteered to do the job. The C.I.A. agent in charge ordered Che’s executioner to shoot him from the neck down so that it looked like he had died in battle, and he did.

On the night of October 10th, the Vallegrande hospital was cordoned off while two Argentine police forensic experts, who had arrived secretly that day, took Che’s fingerprints to cross-check them with their own records. Che’s hands were amputated, put in jars with formaldehyde, and placed in the custody of Bolivia’s intelligence chief. Then, in the wee hours, without any civilian onlookers present, Che’s body was taken to a nearby dirt airstrip on the edge of town, where a bulldozer dug a large pit, and it was dumped inside, together with the bodies of several dead comrades. The pit was then covered over. By the time Che’s brother Roberto arrived the next morning, intending to identify him and reclaim his remains, his body was gone.

The military officers obfuscated. One said that Che’s body had been taken away by helicopter and dumped into the distant jungle; another said he had been cremated, the ashes dispersed. At that point, a mantle of secrecy descended, and it became clear that those who knew where Che’s remains had ended up were not going to talk. The point, as some of the officers later explained, was that they did not want a burial place where Che’s legion of admirers could come and venerate him. More than anything else, they wanted the potency of Che’s message to die with him.

It took twenty-eight years for the truth to come out. In 1995, during my research for a biography I was writing about Che, a retired Bolivian army general broke the silence and told me about the secret burial in the airstrip. Che’s body was eventually found, exhumed, and repatriated to Cuba, where it was reburied with full state honors in 1997, provoking a great deal of acrimony among Cuban exiles, who saw it as a propaganda coup for the Castro regime—which it was. Every year, tens of thousands of Cubans and foreign tourists visit the Che mausoleum in Cuba, just as others visit the schoolhouse in Bolivia where he was killed, which has become a museum-shrine. Meanwhile, in spite of published DNA evidence and the testimony of forensic experts who examined Che’s remains, there are those who persist, vainly, in denying that it was really Che’s body that was found—as if that alone would somehow diminish the power of his legacy, which remains, for all the silly T-shirts, uniquely potent.

With their “sea burial” of Osama bin Laden, the United States has presumably sought to forestall a similarly long, drawn-out “where is he buried?” saga. As for the possibility that the place where he was killed might become a shrine, that is not in American hands, of course, but in the Pakistani military’s. They may find it awkward if their exclusive Abbottabad enclave—populated, as it is said to be, by senior Pakistani military officers and their families—becomes a pilgrimage site for bin Laden’s extremist followers. Presumably, Pakistan will destroy the house he lived in, but what will they do about the ground it stood on? Like the Bolivians, they can always resort to military secrecy and build a wall, but this one will have to be physical as well as figurative. This, too, will be awkward, because the walled vacant lot will be a permanent reminder that Osama bin Laden lived out his days in their midst. But maybe not. Who’s talking?

Go to Original – newyorker.com


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