'The Kingdom of God belongs to people with names'

Jonathan Schell

October 20, 1993|By Jonathan Schell

THE end of the Cold War is disturbing the peace of the dead as well as the living. One change reportedly in the offing in the aftermath of the showdown between the Russian parliament and Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, is the burial of the founder of the Soviet regime, Vladimir Lenin, whose greenish corpse, bathed in a pink light, has been on display in a mausoleum in Red Square since his death in 1924. The overdue termination of the weird, earthly immortality of these pharaonic remains would symbolize the end of Soviet communism as nothing else quite could.

In another part of Moscow, the aim is not burial but a kind of disinterment. In the offices of Memorial, the organization founded to rescue the memory of the victims of communism, boxes of photographs of those who were about to be killed are filling the shelves. Elsewhere in the ex-Soviet Union, the actual digging-up of bodies from mass graves proceeds.

Not all of the digging is going on in ex-communist lands, however. On this side of the former Iron Curtain, too, there are massacres to be accounted for -- bones to be dug up, stories to be recorded, tears to be wept. In a recent story in the Washington Post, Jim Naughton reported on the counterpart of Memorial in El Salvador, where death squads controlled by the American-supported former right-wing government murdered tens of thousands of citizens. In Russia, Memorial receives state support. In El Salvador, the peasants are on their own.

Everyone has learned by now that the murderous governments of our century, not content with destroying their foes, try also to erase every trace of their memory. In this effort, the El Salvadoran military made unspeakable innovations. "The Salvadoran military understood that memory is the last redoubt of resistance, and killed in such a way as to make remembrance unbearable," Mr. Naughton wrote. "Men's severed genitals were stuffed down their throats. Women's wombs were wrapped around their faces. Babies were lofted for bayonet practice."

All over El Salvador, peasants are digging up their murdered friends and relatives, and reburying them in funeral services in their native villages. "Before this," a man in the mountains north -- of Chalatenango told reporter Naughton, "they couldn't let themselves mourn. Now they can." Often, the families must physically reassemble the victims. "We would find a finger over here, an arm there, a body over there," a village priest said. "We would gather them together, put them in God's good earth, and say the words of God over them."

He added a surprising thought: "The kingdom of God belongs to people with names." Perhaps it has not been until our time that the full importance of names has become clear. A name -- a sound in the mouths of others -- is a person's first and fundamental tie to the wider world, and the act of naming, giving the new person an individual place in our most thoroughly collective possession, language, represents a kind of welcome into the human community. Hence, the recovery of names from the anonymity of slaughter is a recovery not just of the lost person but of community itself.

It's scarcely surprising, then, that in El Salvador a form of art based on names is blossoming. For instance, in a church in the village of San Jose los Flores, a poster shows a large cross against a sunny countryside. "Taped to the cross," Mr. Naughton tells us, "are more than 100 smaller crosses, each representing a family that lost someone in the war. Most of those crosses have several names on them. A few have five or six." It's a poster that would be readily understood in the Memorial offices in Moscow. It should also be understood in Washington, where Americans can inspect the 58,000 or so names on the walls of the Vietnam War Memorial -- Americans who have learned to mourn for our own dead in the Cold War if not yet for those who were the blameless victims of our policies.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.