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I was afraid to move: I was gasping for breath February 12, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

As those who favour the death penalty have found, killing a human being is surprisingly difficult. How much more difficult if you have a hundred, or a thousand or a hundred thousand human beings to kill and little time to do it. Bullets will only do so much, men and women can be filled with them, yet walk away, some may even fall into a prepared grave with no bullets in them and ‘play dead’. The drive of prisoners to get through is irrepressible.

And here we come, of course, to an important motif in modern massacre history: the survivor. (Note: in this place, about a year ago, Beachcombing paid tribute to some British survivors of an SS killing orgy in 1940.) Take, for example, Mevludin Oric who was one of the eight thousand Bosnian Muslims meant to be slaughtered at Srebenica and only one of three to survive. He fell down when the bullets began to fly and hid under the body of his (dead) cousin Hars. The Serbs could only do so much in the way of checking and when night fell MO crawled out of the killing field to bring the testimony of that horror to the wider world.

The most famous survivor of all is Dina Pronicheva, perhaps because of her propaganda value for the Soviet authorities after the war. DP was a Jewish puppeteer from Kiev and was brought with about 150,000 Russians to the killing pits at Babi Yar by the Nazi conquerors.

They lined us up on a ledge [after the prisoners had been stripped] which was so small that we couldn’t get much of a footing on it. They began shooting us. I shut my eyes, clenched my fists, tensed all my muscles and took a plunge down before the bullets hit me. It seemed I was flying forever. But I landed safely on the bodies. After a while, when the shooting stopped, I heard the Germans climbing into the ravine. They started finishing off all those who were not dead yet, those who were moaning, hiccuping, tossing, writhing in agony. They ran their flashlights over the bodies and finished off all who moved. I was lying so still without stirring, terrified of giving myself away. I felt I was done for. I decided to keep quiet. They started covering the corpses over with earth. They must have put quite a lot over me because I felt I was beginning to suffocate. But I was afraid to move. I was gasping for breath. I knew I would suffocate. Then I decided it was better to be shot than buried alive. I stirred but I didn’t know that it was quite dark already. Using my left arm I managed to move a little way up. Then I took a deep breath, summoned up my waning strength and crawled out from under the cover of earth. It was dark. But all the same it was dangerous to crawl because of the searching beams of flashlight and they continued shooting at those who moaned. They might hit me. So I had to be careful. I was lucky enough to crawl up one of the high walls of the ravine, and straining every nerve and muscle, got out of it.

And, of course, massacres of large numbers very often see one or two survive and, again and again, breathe quietly under a few centimetres of earth or crawl away when darkness arrives. If this wasn’t so monotonous then it would make quite a collection: but then perhaps the monotony is what would make the collection worthwhile.

The Nazi massacres had a good deal of survivors for the simple reason that the scale of the killing did not allow them to be systematic. Happy accidents such as those described above were taking place constantly. Beach stumbled, while writing this, on a remarkable and moving video account of a Jewish boy who became a Nazi mascot and that is well worth watching, particularly for the apple tree towards the end.

When, however, a nasty totalitarian regime really wants to kill a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand people and they have time and personnel there are no escapes.

At Katyn, for example, the NKVD made no errors in its murder of 20,000 plus Poles. The victims were, for the most part, shot one at a time. The ‘survivors’ of Katyn – with one very uncertain exception, Eugensz Andrei Komorowski – were those who were taken away from the killing camps before the order to kill was given. It is worthwhile remembering that in 1940, as these deeds were being done, there were still apologists in the West ‘explaining’ the Soviet occupation of Poland.

At the Ardeatine Massacre, when the Germans were counting heads and reading out names, the only man to escape death was a German deserter who had been accidentally rounded up and who explained his position just before the shooting began.

In Rwanda where most deaths took place with machetes rather than bullets there was, instead, lots of room for error on the part of murderers: one case must count for thousands there, the survival of Révérien Rurangwa (pictured), fifteen at the time his family was discovered in a goat shed in his home town, a man who bears the history of his nation scarred on what is left of his body.

Beach would like to produce here a list of survivors: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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 Several emails, sorry for lack of replies but Yahoo – imbeciles! – will not let me send emails from my account. I hope to sort this out in the next few days. Anyway onto what matters. First up is Crolex with the extraordinary story of an Austin local hero, Rwandan runner Gilbert Tuhabonye: On October 21, 1993, the centuries old war between the Tuti and Hutu tribes erupted in horrific reality one afternoon as Gilbert and his classmates were in school. The Hutu classmates at the Kibimba school, their parents, some teachers and other Hutu tribesmen, forced more than a hundred Tutsi children and teachers into a room where they beat and burned them to death. After nine hours of being buried by the corpses of his beloved friends, and himself on fire, Gilbert used the charred bone of one of his classmates to break through a window. He jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, on charred feet, surviving one of the most horrible massacres in the long Tutsi-Hutu war. He ran from that horror into a new life. KHM writes about the survivors of Wounded Knee, recalling to Beachcombing’s mind Black Elk’s horrific memorial of that slaughter. I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. Invisible writes in with this: On March 8, 1782 96 Moravian Christian Indians were murdered in cold blood by members of a Pennsylvania militia group, supposedly in retaliation for Indian murders of settlers. There were two survivors. This account comes from a 12-page booklet: A True History of the Massacre of Ninety-six Christian Indians at Gnadenhuetten , Ohio , March 8, 1782. Published by the Gnadenhuetten Monument and Cemetery Association, 1882. Only two lads of fourteen or fifteen years of age effected their escape from the hands of the murderers. One of these was knocked down and scalped with the rest in the slaughter-house of the brethren. Recovering a little he looked around, and beheld on all sides the mangled corpses of the dead. Among them he observed Abel attempting to rise, whom the white men, coming in soon afterwards, dispatched. With great presence of mind he lay quite still among the heaps of slain, and when they had departed, crept over the bodies to the door, still keeping himself in such a position as easily to feign death, if any person should approach. As it began to grow dusk, he quickly got out at the door, hid himself behind the house until it was quite dark, and then escaped. The other lad had loosed his bonds, soon after it was ascertained that they were to die, succeeded in escaping out of the house where they were confined, and crept by a small cellar window under the house where the women were subsequently butchered. Here he remained undetected, and as the butchery proceeded, saw the blood flow in streams into the cellar. He kept himself concealed till evening, when he with much difficulty made his way out of the narrow window into the woods. These two lads met providentially, and staying awhile to watch the movements of the white party, journeyed together to Sandusky. The boys are not named in any source I have seen although author Allen Eckert, who wrote about the massacre in Dark and Blood River, says that the boys were named Thomas (the scalped one) and Adam Stroud (which is also the name of a real 18th-century Pennsylvania German whose family was murdered by Indians.) I think these names are probably just literary license. More details and the full text of the booklet on the massacre at archive.org. It is painful reading. Thanks Invisible, Crolex and KMH!