Caleb Powell


Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya is a partisan fighting against the Nazi invasion. She is captured near the Russian border. Shortly after, in January of 1942, her picture is shown on the front pages of Pravda, one of her breasts is lopped off, and she is about to be hanged. She is eighteen years old.

When Masabata Loate returns to her township in South Africa, after spending five years in prison as an anti-apartheid activist, she is surprised to find the political climate has changed. A mob sets upon her with pangas and she is cut to pieces.

During the Great Terror, Vassili Klementovitch Sidorov is arrested and accused of various counter-revolutionary activities. One of his faults is that he has accused Stalin of killing too many people. He is sentenced on July 16th, and executed August 3rd, 1938.

Witold Pilecki, a Polish partisan and survivor of Auschwitz, organizes a movement against the Bolsheviks. It is 1945 when he returns to Poland. Three years later he is in prison, where he will be shot in the neck.

Sahib Da, an ethnic Hazara, instead of being taken to the pit in which the Taliban leave his compatriots, dies after being tied to a tree and beaten. His corpse is left to the elements.

On August 16, 1947, Nicolas Petkov is condemned to death in the name of the Bulgarian people. Still brave in the face of certain execution, he states to the court: “No. Not in the name of the Bulgarian people! I die in the name of your foreign masters in the Kremlin.”

The setting is the former Belgian Congo. In the first genocide of the twentieth century, as well as the last genocide of the nineteenth, a warrior and chief from the Sanga people, Mulume Niama, attempts to fight against King Leopold’s Force Publique. His corpse is found later in the Tshamakele cave in Katanga.

In China during the Cultural Revolution a Red Guard is among the participants in the hazing of one professor Chen Ku-Teh. The Red Guard remembers the teacher, and even idolizes him. However, the Red Guard watches from a far corner of the room as the professor’s life is extinguished. The death is ruled an accident.

Pak Hon Yong, a foreign minister and communist who fights many years for North Korea, is sentenced to death on December 15, 1955, for being a secret agent of the United States. He is executed three days later. There is no record of his existence in any known document of any U.S. organization.

Within a Vietnamese gulag Tran Tien Tai is beaten with a rattan cane. The blows do not stop until prisoner Tai is lying motionless in the dust. One of the guards, upon further examination of the body, exclaims, “Prisoner Tai died voluntarily. It was not the revolution that killed him.”

Edmond Mrugamba senses imminent jeopardy for being a Tutsi. He manages to survive the Rwandan genocide, but his brother does not. More than once Edmond sees his brother’s killer walk around Kigali, free. Edmond only hopes the killer shall feel psychological torture.

When Humberto Sori Marin’s mother pleads to Castro to spare the life of her son, partly on the grounds that Castro and Marin had known each other in friendlier circumstances during the 1950’s, Castro gives a promise of mercy. Days later, however, Marin is shot by firing squad.

In what may be legend, Victor Jara is forced to sing revolutionary songs in front of his executioners. The place is the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile. In what is fact, his wife Joan Jara looks at his corpse and, contrary to rumors, notes that instead of Victor’s hands having been severed, that they are merely broken.

During a fundraiser on February 15, 1992 in Villa El Salvador, Peru, Marķa Elena Moyano Delgado, an activist, is machine-gunned to death by members of the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. Her corpse then is blown to pieces with dynamite. Among the witnesses are her two children.

Testifying at the trial in absentia of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator of Ethiopia, Gizaw Tefera states that government soldiers decapitated his father. Then Gizaw describes how these soldiers offered the head for sale at a market. A debatably relevant footnote mentions that there were no buyers.

A man simply named Ibrahim, in a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, describes how Sierre Leone rebels douse his brother’s house in kerosene as his brother begs the rebels to let him inside and save his two daughters. The rebels refuse, light the house on fire, and incinerate the children.

Arshalois Mardigan, an Armenian, changes her name to Aurora upon arriving in the United States shortly after World War I. She recounts the death of her pregnant aunt, describing how the Turks cut open her aunt’s abdomen and pull out the fetus.

Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen and members of the Ba’athist party rape the sister of cleric Mohammad al-Sadr, not to be confused with his son the Iraqi insurgent Muqtada al-Sadr, in front of him. Then they murder the cleric by driving nails into his head…

You have just finished reading eighteen paragraphs. Each paragraph contained an image of death, and there are no less than nineteen victims. If these eighteen paragraphs took five minutes, and you continued at this pace for an hour you would cover 228 deaths. At twelve hours a day the toll would be 2,736. Keep this up seven days a week, and it would take 292 days, almost ten months, for you to reach the generally accepted number of the 800,000 who died in the Rwandan genocide. Ten months is a lot of time to spend reading about death. In contrast, the time it took to complete the killing in Rwanda spanned a period of less than four months. Then consider two years of this intensive reading to grasp Cambodia and the two million victims of the Khmer Rouge. Six years for the Holocaust, and twenty years for Stalin’s Great Terror.

More than one analyst of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge has specifically condemned them for a lack of imagination. In their attempt to recreate society, the Khmer Rouge obliterated the capacity or incentive to dream of a personal happiness. They forbade the will to imagine. The Khmer Rouge’s failure of the imagination may seem an outrageously trite accusation compared to the killing fields of Cambodia, yet this capacity is what makes possible human benevolence. This failure, specifically, is a failure of compassion. A failure of being able, as the aphorisms go, to treat others as you wish to be treated and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

I could say here how it is wrong to kill, and that we all must love one another, yet I am hindered by the discomfort I feel when I judge, for I lack moral authority. Or perhaps this is just my insecurity as I sit in my study and compile examples of death.