Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The uprising and the poet

The poet lay in his bed, waiting for the sleep that would not come, thinking of his friend who had been shot down and growing increasingly distraught. Eventually he tossed aside his blankets and began pacing the room. Finally, this anguished man of letters reverted to form: stopped his restless pacing, sat down to his desk, and took up pen and paper.

The poet was, by day, a professor of literature, respected by colleagues and students alike, but his own work was not widely known. He had abandoned his own university studies to travel widely through the tropics, eventually settling down to take a teaching position far from the land of his birth, but remaining in contact with friends and family and thereby maintaining an active interest in what went on back home. This morning, hearing the news of the unrest in his hometown, he had snatched the paper from the newsboy and become all but oblivious to his immediate surroundings.

To understand what had happened on that day in April, it is necessary to consider a few facts of timing and geography. To begin with, a war for independence had begun. A military installation far away from both the poet and his hometown had been besieged, then bombarded, and finally surrendered. Surprisingly, there had been no casualties, at least in actual combat. Generous terms had been offered, and when the colors were saluted prior to the evacuation of the fort, there had been an accidental explosion that killed an artilleryman and wounded several others, one mortally. Otherwise, the war had been bloodless, but everyone recognized that, after a long period of tension, a state of war now existed.

It is also important to note that one of the provinces adjacent to the capital city had just declared its independence, broken away from the established government. That action had yet to be formalized by popular vote, but no one on either side of the conflict doubted the outcome. The old government in its capital was vulnerable, and acutely aware of the fact.

It was therefore inevitable that military forces coming to the aid of the capital would have to come the other way, through a province that had not yet made up its collective mind. Certain of its leaders were unquestionably loyal to the old regime, others less so; its people were likewise divided, especially in its largest city—the poet's hometown—and careful handling was called for.

Unfortunately, it was not forthcoming.

The first reinforcements to come through the city were alternately cheered and jeered, according to the sympathies of the neighborhood, but arrived in the capital without incident. The national authorities pointedly advised their provincial counterparts that it would be in their best interest to see to it that future troop movements were likewise unhindered; perhaps even a show of welcome might be made. Unfortunately, they did not bother to inform even their loyalist allies when those troop movements might be expected.

And so when the next unit came through, it encountered a hostile citizenry, with no police escort or other civil authority to keep the peace between government soldiers and the independence-minded crowd. The crowd cursed the soldiers as mercenaries bent on suppressing independence but forgot, in their zeal, that this was in fact a new unit, recently recruited for expressly that purpose, and as yet lacking the discipline that might be expected of more experienced troops.

Like many uprisings, and many massacres, this one began with bricks and stones and ended with gunfire. Four soldiers and at least a dozen civilians were killed in the melee, with dozens more on both sides wounded. The violence concluded with a postscript: troops shooting an unarmed man from their transport, a prominent businessman who, unaware of the incident earlier in the day, gave voice to a pro-independence cheer. (Only hours after the first combat casualties of the war, and already a war crime had been committed, though it was never prosecuted.)

Martial law soon followed, but reports of the massacre were impossible to contain. The media already had the story, and so the professor of literature grabbed his newspaper, that night to toss and turn, and to pace, and finally to write. He would be done by dawn, and what he wrote was to become a stirring anthem.


The poet.

A history of the uprising.

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