Tempers are definitely fraying today. And mistakes are being made. Marcos was behind trouble again. He took the wrong path this morning and led Miguel and Loro on a wild goose chase. And then refused to admit that it was his fault when he reported in. He wanted radio communication so Braulio, Tuma, Pacho and I went off but we were sent back within an hour because Marcos said that the reception was too poor. There was a bit of an argument between Marcos and Pacho when we were there, but I didn’t hear what was going on. Just that Pacho told me to pack up the radio and come back with him to camp. He was fuming. Then Ramon sent Benigno out to tell Marcos to return by 4.30 if he hadn’t found the river. Pacho told Ramon that Marcos had threatened to hit him with a shovel, and a machete and had shoved him around and torn his clothes.
Ramon gathered those of us who had been around. I told him I’d heard something of an argument but seen nothing and not heard what had been said, or by whom. Ramon asked Inti and Rolando for their opinion. They both agreed that there was a bad atmosphere around because of Marcos behaviour – a difficult personality to get along with, Inti said, trying to be diplomatic - but they also said that Pacho has been behaving badly, not following instructions given. Ramon was not happy. I wouldn’t like to be in either Marcos or Pacho’s boots when he catches up with them. Actually, my boots are still the best ones to be wearing – many others are having trouble with their feet because their boots are not up to the job. Mine are holding up well. It’s probably just luck, or that my boots were new when I came here.
Ramon spoke to Marcos and Pacho. He didn’t make a big fuss but he didn’t hide his displeasure. He doesn’t go behind people’s backs and I could see that he wanted to bang their heads together and tell them both to grow up. He used the dispute to give us all a lesson – which must have made them feel ashamed – he certainly shamed them in front of the group, but it was their own fault. I hope I am never in that position, but they brought it on themselves.
Ramon told us that the hardships now were nothing to what would come in the future and we had to respond like true and decent men, not fight against each other or bully or threaten. He said that he would not have lies and deceit any more than bullying. We will have to put our lives in each other’s hands, he said, so we must be able to trust each and every member of the group with our lives. He told Marcos to be a better leader or he would be stripped of leadership and he told Pacho that he would be discharged dishonorably if he was caught lying again.
Ramon told everyone, especially theBolivians, that if they did not want to remain with us, if it was too hard, they should speak up and they could leave us without recriminations. But that the time would come when it was too late for this, so they must decide. No one moved.
This was not the worst thing of the day though and Ramon’s words came true sooner than anyone expected. I don’t even want to write what happened next but here it is. Benjamin is dead.
What happened is that we were climbing along a steep bank because of the rocks jutting out into the river which made walking along the side of it impossible. Benjamin was at the back of the group. He was just behind me. He had fallen over. I tried to help him with his knapsack. He picked it up and continued. Ramon told him to keep going. He was clearly exhausted, but we had to keep moving. There was nothing I could do to help him. I turned around again. I saw him step out onto a ledge. And then he slipped and was gone. He fell into the water. The current was swift. We all scrambled down to the water’s edge and tried to rescue him but he was swept along too fast. He went under in a pool of water before anyone could get into the river to save him. Rolando swam to the last place we saw him, dived down, but could not find him.
It was a practical example of everything that Ramon had said to us earlier. We have to be strong. We have to be prepared. We have to work together and trust each other. And even so, none of us are safe. Everyone is upset of course. But Pombo told me that this is not the last of us to die, so I must prepare myself for the reality and make sure it’s not me next.
When we finally set up camp the mood was quiet and no one really had the appetite for our meal of beans – it was the last of them but no one seemed to care. Ramon was quiet but he reminded us that if we are weak we will not survive. He said that Benjamin had a strong heart but a weak body and that a strong heart will not carry us through. We need to be strong in heart, body and mind. This is a wake up call for us all, he said.
Today we carried on, without Benjamin. There was nothing else to be done. Everyone was serious and quiet as if just realising the truth of our situation for the first time. No one wanted to put a foot wrong – in any sense. We hiked along the river bank and the jutting rocks until we finally reached the Rosita river. I kept thinking I might see Benjamin along the way, or at least his body, but we saw nothing of him. He is lost forever. That is a life, just gone, for nothing, in an instant. I can’t help but think it can happen to anyone and of course at any moment it could happen to me. But I will not let it. If I am to die here, I want to die fighting, not out of weakness or carelessness. I found it hard to talk to anyone today. Inti and Pombo seemed to be looking out for me, as if they also thought that maybe it would be me next to die from some accident. We ate the last of our reserve rations today, but I cannot enjoy eating. I know I need to eat to stay strong, but I feel sick to the stomach about Benjamin.
We had a rest day in the morning and Ramon spoke to us about Benjamin. He could see how it has affected us all. He explained to us that we must face such trauma and that we cannot always avoid accidents but that we need to work together and be more aware and more helpful of each other. He said that the death should be a lesson to us We must all work on our weaknesses and build up our strengths. This is no game. This is life or death. I think everyone understands that now. He said that even the experienced men have gone soft due to time spent in offices after the Revolution. He said both Marcos and Pacho seem unable to adapt to the life of the guerrilla and that they had better shape up or they will be sent home. I was glad that he didn’t criticise me at all. I know they deserve it, and if I deserve it I will need to take the criticism, but I am trying hard to be like Che and I never want to be accused of lack of commitment.
In the afternoon various groups were sent out scouting the way ahead. I stayed in the camp. No one found a good trail and Marcos built another raft for us to cross the river. I am more frightened of the water than ever, seeing how it took away Benjamin, so I was reluctant to go on the raft, but I knew I would have to. To test the raft five knapsacks were sent over. Benigno and Marcos went across with five knapsacks. On the way back Benigno left his shoes behind and the the raft was lost. Benigno and Marcos made it to shore but Benigno’s shoes are still on the other side. Along with the knapsacks of five men. Not mine, thankfully.
Once again, carelessness. Beningo will suffer now. Once for his carelessness, and again and again for the lack of shoes. He shrugged and told me that his shoes were worn through anyway and he was not a man to make a fuss, but I could tell he was upset at the loss of them.
Raining again. It rained most of the day and when it stopped at around mid afternoon the river was so high it was decided not to cross at all today. We found an abandoned hut and some of us move in there to shelter from the rain. We set up a new camp but some of the men, including Joaquin, stayed where they were. There was trouble with the food. We have all been given some emergency rations but they are not to be eaten unless we are told. These include cans of milk and tins of sardines. It was reported that Polo had had his can of milk, and Eusebio both milk and sardines, without being told they could. Ramon told them they would not eat when the rest of us had our rations of these items as a punishment. They were not happy. Eusebio said to me ‘what am I supposed to do, I am hungry.’ I told him we were all hungry, all the time, but we had to live with being hungry until we were told we could eat. He didn’t like that. He thought I would be sympathetic. He doesn’t see that we need to get used to hunger, and more importantly, to disciplining ourselves. If we don’t do that, then we cannot complain when someone else disciplines us. Hardly worth it for a can of milk and a tin of sardines. But it is amazing what an empty stomach will do to a man. And so soon after we were given a talking to about learning to accept the hardships of guerrilla life.
It was rainy again but everyone was restless and wanting to move, especially the men whose knapsacks are on the far side of the river. We walked along the river following the path. We walked for four hours. We had palm hearts to eat to keep us going. Nothing else. Our rations have run out.
Walking again. No rain today meant our spirits started off better but soon the pace tailed off as we went higher up. It was difficult to move through the terrain and took us four hours to go hardly any distance. Finally in the evening we made camp at the bank of a creek. We were running low on palm hearts (the Bolivians call them totai) and Miguel and Urbano went to find more. We have no more rations so palm hearts are all we are getting to eat.