A lot of walking, not much distance covered. No sign of Joaquin. Some of the terrain was easy but then we hit a cliff which was more or less impossible and certainly the mule didn’t like it much. But there were cattle tracks down there so the mule just had to do as it was told. We made camp by what I can’t call a river because it was no more than a little stream. We are on the slopes of a hill called Duran hill – at least I think so. I am never sure where we are and I’m not sure I believe anyone who tells me they are certain. We listened to the radio, the signal was strong, and we heard more news about a fight in the Siglo mines. It seems like at least sixteen men were killed and many more injured. Hopefully this means that the city will rise to support us. But it feels a world away.
We just kept following the cattle trail. I kept thinking we might catch up with them but we didn’t. There was a plane flying overhead, which is never good news. Late in the afternoon we reached the house of Paulino’s sister, hoping he might be there with some news for us – and most importantly some asthma medicine. The settlement has three houses and no one was home in two of them. In the third we found Paulino’s sister and her four children. Her husband was from home. We bought a calf, killed it immediately and camped nearby. Che sent Coco, Julio, Camba and Leon into the nearby town of Florida to buy more things. But they came back quickly – the army was there – about fifty men or more. We picked up more news about the mine on the radio, nearly a hundred men injured or killed. The news came from an Argentine station because the Bolivian airwaves are silent about it. Che sat with me listening and his wheezing was alarming. Once I thought it was the radio reception and started to fiddle with the dial, then realised it was him. I wish we could get him some medicine.
After so many days of nothing happening today was a shock. It started peacefully enough with our usual ambush set up but no one expecting anything. Then in the main camp we heard shots from the ambush position. I was with Che – he and Pombo were on mules so they were ahead of me. I came into a clearing just behind them and saw four dead soldiers by the river. They were lying on the sand and no idea who had shot them, because it wasn’t a place our ambush would have been able to reach. They had weapons and I wanted to recover them, but Che told me to wait because it might be a trap. We waited nearly all day. Then Miguel, who was at another position, sent word that he’d heard something in the undergrowth. Antonio and Pacho were the closest but they were told not to fire until they saw something. Too late. Gunfire rang out and everything became confused.
Che told us to withdraw because no one knew what was going on. We had no cover from trees. It was chaos all round. Pacho got into a ditch. Pombo hit the ground and I started running. As I ran I heard shots and turned to see Pombo had been shot. I went back to help him and bumped into Camba who told me that Tuma had also been shot. I was meant to be covering him but I had lost him in the confusion and I ran. I came to his side and saw he had a wound in his stomach. He told me to take off his watch and give it to Che. I didn’t take it because it was a sign he thought he was dying. I told him he would live. Men came back to help carry them to the house. Pombo had been shot in the leg and I helped him. Tuma had been shot in the stomach and Che and Moro decided to operate. He was given anaesthetic. That is always a serious turn. It turns out that his liver had been shot and more injuries inside and he died while they were operating. It was a terrible time. Not just the blood and guts but one of our comrades fighting for his life and we were unable to save him. He was one of Che’s closest friends and I could see that Che was quite shaken by the whole experience. While they were operating and before he became unconscious, Tuma gave his watch to Arturo who then gave it to Che. Che said he will carry it through the campaign and give it to Tuma’s son when he returns to Cuba.
Pombo will be all right but he is not mobile. He was also very upset by the death of Tuma and I fear he blames me. I keep trying to think what I did wrong. What I might have done differently. Why did they get injured and I didn’t? I don’t have answers but it keeps playing in my head as I walk. Later in the day we captured some soldiers and nine horses. It’s lucky because Pombo will have to ride one, Che must ride and we have to put the body of Tuma over the other so that he can be buried away from the site of the fight. But travelling with a load of horses has its own problems. It’s not so easy to hide away into the undergrowth.
We buried Tuma. The grave was hastily made and not as deep as we would like because the ground was difficult to dig into. We need to get away from here as there must be more soldiers and so more danger nearby. There is nothing to say on such a day. Everyone feels the loss of Tuma in their own way and no one wants to talk about it. We know his death is a blow for freedom but it feels so worthless in the immediacy of losing a friend. And it reminds us how easily the same fate might befall any one of us and how we would just be left, buried in the earth, only a memory in the hearts of our comrades. It makes me value life but it is a sombre mood all round. Pacho is taking care of Pombo. I want to help but I feel ashamed that I ran and I don’t want to face him.
We left some horses with the peasants at a house and picked up another peasant to act as a guide. We are travelling very slowly. When I stopped to listen to the radio it told of the death of three and wounding of two near where we are. Is this the four dead soldiers? Do they know about our deaths? One thing is clear, you can’t trust the news on the radio. We are climbing a bit higher again and every step higher impacts upon Che’s asthma. He tries not to show it, but it’s impossible to ignore.
Pombo is still riding on a horse because he can’t walk. But we are going at walking pace nevertheless. At the end of the day we came to a house and because it was cold and rainy, while we slept outside, Che made sure that Pombo could rest inside the house with the owner who is called Don Lucas and his daughters. We get conflicting reports about the path ahead.
Che called us together to reflect and told us that he felt the loss of Tuma as that of a son. He criticised us for our lack of self-discipline and for how slowly we were moving. Both bring great danger to us and he said that he is sick of the loss of life because of lack of discipline. He said we are losing our best men and we must now find Joaquin and make contact with the city.
He didn’t single me out but I feel responsible all the same. I cannot look anyone in the eye. I should have protected them better. If I had been more disciplined maybe Tuma would be alive and Pombo would be healthy. I wanted to talk to Che about this, but I felt I could not, he was so stern.
I spoke to Pacho and he told me to talk to Pombo. I asked him what we might have done differently – what I might have done better. He told me not to worry. He said Che is just grieving and wants to keep the rest of us safe. He is only stern because he loves us all, Pombo said. I know it to be true but I still feel terrible. I feel lucky to be alive that’s one thing, but I feel so bad that maybe it’s partly my fault that Tuma is not. He was a much better man than I am and it would have been better for the group if I had died not him. Pombo says I mustn’t think like that. I asked him if he thought this is what Che would think. He said most certainly not. But it’s hard to believe when I look in the eyes of the men I respect and see their pain. Later at night Pombo called me over and said ‘Today Jéjenito you became a man.’ He said that one does not become a man by killing another man, but by dealing with the death of a comrade. That is the test of a man and he said I must take my share of the responsibility, grieve and move on – like a man. There is little comfort in his words but I know he is wise and I will try to bear my pain and guilt the best I can. This is no time for I wish… or If only…
We found out from the locals that the army are moving in to this area big time. The peasants said they would help us clear a route out. I think they just want rid of us because being here is possible trouble for them. It has been officially declared that Che is here, his cover is blown entirely, and so the soldiers are all out looking for him. The radio suggests that Debray has betrayed us, but I can’t believe this. The radio also claims that Che has masterminded the trouble in the mines.
We sit here, ready to move but not moving, and still no sign of Joaquin. One of the men (I won’t say who) suggested that we must leave and stop looking for his group but Che said we would not abandon comrades at any cost. He said we need to make contact with La Paz so that we can resupply but that we must continue trying to make contact with Joaquin so that we can strengthen our company with more men from the city and then split into more but smaller groups. I hope I don’t get moved from Pombo and Che’s group, but I fear that after the incident with Tuma I may be sent off with another leader. It would probably be Miguel. He’s a good man, but he’s not Che.
Che spoke of the men we had lost, like a sort of memorial, to remind us of the men we should look up to and how even these, the best, have been killed. There was Rubio and Rolando and Tuma. I wanted to weep when I heard the things he said about them. I know he would not be able to say the same about me were I killed and I resolved to be a better man in future. He gave us a stern practical lesson in how we must conduct ourselves – with guts and intelligence – and how we must be economic in our use of weaponry and make every encounter count.