The faces of two men I never knew hold my mind’s eye. They took their own lives within three weeks of each other: Mow bé in the department of Guaviare, Colombia, on October 17, and Malachi Ritscher in Chicago on November 3.
Their awareness of injustice must have been visceral. From fumigations withering food crops in Colombia; to marauding incursions by soldiers, paramilitaries, or guerrillas (who, from various locations on the political spectrum, all drive rural Colombians from their land); to cluster bombs and depleted uranium in Iraq—such crimes, and especially the victims of such crimes, must have registered deeply in Mow bé and Malachi.
If their grief finally overwhelmed hope—I think that Malachi, at least, still wanted his act to move us to greater resistance.
His death by self-immolation—staged in view of rush-hour traffic on Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway, with accompanying website commentary—was an anguished cry to end the Iraq war. He offered his life as atonement, “…to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you, I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country.” High drama and Iraq-war relevancy notwithstanding, his death got scant attention in our national press.
Mow bé’s earlier suicide received even less notice in the United States. Colombia media reported that he had ingested a poison used by his indigenous community to paralyze and capture fish. But if /barbasco/ was the immediate cause of Mow bé’s death, he was figuratively poisoned by U.S.-backed Plan Colombia and by Monsanto-produced glyphosate, the herbicide known as Round-Up but used far more potently in Colombia, supposedly for coca eradication.
Mow bé’s people, the Nukak-Makú, traditionally have lived as nomads in the Guaviare Department of Colombia. They had their first contact with the non-native world in 1988. Since then, famine and imported diseases have killed more than half their population; today they number about 400.
Mow bé served as his people’s sole translator and intermediary with that non-native world, often using his Spanish name, Belisario Sánchez. There was much to mediate. Since the onset of Clinton’s Plan Colombia and its “war on drugs” in 2000, the Nukak-Makú have endured toxic aerial fumigations as well as escalating violence from all the Colombian armed actors. Not surprisingly, many Nukak-Makú have joined the approximately three million internally displaced persons (desplazados) in Colombia. Mow bé was one of them.
Mow bé struggled to meet the immediate needs of Nukak-Makú desplazados (including food, medical exams, and medicines) and to secure their return to their homeland. Mounting Nukak-Makú deaths, along with persistent obstacles to returning home, probably felt like personal failure to Mow bé.
Malachi Ritscher’s sense of responsibility was similarly keen. A musician and avid recorder of Chicago’s music scene, he was also an anti-war and free-speech activist. His websites—equally playful, tender, eccentric, preachy, edgy, and angry—express growing frustration and bewilderment: “It is obvious that Bush is just the figurehead for the people who are getting rich trading in oil and war, but what can I do about it?”
The “mission statement” Malachi posted on his website just before his suicide reads, “Here is the statement I want to make: if I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade—my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade.”
Even so, some have questioned whether Malachi’s final motive was solely political. He had started buying land in Vancouver in order to emigrate and withhold financial support from U.S. war crimes. And he could have practiced war-tax resistance at home, too. Some speculate that Malachi was finally overtaken by depression—and he did acknowledge in the obituary he wrote for himself that, “In the end, the loneliness was overwhelming.” His motive was likely as complex as he was.
I mourn the deaths of Malachi and Mow bé, two men I never knew, and I write this to help hold them in our midst as we continue the work of resisting deadly U.S. policies. Their hearts were considerable, even in their dying. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has observed, “The proof that one has courage lies in the fact that one can be discouraged.”
Still, thinking about Mow bé’s and Malachi’s decisions to end their passionate lives, I am reminded of Fernando. When I met Fernando in the United States in the early 1980s, he had been tortured in his own country, El Salvador, for organizing labor unions. He had already lost loved ones, and the civil war still raged back home.
One evening, explaining his happiness despite so many losses, Fernando made a statement that I have worn like an amulet all these years: “We could not do our work for a just society, if we did not remember every moment why we are doing it.”
We are moved to work for justice when we sense that life is intrinsically good, realize that all should be able to live theirs fully, yet see that many cannot. When our U.S. policymakers routinely deny life to so many—in Colombia and Iraq and so many places—we can be tempted to forfeit our own lives, in a kind of despairing solidarity. But refusing despair and resolving to live fully and stubbornly, as agents of change, is itself an act of resistance. Fernando refused despair.
Galeano once told an interviewer, “Of course, I know that the human condition is something at once horrible and marvelous.Estamos muy mal hechos, pero no estamos terminados/. We are very badly made, but we are not finished.”
Mow bé and Malachi, presenté! La lucha sigue. The struggle continues, we continue to make ourselves and our world, and you are with us.
MARGARET KNAPKE has been involved in Latin America solidarity work for many years.
Links of interest:
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) collaborates with Survival, an international NGO, on behalf of displaced native peoples, including the Nukak-Makú.