Monday, September 21, 2009

Past realities, 1995 (Third Eye Blind)

I didn't believe my high school friend when he told me he found human skulls. It wasn't even that he seemed like the type to make things up. It wasn't even that it was that uncommon to find old World War II remains, scattered here or there throughout the farms and hills of Belarus. It was that he had claimed that the remains he found numbered in hundreds and were located in downtown Grodno, the city near which I grew up.

That was kind of strange.

"I've been trying to tell the authorities about this for a while" - he continued, undeterred by my disbelief. "No one seems to want to listen to me, but they have to - this is a discovery that could go into history books!"

This was also kind of strange. How hard was it, after all, to check up on such a simple claim as "hey, there's a skull sticking out from the pavement", even if a claim is coming from a 15 year old.

Andrei was right though. He was totally right.

The place he brought me to was located right next to the edge of the old historic part of downtown Grodno, up on a hill, filled with cobble stone paved streets and old brick buildings. The bottom of the hill held a winding dirt road, a creek and a small farmhouse, surrounded by a typical small farm fence, marking the boundaries of the farmer's property. I couldn't see anything at first, but as my eyes adjusted, I started noticing bone fragments sticking out from the eroding hill, here and there. Scanning the hill higher and higher I took in about a dozen remains just from standing on the road. We climbed up to get a better look at the remains, trying hard to avoid crunching human bones with our feet as we walked up to a place that seemed to concentrate them all. We picked up a few skulls and quickly noticed a consistent pattern. Each had a small round hole embedded in it. "Bullet holes" - Andrei explained - "They were probably Jews, executed by the Germans en-masse, then dumped here into this makeshift grave. It was probably just exposed by the recent rains - we should get the city authorities to do an excavation here, no?" I agreed and mentioned that we might have better luck if we bring back some evidence with us. I gingerly pried apart several jaws from the skulls and put them into a plastic bag and into my pocket.

Filled with investigative reporter's spirit, we hollered at the farmer at the bottom of the hill. "Hey, excuse us, but do you know that this hill is filled with human remains?" - we asked the farmer who was tending his garden. "Oh... yeah, that's old news," - he sighs - "I've been digging out skulls with my plow for years by now... I see them roll down the hill onto the road sometimes... The cars just drive over the bones till they turn into dust... I've mentioned it to the authorities, but they got other things to worry about now, I don't think they'll actually get to do anything here in a long time... bureaucracy does not move in a day." We nodded politely and departed to our homes.

I couldn't say I was surprised. I could say I was disappointed though. We were taught in school about the intrinsic value of each human life. We were taught that history mattered, that remembrance mattered. But life here seemed to be teaching me a very different lesson. Things matter only if people with money or power care. They certainly don't matter if no-name 15 year old boys care. Or an old farmer with a plow and a horse and a dilapidated house, - he also matters very little. People like them seem to only write history in beautifully crafted pioneer-adventurer stories, pushed on us in our Russian literature classes.

I fidgeted with the two human jaws for a few days, no longer feeling the courage to expose them to the adult world. I brought them back to the hill and squished them back into the skulls. They will probably just roll down to the road and get pulverized by the car tires in a few days. But so will the rest of the human history.

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