Melba and Haydée lost no time before continuing their revolutionary work following their release from prison. Photo: Constantino Arias

"With a bloody human eye in his hands, a sergeant and several men showed up at the dark cell where Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaríaa were held. Addressing Haydée, and showing her the eye, they said: This is your brother's, if you don't tell us what he didn't, we'll tear out the other one. She, who loved her courageous brother more than anything else, answered with dignity: If you gouged out one of his eyes and he did not talk, much less will I."

These were among the chilling words spoken by the young lawyer Fidel Castro Ruz, describing the outrages committed against those who assaulted the Moncada garrison, on July 26, 1953.

This brutal crime committed by Sergeant Eulalio Gonzalez, known as "El Tigre", was much discussed in Santiago, because he took it upon himself to disseminate the story - even on a city bus when he discovered the presence of the mother of the victim - Abel Santamaría Cuadrado. He dared to say for all to hear: "Well, I did gouge out a lot of eyes and I intend to continue …” At that time, the Moncada crimes had not yet come to a halt.

Before the actions of July 1953, Haydée and Melba had participated in the underground organization, the Centennial Generation Movement, under the leadership of Fidel.

The two women, acting as nurses, left the Siboney farm at dawn on the 26th, accompanied by Dr. Mario Muñoz Monroy, the only three unarmed combatants. With them were some twenty young men led by Abel, the Movement’s second in command, who had the mission of occupying the Saturnino Lora Civil Hospital and preventing the Moncada troops from doing so.

With the exception of Ramon Pez Ferro, every one of these rebels were later imprisoned and murdered, like No.34, the label given to one of the bodies examined by the forensic doctors in a courageous, detailed description:

No.34: "The corpse was examined, dressed in trousers labeled SA-LO-OP, apparently dressed as a patient; wearing a shirt with no bullet holes, with a wound where his left foot was severed, a bullet wound in the epigastrium (entrance), an exit wound in the inter-scapular region, one in the left maxillary region, outer face (entrance wound), an exit wound on the right side of the face, a retro-auricular wound, that is, in the right retro-auricular region, with an exit through the left frontoparietal; the abovementioned clothing was impounded, with the direct cause of death being intercranial, thoracic and abdominal bleeding and the indirect cause being a firearm bullet."

The "OP" noted, is very significant. It shows, as in other cases, that the corpse had been one of the revolutionaries who occupied the hospital.

When the surprise assault plan failed, the Moncada troops moved to the Saturnino Lora, located in front of the garrison.

Abel had decided to fire on the Moncada, to give Fidel and the other comrades time to withdraw. In the meantime, Haydée and Melba, with the help of several nurses, urged the rebel forces in the hospital to dress as patients and get in beds in different areas. OP was the Ophthalmology ward. The two women went to the pediatric ward. Dr. Muñoz, wearing his professional lab coat, did not expect any problem, if the soldiers occupied the hospital. The others dispersed around the building.

Abel was one of the last to occupy a bed and insisted to Haydée and Melba: "Fidel is the one who must live." All the revolutionaries were alive when the dictatorship’s soldiers entered the hospital and moved them to the Moncada, manhandling them along the way. One incident occurred, indicative of the dictatorship’s brutality, and of what was to come. A guard decided to shoot the doctor in the back, with the two nurses looking on. Mario Muñoz was the first to be killed.

The dramatic scene that Fidel described, during the Case 37 trial, was followed by another crime meant to devastate Haydée. But they did not succeed. Guards showed her the "remains" of her beloved Boris Luis Santa Coloma, who had gone to the hospital when the surprise assault was disrupted, to rescue her and Melba.

The feats of these two women did not end at the Moncada, nor with the trial. As pioneers in the struggle, they were leading participants in the process that continued, and eventually triumphed.

They were among Fidel’s most trusted comrades, who he wrote from prison on the Isle of Pines, giving them the task of publishing his self-defense statement, known as History Will Absolve Me. He had painstakingly reconstructed the text under the most difficult conditions, weeks after developing it mentally in the Boniato prison and improvising its delivery during the October 16 trial. Two impressive accomplishments.

Shortly after Melba and Haydée completed their sentences in the Guanajay women's prison, they were able to have a massive run of the speech published.

These were crucial moments in the underground struggle: no money, no support other than that of friends, like those who offered a television set for a fundraising raffle.

No "prestigious" printing house would take on the task of editing the Moncada statement. But despite the hostile climate, they managed to secretly print 10,000 copies at a small printing facility on Lombillo Street, near Ayesterán, which were distributed, under their direction, throughout the country, with the help of a small group of young people. In a rental car owned by the driver Gustavo Ameijeiras, with five pesos Lidia Castro had given them, the trip to the island’s east began, since Fidel requested that it be distributed there first.

The two Moncada women would be stalwarts of the Revolution for their entire lives. Both of them, in their work, devotion, courage and originality, were exceptional. (Granma)