Who can explain the winds of fortune, the endpoint of destiny? Or even tackle the simpler question of why we are here; now, at this stupid juncture of time? Or the terms we use today? Or the losses we incurred along the way?
Maybe the great minds of Einstein or Jung or Nietzsche were preoccupied with such conundrums and spent years pondering the possibilities, but on the day of the shooting, the young black ‘volunteer’ was more concerned about surviving the next hour, than about what happens after you exit the long, white tunnel. Or what to shout at the next rally. Yet, in a strange and convoluted way, he found the answer that day. Like the rest of us, he didn’t understand it at all.
Young Petros, not much more than a youth with tattered camouflage and a rusted AK47, actually prefers these days of waiting next to the footpath near the waterhole. It is far better to sit here with the dry biscuits and his watter bottle, than to endure endless sessions during which the Cubans and the Chinese lecture on and on about this and that; telling him about Mao and Castro – as if he cared.
No, sitting here in the shade of the bush, is by far preferable to listening to the big words. The area reminds him a bit about his home – on the banks of the Orange River – where the overgrowth is lush and the soil so fertile. And birds, always plenty of birds…
He doesn’t want to be here, of course; but when those people came, he had no choice. While they smuggled him out of the country, young Petros saw what happened to one of the other ‘recruits’ that tried to escape. It shocked him, it really did. If indeed the purpose of their venture was to free the country, one shouldn’t shoot one’s own soldiers, should one?
But they did, and young Petros helped the wounded man back onto his bed. Oh, he’s seen blood before. Plenty of times. Hunting with a bow and arrow in the dunes, meant he often slaughtered his prey on the spot before carrying the meat back to his clan. But that was different. Human blood isn’t the same. Not if somebody shot you to teach you a lesson. In the dunes you tell your buck why you did it, and you do so in a kind voice, so that the spirit understands. But not here – here there are harsh words, ugly words; words and shots and pain…
Petros knows where his three other comrades are. He has to – otherwise he might kill them if the shooting starts. He peers through the thick vegetation, but can only make out the anthill where they have dug themselves in. Three of them there, with an open view of the approaching track; and he, Petros, the one to watch out for anybody who survived the initial ambush. They told him so – This is the only escape route. You see anybody running away, you kill him. Understand?
Petros is just about to surrender to the alluring desire to close his eyes for a few minutes, when the world disintegrates. There is no warning… Suddenly, are were shots and mortars and grenades and noise and screams… …and silence. For a second Petros tries to believe he only dreamed, and that nothing happened, because it was so unexpected and so quick.
But no. The smell of cordite and the rising pall of smoke are testimony to what has just happened. That, and the silence.
He gives the furtive cooo… of a bush dove, like he was taught, calling the others to call back to him. Nothing. More silence. By now, Petros is more frightened than during the skirmish. That attack was so sudden, he didn’t have time to think. But now, his comrades are quiet and he has the rusty AK47 and he doesn’t know what to do.
And then he sees it! Along the footpath, something moved. Something shiny moved that…clanked. He waits. There’s nothing else to do.
The soldier appearing through the bushes seems to be of a similar age to him. Petros watches, trying to figure out what to do. Then he sees why the sun reflected on something bright – it is a deep scratch in the man’s helmet. The steel must have stopped a piece of shrapnel, saving the man’s life. Something else is strange as well – the man walks as if he is dazed, stumbling from side to side, his R4-rifle dangling from his disinterested fingers. And, Petros realises, that soldier is walking in the direction of the camp – the one the Cubans built before Petros arrived.
You don’t kill pregnant ewes in the dunes. If the animal is sick, you don’t shoot it. And if the animal is cunning enough to evade you, he gets another chance – today you allow him to enjoy the grass and the water and the fresh air. There are rules to hunting, Petros, and you must always be fair. That’s what his father taught him, long ago, in the days when there were peace in the country and the Cubans and the Chinese and the Russians minded their own business.
But this man, this dazed and stumbling soldier, isn’t a buck or a rabbit or something he wants to take back to the clan. He’s the enemy…and he’s a man…
Petros knows about hunting. He can shoot better than any of the ‘recruits’ in the camp. Taking careful aim, allowing for the unsteady gait of the soldier and the slight breeze, Petros exhales, relaxes and pulls the trigger.
Bending over, Petros unclips the dog tags around the fallen man’s neck. His comrades were killed in the initial fire-fight, but his instructors should be happy to see his prize.
Even stranger than the quirks of fate, is the fact that we don’t always see what we’re looking at. You can live with somebody for many years, and only then realise the nose is slightly off-centre; or the colour of the two eyes don’t quite match. It may take a long time to discover these things, especially if you don’t live in close proximity – personal invasion proximity. And then there are personal things, past history-things, secret things, things one would never guess at.
Vetfaan, for instance, knows that the Platnees family has lived in the area since forever. Full stop. Other than that, he knows him as a good worker, a solid person he can trust, and … nothing much more. In the week they swapped places, he discovered Platnees’s sense of humour. And there were other things: the afternoons off. The way Platnees prepared the suppers. And on that cold night, Platnees brought an extra blanket, wrapped around a bottle of Cactus Jack.
Sure, he hated the role-reversal, but somehow – impossibly so – he discovered aspects of his labourer’s life he never knew about. His shack is spotless, the bed neatly made and the Bible beside the bed is dog-eared from frequent use. And what about the few books? Cry, the Beloved Country. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. To Kill a Mockingbird. Even – Robert Calderisi’s The Trouble with Africa. Admittedly not a huge library, but Vetfaan never knew the man liked to read. After all these years, he didn’t know it.
And then he made the discovery that shook him to the core. Hanging on a nail in a rafter of the low roof, Vetfaan found the two dog tags.
On the Sunday Platnees runs from the church, Vetfaan goes home to wait for his return. Now that he is Mister Vetfaan again, and Platnees his old self, he has to talk to this man who served him faithfully for so many years. Saved him; served him – is there a difference?
He’ll want to know what his first name is, for instance. Why he’s here? And how the dogtags got in the shack?
After all, he lost the tags in the bush war, a long time ago. How can they be here? A number on a aluminium tag … here? He can remember the day clearly. He was running, running from an ambush, when the bullet struck his thigh. He fell and he can remember his rifle arching through the air in slow motion before he hit the ground.
The chopper picked him up, an hour later. He was unconscious due to concussion and blood loss and pain – and shock. The medics later told him how lucky he was. His helmet saved his brain, but the wound in his thigh could only be described as a miracle. It missed all the main blood vessels and bones and nerves. “Pure luck,” the Captain said, “or an excellent marksman. Of course, they don’t have those, Fanie, so you must be the luckiest guy I know.”
They didn’t know. Really. The dog tags and their stories piece it together. Like an impossible zig-saw puzzle, they assemble the bits that fit together. Then Vetfaan fetches the Cactus, Platnees toasts, and they drink, deeply. They exchange several was-it-you-I-can’t-believe-it’s-true and other incredulous remarks. More Cactus. Several giggles. Then they grow quiet, overwhelmed by it all.
And later, when the sun sets in it’s blood-coloured bed, they’ll talk again.
“You came back to the Kalahari..”
“Yes, so did you. This is where we belong, you and me.”
“But we both lost the war, didn’t we, Vetfaan?” Platnees will ask.
“No, Petros. That day simply changed us both. That’s when we became winners. Both of us. But the rest of the country? Hey … that’s where the damage was done.”
And the two would-be killers will sip their Cactus Jacks as the sun sets, while they marvel at the wonder of it all.
So, how do you explain situations like this? Or is it, in your mind, too far-fetched to be true? Simply a story? Doesn’t happen in real life? To the victor the spoils?
It may be best to ascribe such events as acts of destiny. Or Acts of Divinity. Or fate.
Or, only if one is really stupid: one calls it coincidence.
For since when has Africans -politicians or not – addressed each other as Comrades? Have we adopted a Russian term as our own, in preference to Friend, or Brother? And since we are considering the meaning of words: why are politicians shouting VIVA!, expecting the local populace to embrace the original Latin word, underscoring European colonialisation of Africa? It’s not an African word, is it? Are we all so stupid? It is certainly as foreign to the continent as the borders the colonialists drew across the Africa…
We are importing non-African terms and exporting rhino horn. All we are achieving, is selling our heritage to the highest bidder.
Platnees is right: the country has lost something in that war. The Comrades may have been victors, but they have much to answer for.
How, indeed, do they fit in with the video?