It was between Christmas and New Year’s – dates didn’t matter much back then – that Vetfaan crawled across the hot sand of the Caprivi to check out the strange mound in the track. Potholes and ruts were common; mounds could signal danger. A booby-trapped hand grenade or a landmine might be concealed beneath that heap of earth.
There! The glint of sun on metal! The arming pin – pulled out once the mine is set – had been thrown away at the side of the track. Vetfaan was sure then: the landmine was a given fact; the possibility of an ambush an almost-certainty. He froze for a second, then lifted his hand in a signal to the rest of the patrol to disperse.
The effect was catastrophic. As the men stepped sideways into the bush, the carefully laid minefield exploded. The ambush was not by an invisible force armed with AK 47’s; the enemy had been much more devious in their planning. Knowing the scouting group would be suspicious about the little mound of earth, they mined the immediate area around the path. Vetfaan’s platoon was out-thought, outsmarted and wiped out. Even the arming pin had been left there on purpose.
The human mind is able to process information at incredible rates. The hand on the hot stove gets whipped away before damage is done. A foot will find the brake pedal before the eyes register the running child in the street. The brain is, literally, quite amazing in analysing and reacting to the unexpected.
But sometimes, rarely, when the input of information is so unexpected, so grotesque, so massive, the brain cuts out. The neurons simply stop firing. Memory patterns halt. Analysis stops. Activity ceases. The body belonging to such a brain in those moments, ceases o function in a logical manner.
Vetfaan doesn’t know how long he lay there. He can’t really say. It could have been a second, or an hour. To this day, the black cloud of amnesia – the reaction to block out unacceptable events – still shrouds his ability to remember exactly what transpired in that time. He didn’t black out; he was aware of his surroundings all the time. It’s just that he was so paralysed with fear and anger and surprise and revulsion that time simply ceased to exist.
Later, when his arms and legs started obeying his mind once more, the absolute silence made him sit up. After the explosions, there were no whoops of victory from the enemy. No shots of an ambush. And in the eerie quiet, even the birds and the veld had become quiet; as if to apologise for what had happened. Sorry, Mother Nature was saying, so sorry.
It was an absurd thought.
Slowly, gingerly, Vetfaan glanced around him. It must have been some bounding Valmara VS 69’s. Vetfaan had seen a demonstration of such a mine: exploding at chest-height level, it had a killing zone of 30 yards. The three men in his group had no chance. Obviously the mines – he guessed there would have been five – had been laid to eliminate anybody stepping off the track. What saved Vetfaan, was the fact that he was laying down at the time of the explosions.
In slow motion, Vetfaan crawled away. There was no point in lingering – his men had been mutilated beyond recognition, shot to pieces and obviously dead. To venture off the track carried the risk of detonating even more mines. With the radio destroyed, his best chance was to try and get back to the base, report the incident, and let them dispatch an expert group to recover the bodies. Retracing his steps, he backed away from the mound, made a mental note of the position, and started the long and lonely road back to safety.
He must have progressed a kilometer or so – it may have been two, it may have been five – before the delayed reaction set in. When his brain finally started computing what happened, the enormity of the situation started filtering through. Up till then, his only thoughts had been about getting away, getting back to safety; but then the images of his mutilated patrol popped up again, demanding to be filed away under some heading in his mind. For a while he mulled about that: was it Sad, or Unnecessary, or Stupid, or Negligent, or Unavoidable, or … It seemed terribly important to find a category to suit the massacre.
And then a great sadness overwhelmed him. He had known those three men well. The one had always bragged about his little daughter at home. They had always laughed at his corporal’s jokes. And then there was the ferrety little bloke, who had dreamt of the ultimate love affair once he got discharged. They had been real, live, people. And now they’re dead.
Vetfaan found a tree, sat down, and cried. Great racking sobs ripped through his body, tears streaking down over his dusty cheeks. It seemed as if something inside him just gave way; he wasn’t crying out of sadness. Nor even frustration. He was weeping because there was nothing else to do. It didn’t help to feel sad. He couldn’t bring those men back. Like a mother holding a dead baby, he cried because the promise of tomorrow had been broken.
For a while, he tried to blame somebody. First of all, he wondered if he should have been more careful. Then he blamed the hands that set the mine. Later he shifted responsibility to the factory in Italy, where the greed for money allowed the manufacture of these killing devices and they traded death for Dollars. Inevitably, eventually, he charged the politicians for killing his mates. Fat, unfit, whiskey-drinking men in oak-panelled offices sent his little patrol of fit young men to fight their battles. The cowards, he decided, were the men who refused to commit to compromise.
Vetfaan got back to the base. He reported the incident. The bodies were recovered, the flowery letters sent to the grieving families, and a clerk in Headquarters filed the report neatly with the others – all marked by the little black ribbon on the right-hand corner. The admin was done. The politicians used the facts to escalate the war. Peace on Earth – at what price?
During the rest of the Border War, Vetfaan participated in several skirmishes with the enemy. He joined the ranks of men with their stuttering guns – but he always made sure he aimed too high. That was the only way to protest the stupidity of it all – a one-man non-fight for peace.
Now, in the time between Christmas and New Year, Vetfaan will always saunter into Boggel’s Place and order the old army-drink. Rum-and-Coke. Four of them. Doubles. His salute is always the same:
“Broken Promises! Lost innocence! And lonely ladies!”
The other patrons think it must be some old Irish toast, or maybe it’s a Greek one. They’ll raise their glasses and salute silently. It’s only Gertruida who notices the cold, cold look in his grey eyes when he drinks the one Rum after the other, finishing the four drinks in silence. And later, when she helps him to get home, she’ll have to assure him there are no mounds in the road. Not a single one, Vetfaan. It is safe. It’s okay.
One day she’ll rustle up enough courage to ask him about it; but some instinct warns her to wait. Sometimes the wounds of war take a long time to heal.
In some cases, they never do.