The Himba man fingers his necklace made of ostrich shell fragments, collecting his thoughts. Although he will never forget the events of those days, it is important that he tells the story right, In the Himba tradition, personal opinion and partial recounting of history is frowned upon. History, he knows, can so easily become an emotional affair when people choose to forget what really happened. If Gertruida could have read his mind right now, she’d tell him what a mess Western society has made of telling their children about the past.
The three men and their little hostage huddled inside the First House, their eyes slowly adjusting to the semi-darkness. The boy wanted to cry out, but a rough hand covered his mouth.
“No sound!” The hissed command made him whimper in fear.
The four soldiers on horseback knew they were hiding somewhere in the kraal – they’ve been following the spoor for six hours now, the horses rapidly gaining on their quarry. Although they were young (Lieutenant Badenhorst being the oldest at twenty-one), they were viewed as veterans in the border war after spending eighteen months in the area. The rough terrain, the villages, the hardship – they knew all about the region they had to patrol on a weekly basis.
Badenhorst also knew Miriam, the First Wife. He was the one who brought much needed medicine a month or so ago, when the children in the kraal suffered from gastroenteritis. He cantered up to the kraal’s gate, got down, and asked permission to enter.
“Good morning,” he greeted in Himba. “Did you sleep well?”
Miriam nodded, but didn’t respond by asking him the same. Her eyes slowly turned to the First House before she shook her head.
“All quiet here, Miriam? No strange men around?”
This time she answered, saying ‘No’ loud enough for the men inside the hut to hear.
“Be well, then, Miriam. We’ll be back next week or so.” Badenhorst bent down, shook her hand, and left the kraal to join the others waiting at the gate. Then they galloped off.
“He knew, of course,” the Himba man says with a sly smile, “and he knew that a gun battle inside the kraal would wreak havoc. Such a confrontation would kill women and children, something he certainly didn’t want to do.”
“I can understand that,” Gertruida chips in, “because the South African army relied heavily on the goodwill of the local people. The fight against the terrorists was a delicate one: while SWAPO insurgents often coerced villagers to supply food and shelter, the army tried to maintain good relations with the indigenous population.”
“It was like that,” the man seems relieved to have Gertruida’s confirmation. “So when the horses galloped off, Miriam waited until they were out of sight before telling the men to leave her house and release the boy.”
Badenhorst and his companions didn’t leave, of course. They knew the men they had followed were hiding in the kraal. They set up an ambush about an hour’s walk in the direction the men had been fleeing, and waited. From behind the rocks alongside the track, it should have been easy to eliminate the three men.
Should have been.
In war, there are many should-have-beens: carefully planned operations that turn out to be much more complicated than when originally plotted. Badenhorst found out this was one of those.
When the three men appeared around the rocks – on the track leading to the ambush – Badenhorst drew in his breath sharply. The men had kept their hostage! They, too, were veterans, knowing that the horsemen wouldn’t give up that easily. They also knew the soldiers wouldn’t kill an innocent boy and in doing so alienate the villagers forever. Their best protection, they reckoned, would be the child.
They were right.
Badenhorst signalled the others to keep out of sight and allow the little procession pass. They regrouped afterwards to discuss their options.
“We could have picked them off,” the youngest of them complained. “I had a clear shot at the leader.”
“I know.” Frustration etched Badenhorst’s words. “But there was a risk that the boy could have been injured or killed. We can’t afford that.” He sighed as he stared down at the footprints on the sandy track. “We’ll just have to follow them. They’re clearly heading for the Kunene and the safety of Angola – but they have quite a way to go still. Maybe they’ll let the boy go. Or maybe we can surprise them during the night. Whatever…we can’t let them get away with this.”
“You see, we were caught between the horns of a strong bull.” The Himba man nods his thanks as Boggel places a new bottle of water in front of him. “There were SWAPO men. There were White soldiers. And we…we never understood what they were fighting about. The SWAPO people had many Ovambos with them, but also many men from other countries. Why would somebody from the other side of the ocean come to Kaokoland to fight there? What was so important? And the South Africans? What were they doing in our country? Surely their country is big enough to have their own battles there?
“The Himba have always been peaceful. We settle our own disputes. We don’t steal. We don’t kill people. We have our own courts to sort out problems. We don’t need men in uniforms to tell us what to do…” He sighs heavily, shaking his head in long-forgotten anger. “But that got changed by the war. We didn’t want to be part of it – yet we had no choice.”
Miriam had to do something. The three men had taken one of the boys – surely there can be no bigger crime in the world than that? She called one of the bigger boys and told him to take a message to her husband. This was a man-problem; he had to take care of that.
Badenhorst walked his horse on the spoor of the fleeing men. They were only a mile or so ahead, but the rough terrain shielded Badenhorst and his men. Even so, they proceeded with caution.
“He’s getting tired.” Badenhorst stared down at the tracks. “His dragging his feet. Poor bugger, can’t be more than six years old…”
The sound of a low whistle interrupted him. When he looked up, he saw one of the men pointing.
Ahead, just visible above the low trees, a faint column of smoke rose in the air.
“They’re heading for a rendezvous… Damn it! We’re on our way to one of their camps!”
“Yes they took me to a camp. There were many other men there. They laughed and pointed at me, speaking a language I didn’t understand. Then a big man – they called him The Cuban – tied my hands and feet, like you tie up a goat before you slaughter it. I was terrified – I thought they wanted to eat me, but they made me sit under a tree while they talked. They pointed in the direction they came.
“I didn’t understand. Not then…and I still don’t. Why didn’t they let me go? Were they afraid that Miriam would tell the soldiers something they already knew? It became clear to me: if I didn’t escape, I’d die. And…if I did escape, they’d raid the village. At least, that was my line of thought. I was six years old, abducted from my home, and very, very scared.”
Gertruida puts a hand on his shoulder, telling him that many young men – even boys – were taken from villages in those days to swell the ranks of the insurgents. “Who knows how many? And how many died in the fighting? There must be quite a number of families in Kaokoland with similar experiences.”
“Yes. Later – only later did I hear of such things. Many died, that’s true. But I didn’t.”
“Come on,” Vetfaan urges him on good-naturedly. “what happened next?”
The man smiles at Vetfaan’s impatience. “The whole camp – everybody – started disappearing into the bush, leaving me tied to the tree. This I understood. I’ve watched older boys in the village preparing traps for jackals and other vermin.
“They knew the horsemen would try to rescue me. And I…I was the bait…”