Monthly Archives: January 2014

Going for the Kill (# 9)

a-crocodile-broke-out-of-its-cage-on-a-qantas-flightIt’s the one single shot that changes the course of the war.

One shot.

Sometimes that is all it takes…

***

 José Migeul Pereira wades through the fast flowing water, step after step making sure he finds proper footing. A few tree trunks are caught between the larger boulders, and he is careful to negotiate his way cautiously in order to avoid any submerged obstacles.

However, he’s not worried about the river. His problem, he knows, will be to make contact with the South Africans, and then to convince them that he has come with an unusual message. Will they believe him? He grabs hold of a prominent rock to steady himself, all the time making sure that the white flag is in plain sight,

He feels the whip of the bullet even before he hears the shot. He ducks instinctively, suppressing a shout.

Not three yards away, a sudden thrashing in the water contributes to his fright. Then, slowly, a red stain appears in the swirling water.

***

“What the hell?” Groesbeek grabs the binoculars to study the scene. José stands bent, riveted to the spot.

It’s only when the dead crocodile surfaces almost next to José, that realisation dawns. One of his snipers spotted the creature floating silently towards the fugitive and promptly removed the danger. He sees José do a fast little retreat once he recognises the reptile. Several men, after being on edge the whole night, start sniggering at the way José now makes rather hasty progress towards the opposite bank.

One may say that the crocodile, one of Africa’s most efficient killers, saved José’s life. Or maybe even the whole the continent it threatens so. When José clambers up the river bank, several South Africans are there to lend a hand. The sniggers turn to snorts; the snorts to laughter.

There exists a strange camaraderie between soldiers, even when they are fighting against each other. Every war has stories of Christmas carols shared, prayers exchanged, and enemy soldiers receiving medical care. Of course, the opposite is true as well, with wounded men being bayoneted and women raped. One cannot predict these things.

But no-one could have foreseen the effect the killing of the crocodile would have on the men that morning. The relief of not killing and not being killed is overwhelming – the tension being replaced by an almost-inappropriate feeling of bonhomie. José isn’t fluent in English, but there’s no mistaking his gratitude. Amongst the South Africans, a gangling youth demonstrates how José high-stepped across the river, causing gales of laughter. José asks who fired the shot, and shakes the man’s hand when he steps forward. All in all – it may as well have been a meeting between old friends.

Groesbeek makes his way to the front and stares at the young man in front of him. Surely he can’t be a doctor – he’s far too young for that!. And experts on chemical warfare are much, much older…aren’t they?

They quickly find Private Stefano de Nobriga, a green grocer’s son from Parys, whose fluent Portuguese sees to it that he is immediately appointed as interpreter.

An hour later, Groesbeek gathers the men at the crest of the gorge and orders the cook to brew up some coffee and serve breakfast.

***

“I shall do exactly what you did, Mister Pereira. I’ll go across the river with a white flag, see the cargo you guys are carting around, and satisfy myself that you’re talking the truth.” Experienced soldiers never, ever, trust the enemy. “I shall take de Nobriga with to facilitate communication.

“If you lied to me, you won’t see Angola again. Unless I return unharmed, your squad will be wiped out. If, however, you told the truth, then I guarantee your men a safe stay on this side of the border. I shall then communicate with my superiors and work out a strategy. Is that clear?”

***

The Ruacana Incident – as it eventually becomes mentioned in one or two top secret reports – gets buried amongst the rumours and gossip of the Border War. Few take it seriously, and no mention is ever made of it in official reports. Look it up on Google – you’ll find nothing.

Magnus-malan

Minister of Defence: Magnus Malan

But when General Groebeek informs Minister Magnus Malan of the situation, an urgent meeting of senior military staff is held in the big boardroom of the headquarters in Voortrekkerhoogte.

Malan doesn’t mince his words. The threat is real. If the rivers were poisoned a few hundred metres upstream from the border, the army had absolutely no defence against it. The water will flow downhill as it always does, carrying the deadly solution to thousands of unsuspecting villagers, soldiers and animals.”

His frown deepens as he continues.

“Evacuation on this scale is impossible, gentlemen. Villagers will simply refuse, saying this is a trick by the South African government.

Vaal Dam - supplying water to the Gauteng Province

Vaal Dam – supplying water to the Gauteng Province

“Anyway, the logistics of clearing out the entire northern border, is way beyond our means. In short: it’s impossible. And what about the animals – do we simply turn our backs? And what about South Africa’s rivers? What’s to stop them from poisoning the Vaal  and Hartbeespoort dams? Where will they start? How can we stop them?”

No, he says, while this poses a problem, it is also an opportunity. “We have to talk, that’s all. No other option. If they do this, we have to retaliate – and we can’t afford that. Once we start dropping our atom bombs, we will lose the bit of international support we still have. We’ll win the war, but we’ll lose everything…”

“What do you suggest, Minister?” General Groesbeek stares at his hands – he has a good idea where the discussion is heading to.”

Malan sighs. “A delegation, gentlemen. Talks with Luanda. Urgently…”

***

The script for international politics is, at times, boring – because it’s so predictable. Of course the Angolan delegation denies any knowledge of Sarin-S. No, this was never part of their agenda. Of course not. It is inhuman to think of it, unacceptable to even consider it.

And yes, if the South Africans can prove the presence of such a threat, they’ll investigate it immediately. It might possibly be – for instance –  that some of the overseas instructors or advisers were overzealous and made a huge mistake. And if that is the case, they’ll deport such an advisor immediately. No, they can’t tolerate such dissidents amongst the cadres. Maybe it is the action of a single, misguided person, who knows? Yes, this calls for urgent action.

But, the South Africans must also understand, there is the minor question in the Angolan minds: what about  atom bombs? Some sources claim that there is an arsenal of these devices in Pretoria? Surely that is only a rumour, not so? But…supposing the outrageous gossip has a smidgen of truth to it, neighbouring countries need to be reassured that these weapons are only a symbolic threat and that it would never be used in the current conflict.

Atom bombs? The South Africans look shocked. Of course not! No, they never considered constructing such inhuman devices. Impossible! Surely the gentlemen present cannot believe such nonsense? We are, after all, Christians, not so? No, all we want is a fair fight. Surely everybody knows that?

The talks end with a 5-star dinner in honour of the foreign guests, with speeches and handshakes and smiles. Both sides promise to report to their command structures after the talks.

It changes the course of the war. The boxers will continue to slog it out in the ring. Queensbury rules. No guns or knives in the ring. Of course not

***

José Migeul Pereira walks point for his squad of men. Without their load of Sarin-S, they’re making good progress.

“Hey Doc,” it’s the radioman, a worried tone to his voice, “Chung will kill us.”

“No. When we reach the base, you’ll stay in the bush. I’ll go and talk to Comrade Vasily – I feel I have to report the truth to him. I owe him that.” He taps the side of his head, just like Mister Clemente always did. The old butcher was right: the answer is always in there. “Once he knows exactly what transpired, he’ll understand. Maybe he’ll deploy us elsewhere. Otherwise, we’ll just form a rogue unit and do our own thing. Don’t worry – we’ll work this out.”

***

Comrade Vasily whistles a tune as he walks over to General Chung’s hut. It’s a Russian tune, a happy one most popular in the Soviet army. He’s in an exceptionally good mood because he is going to particularly enjoy delivering the latest orders from Luanda.

He enters Chung’s dwelling without knocking, enjoying the look of annoyance on the Chinese face.

“Hey, Chung old buddy. You’ve got to pack for a long journey. Yep, next stop: China. No more venison and vegetables and balmy sunshine days for you, my friend. Rice and chopsticks – or whatever they serve in Chinese prisons.” Vasily waves a dismissive hand. “Oh, don’t bother to thank me, my friend. I wasn’t responsible for your demotion. No, not at all. Oh, by the way, I’m the general now. You know, the guy in charge? So I’m not requesting you to pack. I’m ordering you to do so.

“Your escort awaits, Mister Chung…hurry up now…”

 

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Going for the Kill (# 8)

The boy José picked up in that village in 1978. Photograph taken in 1992, when he heard all fighting finally ceased. Credit: thannelstv.com

The boy José picked up in that village in 1978. Photograph taken in 1992, when he heard all fighting finally ceased. Credit: channelstv.com

The boy – how old is he? Three…four?  seems quite content to sit astride on José’s shoulders. Maybe the shock of the strafing attack was just too much, or maybe his Down Syndrome shielded him from the horror..but he sits there, absently watching the soldiers, while the troops stare at the destruction.

“The bastards!” The radio man wipes away a tear. “The absolute bastards! This is where my family stayed – innocent people, just getting on with their lives. Surviving, that’s what they did. They weren’t part of any war. They never even talked politics. Now…they’re all dead.”

“Don’t worry,” one of his comrades tries to encourage his friend, “we’re going to get them. For every one of these villagers that died, we’ll kill a hundred, a thousand  of their’s. These deaths will be avenged, I tell you. We’re…”

“Hold it.” José’s soft voice stops the tirade in mid-sentence. When the troops turn to face him, he shakes his head. “You see what happens?” He sweeps a hand towards the smouldering ruins.

“Yes, those bloody South Africans are destroying our people and our homes. They’ll pay!”

***

José closes his eyes , thinking hard. And in that moment, during that second or two, his life flashes by in short flashes of remembering.

Matron Anna and her terrible helper, Manuel, remind him of the many injustices he had to endure. Oh, and Mister Clemente, with his thick fingers and kindly eyes, seems to hover around a little while, tapping his head with those stumpy digits. Comrade Vasily, surprisingly compassionate, lingers in his thoughts. The vindictive Chung, unfeeling and cruel, lurks amongst his thoughts. Pedro, who died in that landmine blast – the one he walked right by without triggering the deadly device. And Maria, dear sweet Maria da Silva, who turned out to be the best friend and companion he’s ever had.

Suddenly, he imagines the ships captain is with him. You’ll never move on unless you forgive, José.” The words hammer against his forehead. “…you’re going to face a difficult situation…” and “And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.

He opens his eyes, sure of what he must do.

“Listen Comrades…”

***

Pieter Malherbe watches the patrol disappear down the track. Why didn’t he shoot? He had a good, clear shot and it was only a question of pulling – squeezing – the trigger. The little boy’s body would have been no obstacle to the speeding bullet – it would have gone straight through that child’s feeble frame, smashing the skull of the man carrying him.

But no..he couldn’t do it. The boy’s face stopped him. The Mongoloid eyes, the dull expression, the almost-too-large tongue licking the hanging lower lip…an innocent, mentally challenged youth who has no part in the war. When he recognised the features in the magnified picture of his scope, he felt his finger relax. It was involuntary, a reflex, his mind refusing to kill innocence because he was sent to assassinate a killer. Killing man and boy, he realised in that instant, would debase him. He’d change from being a soldier fighting for a just cause, into a murdering machine that doesn’t care, doesn’t think, doesn’t pause to consider why he is carrying a gun.

Feeling deflated and angry, Pieter Malherbe slides the safety on. gathers his kit, and starts a slog jog back to the border, where he’ll have to explain why he allowed a chemical warfare expert to continue on his way to poison thousands of innocent civilians.

***

images (62)General Groesbeek surveys the area of the ambush. There’s the drift with the shallow waters. They’ll come through the river there after making sure the coast is clear. They won’t cross during daylight hours, he’s sure of that. No, they’ll wait for darkness, maybe even until just before dawn – that’ll give them ample time to get clear of the river and head up to the steep sides of the gorge where they’ll be able to conceal themselves properly.

He’s positioned his men well, he thinks. He’s also been extremely careful to tell the men – order them – not to use their rifles.

“No shooting, men. You rupture one of the canisters with that poison in, and you’ll all die.” That may not be completely true, he knows that. According to the intel, the stuff doesn’t evaporate like the original Sarin would; instead, it needs to be dissolved in water. It is in drinking the contaminated water that death lurks…but you can never be too sure. There are, after all, only sixteen of them. To get to the top of the gorge, they’ll have to be in single file at the steeper areas. This is where the Recces will wait. Hand-to-hand. The oldest form of warfare. One hundred crack soldiers against a bunch of sixteen simple peasants.

A smirk turns his lips upwards. The Angolans have no chance…

“One last thing,” his commanding voice has the group’s complete attention. “It’ll be a long night. You will stay exactly in the place you’ve been allocated to. Make sure you know precisely where your mates are. No lights. No smoking. Dry rations. Make sure your water bottles are full. When you here the cry of a fish eagle  – repeated three times – from one of the spotters, make sure you are ready.

“May God be with you, men. And good luck.”

***

José Migeul Pereira sits down at the crest of a hill. They can hear the roar of the waterfalls even though it is still some distance away.

“Are you sure, Doc?” The troops have taken to calling him that, despite his initial objections. Jose feels fifteen pairs of eyes on him, not completely convinced that they’re doing the right thing.

“Listen men…we have to understand what we’re doing. Suppose we wipe out all the Himbas? What did we accomplish? Ill tell you: we’d have killed children. Mothers and fathers. Grandparents. Dogs and cattle. Frogs and birds. Is that why we call ourselves soldiers? Freedom fighters? Killing those who can’t fight back?”

“But Doc…” the radio operator’s brow is furrowed by his protest, “look what they did to that village? Were those not children? Parents? Dogs? And are they not all dead right now – they that couldn’t defend themselves?  I really think this is a bad idea.” A few murmurs of support emits from the men.

“So we kill off northern South West. The land is empty. Not a bird, not a jackal remains. And what, my friends, will happen?” He pauses a while, allowing them time to think.

“I’ll tell you: atom bombs. Luanda. Lusaka. Harare. Maputo. Four bombs, four cities. Millions dead. And who will know – really know – who’s to blame for those deaths? Us. Us! It’ll be us who started the destruction that will even kill the mosquitoes. Nothing will escape.” He hesitates as he sees how little effect his words have. “Now. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to cross that river – without you. I’m going to look for South African soldiers. I’ll surrender to them. Then I’ll tell them what is going to happen. I’ll tell them we’ll kill South West Africa and they’ll destroy all the neighbouring countries surrounding South Africa. Nobody will be spared. Nobody.

“Then, if they believe me, they’ll have to start negotiating with each other. It won’t be easy. Not at all. But we, my brothers, have a golden opportunity to start the end of this war. We can stop the fighting – even if it doesn’t happen immediately.”

They argue, then reach a compromise. José will cross the river – they’ll wait. If he doesn’t return in one day’s time, the patrol goes ahead with their mission. If, however, José manages to make contact and convince their enemies about the catastrophe that’ll follow, they’ll reassess the situation.

It’s an uncomfortable compromise…

***

“Sir… Sir!!” Groesbeek awakens with a start. “Sir, there’s a man wading through the river. One single person. He’s in uniform and he’s carrying a white flag.” The soldier watches as General Groesbeek sits up in his sleeping bag. “Shall we shoot the bastard? Sir? Shall we?”

Before Groesbeek can answer, a single shot rings out. A microsecond later, the dull thump! of bullet striking flesh is clearly heard.

Going for the Kill (# 7)

SWAPO_and_SA_operations_1978-1980,_Angola_civil_warComrade Vasily sits down heavily next to José in the shade of the large thorn tree.

“They’ve made Chung a general, José. A general!” Vasily sighs. “I have fought bravely, commanded the troops to the best of my ability. And now this…”

José nods. Yes, he understands. Chung is now Vasily’s superior officer, which puts him in command not only of the camp, but of the whole surrounding region. Vasily is much admired for his military skills, but also loved for the way he manages  the problems of the soldiers under his command. Chung, in contrast, can only be described as a bastard. He simply doesn’t care for the individual – he doesn’t care about casualties at all. For him the soldiers are ways to a means.

“I’m sorry,” José says lamely.

***

“I shall select sixteen men, Vasily, ” Chung says smugly, “to carry out the most decisive operation of this war. We’ll target a relatively small area to determine the efficiency of Sarin-S. I’ve chosen a remote area, where the South Africans will have very little chance of finding out what we’re doing. It’ll be dangerous, nevertheless, especially if they have to cart the chemicals there and distribute it in the water supplies of the area. It’ll take nine men to carry the Sarin-S. Six men will act as reserve carriers and protect the convoy.”

Chung leans forward, smiling ominously. “And…your little protege, Doctor José, will accompany the group as a medic. Now, my dear Vasily, I assume you concur?”

Comrade Vasily closes his eyes. Nods absently. Feels his heart shrinking.

***

General Groesbeek looks up as Brigadier Pieterse opens the door after knocking softly. It’s one of those hot and humid days in Pretoria. It’ll rain soon…

“Come in, Pieterse. As you’ve guessed, it is about this report from this man in Angola…this …er…”

“You mean Lucas, sir? The report about Sarin-S?”

opuwa“Yes. That’s it! This Lucas says the Commies are going to poison the dams and streams in the vicinity of Opuwo. They plan to enter South West at Swartbooisdrift, and then target Okangwati, Okaanga, Opuwo and Orumana.” Groesbeek stabs a finger at the map in front of him, pointing out the places.

“What worries me, Pieterse, is that they’re sending a doctor along. Doctors aren’t exactly common in Angola. Lucas also states that the doctor and the Sarin arrived at their camp within days of each other. Now, I have two questions for you: is this Lucas reliable? And what, in heaven’s name, do you make of this doctor story?”

Pieterse describes the value of Lucas in glowing terms. His reports have been regular, reliable and accurate.”But I’m not sure about the doctor? Why would they send somebody as qualified as that along? Unless….he’s a chemical expert, of course.”

HG0000501“I agree. That thought haunts me.” Groesbeek lights a Gunston, inhaling deeply. “Well, it is imperative they be stopped. The Himbas has always been rather tolerant of our presence, and we can’t afford to lose their support. Moreover, if the Commies succeed in poisoning that area, they’ll wipe out all forms of animal and human life. Can you imagine the catastrophe? What’s even worse: Lucas says this is just the first phase! A test! If they succeed, they’ll implement this strategy over the entire border. The Kunene. Kwando. Okavango rivers. All poisoned and all life exterminated! It’s diabolical, man!”

“We won’t take that lying down, sir. If they go to those extremes, we’ll ….” Pieterse hesitates, afraid to finish the sentence.

“Indeed we will!” Groesbeek feels his cheeks flush. “If they target entire civilian population groups as well as game and farm animals as their primary targets, we’ll make them feel extremely sorry that they did. Every fish, every antelope, every carnivore…” He screws his eyes tight, breathes out hard. “We’ll bomb Luanda. Dammit, man, we’ll destroy their bloody capitol city, bomb it to ashes, wipe it off the face of the earth!”

Pieterse holds up a hand, trying to calm the general down. “Lets try another approach, General. “

Pieterse leaves the general’s office with specific orders. They’ll take out the doctor as soon as possible, and ambush the patrol when they set foot on South West African soil, and capture the Sarin-S.  The general will be responsible to set up the ambush. Pieterse, via his position in Military Intelligence, has to arrange the elimination of Angola’s chemical warfare specialist, a man only known as Doctor José, before the patrol can do any harm.

Outside, the thunder crashes as the first huge hail stones start pelting the leaves off the Jacaranda trees. The two military men are not aware of the destruction. They’re planning a catastrophe of their own.

***

mirage_iii_ez_831_01A few kilometres north of the Kunene, the patrol dives for cover as the modified Mirages scream overhead.

Seconds later – to the south – they hear the stutter of several explosions…and then silence reclaims the bush. Its as if the birds and the insects are desperately trying to ignore the stupidity of humans and their their most basic instinct: the destruction of opposition.

An hour later they reach the site of the attack. What used to be a village, is now a smouldering, bare patch between the trees, pock-marked by the impacts of the missiles and explosions.

One of the troops bursts out crying, sobbing that this had been his village, and that he had hoped to see his family before crossing the border. Yes, he knew SWAPO used it as a temporary base sometimes, but he never – ever – considered the possibility of…this!

Ground attacks by supersonic jets are arguably the worst of all military offences on ground level targets – second only to long-range artillery. The attackers are completely undetected and the first thing that happens, are the unexpected explosions. Blasts of destruction, out of the blue, seconds before the sound of the turbines reach those that are already dead and dying.  Having said that, one must not discount the fear the ‘whu-ump’ of an unseen mortar or the click of a landmine under the foot. Maybe – even – it is stupid to award the prize to fast jets, but the point is made: these attacks cause panic.

And panic costs lives. People run from the last explosion, forgetting the old axiom that no two bombs ever land in the same place. The safest place to be – if one can keep a cool head and stand the heat – is the newest bomb crater. The villagers obviously didn’t know that. Running from the blasts, they ended up in new ones. The village is in ruins. The men and women are dead. It’s been – in military terms – a complete success. In humanitarian terms, it’s a tragedy.

They’ve all been killed – except the little boy with Down Syndrome, sitting forlornly, staring at the destruction with uncomprehending eyes.

Doctor José acts on instinct when he bends down and swings the child onto his shoulders. He has absolutely no idea that this act saves his life… As he does this, he is suddenly so aware of everything he experienced in Luanda – there, around the kitchen table, while Maria da Silva prayed for peace.

Author’s Note: In this week’s Writing Challenge, writers are asked to look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk a mile in their shoes. To try to understand why ‘they’ do things differently. This is exactly the message of Going for the Kill. As a conscripted soldier back in the 70’s, I saw the enemy as just that – the enemy. Now I know that everybody who took part in that war, was just another human being. In this series, I’m trying to understand how it must have been on both sides, what people felt…and why they felt it was important enough to risk life and limb fighting for an ideology as foreign to the continent as an elephant in Hyde Park.

Going for the Kill (# 6)

detail-pleural-effusionJosé Migeul Pereira stays in hospital for six months…well, not all the time as a patient, but still…

His face healed up early – the scar diminishing surprisingly fast – but the damage to his left lung leaves him with a chronic form of pleuritis. The effusion collecting at the base of his left lung formed a sinus that keeps on draining, despite massive doses of antibiotics. He doesn’t feel ill, however – it’s just a situation where he keeps on oozing pus from an area that doesn’t want to heal.

He becomes good –   not intimate – friends with Maria da Silva; a situation that sees him move in with her in the small flat she has near the harbour. She’s a devout Christian and insists that he joins her for her daily reading and prayer. This, he discovers, isn’t at all like Matron Anna did. Matron used the Bible to convince the children of their sin, citing passage after passage to justify the hidings. No, Maria reads about love and forgiveness; she teaches him about a completely different God than he knew. She also tells him about angels.

José gains a lot during his stay with Maria – both in knowledge and in weight. He also – for the first time – really understands what that ship’s captain was all about.

Of course, the days are empty when she’s at the hospital, causing him to start working as an orderly in the casualty department. Here he proves to be of invaluable help to the overworked doctors, who don’t mind if he treats the cuts and lacerations that present themselves in the busy department. Later, they allow him to prescribe medication, something the pharmacist doesn’t worry about, as long as he signs his name with “Dr” in front of his name. It isn’t their duty to check qualifications, is it? Besides, his prescriptions  for the usual cases of malaria, diarrhoea and bronchitis are exactly similar to the other doctor’s.

José may have lacked a lot of schooling, but there is nothing wrong with his ability and desire to learn. While he now acts a as an unofficial ‘medic’. he discovers something quite surprising: helping others creates a feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction that he never experienced before. Working in the casualty department becomes a passion and a joy, and not just a way to fill the empty hours and days.

Five months after his injury, the new Cuban doctor – Dr Cabado – convinces him that the wound should be explored. A fifteen-minute operation yields the last piece of the mine’s plastic covering embedded next to a rib. One week later, the wound is healed.

It is time for Jose Migeul Pereira to return to the war.

***

“José!” When the old Datsun stops next to the hut they use as a command centre, Comrade Vasily can’t hide his joy at seeing the young man. In the most unmilitaristic way, he rushes out and hugs José. “You’re back!”

They spend hours talking. José tells Vasily everything that happened in Luanda, filling him in on his newly acquired medical skills. The Russian is suitably impressed: the unit does not have a proper medic. Having José around is going to be a valuable addition to the squad.

“Things have been see-sawing around here, Dr José.” Vasily smiles at the new status of his friend. Who cares if he’s a doctor or not? This is the bush – anybody who has the power of healing deserves the title. “The fighting in the border region is getting quite hectic. Gone are the days of sneaking into South West Africa quietly, blowing up a pipeline or a few pylons…we’re into a phase of much more conventional warfare. The South Africans have a very efficient army, and I’m worried about that. They have well-trained troops, a formidable air force and their armoured vehicles overshadow our capabilities. They recently launched yet another operation which took out three of our bases near their border.

South African nuclear bomb casings

South African nuclear bomb casings

“What is even more frightening, is the rumour that they’ve developed an atom bomb. Can you imagine what would happen if they bombed Luanda? No, my young friend, we are in trouble. If we don’t come up with something soon, we might very well lose this war.”

Vasily paces the palm-thatched veranda in front of the hut, explaining the horrors of nuclear warfare. José has heard of atom bombs, of course, but that was something that happened in the Second World War. Surely Pretoria won’t consider – seriously – deploying such a weapon against the freedom fighters?

“There’s no telling what they’d do, José. The South African government is desperate to end the war. They simply do not have the finances to continue indefinitely. Truth be told, neither does Moscow or Havana. It’s a race, you see? The first one to strike a really massive blow, will be the victor.”

“But what will we do? We can’t fight against an atom bomb? We’re defenceless against something like that.”

Vasily nods. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, young José. That’s why Comrade Chung has come up from an answer. He’s already had it delivered in Luanda. The shipment will be here tomorrow.”

***

Lucas Makanja used to be a carefree youth on the farm where his father worked as a labourer. Whenever he thinks back to those happy days on Nooitgedacht in the Waterberg, he has to swallow hard. How is hIs family? What happened to his friends?

Back then, late one night, some men came to the labourer’s houses on the farm. Everybody was woken up and assembled in the darkness.

“Every village must provide fighters for our cadres. We are fighting for your freedom, Comrades, but we can’t do it alone. We need men. Real men. So…you have a choice: tomorrow night we’ll return. Either you will then have somebody young and healthy to join us – or we’ll select one.

“We’ll be back. Talk about it, make a decision. Tomorrow night…”

His family was distraught – Lucas was, after all, the only boy in the little cluster of houses, so it was obvious: willingly or not, he was to be separated from his family. His father did the only thing he could think of: he spoke to Mister Fourie, the farmer.

And that’s where it all started. By midday the following day, Komandant Pieterse came to talk to him. Look, he said, we’ve been farming here for a hundred years. We live peacefully. These people who visited you? They want to turn our country into a blood bath. They are also very strong – lots of countries are giving them weapons to destroy our way of life. So, Mister Makanja, we have to be very clever to beat them. Very clever, indeed.

I’d suggest, the Komandant went on, that young Lucas goes with the men. You don’t really have a choice at all, do you? Just last month, the same thing happened to the Mahlangu family in the Brits district. They tried to fight these men. You know what happened? Those men burned their houses to the ground, beat the men with sjamboks and then took four boys from the village. You can’t fight them.

But I have an idea. Let Lucas go with them. Let him tell us what they’re doing. That way, at least, he’s helping us to protect the farm and your family. And of course, we’ll pay you for that. Handsomely. 

The men came back that night. Lucas went away with them. They took him to Lusaka at first, where he was trained to use an AK 47 and ‘disciplined’ and ‘orientated’ to understand that communism is the only form of government that empowers people to build up their ountry. Later he was transferred to Angola, He must, they ordered, join Comrade Vasily in the fight to free South Africa from Apartheid.

And during all this time, even during his prolonged periods of solitary confinement that formed part of his ‘orientation’, he was able to smuggle out notes and letters to his controllers in Pretoria. It was, he has to admit,  quite amazing how inventive the South Africans were to help him get his messages out.

***

Two days after ‘Dr’ José’s return, Lucas puts down the tray on the table next to Comrades Vasily and Chung. Vasily is reading from a file with a name stencilled on the cover. While he’s pouring the tea, he strains to hear what they’re talking about.

“….it’s a new agent, Vasily. While the mother-substance disperses quickly and becomes ineffective within seconds, this chemical was altered to be water soluble and will remain effective for two to three days. Some clever scientist added another molecule to create the perfect solution to our problem. That means we’d soon be able to walk into northern South West Africa without firing a single shot. Victory, my friend, is ours.”

Lucas bows politely  when Chung waves an irritated and dismissive hand at him.

The name on the file, he thinks, is Sarin-S. I must remember that. Sarin-S. What can it be? Well, no matter, he’ll smuggle it out with his next note. Maybe the people in Pretoria will know…

 

Going for the Kill (# 5)

captain_undressJosé Migeul Pereira drifts upwards, weightless, free. He’s not concerned. He has no pain.

He doesn’t know what exactly happened. Didn’t see Pedro’s leg tremble, tremble…and move. Vaguely recalls  the second click as the toggle switch moved upward, sending the electrical signal to the M18 mine. Didn’t – couldn’t – see the mine strapped to a tree, its killing face pointed to the track at waist height. Didn’t even hear the explosion where he was crawling along the ground, following the wire.

One moment he was busy sweeping sand off the concealed wire, the next he is floating above his bleeding body. Weightless. Free.

Oh, he can see his damaged body, no question about it. There’s blood on the left side of his face. A lot of it. The left side of his shirt is also soaked in blood, some of it forming a small pool in the soft sand. This doesn’t worry him at all. No pain, just free.

“José…?”

A voice? Here? Who?

“It’s me.” Two words, explaining everything.

And suddenly he is aware of the ship’s captain in front of him. Why didn’t he notice the handsome man in the old-fashioned uniform before? And yet, there he is! Exactly the picture of his father, the one he never knew but always thought would look just like this.

“Papa…?”

“That’s right, son. Me. I’ve always been there, remember?”

José is confused. What is happening?

“Relax, José. Just be. Accept.”

“But…but why? How?” The questions flood his consciousness.

“To reassure you, son. You’ve always been lonely. You’ve had a hard life and became bitter as a result. And you’ve still not forgiven Manuel or Matron Anna.” The captain shrugs. “You’ll never move on unless you do so, José.”

“Move on? To what?” José experiences a touch of anger. “I’ve been abused, used, belittled all my life and….”

“Shhhh…” Is there any other way to describe the captain’s eyes, other than kind and sympathetic? Even – the thought surprises José – loving? “Hush now son. You had to endure unspeakable hardship for you to understand what you have to do. In a short while you’re going to face a difficult situation. I want you to think about what I just said when the time comes, José. It is very, very important. And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.”

The image of the captain seems to waver, fade, as he draws back.

“Wait! Papa! Don’t leave me…again?’

“I’ve never left you, José. I’ll always be there…”

And then, suddenly, the captain is gone.

***

Voices… Other voices. Urgent words. Lots of voices.

Then men appear, running towards him. A few stop to stare at the mangled body of Pedro. One bends over to vomit. Others just stand there in shock, staring.

But two men rush to his side to turn him over. They wipe away blood, working silently. The medical kit gets opened. They put up a drip, managing with the third try.

“His rucksack and radio saved him,” the one says, “and most of the shrapnel went right over him. He was too near the tree and the mine was too high… Lucky devil!”

“Poor Pedro,” the other one murmurs, “he didn’t stand a chance.”

José feels himself drawn back to his body. He wants to resist, to remain in this state of blissful peace, but the pull to return is just too strong. He feels a different darkness approaching and surrenders to it.

***

Pain!

The pain is excruciating.

José wants to open his eyes, but something is wrong. Even when he tries focussing, all he can see is black. He wants to scream, but he only manages a protracted, croaking groan.

“You’re awake?” The voice is soft, a woman’s voice. Where the hell did she come from?

“Are you in pain?”

He manages another croak and a nod.

“I’ll give you something.”

The darkness returns.

***

Time passes. How long? He’s not sure. Time has no meaning. When he becomes aware again, the pain is less. Mainly his head, also his chest. It’s still dark.

“Welcome back, José Pereira. Feeling better?” The same voice. Kind. Soft.

“Yes.” The words comes out slowly over his dry tongue. “Th…th…thirsty…”

“Here.” He feels a straw on his lips. Sucks. It’s Coke! His favourite… He drinks eagerly, smacking his lips.

“How…how did you…know?”

Soft giggle. “The Coke? Comrade Vasily told he. Said I had to keep it at your bedside.”

“Dark..why is it…dark?”

“You’ve got a million bandages over your head, José Pereira. The doctors had to operate to get the pieces of iron out of your face. You’re a very lucky man, José. Or you have a powerful guardian angel.”

The captain?

“Who…are…you?”

“I’m Maria da Silva, José. Your private nurse, Comrade Vasily must like you a lot, he’s payng me well.”

And then, in bits and pieces, she allows him to assemble the puzzle to understand what’s happened in the last fourteen days. How the men got the radio working again, to notify their basecamp what’s happened. How Comrade Vasily twisted arms, called in favours and almost shot Chung to get a helicopter to fetch José. How he was taken to Luanda where the Cuban doctors spent eight hours – eight hours! – operating on his face and fixing his ruptured lung. And how she sat there, day after day, praying for him to get better.

“I did your bandages yesterday evening, José. The doctors…well, they did a marvellous job. When you came in, you were quite a mess. Now you’ll only have a scar over your left cheek. I think you’re going to be even more handsome for it.”

Despite the circumstances, José finds himself smiling beneath the bandages. She’s got such a beautiful voice…

“And Comrade Vasily… Does he know I’m okay?”

“Oh yes! I have to phone him twice a day. He’s really worried about you, you know? He said he’d be off this weekend, then he’d come and visit you.”

When José feels himself drifting off into a slumber again, he nearly didn’t hear her question.

“José? Your records show you’re an orphan. But you know? The funniest thing happened. Right after you returned from the operating theatre, A man came to visit you. A sailor, I think. He didn’t look old enough, but he said he was your father. He stood there, silently, looking down at you. Then he asked for a glass of water. I fetched it. When I returned, he was gone… Do you know such a man, José?”

Jose Migeul Pereira feels how the tension drains from his body. He also knows exactly what to do.

“Please, Maria? Will you ask a priest to visit me? I haven’t been to confession for…such a long time. I need to put a matter straight.”

And then, he thinks, if there are difficult decisions ahead, he’ll be ready.

***

Sometimes it s so easy to say we’ll do the right thing. And sometimes, when faced with a difficult choice, we back off, knowing the price is too high. It is fair to assume that José Migeul Pereira had no idea how much he’d have to sacrifice if he wanted to be true to his intentions.

Going for the Kill (# 4)

Ruacana Falls, Kunene River

Ruacana Falls, Kunene River

José has attended so many briefings over the years, he knows the maps by heart. How many times – with nothing else to do – did he sit at the back, listening to Comrade Vasily going over the details of the next attack? Ruacana, Rundu, Oshakati, even the failed one to Grootfontein. The names are familiar now, as are the Kunene and the roads of Kaokoland. He knows all about the peaceful Himbas and the fierce Ovambos.

No – getting there won’t pose a problem. If he could avoid the landmines and the roving South African patrols, that is.

It is on the third day of the mission – just two kilometers from the Kunene – that his luck runs out. The day starts like any other with the scorching sun rising above the canopy of trees, Men grumble, cough and scratch their way to the assembly point, munching dry rations and sharing cigarettes.

“Today we cross the Kunene at Ruacana.” The young corporal tries to sound important. José has to suppress a smile – he knows how nervous they all are. “This, men, is where the party really begins. Up till now, we’ve been in what is considered friendly surroundings; but from now on the rules change. No smoking. No talking. No fires. Absolute radio silence.

“Like you know, we’re aiming at the electrical substation outside Rundu. We have to get there and back without being detected. Our orders are clear: José will take point up to the river. He will set up a temporary base there and await our return. Any casualties we have or anybody who gets separated from the group , will return to this base. José will have a radio for emergencies. Are there any questions?”

***

With the river almost in sight, the sandy track makes progress relatively easy. It is a well-used track, obviously used by game – especially elephants, whose droppings seem fresh. Good, José thinks, if an elephant used the track last night, the possibility of landmines must have been eliminated. He relaxes as he inches forward to check out the section ahead. The track has curved away from the river, possibly due to a rock or a large tree, and he now has to peer around the corner to be sure it is safe.

The men are stretched out in single file behind him. They know they are near the official border and that danger may lurk anywhere. The silence is absolute as they move forward.

While José peers around the bend in the track, the man behind him slows down. Then, coming to a halt a yard behind José, he allows himself to relax. That’s when he moves his left foot to ease the pressure on the blister that has formed on his heel. He lifts the foot, massages the leather covering his ankle, puts his foot down again.

Click…

The sound is unmistakable and seems unnaturally loud in the silence. José whirls around  in shock. Landmine!

They’ve been briefed extensively on landmines. They know how most of them work. José remembers clearly the one lecture Comrade Vasily gave.

‘If you become aware of a landmine beneath your foot, you are lucky. Usually, you won’t. Put foot down, boom! Instantaneous! You won’t be frightened, won’t feel pain, and might be surprised to face St Peter when you thought you were still walking around in the bush. So, that one is easy. Don’t worry about it, because you can’t do anything that’d change the outcome.’ 

Comrade Vasily said this often, and always thought it to be very funny – but José saw the bodies carried back to the base. There is no humour in a mangled corpse.

‘But sometimes, you put a foot down and you hear a click. That’s when you’ve activated a mine. Lift your foot, and then you get the boom and the opportunity to meet St Peter. The only difference between these two scenarios, is that in the second one you get a chance to pray…’ This too, caused Comrade Vasily to laugh.

“Stand still! Don’t move!” José’s shout is unnecessary. The man – Pedro Goncalves – stands frozen, his mouth open in a silent scream as his eyes seem to bulge in fright. “If you lift your foot…” José doesn’t have to complete the sentence.

The rest of the men have scattered, hiding some distance away behind trees and anything that offers protection against flying shrapnel.

José knows he should go. Get away. Leave the killing zone. Once Pedro lifts his foot, the inevitable will happen.

But no! He can’t! He sees the fear in Pedro’s eyes, the hopeless look of knowing exactly what’ll happen next. José knows that feeling. How many times had he prayed, pleaded with God, when Manuel did those horrible things to him in the children’s home? And what happened? Nothing! If there’s one thing the home taught him, it is that nobody will help you if you don’t help yourself. That’s why the home burned down. That’s why he felt immensely relieved, proud, strong when Manuel stopped moving and he threw the knife into the flames.

Master your own ship, that’s what he learnt.

And now, if he didn’t do something, Pedro will die.  His death would be as unfair and as horrible as the events in that home, so many years ago. And what did Mister Clemente say? Tap the fingers against the head – the answer is always in there…

Josê’s reaction now is unthinking, automatic. He lies down on the ground, and starts sweeping the sand around Pedro’s foot away. Gently, now. Gently…

300px-US_M18a1_claymore_mineThere!

“Pedro,” his voice is a harsh whisper, “you’re standing on the toggle switch for a Claymore-type mine. Comrade Vasily says this is something FNLA does. The mine can be anywhere.”

These M18 mines, José knows, are command controlled. Usually they are used in an ambush, but the various fighting factions in Angola have adapted its use to become automated anti-personnel weapons. The trigger is buried where a foot can press the toggle down, causing the small generator inside to release an electric current. Sometimes, depressing the toggle isn’t enough to generate sufficient current, but releasing the toggle to move upward again, will do the trick. This, in turn, will detonate the hidden mine, releasing it’s deadly load of 700 steel balls at a velocity of 1200 metres per second. It is, José knows, a very effective weapon. Deadly. Horrible…

“Wait, here’s the wire.”

“I can’t stand like this much longer.” Sweat pours from Pedros ashen face. His upper body is trembling uncontrollably while he breathes in short, shallow gasps.

“If you move a muscle, you’re a gonner, Pedro. You have to remain still. Have to! I’ll follow the wire and see where the mine is. Maybe I can get the detonator out. Please, please remain still.”

Taking great care, Josê sweeps the soft sand away from the wire, following it to a clump of bushes nearby. He is about five yards away when Pedro moves.

The explosion is immediate…

The darkness that claims José isn’t complete. He feels no pain. Music, He hears music. Beautiful music. And he feels himself floating, floating on the beauty of the melody; soaring higher and higher above the searing veld and the fear of survival. His last conscious thought before the darkness comes rolling in, is a question.

Is this…heaven?

Going for the Kill (# 3)

hammersickle05José didn’t actually meet Comrade Vasily. He ran into him. Literally.

He can’t remember the number of days he’s been on the run. Hiding here. Stealing a bread there. Drinking from dams, streams and once: a tap at an abandoned house (he even had a bath there – it was heavenly). A man in a dilapidated truck gave him a lift after he lied about his family that had forgotten him in Luanda. Did the man believe him? He doesn’t know. But at the next village he said this was far enough, he’ll find his father here.

His father

He must have a father somewhere, mustn’t he? And a mother? In his mind his father was the captain of a great ship, his mother a beauty queen. He gave them important names, dressed them up in the finest clothes. And then, when the nights got cold, he knew he was being silly and cried until the birds began their morning twitter.

He almost saw the snake too late. José doesn’t know about snakes. Not much. Only that Manuel found one in the woodpile behind the children’s home and started screaming hysterically when it slid out. Matron Anna scolded him and whacked the snake to pulp with a spade. It’s the Devil, she said, and the Devil is a man.

He ran when he saw the snake right there, in front of him. Saw it, jumped over it, and ran. As hard as he could. He didn’t have a spade and it was the Devil and the Devil was Manuel. He was glancing over his shoulder at it when he ran full tilt into the solid body of Comrade Vasily.

***

Training the diverse group of men has been an arduous task for the Soviet soldier. Sure, he has the authority, the rank, and he is Russian. Above anything else, the last epithet has the greatest influence. Once the troops know you are Russian and thus a Communist, they submit to your every whim. They have to, because the discipline is harsh and uncompromising – but there is something else: Russia is the enemy of the South African government. Russia supplies arms and money to the freedom fighters. Russia, in short, is to be respected, honoured…even revered.

There is a problem, as there always will be. Some of the troops are volunteers; dedicated to the cause. But some are youths that were abducted from the rural villages and the urban slums. This last group is there because they were forced to be there. Discipline is stricter with them. Much harsher. They shall obey all orders, they shall be broken down and built up as fighting machines. If they refuse, the price is high…

Comrade Vasily is reasonably happy with his squad. The dissenters have been weeded out, punished into submission, or tortured to adapt to his rules. No exception. A demotivated soldier is a risk to the entire unit. Now, with them ready for the next push into South West Africa, Comrade Vasily is arguably certain they will give a good account of themselves. The South Africans are formidable opponents, not to be underestimated. He’ll lose men, that he accepts. But they won’t accept retreat. They know what’ll happen if they fall back.

There’s one problem, though: who takes point position in the operations to the south? The area just north of the border is a minefield – a real one. Boobytraps and mines – by both sides – make the progress towards Ovamboland risky. The person in the front of the column is the one who will be killed. It is a distinct possibility all the men are too aware of.

That’s where the child-soldiers come in so handy.

***

“Whoa, little man! Where are you going?”

black-mamba_767_600x450José looks up at the imposing character in the pressed uniform. He’s never seen a uniform as neat as this one before. His father, the captain of that big ship, would have one like that. He stares at the creases and says nothing, but points with a trembling hand at the long mamba a few yards back.

Comrade Vasily throws back his head and roars with laughter. Then, pulling a rather large pistol from its holster, he casually fires two shots. The first shatters the neck of the reptile; the second smashes the head into a blur of flying fragments and a spray of blood.

“There. Is that better?” Vasily’s Portuguese is perfect although still his accent betrays his origin. “Come here, boy. Let me look at you?”

***

José becomes the camp’s mascot. He’s the youngest ‘recruit’ and the men look at him and remember the boys playing in the veld back home. They think of dusty feet and laughing eyes, happy yells echoing against the hills and the mountains of a carefree childhood. They’re reminded that all the villagers are mothers and fathers to the infants, and they try their best to make little José a happy youth.

And they succeed. With chocolates and sweets, kind words and compliments, extra rations and snacks. Even cooldrink, when it’s available. José loves Coke – they all know that.

Over the next six years a lot of things happen. Some men don’t return after operations. New ones arrive. And eventually Anthony Chung is appointed second-in-command. Theoretically, he’s the 2IC; but he’s the clever one, the devious one.

He’s also the one to spot the potential in José.

“You’ve been here longer than most,” he says one day. “Look at you: almost sixteen! And the men have taught you everything they know. You can read, drive a Jeep, use a Makarov. You know about landmines and hand grenades. We must decide what you do: you’re a man now, and need to do a man’s job.”

1_107677750_3Vasily and Chung argue about this. Vasily has grown fond of the youth who seems to adore him. Chung wants to turn him into a soldier. Eventually, the Schlichte is the deciding factor. When Vasily stares at the last drops dripping from the upturned bottle into Chung’s mug, he says maybe José is too clever to be a soldier.

“What?’ Chung suppresses a hiccup. “That boy? So…you want him to be a…doctor?”

Vasily tries to concentrate on Chung’s left eye – he seems to have two of them. He manages to nod.

“Huh!” Words are difficult to form now. “I’ll tell you what.” Chung gets up unsteadily and hold on to the table. “If that boy walks point on the next exx…exxsch…expe..dition, and…,” he raises a hand in a mock salute, “he comes back in one piece,” he frowns, trying to formulate his sentence, “then yes. He becomes a doc…doctor. Shure. Why not? You send him to Moshcow. If he trig-gers a landmine, he’s too stupid, anyway. What you say?”

***

And so the fate of José Migeul Pereira is sealed in an alcoholic haze. The next day Comrade Vasily can’t look as the boy – a young man now – leads the column of men out of the camp. When Chung laughs, the Russian slaps the grin right off his Oriental face.

Going for the Kill (# 2)

Credit: topwapi.net

Credit: topwapi.net

José Migeul Pereira...

Matron Anna looks up from the chart to stare at the scruffy little boy. Six years old, dirty, ribs straining the thin skin. A lost kid found scratching around n the dustbins near the harbour. Like the others, the police simply dumped him at the Sao Tomè Children’s Home; the only option in Luanda. Matron Anna hates the city with its loose morals and poverty. Why did the Church send her here? Because of that incident with Father Abilio in Lisbon? And now she has to bear the burden of her sin forever?

She sighs. It wasn’t her bloody fault, was it? It was him! Dammit, she didn’t know…  All men are the same – victims of what she calls lustful religious innocence.  Abilio told the others she – Anna – was prone to sinful thoughts, that’s why she accused him. The posting to Luanda happened soon after, silencing her forever. Men…!

Some parents…she thinks, but doesn’t bother to finish the thought. It’s just that they breed and procreate and then simply abandon the results of their drunken lustful desires. It’s the men, of course. They’re animals with no sense of responsibility. And they make kids who have no chance.  She snorts – even his second name is spelled incorrectly.

“Manuel!” Her shrill voice penetrates the thin walls of the children’s home. “They’ve found another homeless little bugger. Come here! Get him washed and see if some of the rags in that old box will fit him.”

The fact that he’s near naked disgusts her. He’s a boy, dammit! And boys grow up to be men, dammit! And men are the scum of the earth, damnit! As if she needs a reminder that this dirty little critter will be one of those one day…

Manuel doesn’t share Matron Anna’s hatred for boys and men. On the contrary, he loves them. Especially boys. Young boys. Innocent boys. That’s why he works at the children’s home. He knows about Matron Anna, of course; he even realises his appointment was maybe part of Matron Anna’s way to deal with her dislike of males. So what? She turns a blind eye as long as he sorts out the meals twice a day. Her revenge is his pleasure, after all…

The bathroom is a cubicle with a curtain and a pail and a basin. The pail is the toilet. The basin serves as the bath. There are no towels – just a brick of blue soap and a coarse brush. José Migeul Pereira will never forget that bath…

***

Three years later sees José slightly bigger but infinitely angrier. The weekly bathing sessions with Manuel and the constant ‘disciplining’ by Matron Anna have taught him to show no emotion – neither joy or sorrow. Making friends with the other children in the home has proved to be almost impossible. Most of the boys were sent out to the shoe factory every day, while the girls were used as beggars (amongst other things) in the city’s centre. At night they ate…and slept.  José was singled out to work in the butchery that supplied the children’s home with the fleeced bones of the carcasses. This job, with it’s blood and gore and smell of dead meat, was singled out for the ‘least of the lessers’, as Matron Anna termed it.  It was a simple barter deal – he works for free and Matron Anna gets the bones for their daily ration of soup.

The butcher, Mister Clemente Demetrio, is a large man with a flat, round face and kindly eyes. He usually sings when he prepares the cuts of meat. He has large ears, a small nose and huge hands. And…he actually likes his new helper. Something in the downcast attitude, the pitiful frightened look, caused the old man to soften towards the child. Miste Clemente, Josè finds out, is an incessant talker.

“Now look here, Josè, I know what happens in that home of yours. Matron Anna has quite a reputation in Luanda. That temper of hers…. But you know all about that, don’t you? I’m sure you do. How you poor children survive, God only knows. It’s wrong, of course, but what can a poor butcher do?” He spreads his arms wide, a look of genuine regret on the orb of his face. For once, Josè has to smile.

“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not a Catholic. Don’t tell anybody, otherwise they’ll think I’m a heathen. But you know what? I believe. Sure, I do. Of course I do. There’s a God up there,” Josè’s eyes follow the thick fingers pointing at the ceiling, “and don’t think He’ll be happy with what He sees in that home. No sir, not happy at all. He’s a good God, little Josè, and He feels sorry for you. You can believe me, really. Matron Anna? Manuel? Hah! You’ll see. You wait. You’ll see. He works in mysterious ways, little Josè, mysterious. And He uses people in the most unlikely manner. He may even use you, who knows?”

A few days later Josè watches how Mister Clemente lifts a huge carcass from a hook, and asks him how he became so strong.

“It’s in here.” Thick fingers tap the bald head. “You must first become strong in here before your body knows what to do. If your brain tells you you are weak and small…why then, you remain weak and small. But if your mind believes you are big and strong, that’s what you’ll be. Don’t tell anybody, but that’s how lions started. They were cats, see? Then one day, an eeny-weeny bitty little cat,” two thick fingers show how small the cat was, “thought to himself – I want to be big and strong. You can see for yourself what happened.” The round face wrinkles with laughter. “Yes, that’s a secret. Don’t tell people Clemente tells you such things. People will say we’re both mad.”

Josè asks if somebody small, say like a little boy, could do big things if he thinks he can.

“You’ve been thinking? Good! I like children who think. It means they use their brains. And if you use your brain, little Josè, there’s nothing you cannot do. Nothing. Look at me – I used to sell newspapers. Now I’ve got a shop. How did that happen?” He taps his head again. “You understand?”

Yes, Josè nods. But what if your brain tells you to do something big? Maybe, even, something bad?

“Oh, you’ve been thinking about girls, little Josè? Girls? Hah! I like that. Let me tell you about girls…” And for the next fifteen minutes José Migeul Pereira listens to Mister Clemente’s summary of the art of romance and love.

***

But the butcher was wrong. José wasn’t thinking about girls at all. And Clemente Demetrio never worked it out, either. He simply thought the fire at the children’s home must have scared the little boy so much that he ran off. He even attended the funeral of Manuel, trying to look sad – but his only regret was that his small helper wasn’t there to listen to him talk and sing anymore.

And little Josè, knowing what he did, wouldn’t return to his only friend for a long, long time. Maybe, if he knew how much the old man missed him, he would have stopped on his way out of the city to explain.

But he didn’t stop. He didn’t explain. Couldn’t. His instincts told him to get away as far as possible. And that’s how it came to be that he trudged through the veld, for days at end, before he met Comrade Vasily, the Russian who ran the training camp in the woods.

Going for the Kill

sniper-hd-military-wallbase-201101Pieter Malherbe isn’t a very impressive man. Nor can one describe him as handsome. In fact, you’ll walk right past him on any street corner you care to mention, and you wouldn’t spare him a second glance. Between short and tall; blond-brown hair parted demurely on the left; with an average nose and a medium-sized chin, he’s just not remarkable enough to make you look twice.

Maybe that’s why he’s such a good sniper.

DSR-Precision-DSR-50-Sniper-RiflePeople don’t notice him…until they can’t notice anything at all anymore.

Give him a good old R1 silenced rifle and a good scope, and you’ve got a killing machine second to none. One can only imagine what he would have been able to do with a DSR-Precision rifle – but that would have made him remarkable, which we of course know he isn’t.

What isn’t noticeable – and therefore doesn’t compromise his unremarkable label – is his inability to forget faces. You’d never guess that he has this extended memory bank inside his mind if you happened to look at his dull eyes. Never.

But he knows: once he’s had somebody’s features framed by the round blackness of his scope, that face will remain burned into his brain forever.

And now, when the man enters the second-hand car lot just off Main Street in Upington, that this is The One That Got Away…

***

The bush in Angola can be extremely dense next to the rivers. Here, where Pieter Malherbe has been waiting for the last day, he has had to break off twigs, pull out weeds and remove a rock to get a clear vision on the track running next to the flowing water. Oh, he left no obvious traces of his labour – no sir, he may be unremarkable, but he isn’t stupid. Part of his secret of success is that he takes his unnoticed features to a next level by never giving a clue of his presence. He doesn’t sneeze. Doesn’t scratch mosquito bites. Never coughs. Just lies there, quietly, waiting…

They showed him a photograph, a good one, detailing the features of his victim. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Distinctive scar on the left cheek, ending near the ear. In the photograph, he is dressed in the uniform of Castro’s Cuban army, but out here in the bush he’d be wearing something else. According to the fact sheet, he is a doctor, which is sad. The man could have done so much good…

But no. He joined the terrorists who are infiltrating South West Africa, and he is an expert on chemical warfare. The knowledge inside his head can contaminate water supplies, poison crops or paralyse the defenders on the borders.This is the man he has to … eliminate.

And then, with the faintest rustle of vegetation brushing against boots, a patrol walks by. Pieter Malherbe scans the faces, one by one, through the powerful scope. There are sixteen of them.

Number seven!

There’s no doubt about it. No doubt at all. The doctor is right in the middle of the column, keeping up easily with the brisk pace of the patrol. The first six are obviously troops, predictably armed with AK 47’s . Then the doctor. Then nine more troops, carrying heavy rucksacks.

Visualise. He always visualises the scene before the shot. It helps getting away such a lot if you know what to expect. Sooo…One shot with the silenced gun. Confusion. Slip away while the troops scurry around and eventually attend to the doctor. Easy. He’s done it so many times before – but then with commanders and senior officers – never with a doctor.

One for the record books…

But there’s something wrong with the picture. Big time wrong. The doctor is carrying a small boy on his shoulders. Unacceptable collateral damage. No can do.

Abort mission…

***

And here he is now, again, only this time defenseless. No troops. No AK 47. No boy on his shoulders. Just him. Alone.

“Go get him,” his senior whispers.

Pieter Malherbe glances over at Sergeant Basson. They’ve been together for…oh how many years now? A formidable team. Basson is technically his boss, if you consider everything. The spotter. That’s the man who has all the info. Distance. Windspeed. Temperature. Trajectory. Everything. Also…the man with vision, the entrepreneur; that’s why he can sit back and let Malherbe do the work.

You can snipe without a spotter, that’s true. The first time he saw the doctor, he didn’t have Basson with him. No spotter. The mission to deep into Angola, the details too secret. Tense.

But today? Today he can smile casually at Basson and mouth the words ‘thank you’. Basson knows about his target. It’s been a bad month and he’s falling far short. Now it’s up to him. Get the man into your sights, take careful aim, Go for the kill.

Oh, time has passed in the meantime. A lot of time. Angola is history. The war is past. The enemy won.

But not today. Today he’s not going to let this one get away. He needs this – he needs this badly. A sniper, he tells himself, is as good as his last effort. Lately he missed a few targets, he’ll have to make up today.

It’s funny how life works, Malherbe thinks. Circles…circles within circles being completed as the years roll by. What you can’t understand today becomes logical tomorrow. Relaxing the finger on the trigger one day, becomes a way of putting bread on his table the next. How weird is that?

He gets up behind the rickety desk, shoves the tie-knot into position,

Going for the kill. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax.

Now!

“Good day sir! Welcome to our collection of lovely pre-owned cars. Boy, have you come to the right place.” Flash a big smile. Shake hands – look confident. “Now I can see you’re a man of great taste. Over here we have just what you’re looking for. An almost-new model, sir, barely 5000 km on the clock. Come on, take a test drive, will you…”

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 20)

Credit: landroverseries.com

Credit: landroverseries.com

“Dad? …. Daddy?”

Lettie looks up as the brigadier stoops to enter the tree-cave. She hasn’t seen her father for such a long time – decades – that she’s uncertain at first. But when he kneels next to her, she lets out a sob of relief. “You came…”

There is no time – or need – for introductions now. !Ka and Gertruida join father and daughter next to Gert.

!Ka is shocked to see his friend like this. When he left a few days ago, Gert was still talking about going hunting the next day, even though he looked tired. Now, however, his cheeks seems to have melted away, and his eyes are unnaturally large in the sunken sockets. !Ka knows about death – it is part of living in a desert – and he knows Gert won’t live to see another sunrise.

***

Gertruida says a teller of stories must put a lot of effort into making the dialogue believable, and that is true – of course. Sometimes, however, the silence between the characters is more important than words – simply because it says such a lot.

This is what happens in the tree-cave when they all gather there. It’s unnecessary for the brigadier to express his joy and relief at finding his daughter. Gertruida and !Ka, being spectators and unable to help in any way, cannot contribute by trying to make smalltalk. And Lettie, of course, has so much on her mind that words won’t express her emotions.

It is, in the end, Gert who breaks the silence.

“I would…have saluted…if I  still had…a beret. Sorry…sir.”

“At ease, soldier. What’s the position?”

“Dad!” Lettie throws her hands in the air in mock-anger. “You haven’t changed a bit! Stop the army-talk, please? Gert isn’t well…”

Almost immediately the brigadier softens as he shoots her an apologetic glance. His abrupt manner had served him well during his career as a soldier, something he found useful in his retirement as well. Whenever he faced a difficult situation, this trait surfaced to put him back in command again – its almost as if he can distance himself and then manage circumstances from afar. A commander cannot become too involved with his troops, can he? It’ll cloud his judgement every time he plans a battle.

But this time – here… Seeing his daughter as an aging woman, hair all dishevelled and dressed in soft rabbit skins, has been a shock and a pleasure. He saw the way she instinctively ran her fingers through her hair; just like she did as a young girl, when she wanted to look her best for her Daddy. Barefoot. Big brown eyes filled with sadness. As much as the brigadier would have loved to assume an unaffected attitude, he simply can’t. His daughter…the one he lost. How many nights has he spent wondering? And now, to find her like this?

Gertruida kneels next to the grass mattress to feel Gert’s feeble, racing pulse. She notes the pale cheeks and lips, the lumps of glands in the neck, the sheen of fever sweat.

“How long…?” She meets Lettie’s stare.

Lettie tells her about the deterioration in the last few weeks. “He just lost his appetite, then he became so terribly thin. And his tummy…” She lifts the old shirt to show the bloated abdomen.

Gertruida closes her eyes. Leukemia? Hodgkin’s disease? Some other form of cancer? Whatever it is, its beyond any possibility of cure. Plus…Gert’s condition is such that transporting him would be too much for his failing system, anyway.

Gert opens his eyes one last time. “Sir…I…love…your…daughter.”

“I know, Smit. And you took good care of her – I can see that. I’m sorry…”

The brigadier doesn’t say what he is sorry for. Maybe the list is too long, or maybe the reasons are so obvious that it is superfluous to elaborate. Still, his remark draws a weak smile from Gert.

***

Gertruida once said that dying is like giving birth: it’s a process with a predictable outcome…eventually. However, nature determines the individual course of each and every one of these moments – whether we enter life, or finally depart from it. So, when Gert closed his eyes for the last time, he did so with a contented smile. His woman will be taken care of. His commanding officer appologised. His friend !Ka is at his side. The last thought that cruised through his fever-ridden mind, was one of gratitude.

***

“He’s gone,” the brigadier says gently.

“I know, Daddy.”

2819860490_882a4a2878_z!Ka has lit a fire for his dying friend outside the tree-cave, and now walks in a circle around the smouldering embers, chanting softly. When an irritated frown appears on the brigadier’s forehead, Lettie puts a finger on the old soldier’s lips.

“Let him be, Daddy. There’s only one God. There are many ways to pray, and even more ways to say ‘thank you’…. They were good friends.”

They buried Gert next to the little fountain he had found so many years ago – next to the garden he started with the St Helena tomato seed, and within sight of the old Baobab that gave them shelter for so long.

Lettie was surprisingly strong when she told the mound of earth how much she loved him. She read the passage on the mustard seed in the great-great grandfather’s version of the Bible, pointed at the tomato plants, and realised that said it all.

***

Gertruida says a good story has a life of its own. Once told, it remains with the listener as a memory of something special. The words may have fallen silent, but the pictures remain. Stories, according to her, have a mystical quality to live in the minds of the listeners.

And, she says, a story is worthless if it doesn’t change the listener. “Even reading a single sentence – or a single word – makes the brain rearrange all the thoughts you have stored up in your lifetime. It’s such a complex process, that people don’t even consider the vast influence of listening to a story, watching a drama or reading a book.

“We become our words, our stories. That’s why it is necessary to have vows and pacts and promises. What we say today, determines how our minds react tomorrow. It’s elementary, really.”

Vetfaan sighs. Ever since Gertruida has come back, she is in this horribly philosophical mood. Boggel’s Place might as well be a psychiatrists office.

“But why,” Vetfaan tries to understand what happened, “did you leave the brigadier out there?  Surely it would have been better for him and Lettie to return to civilisation?”

“That, Vetfaan, would have been a silly way to end the story.”

***

Way out in the desert, next to a huge old Baobab, a father and his daughter sit and watch the sun set. They’ve spent the last few days talking, talking and talking. The old man discovered something strange: living out here – away from it all – released a feeling of freedom inside him. The open horizon, the absence of people (especially that stupid Starke character!), the nearness of his daughter – his daughter! – and the quiet !Ka who is teaching him things about the veld he never knew…all these things now combine to create a strange new peace, a comfortable feeling of belonging.

And yes, he thinks, it’s only right to stay here for now. Here, With his daughter and that strange little yellow man. And the tree and the half-buried ruins. That, and the mound of earth next to the fountain, where the tomatoes grow and the fifty-one shiny stones spell out the name of the man who loved his daughter so much.

***

Gertruida says some stories have many beginnings, and some may even have many endings. But, she says, a good story has the colour of Gert Smit’s ripe tomatoes. It says so much about war and love and faith.

And, of course, Life.