“Gert Smit took a chance when he walked into the village like that. The villagers could have shot him. Savimbi, himself, could have pulled his gun. But they didn’t. Something in Smit’s attitude must have told them he meant no harm. Sure, he was armed – but the rifle was slung across his shoulders and he greeted them from afar.”
It wasn’t as uncomplicated as Gertruida was making it out to be. Several sentries appeared from seemingly nowhere, demanding Gert Smit to hand over his rifle. He did and was frisked. Then Savimbi stepped forward with a puzzled frown.
“I’ve been sent to kill you,” Gert Smit said calmly. “Bit I didn’t know it was you.”
What followed, was predictable. Savimbi asked for the use of a hut, so that he could interrogate the man who arrived with such a startling announcement. Naturally, Savimbi was upset. An hour later Smit was handcuffed and loaded into the helicopter after the villagers brought in the rucksack the rifleman had left behind the tree.
Jonas Savimbi wasn’t going to take this laying down; but he needed to think carefully about his response to the news. He couldn’t very well sever ties with Pretoria – he needed the money and arms desperately. Confronting the generals with their treachery was risky and would probably lead to them redoubling their efforts to get rid of him. Admitting that he held Smit captive, was equally risky.
So he took Smit to his headquarters in Jamba and waited.
“Oh my!” Gertruida’s hand flies to her mouth in mock distress. “I should have said something about Lettie, right? Remember Lettie? The girl Gert Smit fancied so much? I told you right at the beginning how important she is to the story, didn’t I?”
“Well, she certainly was something, let me tell you. Attractive in a rugged sort of way, a no-nonsense girl with striking features and a bit of a rebel herself. Both of them were terribly young still, but they totally immersed themselves in the fascination of First Love.”
She pauses, smiling at Vetfaan who is rolling his eyes. Men are so impatient: that’s why they can’t tell a story properly…
“Like many of the troops, Gert wrote weekly letters – carefully censored, of course – telling her he loved her. Her scented letters carried him through many weeks of isolation and hardship. Both of them knew they’d get married as soon as Gert finished his two-year stint in the army, although not one of them had been brave enough to say that in so many words,
“So…Lettie didn’t get a letter after a week. Nor one in the week after. She checked with Gert’s mother: no, the dreaded visit by the chaplain didn’t happen and she received no telegrams from the army. All that the two of them knew, was that Gert Smit was stationed at Fort Doppies and he hadn’t written as usual.”
Lettie started phoning and was shunted from the one department to the next. He wasn’t in any hospital. The Military Police didn’t have a record of any offense. Getting through to Fort Doppies was impossible.
“Now think back,” Gertruida tells her listeners, “to your First Love. The Real Thing, when you realised your world, your very existence, depended on the One-you-loved. Nothing ever comes close to that again, does it?” She watches as heads nod in agreement – yes, they’ve all been there. Been hurt. Became cynical. Refused to ever, ever lose themselves in Love like that again. It’s universal. It’s normal. It’s sad. But that’s the way everybody learns to handle relationships.
Except for a select few. Rarely that feeling doesn’t diminish with time. Sometimes it even grows. Occasionally the loved one dies, leaving the feeling as a sacred reminder of beauty. These people, Gertruida will tell you, are the lucky ones, the exceptions to the rule.
“And that’s why Lettie packed her little suitcase, borrowed a friend’s Volkswagen, and set off to drive all the way to Fort Doppies.”
Savimbi was a master tactician. While he appreciated the rifleman saving his life, he also realised that having him as a prisoner was dangerous. To send him back to the South African forces would serve as an embarrassment to an already-strained relationship. And if they knew he, Savimbi, kept a South African soldier prisoner, it would create even more tension. Furthermore, if they knew he knew that they planned to assassinate him…
His savior, his prisoner, had become a problem. He couldn’t keep him there and he couldn’t send him back…
But…one of his best brigadiers was at that time being held in a cell in Luanda by the MPLA. Now that, he considered, was a situation that held possibilities…
Meanwhile, Gert Smit was kept locked up – but fairly well treated. They gave him his kit (minus the rifle and bullets, of course) and saw to it that he was well fed and had regular exercises. And Gert, with nothing else to do, started reading the condensed Bible his great-great grandfather had written while prisoner of war on St Helena.
“There comes a time in Life,” Gertruida says, “when you realise there is no such thing as coincidence. That’s what is called maturity; or wisdom, if you like. Lettie had to arrive at Fort Doppies. Gert Smit had to read that Bible. Everything else was simply part of an intricate plan for them both. They were two insignificant, completely unimportant, human beings; and yet their lives – and their love – had a place in the unfolding of far greater events of history. Or maybe they were the main event, who knows?”
After three weeks in captivity, Gert Smit was surprised when a soldier delivered a package in his cell. He had expected supper, but now the soldier put down a large plastic shopping bag.
“For you,’ the man said. “Tomorrow big day.”
Gert Smit deposited the contents on his bed. A new suit. White shirt. Socks and underwear. New shoes. A razor.
“Come,” the man said, “you have hair cut.”
“Why? Why all this?”
“Tomorrow big day. You go to Luanda. Have to look good.”
“I don’t understand?”
“You go Luanda. We get brigadier back.”
That’s the moment, Gertruida says, that Gert Smit realised he had to escape. That night. He’s only got that night. If they took him to Luanda, there was no way he’d be able to get away from them, ever, again.
Coincidently, that day was also the day Lettie arrived at Fort Doppies. She had managed to get to the ‘Golden Highway; which was the deeply sanded and rutted road running the length of the Caprivi; got stuck, and eventually picked up by a convoy heading to Fort Doppies.
Only if you don’t believe in Life. Or Love…