Gertruida says the best stories get born during times of strife. If conflict is the mother of all tales, then frustration must be the father. The background of emotion – whether anger or love – provides the canvas for the plot to develop and expand.
Now, in Gert Smit’s case (she says) all the components were well-mixed by the time Gert Smit realised his game was up. He had been on the run (to be technically correct, it may be more accurate to say he’d been on the float) for several days after escaping from UNITA. The secret mission, the disobeyed orders, the confession to Savimbi…these things weighed heavily on his mind, contributing to his frustration. Now, as he stared up at the faces around him, he imagined they couldn’t possibly understand what he had been through.
He was right, of course.
The corporal in charge of the patrol was obviously puzzled. The man at his feet was a soldier, one of his own; there was no mistaking that. The boots, the uniform… But despite the neat haircut, the soldier was dirty, unshaven and unkempt. He prodded Gert with his R1.
“Who…” before he could complete ‘the hell are you?’ Gert Smit lashed out a leg, kicking at the corporal’s knee. Hard. Vicious. Totally unexpected. The corporal toppled backwards, Gert Smit sprang up, and by the time Corporal Beukes hit the ground, Gert was covering him with the rifle he had snatched from the falling figure. For a moment the rest of the patrol stood transfixed…then their training kicked in. Three rifles now pointed at Gert as they moved to circle him.
“Put down the rifle, soldier.” The biggest of the three – a bit older than the rest – took a step back. “Don’t be foolish.”
Gert realised he was outnumbered and at a distinct disadvantage with the three patrolmen now completely outflanking him.
“Listen,” he said in what he hoped was a confident voice, “I’m on a secret mission.” That much was true, at least. “I suggest I give the corporal’s gun back, and you chaps move out. You guys are interfering with stuff you know nothing about.”
The big soldier shrugged. “Okay”, he said. “Give me the rifle, we’ll get on with our patrol.”
Had Gert Smit been more alert, he would have seen the trap. Maybe it was the fatigue, or maybe the relief that he’d be on his way soon, but he he complied immediately by handing the rifle to the man.
Then something hit him on the back of his head and everything went black.
“You must remember that the Pathfinders were a really rough bunch. Really. They were officially established only in 1981 but already in the mid-70’s the army realised they had the need for paratroopers with a difference. They had to be able to parachute down behind enemy lines, operate independently and be the ultimate counter-insurgency unit. It was far better, they argued, to stop a terrorist before he crosses the border.”
Gertruida sighed. Poor Gert Smit. Of all the rotten luck…
“Now that in itself was a problem. Such a unit would contravene the undertaking by South Africa not to cross the border, Another reason for the international community to oppose them was the last thing the army – and the government – needed. Nevertheless, a small and very secret base was established in the western Caprivi, not far from Fort Doppies. Here a very select few troops were trained in bushcraft, tracking, survival and basically the conditions one would expect in Angola.
“Obviously this unit was kept firmly under wraps. Not even the commanders of Buffalo Camp or Fort Doppies knew of it’s existence. It was part of the training, you see? The unit – at that stage twelve men – had to learn to avoid detection at all costs. They operated at night, had the most basic camp as base, and had to survive on what the veld could offer them. Locust pie and local berries – that sort of thing. And of course…complete radio silence. The usual stint to the training area was two weeks; the troops were dropped by parachute, left to train with two instructors and then had to night-march to a rendezvous point where a helicopter would wait for exactly two minutes. If they didn’t make it, they had to wait a further two weeks.
“I think you get the idea: these were the toughest of the elite troops.
“And these were the men who found Gert Smit that morning. They were on their way to the helicopter pick-up point, exhausted and absolutely fed-up after two weeks without proper meals or ablutions. Like Gert, they were dirty and frustrated,”
When Gert Smit woke up again, he was tied to a tree, his arms stretched backwards to encircle the trunk, Water dripped from his face – one of the Pathfinders had just emptied his water bottle over his head.
“You got exactly one minute, starting now. Who are you and what are you doing here?” The corporal was obviously furious – his knee still hurt. He unholstered a pistol and cocked it.
Gert shook his head to clear his thoughts. These men weren’t acting like the usual patrol would. Normally, he’d expect to be taken to the military police, or the commanding officer at Fort Doppies, but these guys seemed quite prepared to shoot him then and there.
“I’m a South African soldier…,” he started, but was interrupted by a gruff ‘That’s what you want us to think, anyway!’.
“And I was on a secret mission…”
“Name, rank, number!”
“Rifleman Gert Smit, 76246943.”
“No unit. Just me. Stationed at Doppies.”
The four soldiers whispered amongst themselves. Corporal Beukes made up his mind and addressed Gert again.
“You, Smit, are a terrorist. One of those Commies who infiltrate Caprivi, snoop around, and then go back to tell your Cuban friends what we are doing here. Admit it! Come on now!” Gert didn’t see the blow coming. A thousand stars exploded in his mind and he felt his teeth being forced into the soft tissue of his cheek.
This time he tried to duck the swinging fist, but was too late,
“Please, you guys! They sent me to shoot Savimbi!”
Stunned silence. Then the corporal burst out laughing. Turning to his mates, he said: “This is the guy they sent to kill Savimbi. Isn’t that original? Now we’re killing the only black leader who still supports the country. That’s what I call progressive thinking!”
The big soldier joined the laughter, but at the same time, he pointed to the matt-black watch on his arm. The helicopter…
“Well, we can’t take him along, that’s for sure,” the corporal remarked. “Make sure he’s tied up properly. Well report that the would-be assassin of Jonas Savimbi is tied to this tree. Mark the spot on the map,” He nodded at the big soldier. “You’re right. We have to go.”
“There’s nothing in his kit,” the one soldier said. “Just an old schoolbook with stories in.”
“Oh no! Old handwriting.”
“It’s a Bible,” Gert said, “my great-great grandfather’s”
This caused the corporal to laugh again, but he paged through the book, anyway. Then, with a derisive snort, he threw it down on the ground. ” Let’s go,” he said.
And suddenly, silently, they were gone. Going home after two weeks in the bush was far more important than anything now. No, they’ll report to the commanding officer, and he can take care of it. Most probably they’d be commended for catching a Russian spy.
Five long minutes later, Gert Smit heard a helicopter. It came in low and fast, swooped overhead and then it sounded as if it landed not far off. A kilo? Two? A minute later the rotors picked up speed again. Then, after the throb of the helicopter’s engine faded away in the distance, only the cicadas remained to disturb the silence.
Gert Smit spat out a tooth.
A lion roared…how far away?
While he was thinking about the lion, he heard a soft rustling in the grass. It came from behind him. Rustle-rustle. Stop. Rustle-rustle….