José 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.
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?”
José 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.”
Vasily 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.