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.
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…
“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.