José 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.
“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…