The boy – how old is he? Three…four? – seems quite content to sit astride on José’s shoulders. Maybe the shock of the strafing attack was just too much, or maybe his Down Syndrome shielded him from the horror..but he sits there, absently watching the soldiers, while the troops stare at the destruction.
“The bastards!” The radio man wipes away a tear. “The absolute bastards! This is where my family stayed – innocent people, just getting on with their lives. Surviving, that’s what they did. They weren’t part of any war. They never even talked politics. Now…they’re all dead.”
“Don’t worry,” one of his comrades tries to encourage his friend, “we’re going to get them. For every one of these villagers that died, we’ll kill a hundred, a thousand of their’s. These deaths will be avenged, I tell you. We’re…”
“Hold it.” José’s soft voice stops the tirade in mid-sentence. When the troops turn to face him, he shakes his head. “You see what happens?” He sweeps a hand towards the smouldering ruins.
“Yes, those bloody South Africans are destroying our people and our homes. They’ll pay!”
José closes his eyes , thinking hard. And in that moment, during that second or two, his life flashes by in short flashes of remembering.
Matron Anna and her terrible helper, Manuel, remind him of the many injustices he had to endure. Oh, and Mister Clemente, with his thick fingers and kindly eyes, seems to hover around a little while, tapping his head with those stumpy digits. Comrade Vasily, surprisingly compassionate, lingers in his thoughts. The vindictive Chung, unfeeling and cruel, lurks amongst his thoughts. Pedro, who died in that landmine blast – the one he walked right by without triggering the deadly device. And Maria, dear sweet Maria da Silva, who turned out to be the best friend and companion he’s ever had.
Suddenly, he imagines the ships captain is with him. “You’ll never move on unless you forgive, José.” The words hammer against his forehead. “…you’re going to face a difficult situation…” and “And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.“
He opens his eyes, sure of what he must do.
Pieter Malherbe watches the patrol disappear down the track. Why didn’t he shoot? He had a good, clear shot and it was only a question of pulling – squeezing – the trigger. The little boy’s body would have been no obstacle to the speeding bullet – it would have gone straight through that child’s feeble frame, smashing the skull of the man carrying him.
But no..he couldn’t do it. The boy’s face stopped him. The Mongoloid eyes, the dull expression, the almost-too-large tongue licking the hanging lower lip…an innocent, mentally challenged youth who has no part in the war. When he recognised the features in the magnified picture of his scope, he felt his finger relax. It was involuntary, a reflex, his mind refusing to kill innocence because he was sent to assassinate a killer. Killing man and boy, he realised in that instant, would debase him. He’d change from being a soldier fighting for a just cause, into a murdering machine that doesn’t care, doesn’t think, doesn’t pause to consider why he is carrying a gun.
Feeling deflated and angry, Pieter Malherbe slides the safety on. gathers his kit, and starts a slog jog back to the border, where he’ll have to explain why he allowed a chemical warfare expert to continue on his way to poison thousands of innocent civilians.
General Groesbeek surveys the area of the ambush. There’s the drift with the shallow waters. They’ll come through the river there after making sure the coast is clear. They won’t cross during daylight hours, he’s sure of that. No, they’ll wait for darkness, maybe even until just before dawn – that’ll give them ample time to get clear of the river and head up to the steep sides of the gorge where they’ll be able to conceal themselves properly.
He’s positioned his men well, he thinks. He’s also been extremely careful to tell the men – order them – not to use their rifles.
“No shooting, men. You rupture one of the canisters with that poison in, and you’ll all die.” That may not be completely true, he knows that. According to the intel, the stuff doesn’t evaporate like the original Sarin would; instead, it needs to be dissolved in water. It is in drinking the contaminated water that death lurks…but you can never be too sure. There are, after all, only sixteen of them. To get to the top of the gorge, they’ll have to be in single file at the steeper areas. This is where the Recces will wait. Hand-to-hand. The oldest form of warfare. One hundred crack soldiers against a bunch of sixteen simple peasants.
A smirk turns his lips upwards. The Angolans have no chance…
“One last thing,” his commanding voice has the group’s complete attention. “It’ll be a long night. You will stay exactly in the place you’ve been allocated to. Make sure you know precisely where your mates are. No lights. No smoking. Dry rations. Make sure your water bottles are full. When you here the cry of a fish eagle – repeated three times – from one of the spotters, make sure you are ready.
“May God be with you, men. And good luck.”
José Migeul Pereira sits down at the crest of a hill. They can hear the roar of the waterfalls even though it is still some distance away.
“Are you sure, Doc?” The troops have taken to calling him that, despite his initial objections. Jose feels fifteen pairs of eyes on him, not completely convinced that they’re doing the right thing.
“Listen men…we have to understand what we’re doing. Suppose we wipe out all the Himbas? What did we accomplish? Ill tell you: we’d have killed children. Mothers and fathers. Grandparents. Dogs and cattle. Frogs and birds. Is that why we call ourselves soldiers? Freedom fighters? Killing those who can’t fight back?”
“But Doc…” the radio operator’s brow is furrowed by his protest, “look what they did to that village? Were those not children? Parents? Dogs? And are they not all dead right now – they that couldn’t defend themselves? I really think this is a bad idea.” A few murmurs of support emits from the men.
“So we kill off northern South West. The land is empty. Not a bird, not a jackal remains. And what, my friends, will happen?” He pauses a while, allowing them time to think.
“I’ll tell you: atom bombs. Luanda. Lusaka. Harare. Maputo. Four bombs, four cities. Millions dead. And who will know – really know – who’s to blame for those deaths? Us. Us! It’ll be us who started the destruction that will even kill the mosquitoes. Nothing will escape.” He hesitates as he sees how little effect his words have. “Now. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to cross that river – without you. I’m going to look for South African soldiers. I’ll surrender to them. Then I’ll tell them what is going to happen. I’ll tell them we’ll kill South West Africa and they’ll destroy all the neighbouring countries surrounding South Africa. Nobody will be spared. Nobody.
“Then, if they believe me, they’ll have to start negotiating with each other. It won’t be easy. Not at all. But we, my brothers, have a golden opportunity to start the end of this war. We can stop the fighting – even if it doesn’t happen immediately.”
They argue, then reach a compromise. José will cross the river – they’ll wait. If he doesn’t return in one day’s time, the patrol goes ahead with their mission. If, however, José manages to make contact and convince their enemies about the catastrophe that’ll follow, they’ll reassess the situation.
It’s an uncomfortable compromise…
“Sir… Sir!!” Groesbeek awakens with a start. “Sir, there’s a man wading through the river. One single person. He’s in uniform and he’s carrying a white flag.” The soldier watches as General Groesbeek sits up in his sleeping bag. “Shall we shoot the bastard? Sir? Shall we?”
Before Groesbeek can answer, a single shot rings out. A microsecond later, the dull thump! of bullet striking flesh is clearly heard.