It’s the one single shot that changes the course of the war.
Sometimes that is all it takes…
José Migeul Pereira wades through the fast flowing water, step after step making sure he finds proper footing. A few tree trunks are caught between the larger boulders, and he is careful to negotiate his way cautiously in order to avoid any submerged obstacles.
However, he’s not worried about the river. His problem, he knows, will be to make contact with the South Africans, and then to convince them that he has come with an unusual message. Will they believe him? He grabs hold of a prominent rock to steady himself, all the time making sure that the white flag is in plain sight,
He feels the whip of the bullet even before he hears the shot. He ducks instinctively, suppressing a shout.
Not three yards away, a sudden thrashing in the water contributes to his fright. Then, slowly, a red stain appears in the swirling water.
“What the hell?” Groesbeek grabs the binoculars to study the scene. José stands bent, riveted to the spot.
It’s only when the dead crocodile surfaces almost next to José, that realisation dawns. One of his snipers spotted the creature floating silently towards the fugitive and promptly removed the danger. He sees José do a fast little retreat once he recognises the reptile. Several men, after being on edge the whole night, start sniggering at the way José now makes rather hasty progress towards the opposite bank.
One may say that the crocodile, one of Africa’s most efficient killers, saved José’s life. Or maybe even the whole the continent it threatens so. When José clambers up the river bank, several South Africans are there to lend a hand. The sniggers turn to snorts; the snorts to laughter.
There exists a strange camaraderie between soldiers, even when they are fighting against each other. Every war has stories of Christmas carols shared, prayers exchanged, and enemy soldiers receiving medical care. Of course, the opposite is true as well, with wounded men being bayoneted and women raped. One cannot predict these things.
But no-one could have foreseen the effect the killing of the crocodile would have on the men that morning. The relief of not killing and not being killed is overwhelming – the tension being replaced by an almost-inappropriate feeling of bonhomie. José isn’t fluent in English, but there’s no mistaking his gratitude. Amongst the South Africans, a gangling youth demonstrates how José high-stepped across the river, causing gales of laughter. José asks who fired the shot, and shakes the man’s hand when he steps forward. All in all – it may as well have been a meeting between old friends.
Groesbeek makes his way to the front and stares at the young man in front of him. Surely he can’t be a doctor – he’s far too young for that!. And experts on chemical warfare are much, much older…aren’t they?
They quickly find Private Stefano de Nobriga, a green grocer’s son from Parys, whose fluent Portuguese sees to it that he is immediately appointed as interpreter.
An hour later, Groesbeek gathers the men at the crest of the gorge and orders the cook to brew up some coffee and serve breakfast.
“I shall do exactly what you did, Mister Pereira. I’ll go across the river with a white flag, see the cargo you guys are carting around, and satisfy myself that you’re talking the truth.” Experienced soldiers never, ever, trust the enemy. “I shall take de Nobriga with to facilitate communication.
“If you lied to me, you won’t see Angola again. Unless I return unharmed, your squad will be wiped out. If, however, you told the truth, then I guarantee your men a safe stay on this side of the border. I shall then communicate with my superiors and work out a strategy. Is that clear?”
The Ruacana Incident – as it eventually becomes mentioned in one or two top secret reports – gets buried amongst the rumours and gossip of the Border War. Few take it seriously, and no mention is ever made of it in official reports. Look it up on Google – you’ll find nothing.
But when General Groebeek informs Minister Magnus Malan of the situation, an urgent meeting of senior military staff is held in the big boardroom of the headquarters in Voortrekkerhoogte.
Malan doesn’t mince his words. The threat is real. If the rivers were poisoned a few hundred metres upstream from the border, the army had absolutely no defence against it. The water will flow downhill as it always does, carrying the deadly solution to thousands of unsuspecting villagers, soldiers and animals.”
His frown deepens as he continues.
“Evacuation on this scale is impossible, gentlemen. Villagers will simply refuse, saying this is a trick by the South African government.
“Anyway, the logistics of clearing out the entire northern border, is way beyond our means. In short: it’s impossible. And what about the animals – do we simply turn our backs? And what about South Africa’s rivers? What’s to stop them from poisoning the Vaal and Hartbeespoort dams? Where will they start? How can we stop them?”
No, he says, while this poses a problem, it is also an opportunity. “We have to talk, that’s all. No other option. If they do this, we have to retaliate – and we can’t afford that. Once we start dropping our atom bombs, we will lose the bit of international support we still have. We’ll win the war, but we’ll lose everything…”
“What do you suggest, Minister?” General Groesbeek stares at his hands – he has a good idea where the discussion is heading to.”
Malan sighs. “A delegation, gentlemen. Talks with Luanda. Urgently…”
The script for international politics is, at times, boring – because it’s so predictable. Of course the Angolan delegation denies any knowledge of Sarin-S. No, this was never part of their agenda. Of course not. It is inhuman to think of it, unacceptable to even consider it.
And yes, if the South Africans can prove the presence of such a threat, they’ll investigate it immediately. It might possibly be – for instance – that some of the overseas instructors or advisers were overzealous and made a huge mistake. And if that is the case, they’ll deport such an advisor immediately. No, they can’t tolerate such dissidents amongst the cadres. Maybe it is the action of a single, misguided person, who knows? Yes, this calls for urgent action.
But, the South Africans must also understand, there is the minor question in the Angolan minds: what about atom bombs? Some sources claim that there is an arsenal of these devices in Pretoria? Surely that is only a rumour, not so? But…supposing the outrageous gossip has a smidgen of truth to it, neighbouring countries need to be reassured that these weapons are only a symbolic threat and that it would never be used in the current conflict.
Atom bombs? The South Africans look shocked. Of course not! No, they never considered constructing such inhuman devices. Impossible! Surely the gentlemen present cannot believe such nonsense? We are, after all, Christians, not so? No, all we want is a fair fight. Surely everybody knows that?
The talks end with a 5-star dinner in honour of the foreign guests, with speeches and handshakes and smiles. Both sides promise to report to their command structures after the talks.
It changes the course of the war. The boxers will continue to slog it out in the ring. Queensbury rules. No guns or knives in the ring. Of course not…
José Migeul Pereira walks point for his squad of men. Without their load of Sarin-S, they’re making good progress.
“Hey Doc,” it’s the radioman, a worried tone to his voice, “Chung will kill us.”
“No. When we reach the base, you’ll stay in the bush. I’ll go and talk to Comrade Vasily – I feel I have to report the truth to him. I owe him that.” He taps the side of his head, just like Mister Clemente always did. The old butcher was right: the answer is always in there. “Once he knows exactly what transpired, he’ll understand. Maybe he’ll deploy us elsewhere. Otherwise, we’ll just form a rogue unit and do our own thing. Don’t worry – we’ll work this out.”
Comrade Vasily whistles a tune as he walks over to General Chung’s hut. It’s a Russian tune, a happy one most popular in the Soviet army. He’s in an exceptionally good mood because he is going to particularly enjoy delivering the latest orders from Luanda.
He enters Chung’s dwelling without knocking, enjoying the look of annoyance on the Chinese face.
“Hey, Chung old buddy. You’ve got to pack for a long journey. Yep, next stop: China. No more venison and vegetables and balmy sunshine days for you, my friend. Rice and chopsticks – or whatever they serve in Chinese prisons.” Vasily waves a dismissive hand. “Oh, don’t bother to thank me, my friend. I wasn’t responsible for your demotion. No, not at all. Oh, by the way, I’m the general now. You know, the guy in charge? So I’m not requesting you to pack. I’m ordering you to do so.
“Your escort awaits, Mister Chung…hurry up now…”