“Faith, my friends, is loneliest word in the universe.” Oudoom stares through the window, his back towards the group at the bar. The Kalahari sky is strangely overcast, with the faintest of suggestions of a little rain. “It’s such a personal thing. I can’t believe in anything simply because the rest of the world believes it. I – myself – must be convinced about something before I can say I have faith in it.”
“Like love?” Precilla’s voice is soft, her eyes moist.
“Yes, like love.”
It’s been a tough week in Rolbos. They’ve talked, wondered and argued (more like debated than fought) about Kleinpiet’s startling announcement that he was leaving them for a while. Just like that. And then he pecked Precilla on the cheek after shaking hands with the rest…and got into his pickup to drive out of town. No explanation.
Oh, they speculated, of course. Gertruida said they should have picked up the warning signs over the past few weeks – Kleinpiet had been very quiet, sitting on the veranda and staring at the shimmering horizon most of the time. And that one time, when Vetfaan started talking about the Border War, Kleinpiet interrupted him rudely, saying it wasn’t a subject they should be discussing. Servaas reminded them of another conversation that ended bluntly.
“I was talking about Siena when Kleinpiet said I was a fool to love so intensely. He said Siena is dead and I must get over it. I was so shocked…”
“Ja, ” Oudoom said at the time, “he told me I’m a deluded old man when I said something about God loving us all…”
Nobody survives – unscathed – the ravages of war. The lucky ones get killed and buried. The rest go home – either as victor or defeated – to live with what they had seen and done. The living have to bear the burden of the dead – and that poison kills a little bit of life in every soldier who unlatches the front gate of his home after the politicians signed yet another meaningless peace accord.
Perhaps it is true to say that depression is born during times of conflict. While these times of frustration may involve less obvious stresses, they do tend to surface especially after periods of battle and bloodshed. And, like a hyena has the uncanny ability to find the carcass a leopard so cleverly camouflaged amongst the thorny bushes, so depression will hunt down the weak in the unguarded moments when memories cause sleepless nights.
Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 15 after capture
The subject still refuses to cooperate. After prolonged sessions of interrogation, sleep deprivation and starvation, he is weak but remains defiant.
The man repeatedly denied any military involvement, saying he is an innocent farmer in Sector 45(a), north of Lubango (Map SAW 378, position D 22). He can give no reason why he ventured so far south, and was armed with an AK47.
His interrogation will continue after his medical today.
Report on Prisoner 2815 – Day 26 after capture
The prisoner is in a much weakened state. No further information has been forthcoming. Medical orderly has expressed concern about his physical state. Will discuss possible scenarios during the briefing tonight. Consider termination?
Report on Prisoner 2815 – Final
Prisoner was hospitalised three days ago on advice of medical orderly. Health and mental state stabilised and improving following intravenous medication and nutrition.
Inexplicably managed to escape from the medical tent during the night at about 3 am. Medical orderly on duty at the time was writing reports in an adjacent tent and noticed the absence of Prisoner 2815 at 03h16, and raised the alarm immediately.
Tracks were followed in a northeasterly direction, but disappeared in the shallow river three clicks away. Commanding officer withdrew the searching patrol due to upcoming offences. Medical orderly reprimanded.
At first it seemed as if Manuel Cobado might make it. The orderly had hidden him at the base of a huge baobab, just south of the Angolese border with South West Africa, providing him with a ratpack and water. Of course the orderly couldn’t visit him daily, but he kept up a steady stream of supplies whenever he could.
It must have been a week after the escape that the prisoner finally spoke up.
“Why you do this for me? Better that I die, no? You get shot if they find you here.”
The orderly managed a wry smile. “You speak English?”
And so a strange and halting conversation started. Manuel admitted to spying on the South African troops, noting movements and supplies. He was supposed to convey these to his superiors in Luanda, but the batteries in his radio had been defective and he abandoned the device before attempting to return to Angola. During his journey back, he was spotted and captured.
“Why didn’t you just tell them that? It could have saved you a lot of pain?”
Manuel shrugged. “Why you help me? What can I say? This is war, no? You soldier, me soldier. We fight, we kill. I no say nothing, I die. That’s okay. But I go back and I tell I was prisoner, they think Manuel tell lie. They think Manuel is now spy for you. They put Manuel in prison and ask many questions. Manuel no can say anything – so they shoot Manuel. Manuel die, anyway.”
This upset the orderly, who argued with his patient. But in the convoluted logic that only exists during wars, they both knew the rules – and that Manuel’s return after being a prisoner would be viewed with extreme suspicion by his superiors.
The orderly suggested that Manuel return to his small farm to wait for the end of the war. Manuel said it wasn’t possible, there were spies everywhere.
When the orderly returned the next day, the hideaway was empty. On the makeshift bed he found the pocket knife he had given to Manuel and a piece of bark on which the word ‘Obrigado‘ was carved out.
What happened to Manuel Cobado? Was he the farmer-turned-spy he claimed to be? Did he make it back home – unarmed and as weak as he was? Did he sometimes sit next to a fire at night, remembering the days of war? And does he, after all these years, still have faith in his convictions? Or did the Russians (or Chinese, or Cubans) throw him in jail, as he predicted? What happened to his family? And his farm?
Maybe not all soldiers have such questions in the years after the war. Triggers were pulled, men fell, mortars exploded, people were killed. That’s what war is about, after all. But if not all, then many men and women who stow away the uniform in the holdall they hope never to unpack again, will feel their hearts shrink when these memories surface during unguarded moments. Who was that man in the cross-hairs? That face that stared in horror over the low wall as the ccrrrrumph! of the mortar echoed across the killing field – did he have a family? The pitiful, mangled body behind the splintered tree trunk – who did he pray to when the bullets started chipping away at the wood? And do we not all whimper in the same language when the shrapnel tears a chunk out of the uniform? And…what about the ragged, dirty little child that ran to the prostrate body in the village square when the bombing started?
Near Rolbos, 2014
Kleinpiet turns the pocket knife over and over in his hands. He’s camping next to a sandy hill, a few miles out of town. Maybe he’ll return tomorrow, or the day after. But first he has to make peace.
With Love and Faith.
Once he’s done that, he might just manage to shake off the chains…for now..
“I think he’s terribly selfish, going off like that…” Precilla dabs the Kleenex to her eyes.
“No, my dear, he’s terribly brave,” Gertruida says – because she knows everything. “Faith and Love…and depression…are like Ravel’s Bolero. It builds up volume and tempo from an rather inconspicuous start. The trick is to conduct the orchestra in your mind to play the correct instrument at the right time. Only if you do that, can you unshackle the wonderful melody of Hope.”
Of course Precilla doesn’t understand.