The Horizon Hunter #8

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Cuban Prison

Mo seemed to have rested well that night. He dreamed about a huge green pasture where he and Petrus looked after some very fat sheep. They were chatting and laughing a lot. That’s why, when he walked into Boggel’s Place the next morning, his trademark smile was firmly in place.

Gertruida then surprised – astounded! – him with her news.

One must never underestimate Gertruida’s abilities: as an ex-intelligence service agent, she has kept contact with many an old colleague – and they, with her. Recently, for instance, she was approached to give her opinion about a report a profiler had drawn up about the CEO of the national broadcaster. Not only could she expand on the report, but she also advised how to get rid of the man. Although it is not common knowledge at this stage, her strategy was spot-on.

Be that as it may, Gertruida only waited for the usual ‘good-mornings’ to quieten down before telling the group that she had been rather busy during the night.

“I contacted one of my old friends at Intelligence, who referred me to a certain Pablo de Nobriga in Luanda. He said Pablo would know, or find out – and he did.”

***

During the action of Task Force Zulu, Gerhardus Cronje got detached from his patrol during a skirmish. It didn’t take long for the soldier to find himself surrounded by FAPLA troops and he was forced to surrender. The Cuban advisors were excited to get their hands on a prisoner of war and decided to keep his presence in Luanda under wraps while they interrogated the soldier.

He, of course, knew very little of strategic importance, but still it took many weeks before they believed him. Gerhardus was then transferred to Cuba, to be kept in jail as a trump card if ever the need to exchange prisoners of war arose. There, in the cells of  Combinado del Este prison in Havana, he remained for the next fifteen long years. It wasn’t quite clear whether his long stay was the result of a bureaucratic bungle or maybe an oversight while the officials concentrated on the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in the end Gerhardus seemed to have been forgotten – for a while.

During his sojourn in prison, Gerhardus kept himself busy by learning Spanish and Portuguese, while teaching English to the inmates. The conditions were atrocious, the food horrible and regular beatings followed any transgressions. Despite this, the authorities took note of the prisoner – who seemed to have accepted his fate, obeyed the rules and kept the other inmates occupied with his language lessons. This, they thought, was benefiting the prisoners as well as making their task as wardens a bit easier.

Gerhardus was later ‘promoted’ to the Chief Warden’s office, where he helped with the admin – especially regarding correspondence with their Headquarters and the government. So trusted was he that he eventually had a cell to himself – not as solitary confinement, but as a reward for services rendered and good conduct. Here he had a bed to himself, a minute window and a few books. It took the chief warden – Lt. Col. Carlos Pedro Quintana – several months to become friendly with the prisoner, but Gerhardus’s easy demeanor eventually won the guard over.

Then, when he was sure it was safe to ask, Gerhardus approached Quintana with a request. Please, may he send a Christmas card to his wife? He’d had no contact with her since he was taken prisoner, he said, and she would not know whether he is alive or not. Surprisingly, the warden agreed. A card was sent, carefully worded so that the South African authorities wouldn’t know who sent it – Gerhardus signed it simply ‘Gerkie’, knowing Maria would understand. Two months later it was returned, undelivered because nobody of that name lived at the address. The addressee was no longer there – and there was no forwarding address.

“It happens.” Quintana said in his abrupt manner. “Women cannot be trusted. The man goes away, the woman starts looking around. I see it every day” The warden tried to smile. “But, like you say: many fishes in the sea.”

The news almost destroyed Gerhardus Cronje. His wife…gone? Back to her parents? He tried another letter, which was never answered. Neither the next or the next. He didn’t know that there was no postal delivery in Atlantis and that his efforts to contact Maria simply ended up in an incinerator in Cape Town.

In the end, Gerhardus resigned himself to the fact that Maria had moved on. With no means to contact her,she must have assumed him dead. The soldier did try to convince Quintana to contact Defence Headquarters in Pretoria, but that effort almost got him locked up in one of the dark holes they used for solitary confinement. His presence in Cuba was a secret – Cuba repeatedly denied holding any South African soldiers prisoner. Any official enquiries would have resulted in a diplomatic scandal.

After about ten years in Cuba, Gerhardus gave up hope. By that time he firmly believed that he had lost Maria forever and that his country of birth had forgotten all about him. The only place he knew  was the prison and the only language he spoke, was Spanish and Portuguese.

Quintana called him to the office one night late.

“Look, the war is drawing to a close. Nobody won, but the hostilities are ceasing. Luanda needs somebody with knowledge of Afrikaans to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.”

Gerhardus grabbed at the chance to get back on African soil. He was under the impression that he’d be one of the prisoners to be released or exchanged and gave his full cooperation. Once in Luanda, however, he found out how badly mistaken he was.

Gerhardus was taken to a small room. A a chair and telephone-like instrument on a little table were the only furnishings. When he asked, he was told to listen with the earpiece, and translate whatever he heard in Portuguese. The negotiators on the Angolan side was worried that the Afrikaans-speaking delegation would use their own language when talking amongst themselves and thus put the Angolan side at a disadvantage; so they had bugged the table at which the South Africans would sit. Still, Gerhardus believed his freedom was imminent and still he cooperated fully.

***

“So, you see Mo, your father was very much alive at that point, believing he would be returned to his country. The negotiations went well, the exchange of prisoners was arranged…and your father was returned to the jail in Lunada. Why he wasn’t included in the deal, is a mystery. Maybe both sides held back what they believed to be an ace in the hole.

“There are reports, stating Gerhardus’s anger and frustration at the time. The friendly, docile man became obtuse and aggressive. Emotional outbursts followed and he had to be confined to a padded cell, which only served to make matters worse.  Eventually, believing him to be going insane, he was referred to a psychiatric institute, the Hospital Psiquiátrico De Luanda.

 “There he was placed under the care of Dr Veronica Lubovski, a Russian psychiatrist, who had stayed behind when the Russian advisors returned to Moscow. She had fallen in love with Africa, the balmy climate and the lush countryside.

“I tried finding out more, Mo, but the trail almost ends there. Dr Lubovski, it seems, is a rather wealthy woman and she owns one of the largest banana plantations in Angola. Well, the hospital records show that she had convinced the authorities – this was in 1995 – that her patient would be better off under her personal care and in a more relaxed environment. So, almost the last traces of Gerhardus Cronje I found, was that he was discharged from hospital, and that he now resides on the farm of Dr Lubovski. I tried to find out more, but other than that he is still alive and living there, I cannot really tell.”

***

By the time Gertruida had finished, Mo was as white as a sheet and completely shocked.

” My father? Alive? Insane?”

“Yes, alive, Mo…oh, and there’s one more thing…”

To be continued…

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