Tag Archives: Angola

The Wings of War

Credit: Pinterest

Credit: Pinterest

Precilla received this email. How – in heaven’s name – did Manuel manage to find the address? Precilla, after all, only runs a little pharmacy in Rolbos – an extremely small enterprise which supplies Oudoom’s blood pressure medication and the pills Servaas needs when his gout acts up. This necessitates prolonged and frustrating communications with the medical aid companies, which is why Precilla had to get connected to the Internet.

Be that as it may, the letter remains proof of how small our world has become. It also serves to remind us how important it is to tell our stories with honesty and kindness.

(To understand these letters, please refer to the previous post.)

***

Dear Sir

I no write good English, sorry. I ask my son to help. He in school and has a smartphone. He reads many stories in WordPress – he say it makes his English better. 

I much sepru seprised when he read about Manuel in story. Manuel story is my story. I tell more, yes?

Nossa! When soldiers catch me, I very much afraid. Beeg trouble. But I good soldier, I tell nothing. Many days they ask me cue kwes question, I say nothing. No eat. No drink. Much pain. Then orderly come, he take me away. He hide me. Give naif knife. He say I must go back to farm.

Manuel, he walked back to Angola. Many days he walk. I get much tired a lot. I no know how long. Later, I get to my farm.

You see, I only poor farmer. One day, man with unyphorm uniphorm he come. Say all mans in the distric must go army. I say no, my place need my hands. The man hit me, hit my wife. Then I go. That is how I became soldier. Now, when I get back to farm, I say: no more soldier. 

My wife, she’s very good. Bonito, I say. She go soldier. Say I die in bush and she berry bury me. No mare Manuel, she say. They hit her again. Why? I don’t know.

Many months I hide, help on farm. Then one day the war is finished. No more soldiers. I go home to live with wife. 

Why I write this? Beeg kwes question, no? 

I say obrigado.Thank you. For war, for soldier, for man who made me escai escape. Why? Manuel learn many things in war. He see how war make enemys. Many enemys. Before war, no enemys. During war, many enemys. After war, no enemys. Manuel wonder about this, then decide: enemy only made by war. War made by hombres in Luanda and other places far away. War not made by Manuel’s farm or village. So, Manuel thinks, better to stay on farm. Manuel work hard. Make farm nice. Send son to school. (He write this)

Now, that orderly, he save my life. My enemy, he make me think we are all same. People all same. Have family, maybe a son, like me. Want to love wife and work hard – no? That hombre make beeg risk to help Manuel, but Manuel no forget. Every night Manuel, he pray for man who give Manuel life. And say thank you, Jesus.

So. Manuel say goodbye.

Manuel.

Precilla read the email with tears in her eyes,  How happy Kleinpiet would be when she tells him about the letter! She was about to print it out, when the ping of the computer announced the arrival of more mail.

Hi there.

I’m Manuel’s son, a teacher at our local school. I have sent my father’s letter as he wrote it, simply because I couldn’t have said it better. I think his rough draft conveys his appreciation far better than a formal letter of thanks. 

I have to tell you that he often tells us about the way he escaped. It has become a family and a village legend. I also use the story in class when I want to make my pupils aware of the horror of war – and how a single act of kindness can influence not only an individual, but his family and local community as well. 

Because the story appeared in Rolbos (I use many of these stories in class as well), I assume the author might know the orderly involved in my father’s escape. I’d appreciate you telling him that my father is well and that he speaks highly of him. Maybe he could use my father’s story to tell people how important it is to know that we are all human. Fighting will never solve problems. Uniforms, my father says, change people. That uniform might be a suit or involve tunics and brass – but once a person wears it, he loses his identity. He stops thinking as an individual and becomes a part of a machine with no conscience. This is true for politicians, soldiers and some businessmen. 

My father says we must remain human  – and humane. He taught me to live kindly. That’s why I became a teacher. My school isn’t grand, but we have about 500 pupils. Every year about 50 of my pupils finish school and go into the world to apply what I’ve tried to teach them. They might still find mathematics difficult, but they’ll never forget the story of Manuel and the way a single enemy soldier gave him wings to change our lives.

Kind regards

Manuel Cobado (Jnr)

***

Author’s Note:

If ever you come to Rolbos, ask Kleinpiet about these letters and what they have meant to him. Also ask him to show you these emails. He won’t have it with him, of course, but he’ll gladly go home to fetch it. He keeps it – neatly folded up – in his Bible, next to the sentence he highlighted in Matthew 5:9.

The Chains of War.

Sculpture-by-Bernard-Jack-001

By US sculptor Bernard Jackson.

“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.

***

Angola 1982

Secret

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 himself.

With Manuel.

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.

Found in Translation

download (13)“He’s back! It’s Henk Kleingenade. He’s in the bar…” Gertruida went over to Sammie’s to tell Vetfaan, who had been talking to the shop owner about ordering a new battery for his Massey Ferguson.

“Is he…?”

“Yes, The usual. Sits in the corner, drinking coffee and reading that Bible.”

Hendrik Malherbe is a quiet man who farms with goats (he’s got a contract to supply goat’s milk to some baby-food company) on Kleingenade, not far from Grootdrink. His visits to Rolbos are rare; usually he pops in for coffee, before he has a chat with Oudoom. Then he’d get into his old Ford 100, and the townsfolk wouldn’t see him again for extended periods of time. Like so many of the farmers in the district, he lives an isolated life, not bothering others and relying on himself – and Mother Nature – to get by.

His infrequent visits are – of course – ample fuel for discussion. Why does he come here? What is this thing he has for talking to Oudoom? And why – oh why? – does he only drink coffee? Everybody knows Boggel’s coffee tastes like donkey droppings without Amarula, yet there the man sits, sipping the stuff with that faraway look on his suntanned face.

***

May 1986, Somewhere in southern Angola.

The young soldier was frightened. Not scared like the youths of today when they watch Nightmare on Elm Street or a stupid movie about sharks or chainsaw murders…really, really frightened like in soil-yourself-while-praying-scared. There was nothing virtual or unrealistic about his surroundings, no pause-button to push and no way to stop the carnage around him.

His patrol had simple orders: survey the countryside around the little village at the confluence of the Cuzizi and the Lomba Rivers – a hovel with a few goats and chickens and some old people. These civilians were, like so often happens, unfortunate victims of war. Operation Modular was about to start and the South African forces planned to engage the combined forces of FAPLA, FNLA and some Cubans in this region. The object? To strengthen the only allies Pretoria had in Angola – Savimbi’s UNITA.

Although the young soldier’s patrol reconnoitred an outlying fringe of the planned operation, they were nevertheless in confirmed enemy territory and very well aware of the danger. They planned well. With enough food and ammunition, they should have been able to face almost any opposition and slink away into the bush.

Should have.

But they were not to know about the light armoured vehicle  travelling to the same little village with the same object. War is like that: all generals will want to know about the terrain, the roads, the infrastructure. And, after FAPLA’s losses during Operation Iron Fist the previous year, it was only logical for the Cubans and Russians to do their homework after they received news of the South African build-up just south of the border.

The South African patrol entered the village confidently. The latest intel-report stated that the people there supported Savimbi; so after chatting with an old woman they found on the track leading to the village, they were quite happy to follow her there. She’d introduce them to the local chief, enabling them to check and gather more information.

And, while they sat under the branches of a large acacia tree, the armoured vehicle appeared. Who was more surprised? It’s hard to tell. For a few seconds the scene in the village froze. Everybody simply stopped what they were doing, standing and sitting stock-still, hardly remembering to breathe. Then all hell broke loose.

To describe what followed, defy the rules of writing. No amount of words, no matter how cleverly they get strung together and irrespective of the genius of the writer, can paint the picture accurately enough for the reader to live through such carnage. The crashing of the little canon in the turret of the vehicle, the malicious crack of rapid rifle fire, the terrified screams, the awful boom of hand grenades…

The young soldier remembers these, of course. The picture in his mind doesn’t have to rely on words – he was there! And he remembers how a chicken fled in a mad dash to get away and how it simply disappeared in a explosion of feathers and blood when a stray bullet put and end to its escape.

And then, suddenly, it was over. The armoured vehicle stood burning in the clearing. There were bodies. Old ragged bodies. Young uniformed bodies. A dog lay to one side, whimpering, bleeding. A hut billowed smoke.

Silence. The dog died quietly.

The young soldier moved. His hand patted his legs, his body, his neck. Somehow, he seemed to have escaped any damage. Tentatively, carefully, he rolled over. He had to brush the sweat and dust and tears from his eyes to see.

And he saw. A man – a Cuban? – was looking at him from behind an upturned drum. not ten yards away from him. He had a streak of blood across his face. He had a Cuban uniform. He had a rifle. It was pointing at the sky.

“No more shooting, for God’s sake!” The young soldier’s voice cracked like a teenager’s.

The Cuban put down his rifle.

The next ten minutes saw them moving about, checking bodies. At first, the Cuban looked at the Cuban and black soldiers, the South African at his mates. Then they didn’t care any more and checked whoever they found.

“They’re all dead.” The young soldier said, like one would announce the score after losing a rugby match.

The Cuban muttered something that sounded like ‘muerto’.

Later, afterwards, they sat down outside the burning village, enemies united by loss. The smell of death bound them together in a quest for survival. The Afrikaner boy and the Cuban youth and the pungent scent of cordite and smoke and blood sat down next to a thorn tree. They couldn’t  speak to each other for many reasons, their different languages being the least of these.

After a while, the young soldier took the little red Bible the army had given him from his breast pocket. He paged to Psalm 23. To his surprise, the Cuban produced a small black book, glanced at the young soldier’s, and found the same psalm in his own language.

They read the psalm out loud, each in his mother tongue, sentence for sentence, listening to the strange sounds telling the same message.

And then the exchanged Bibles, shook hands, and set off in opposite directions.

***

Oudoom watches as Henk Kleingenade strolls down Voortrekker Weg. He actually enjoys these visits, rare as they are. Henk wants Oudoom to read Psalm 23 again, as usual. And while Oudoom gives life to the letters in that psalm, Henk will stumble over the strange words in the little black Bible, And they’ll do it together, marvelling that you don’t have to know all the words of all the languages to embrace David’s message.

The Many Names of Stephanus du Toit

stumpingNobody calls him Stephanus any more. The story of his life is just too tragic to think about him as Stephanus. Over the years, various incidents contributed to the fact that the way people think about him, changed from time to time – and with it, the list of nicknames grew. At least cricket supplied something respectable.

As a baby, his parents had to hear the neighbours refer to their son as ‘that child, you know, Yellow du Toit?’, after a particularly severe attack of jaundice. Later as a toddler, when he got lost after wandering off, aimlessly, into the Kalahari, they made remarks about ‘that naughty child, Tracks du Toit’. And so it went on. Casts – after managing to break both arms by falling from the donkey-cart. Stitches, due to an altercation with a neighbour’s dog. Even later, Slow; because of his inability to progress past Standard Three. Now, in quick succession, add Crazy, Sleepy, Dopey, Smiley, Happy – all of them in a good-natured way because he was a rather loveable boy. 

Surprisingly, Stephanus had a particular talent for cricket. No, not as bowler or batsman, but as wicket keeper. He’d crouch down behind the wickets and watch every ball with exaggerated concentration. Then, should the batsman venture an inch beyond his crease, the bales would go flying through the air, accompanied by the triumphant shout of ‘Howzit!!!’. He made the town’s team as Howzit du Toit.. 

It was during that time, just when it seemed possible that he’d make a provincial team, that he was drafted to do his stint in the defence force.

The army, as we all know, was the Great Leveller. Here it didn’t matter whether you obtained a distinction in Maths or flunked matric. The sons of doctors and lawyers were treated exactly the same as ragtag boys of shunters and mechanics. The idea was (and probably still is in armies all over the world) to create a fighting animal made up of units of men. That was the key. The men had to be the muscles and sinews that made the creature move, relentlessly, towards the enemy. Arms and legs of a killing machine, indeed. Yet, despite the forced military mould, Stephanus stood out here as the best mine-sweeper. He became Mines du Toit because he had a particular slowness about him; a deliberate way of moving one step at a time with an endless patience; something quite rare in the adrenalin-filled atmosphere in the bush of the Caprivi border.

***

“I can’t believe it’s his birthday again.” Vetfaan slaps the dust off his jeans as he gets out of his bakkie. “It seems like yesterday we congratulated him on his fiftieth.”

Kleinpiet nods. Yes, time flies. How many birthdays have they celebrated here with this man? Ten? Maybe. And every year they drive out to the forlorn little house on the slope of the isolated hill to sing Happy Birthday to the man who can’t really see them, can hardly hear them. But they know: he knows they’re there. What’s left of his lips curl upward and he’ll rock from side to side in tune with the song. That’s when Vetfaan will lift a beer to the gash that once was the mouth and shout Cheers!. He’d swallow a slow gulp. Kleinpiet will dry the froth – and the tear – and then they have to leave.

“You won’t stay long, will you, Mister Vetfaan?” 

That’s the usual greeting from Aunty Beauty, his caretaker-nurse. She’s been there since forever – Kleinpiet once heard she helped with his birth. But you don’t ask questions to Aunty Beauty. She, like her patient, doesn’t say much. Only the most necessary words and then the blank face that tells you she isn’t there to make small talk.

“No, just sing and give him a sip. The usual. Is he…okay today?’

“Same.”

Vetfaan once said he doesn’t want to live like that. To be like that all day, saying nothing, staring into the veld…and that picture? No, he can’t do that. It’s better, he said, to be dead. They should have left him. Left him to die…

Vetfaan had been first on the scene, after that explosion. When the helicopter touched down to take Mines away, he told the medic it was all over. Nobody could survive such injuries. And afterwards, when he saw him again in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, he was glad that Mines couldn’t see his tears or hear his sobs. 

Same. He’s always that. Same. 

They go in, stand around the chair with the broken man staring at the veld.  They sing. The gash opens, the corners lifting in what may be a smile. Vetfaan offers the beer. A laborious slurp follows, then a soft burp.

“Go now.” Aubty Beauty’s voice is soft but the finality in it is unmistakable.

***

“They gone,” she says as she watches the bakkie bump it’s way over the uncared-for track leading to the house. “You relax now.”

She sees the muscles unwind and the shoulders slump to their usual position. Then, almost effortlessly, she lifts the body to carry the man to his bed. She did this when he was small – she’ll do it to the end. Only, back then there was more of him, even when he was a baby. 

Stephanus du Toit has made it through another year. Aunty Beauty smiles down at the man as she arranges the cushions so he faces the veld outside. That, and the team photo on the windowsill. The one where he stands in the middle, with the big gloves on. She knows he likes it there. Every day she tells him it’s there, reading the names of the team mates out loud. And she’d sing, like only African mothers can sing: melodious verses with simple words, over and over, telling the story of a young man who plays cricket for his country. 

...he catches the ball behind the sticks,

and Lordy, does he know the tricks

to get the others out

and he’d shout h-o-o-w-z-i-i-t! 

as he laughs and he jumps about…

“You rest now, Mister Stumps. For a whole year, you can rest.”

Then she wipes a bit of froth from the chin and she’s rewarded by a slight movement of the gash. At least, she thinks, he’s didn’t lose that

‘Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind…’

(William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality)

When will we ever learn…?

pieter_pieterse

Master Story-teller: Pieter Pieterse

(Following on the two previous posts)

Not everything was banged-up during the war,” Kleinpiet says in an effort to lift Vetfaan’s mood. “Remember that porcupine?”

Vetfaan nods reluctantly. When he is in the grip of those dark thoughts, he doesn’t smile easily.

Spiesie (Afrikaans for ‘Little Spear’) they called him. He rattled into camp one cold winter morning, apparently oblivious of the fact that there was a war going on and that you needed special permission to get anywhere near the workshops.  Without bothering with the fine military tradition of saluting your superiors, he made straight for the one large shed, where a SAMIL was unloading a new axle for a broken-down Bedford. There, still ignoring the men in their browns, he settled down under the idling engine. He liked it there – it was nice and warm.

“Man, that little prickly pet had a mind of his own. Unlike the other animals in the Caprivi, he had no fear of man…or beast. And he refused to be tamed in any way. But if you had an apple in your tent, Spiesie would find it. The cook had to put the potatoes in a locked cupboard. And don’t think he was deterred by plastic bottles – he simply gnawed his way through them to find out what’s inside.”

Vetfaan straightens his shoulders a bit. “That’s how we lost him, not so?”

“Ja, the poor thing. Spiesie gnawed his way into a 2-litre Windhoek Lager bottle one night. We found his tracks that morning…weaving about in a rather random way. Sometimes straight, then – apparently confused – doubling back.  Once or twice he even rolled about in the sand. But…that was the last. Maybe he simply didn’t like the beer?”

“Nah.” Vetfaan shakes his head. “Wasn’t that. I think he hated that early-morning bugle. And he couldn’t stick to mealtimes. Undisciplined, he was.”

“No, not like that little elephant.”

This remark hits the target. Vetfaan brightens considerably as he signals for another beer.

“Yes, now that was something, hey? Imagine that?”

Elephants aren’t rare in the Caprivi and the Okavango Delta. In fact, one has to be careful driving around there, as one might find one of these giants thinking deep thoughts right in the middle of the road on a daily basis. Usually these encounters occur while negotiating the rutted tracks at speed.

On the day he met Daisy, Vetfaan was driving the SAMIL sedately, nursing an apocalyptic hangover. The previous night had been a hectic affair at Rundu, where the quartermaster took pride in showing off (and sharing) his ‘hidden’ (read: stolen, or more aptly, rerouted) stash of imported whiskies. As a result of the pounding headache, Vetfaan was leaning forward on the steering wheel, staring at the track with half-closed eyes while keeping a gentle (if slightly shaking) foot on the accelerator.

Now, here’s a fact few people are aware of: you want to cure somebody’s hangover? Get rid of the headache and restore 20/20 vision to bleary eyes? It’s simple. Put an elephant in his path. Try it; it works like a charm. In the micro-second it takes to recognise the obstacle, all thoughts of self-pity get replaced by such loud alarm bells that the afflicted forgets – instantly – about such trivia as sore heads and dry mouths. In fact, the tongue becomes even more arid, but that isn’t noticed.

The lorry slewed to a skidding stop only metres away from the giant beast. Vetfaan – now in  total panic-mode – tried to engage reverse, but forgot to use the clutch. The engine died. Vetfaan prepared to do the same.

And waited for the beast to charge.

And waited.

And nothing happened.

That’s when he saw the injury to the pachyderm. In fact the elephant just stood there, swaying from side to side, paying no attention to the vehicle at all. When Vetfaan peeked over the dashboard, he took in the fact that he might just survive this encounter. There was a reason: the elephant’s trunk had been almost amputated by a snare.

The poor animal was in a terrible state. With the wound relatively fresh, Vetfaan saw a drop of blood plopping down in the dust. More relaxed now, he noticed the flies around the raw flesh and the pleading, helpless eyes imploring him to help. What to do? He couldn’t just walk up to the elephant and offer his services, could he? Maybe he should shoot it and get the suffering over with. Vetfaan never shot an elephant before. To be merciful, the coup de grace must be instantaneous and not add to the animal’s woes at all. And, while it may be possible to shoot an elephant with a R1, one had to be pretty sure where to aim at. Where is an elephant’s brain?

Then the miracle happened.

Three older cows emerged from the bush, to gather around their stricken family member. Prodding their patient along gently with soft touches of their trunks and the occasional gentle bump of a head, they herded their injured younger sister along the track.

Vetfaan knew that track well. He realised what they were doing: they were taking the injured one to a river that was about a kilometer away. He waited for a minute or two, and then managed to get the engine going again. Idling along slowly, he followed the four to the place where the river (then only a stream, as it was the dry season) crossed the road.

Daisy’s state was obviously due to two major factors: her trunk was badly injured…and she couldn’t drink with the damaged trunk. Vetfaan watched in complete amazement as the others led her to the water and started offering water to her with their own trunks. One after the other, trunkfull after trunkfull, the other females fed the life-giving water to the greedy mouth of Daisy.

Vetfaan sat there for a long time, watching the spectacle. Daisy certainly perked up and the other cows led her off into the reeds.

In the months following, Vetfaan found many an excuse to return to the river. Sometimes he’d see the four sets of tracks, sometimes not. On three separate occasions he was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the four backs amongst the reeds. Daisy, it seemed, was recovering. Slowly, but surely. And then, one memorable day, the four elephants emerged from the reeds only minutes after he stopped there. Daisy’s trunk was scarred, but certainly functional. Standing proudly amongst her saviours, she raised het trunk halfway as if to tell Vetfaan she’s well enough to help herself again.

And they turned away, ambled off towards the bush…and Vetfaan never saw Daisy again.

“Yes,” Vetfaan says, gulping down the beer, “the animals. They were special. I leant a lot from them. Spiesie wanted food and warmth – just like us. And like us, he got drunk and lost his way. But Daisy and her helpers?  They showed me what Life is all about. Or at least, how it should be.”

Gertruida puts down the book she’s been reading, peering at Vetfaan over her glasses. “That, Vetfaan, is what we’ve been doing for the last few days. That elephant recovered from that dreadful wound due to the others helping her. I just so wish you’d get rid of your snare.”

And Vetfaan, still wounded by the war, smiles gratefully at her, gets up, walks over to the austere woman, and gives her a hug.

“It takes time, Gertruida. A lot of it.”

Sometimes the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place is upbeat and frivolous. Not always. There are times when the ghosts of the past join the group at Boggel’s counter, to remind the customers if the price they had paid for the privilege. The war, the struggle of the oppressed masses, the mad propaganda justifying murder and mayhem, the injustices preached by the media and churches alike…the list goes on and on. Somehow, everybody in the country can look back at history with sadness. Was it really necessary for so many young men to lay down their lives? Why did we allow politics to divide the country so? And yet – despite the knowledge of the past – aren’t we hard at work repeating all the same mistakes?.

That’s when Vetfaan remembers the animals during the Border War, knowing they, at least, survived because they cared. The thought always gives him hope.

1328929_140116135753_Birthday_3237PS: These animal events and encounters are based on fact. Pieter Pieterse witnessed and described them (in a different context and style) in his beautiful book: Winterwerf in die Kavango, published by Tafelberg in 1989. The book is out of print now, but if you can lay hands on one, it’s well-worth reading. I hereby acknowledge his valuable contribution to Afrikaans literature and so wish I could swap stories with him. Sadly, he was brutally murdered in 2002 – yet another victim to the endemic violence so prevalent in our beautiful country..

Groundhog Kalahari

hcd“I don’t like that man. According to him, the older he gets, the better he was.” Servaas knits his brows together, takes a giant swallow of his beer, and continues. “I remember him coming back from the army as a broken man. Now he claims he’s a veteran. Decorated, nogal. Makes me sick.”

“But he tells that story so well, Servaas. Even you asked him about the mortars and the bombs. Maybe they were there, maybe they weren’t. Still, it’s a good story.”

“Look, Gertruida, I was there. Saw the blood and the gore and the vomit. Saw young men cut in half by machine gun fire. There’s nothing romantic about war, let me tell you.”

“Get off your high horse, Vetfaan. I’m just teasing old Servaas, here.” She pats the old man’s shoulder. “But I do love a well told story. And he’s got the gift.”

They watch as Gunner Grove gets into his pickup. The years have treated him harshly and his limp is more obvious than before. As usual, he’s had a few too many, but he manages to open the bakkie’s door on the third attempt. Then, grinding the gears, he creeps out of town, banging the suspension hard on the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.

***

Gertruida always says ( because she knows everything) that one mustn’t be hard on the men who served on the border – it doesn’t matter whether they attacked or defended. She says it is water under the bridge as far as the politics are concerned, but not for the individuals who had to endure the terrible conditions back then.

But even she, despite her vast knowledge can never guess why Gunner Grove insists on telling his story the way he wants people to hear it. Memory is much like history – it depends on what you want the audience to hear. Sadly, people don’t care much what happened in 1854 any more. However, when it comes to recent history, a certain amount of bias and prejudice is almost unavoidable. Listen to any political speech on Youth Day or Freedom Day and you get the drift: emotion is often more important than fact.

***

A lot happens in the Army that the generals never know about. This was as true for the little base camp on the banks of the Okavango River  as it is for any camp in any given war you’d care to think about. Major Bothma, for instance, arranged for his wife to pay him a secret visit.

‘Secret‘, under these circumstances, is also a relative term. Ladies tend to (unlike some soldiers) insist on wearing clean clothes every day. Now, when…er…certain items…started flapping in the wind on the washing line, it didn’t take an expert on warfare to figure out that something out of the ordinary was happening. The troops did what they did best: they gossiped and wondered and discussed and guessed. And quite naturally (young men being such willing vessels of excessive amounts of testosterone), it was inevitable that some would want to investigate.

Gunner was one of these.

So we find our unlikely hero sneaking through the bush in a roundabout way to get to the major’s tent, which was conveniently pitched a little apart from where the other soldiers camped. Privileges of rank and all that…

Whether by coincidence or fate, he wasn’t the only soldier making his way through the thick bush that night. Sergei Boris Kalanderishvili was there, too. As military advisor to the FNLA, he was ascertaining vital facts before the attack they planned for the next day. Sergei, one must understand, had come to understand how important it is to have accurate information about the enemy before engaging them in a skirmish. After having relied on information gleaned from the local inhabitants on a number of disastrous occasions, Sergei insisted on first-hand info before advancing on any target.

Olivia Bothma was – of course – unaware of such things. A few agonising months before she had married the man of her dreams and now – at last – they could spend some time together. And Olivia – a beautiful young lady with a stunning body – didn’t care that the accommodation didn’t match up to luxurious standards. She was with her husband and that was all that mattered. As such, she made sure that his homecoming (tent-coming?) was a joyous occasion.

Gunner was the first to peek through the foliage that evening.  Like King David of Biblical times, he watched as the major’s wife undressed and waded into the cool water of the Okavango. Sergei must have arrived more or less at the same time, and he, too, must have been pleasantly shocked at what he saw there.

It is a myth that crocodiles are sound sleepers. And they don’t keep office hours. So, when lovely Olivia splashed the water on her shampooed hair, a rather large leviathan-like croc started taking keen interest in the shapely meal that so conveniently presented itself.

Who saw the crocodile first? One cannot know. It wasn’t Olivia, for sure. She was washing her hair and toying with the idea of waiting for her husband, dressed  only his shirt. or, maybe, nothing at all? Occupied with such deliciously wicked thoughts, she certainly paid no attention to the small waves on the surface of the quiet waters, caused by the huge body moving silently towards her.

But Sergei did notice the ripples in the moonlight, as did Gunner. It may be fair to say they saw it simultaneously.

Rules number one and two of any covert operation: don’t get noticed and don’t give your position away. Gunner knew he was trespassing and had a very good idea of what would happen to a voyeuristic soldier ogling a superior officer’s wife. Sergei had an even bigger problem, of course. Shouting would be suicide. Shooting at the creature would bring on the rest of the camp, ending his military career in disgrace.

The horror of what was about to happen, galvanised the two men into action. To save Olivia, she had to be removed from the river…immediately! And so, still unaware of each other, the two men stormed from their hiding places, flapping arms and rushing into the water, where they literally snatched the would-be victim from the jaws of death.

Sergei got hold of Olivia’s shoulders and started dragging her towards safety. Gunner grabbed her legs to lift her clear of the water, and staggered along to carry their surprised load. Olivia, unaware of what and why  this was happening, didn’t cooperate at all, thrashing wildly to get free. A well-aimed kick sent Gunner flying backwards.

And that’s when the croc got hold of his left leg.

***

“I don’t care whether it’s true or not. The way he tells how he infiltrated that FNLA camp, posing as a cook, is priceless. Imagine that? A whitey managing to get himself established in an enemy camp? Of all the lies he tells, that one must be the best!” Vetfaan sits back and winks for another beer.”Then, with some terribly important data, he tries to sneak back to his own unit – only to get shot in the process. And so, after months in the bush, he gets back to his base camp after operating on that wound himself. Imagine that?  He did a sterling job with the injury, despite the circumstances. He could have lost that leg.”

***

As we know, strange things happen during wars. When Sergei got the struggling Olivia back on solid ground, he didn’t spend time inspecting the lovely curves of the beautiful lady. He saw a man being dragged into the river. And he dived in and wrenched the victim from those jaws before getting him to safety, too.

Why did Sergei do what he did? He should have left Gunner to bleed to death, for isn’t the object of war to kill your enemies? But he didn’t. Maybe – even during war-time – soldiers obey the instinct to preserve life. While Olivia scrambled off to find suitable attire, Sergei whipped off his belt and bound the leg to stop the bleeding. He realised his predicament, of course: staying there would be out of the question.

By the time the shocked and now dressed Olivia emerged from the tent, only the bloodstain on the ground remained as evidence of recent events. And when her husband arrived a while later, she told him what had happened.

Oh, they searched for Gunner, you can be sure of that. But darkness in the African bush and the possibility of infiltrators in the vicinity made the progress slow. By the time the sun rose the next morning, it was concluded that the crocodile must have won the battle between man and beast.

***

Back at his house, Gunner Grove sits down with a sigh after pouring a generous shot of his own peach brandy into a mug. By the light of the flickering candle, he relives the time when a Russian military advisor saw to it that he was treated by a Cuban doctor. They did, he realises once more, save his leg…and his life. And somehow – who can explain these things – they became friends. One may be pardoned for assuming that gratitude and the camaraderie of men at war played a role. Be that as it may, Sergei admitted at being proud of what he did and Gunner shared many a glass of Vodka with his saviour. And then, after many months, it was Sergei who drove him through the bush to deposit Gunner near the border.

When Gunner wipes a tear from his stubbled cheek, it’s not only because he remembers the way the Russian treated him, it’s because he stares at the Honorus Crux (gold) framed above the fireplace.

That’s the medal awarded posthumously to Major Bothma; the one his widow had posted to him, so many years ago.

Waterloo in the Kalahari

train 3 leaving station close“Those were the days,” Vetfaan says when Kleinpiet reminds him of their time in the army. “The best part was when you got a pass to spend time with your family. Those train rides back home were quite a bit of fun. At every station we had to get off to buy more beer…”

He smiles at the thought: a thin, almost sardonic smile, as he remembers the stop at Mariental, on his way back to South Africa.

***

Two weeks! After a particularly hectic period of fighting, Vetfaan’s platoon were rewarded by some much-needed time off. He naturally didn’t want to spend that time in Rundu or Grootfontein and headed southwards, homewards, to his parent’s farm in the Kalahari. If there was one thing he needed now, it was the silence of the dunes. No pill, no psychologist can restore a broken spirit as fast and as well as the quiet hours amongst those magnificent sandy mountains.

There were quite a few soldiers on that train, all of them heading home, which resulted in a party of note while they progressed through the arid wastelands of South West Africa. Windhoek came and went. So did Rehoboth and Kalkrand. By the time they pulled in to Mariental, they’d discussed cars, booze, ABBA (that decadent new band with those girls) and how strange it’d be to wear something else than browns again. They told jokes, laughing again and again at the one that was told fifty miles before.

And they drank. Alcohol took away the memories of blood and vomit; dimmed the thoughts of broken limbs and gaping wounds. And the more they drank, the more they tried to forget the friends that would never share a drink with them again. And, like it sometimes happens during war times, their party petered out into a drawn-out silence – a wake for those who were less fortunate.

At Mariental it was Vetfaan’s turn to get a fresh supply of beers. He was glad to escape the gloomy atmosphere in the compartment and wandered into town. It was a Saturday, and a kindly old gentleman directed him to the bottle store at the end of the street. Ten minutes later he staggered back to the station, carrying the two crates of beer.

And watched in dismay as the train pulled out of the station, heading towards Keetmanshoop.

***

“I had to do something. My mates were on that train and I had the beer. I was sure they wouldn’t miss me so much, but the beer…now that was a catastrophe! That’s when I decided to hike to Keetmanshoop in the hope of catching the train there again.”

***

agnetha-liveHe had scarcely taken up his position next to the road, when  – much to his surprise – a vehicle screeched to a halt next to him. The surprise wasn’t the willingness of a driver to pick up a young man in uniform – in those days people seemed to consider helping a soldier as an act of patriotism – the surprise was the vehicle and it;s rather attractive driver. The fire-engine-red Mustang was driven by a young lady who looked remarkably much like Agnetha, the sexy singer they’d so recently discussed.

“Going to Keetmanshoop, soldier?” The startling blue eyes were staring at him, knowing his answer.

It turned out to be a memorable trip. She asked him a million questions, most of which he answered with a stuttering mumble. H couldn’t  tell her much, of course. The excursions into Angola were highly sensitive; one of those obvious secrets of the time – and one everybody speculated about.

“Look,” she said eventually, “you’re fighting a losing war. There’s no way you can win. We need…” and here she hesitated only for a second, “…we need guys that can supply us with information. Somebody like you. Somebody with real inside info. And we’ll pay you well…”

***

“There I was, young and innocent and … interested…and this woman with the body of an angel and a face to match, offers me an opportunity to turn into a traitor. You can imagine my thoughts. Although I’d been drinking all the way from Rundu, I was sober enough to realise what she was asking me.”

***

Vetfaan showed his disgust. Shaking his head, he stared at her in dismay and moved to sit as far from her as possible.

She laughed at that, saying she understood.

“You poor, poor boys. You get fed a constant stream of lies, half-truths and propaganda. Of course you believe you’re fighting for a true and just cause. But…there is a bigger picture. There is a world out there, and it’s changing. In the last fifty-odd years, women got to vote. In 1966 – at last – every citizen in the United States got the right to vote. Communism is dying and soon Russia will break up in many smaller states. The Berlin Wall will fall. And…the Nationalists will surrender power to the ANC. That is the future of South Africa, and it’ll be a bright and wonderful one at that, too. The communists aren’t your enemies, your government is. These things, soldier, are facts. I’m sorry, but I have to tell you your war is a futile one.”

Then, more than even when she asked him to spy, Vetfaan was convinced the woman was deranged. He shook his head again, staring at the barren countryside flashing past. He wanted to tell her about the way the Chinese and Cubans were killing young men in their quest to establish communism in Southern Africa. Their aim was not to liberate the black masses because they were such benevolent friends – they wanted to get their hands on the vast mineral resources hidden under the soil of his fatherland. And look at what the Soviets did to churches and the Russian culture? No, this woman had no inkling about what she was talking about.

At the age of barely twenty, Vetfaan trusted the news on the radio, the articles in the newspapers, the sermons in his church and – above all – his superior officers. The opinion of this young woman – as beautiful and as alluring as she might be – would never sway him to betray his country.

“You’re wrong,” he said as they neared the town of Keetmanshoop. It was a simple statement, but said with much bitterness and conviction. When one is young, one tends to have set ideas about the way of the world.

“Why?’ Her question was equally blunt.

“Because we’re protecting the country. The whole country. If we were to lose this war, everything we’ve built up over the centuries will be lost. Roads, hospitals, schools, factories, mines. We simply cannot hand over reigns to individuals who want to strip the country of its resources. Our government, I have to tell you, have the best interests of all South Africans at heart. That’s why we’re up there – for God and country. Whites and Blacks. That’s why.” Vetfaan felt he delivered his speech well – it was text-book stuff right out of the lectures he listened to during his basic training.

They drove into Keetmanshoop and Vetfaan got off, heading towards the station without saying goodbye.

***

“That’s such a sad story, Vetfaan.” Emptying her glass, Gertruida watches the big man with sympathetic eyes. “And you never saw her again, I suppose?”

He nods. “No. Later, I heard other soldiers talking about the girl in the Mustang that gave them a lift. Always on the remote roads in South West Africa. I always listened to those stories, wondering how many young men fell for her ploy.

“And it was clever, I must admit. Pick up a tired, footsore soldier, returning from the war up north, and sit him down in a Mustang and a beauty queen. Some would have fallen for it, I’m sure.”

Kleinpiet suppresses a hiccup. “Well, tonight we’ll listen to the president giving the State of the Nation address. He’ll tell us how they plan to employ millions. He’s going to turn the economy around. He’ll say how serious they are about eradicating corruption. He’ll emphasise education and health care – and how much they’re doing for social upliftment. It’ll be a repeat of previous speeches, just dressed up nicely to sound optimistic.

“He’ll sound just like that blonde in the Mustang. Or like Vetfaan on the train. No matter how you string words together, you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

He gets a nod from Gertruida. “Well, here’s my guess: this is the last State of the Nation address by President Zuma. He’s slowly being sidelined to make way for somebody who hasn’t had his hand so deep in the till lately. Maybe somebody with less wives and even less children. Maybe he’ll hint at his deteriorating health, saying the pressures of government has worn him down. Mark my words – if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the hidden messages.”

Yes, Vetfaan thinks, we’re all in that Mustang, listening and talking and trying to convince each other that we have the answers to the country’s problems. Some will fight a war, others will strike or argue, and yet others will sit quietly, waiting for the storms to pass. We’ll continue to believe in righteous causes and rich rewards. But, in the end, we’ll all hurry along to catch the train at a dusty station, hoping it’ll carry us to freedom and peace.

But like that day in Keetmanshoop, the station might very well be deserted and the train long departed.

***

The station master eventually offered the forlorn soldier housing for the night. They talked, like true patriots do, about how important it was to preserve and protect their way of life.

The next day Vetfaan was hitch-hiking again. This time he wasn’t facing south at all; he returned to his base near Rundu. There was a war to be fought, after all.

***

“History,” Vetfaan says heavily, “will keep on repeating itself. Presidents will come and go. Liberals and conservatives will fight. Traditionalists will warn about radicals. Capitalists will square up to communists. And, in the end, we’ll keep on insisting to fight wars we cannot win.”

“Maybe.” This time, Gertruida s smile is genuine. “But what keeps us hoping, is the future. No matter where we’ve been, we can always hope to reach a brighter tomorrow. That, my friends, is the only way.”

Kleinpiet writes ‘For God and Country’ on the counter top, using the froth from his beer. After staring at it for a long minute, he wipes out ‘Country’ with his sleeve.

“Enough lies,” he says. Then he invites them all to a braai on his farm tonight. “Not for the meat or the beer,” he reminds them, “but because I don’t have a radio or a television.”

Of course they all accepted, The president isn’t going to tell them anything they don’t know already. That train has left the station a long time ago…

The Lost Art of Telling a Story Properly

Screenie9“Tell us your story, Grootgert. We know so little about you. Where do you come from? What do you do?” Gertruida, who knows (just about) everything, is almost pleading with the big man.

“Things are lost out there,” Grootgert says in his slow way, waving a hand towards the desert, “that you don’t know about. I find them.”

Whenever Grootgert pays one of his rare visits to Boggel’s Place, the whole town turns out to find out more about him. He is, after all, the most secretive man in the Kalahari. Still, Gertruida maintains, the man is at least more entertaining than the news of the government’s successes you hear on the radio every day. After all, he never told them who he is – he simply arrives in Rolbos occasionally, has a drink, and then walks off again. They dubbed him Grootgert simply to ease their conversations about him.

Gertruida summed up what they knew about him a while ago. Yes, he’s a loner. And sure, he lives out there in the desert, all by himself. It is also true that he talks with a heavy accent, suggesting that he must be from somewhere far away, like Williston, or Kimberley even.. But that’s about it – and he never talks about himself, anyway.

Vetfaan once said he thought he had met Grootgert on the border, during the war. That might have happened, for a generation of young boys grew up to be men during those troubled times when the Army gave them guns and pointed them North. They came back – well, some of them did – as adults who chose not to remember everything. So, when Grootgert said he had never met Vetfaan before, it may have been true, or maybe it was something he wiped from his mind.

Vetfaan still isn’t convinced. There was a skirmish, on the wrong side of the line between Namibia and Angola, involving three (or was it four?) platoons and an unknown number of enemies. That’s when the MiG’S swept down – out of the blue, guns blazing – and strafed the whole area. It was one of those horrifying stupid events that happens during wars – attackers and defenders found themselves scurrying for cover. The young men – who seconds before were seriously trying to kill each other – now sprinted in a mad dash for communal safety.

Vetfaan remembers the big tree and the ant heap. While the jets screamed overhead, he found shelter behind the tree. Two yards away, he saw the ant heap – a big one. Once or twice (or was it more?), he saw chunks of earth flying off the big mound as the deadly bullets tore into the hardened earth. But then, during a lull in the shooting, he saw a movement behind the ant heap.

Now, during such times, one doesn’t engage in casual conversation. Oh, hi, I’m Fanie. From the North Cape, you know? I see you’ve got a Russian uniform? How interesting! It gets to be very cold in the winters over there, doesn’t it? No, that isn’t the way wars go. You reload your rifle carefully, take aim, and kill the bastard.

Only, it is rather important to have your rifle with you to do this. Even if you have a full magazine strapped to your webbing, you can’t shoot very well without the rifle. And throwing bullets at your enemy doesn’t work so well, either. So you end up as a shivering and frightened young man, peeking ever so carefully past the coarse bark of the Acacia tree to see what the man behind the ant heap is doing.

Now, even though one tends to forget a lot of things as one gets older, some impressions simply refuse to fade. Even if you tried – really tried – there are pictures that remain as sharp as the day you experienced them for the first time. It happens, for instance, at births, funerals and such events like romantic moments and other accident scenes.

When Vetfaan peered at the ant heap, he saw a face staring back at him. A clearly frightened face, with large eyes and an open mouth, saying what sounded like ‘Nyet’ or something. Then the man pointed at the leg he was sticking out behind the mound: a trickle of blood stained the trousers above the right knee. He’d been wounded. No more shooting, please! And they both withdrew to their shelters and waited for the MiGs to go away. And afterwards – a minute, an hour, more? – neither of them looked for the other as they crept away to the South and the North respectively.

That’s why Vetfaan can never be sure. Although that fleeting glance only recorded the eyes and mouth of his adversary in his mind, and although he can still recall it as clearly as that day when he trembled behind that tree, he can’t be sure. Maybe he chose to forget other bits of detail, or maybe there was too much dust on that face to fill in more features – but the fact remains: he can’t say for certain. Grootgert, that huge enigmatic and nameless man, may or may not have been behind that ant heap that day.

“Out there? Like what?” Kleinpiet prompts. Grootgert, he is sure, must surely tell them something about himself now.

“Things. Many things. I find things. Things I never though should be in the desert.”

“Yes…?”

“Peace.”

“Yes, and…”

“I forget.”

Then, while Gertruida thinks about her next question, the big man gets up and walks out. They watch as he ambles down Voortrekker Weg to reach the end of town, and struts out towards the red dunes on the horizon.

“Strange man.” Kleinpiet says. “Imagine forgetting what you find.”

“Yes, I can. It’s even harder than finding what you forgot.” Vetfaan runs his hand through his thinning hair.

“Ag, come on, Vetfaan, you’re not making any sense.”

A slow smile wrinkles the tanned skin on Vetfaan’s cheeks. He was thinking about the slight limp – something with the right leg? – as the man left town. “That’s the way a man should tell a story, Kleinpiet. A good story must leave you with questions. You must find the forgotten bits the man didn’t tell. And that’s what you’ll remember… “

Going for the Kill (# 10)

(Author’s note: this is where the first episode continues.)

1367963657_508177021_6-Landrover-Defender-110-BMW-28i-SW-One-of-a-kind-South-AfricaJosé Migeul Pereira glances at the unremarkable salesman for a second before focussing his attention on the Land Rover on the floor. He doesn’t recognise the sniper – why should he? How could he? He’s never seen him before.

But Pieter Malherbe…he feels ice moving down his spine. This is the man! Older, indeed. Greying at the temples. More wrinkles. But that scar on the left side of the face immediately caught his eye. And then, when he looks again, there’s no mistaking who this would-be customer is – or was during the war.

“Is this vehicle in good condition?” José’s English isn’t perfect, but it has improved tremendously since the 70’s.

“Ye-e-es.” Malherbe tries desperately to remain calm. Squaring his shoulders, he starts telling José that the Land Rover has done only 40,000 km and has been well looked after. “It’s not even leaking oil, you can see for yourself.”

“Then, my friend, the sump must be empty.” José laughs at his own joke, eyes glinting with humour.

“What do you need it for, if I may ask?” Some customers buy 4X4’s only for the image. The newish Pajero may be a better bet for this man – and the commission is better.

“I need take my sons to see South West Africa. They’re always asking to go.” Malherbe notes the use of the country’s old name. “I was there a long time ago. Now we plan a trip, see? I need good vehicle.”

Pieter Malherbe goes into the routine of explaining what an exemplary vehicle this is and how fortunate his customer is to stumble on such a find. “You are, of course, welcome to test-drive her, if you so wish?”

José is delighted. “You come along, please. I really need to know this one is in good shape, Can you suggest some bad roads, deep sand? I’m really interested and the price is acceptable.”

***

In Europe, all roads lead to Rome. In the U.S. of A, people tend to end up in New York. In the Northern Cape…well, there’s no telling where the road leads you to.

José wants to really test the vehicle. Malherbe is desperate to reach his selling target for the month. It is therefore not strange to find the two of them heading out to Grootdrink on the tarred road. And once there, José – quite by chance – spots the sandy and rutted track leading off towards the north.

“Where that road go?” José arches an eyebrow.

“Oh, nowhere. Rolbos. A nothing town. It’s got a nice bar, though.”

***

And so, by coincidence or fate, the two men stroll into Boggel’s Place in the middle of a hot and dusty day. Boggel is only too happy to see two new faces, serves their beer ice-cold and sends out Servaas to call the others.

The townsfolk trickle into the bar with a variety of excuses. Vetfaan wants Boggel to commiserate on his tractor, which has once again broken down. Kleinpiet ostensibly comes looking for Precilla, who arrives looking for him a minute later. Oudoom asks who owns the beautiful Land Rover – a vehicle he’s always admired.

Gertruida – who knows everything – arrives last. It is she – the one with vast knowledge – that gasps when she walks in.

José Migeul Pereira! FAPLA soldier. Connected to the Ruacana Incident. Stayed with South African troops for a while before being allowed to cross the border back to Angola. And…yes! Sarin-S! He’s the man who single-handedly twarted the threat of nuclear war in Southern Africa. She remembers the photos, the ultra-secret report in the thin file. It had been her job to put that specific file through the shredder in the early 90’s.

“José?” Nobody remembers ever hearing that incredulous tone in her voice. “José Pereira? Is it you?”

José swings around to look at the woman in the door. First it was the salesman who seemed to recognise him – now this woman even knows his name.

“Er…yes. That’s me.” What else can he say?

“You’re the Sarin guy? Back in the late seventies? There was a question of chemical warfare…”

***

Psychologists are extremely clever people, They can explain why some people enjoy conflict, why some seemingly never want to escape a cycle of abuse, and why introverts enjoy reading as much as extroverts find it essential to become politicians.  If you let one of these geniusses loose on Pieter Malherbe, you won’t be surprised with an understanding “Aah, oh yes…” or a nodding “of course.”

This does not – we all know – express understanding at all. It merely confirms a state of recognition. Yes, there are people like these. Yes, some may very well react in a similar fashion.

However many ‘aahs’ and nods one may imagine, it is doubtful that anybody would be able to understand exactly what happens in Pieter Malherbe’s mind when he he hears Gertruida’s remark. It’s as if his hidden secret – the failure to complete an important mission – suddenly gets thrust into his face to be a reminder of why he never quite made the grade in life.

Ever since that moment his finger relaxed on the trigger, Malherbe’s life has been spiralling downward. He got back to South West undetected, reached his base unscathed and gave a full and honest report of what had transpired. That’s when his life as an unremarkable failure began.

In the military world there are many secrets. Two things, however, will dog a man like a shadow for the rest of his life: success…and failure. These things are more visible and known than any medallion on a ceremonial uniform. Success will get you free drinks at the bar and slaps on the back. Failure will see you sitting alone in the corner where the barman studiously ignores you.

For years – decades – Pieter Malherbe lived with his failure. At first he was reprimanded for not killing a man. Later, he was guilty of killing his own future.

He should have pulled that damn trigger!

And, for a while, he managed to suppress those feelings in favour of his desire to make that sale. No matter who José Migeul Pereira might be, he is a potential customer.

But then Gertruida recognised the man and the dam burst…

***

When José nods, it is Malherbe who can’t suppress it any longer. “I should have killed you, you bastard! Had you in my sights, But you were a coward, shielding yourself with a retarded kid. Dammit man! I should have pulled that trigger.”

For once Gertruida doesn’t understand. What was happening?

“Mister Malherbe! What are you talking about?”

It takes quite some time to calm Malherbe down. Gertruida takes him outside, and under her gentle coaxing, she finally gets to hear the part of the story that never reached the files of Military Intelligence back in the war days.

Then – equally gently – she tells Malherbe what a favour he did for his country and the whole of Southern Africa. Malherbe listens – open mouthed – before bursting into tears.

***

Gertruida says there is no such thing as an unremarkable being. Inside the most primitive Amoeba, as well as inside the mind of the world’s greatest genius, there exists the one remarkable characteristic that defines us all: the will to survive. Knock a tree down, and it’ll start afresh with a few green shoots from the stump. Hurt a worm and it’ll try to wiggle to safety. Tell Malherbe the true story of his heroism, and he’ll grab onto it as the talisman that’ll lead him into the future.

And that is why, while José listens to Vetfaan’s woes about his Massey Ferguson inside Boggel’s Place, a man sits on the stoep outside, holding hands with a woman he barely knows. She’s just told him he’s a hero.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

Getruida sees him relax. He sits quietly for a full ten minutes, digesting everything he just learnt. Then, noddings towards Gertruida, he gets up, goes inside, and shakes the hand of the man he should have killed.

It is, Gertruida will tell you, quite a remarkable gesture.

***

Two days later, Pieter Malherbe stands on the sidewalk outside the Upington Hotel. He’s waving at the back of the Land Rover disappearing down the street. He still feels the warmth of José firm handshake, the tenderness of his beautiful wife’s kiss on his cheek. Yes, he thinks, Maria is everything that José said – and more. The two grown sons – Clemente and Pedro – each thanked him for saving their father’s life.

He returns to the unremarkable second-hand dealership, sits down behind the unremarkable desk. Then he closes his eyes in a silent prayer, thanking God for an extraordinary life.

Going for the Kill (# 9)

a-crocodile-broke-out-of-its-cage-on-a-qantas-flightIt’s the one single shot that changes the course of the war.

One shot.

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.

Magnus-malan

Minister of Defence: Magnus Malan

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.

Vaal Dam - supplying water to the Gauteng Province

Vaal Dam – supplying water to the Gauteng Province

“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…”