Tag Archives: bush war

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.

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…”

 

Going for the Kill (# 7)

SWAPO_and_SA_operations_1978-1980,_Angola_civil_warComrade Vasily sits down heavily next to José in the shade of the large thorn tree.

“They’ve made Chung a general, José. A general!” Vasily sighs. “I have fought bravely, commanded the troops to the best of my ability. And now this…”

José nods. Yes, he understands. Chung is now Vasily’s superior officer, which puts him in command not only of the camp, but of the whole surrounding region. Vasily is much admired for his military skills, but also loved for the way he manages  the problems of the soldiers under his command. Chung, in contrast, can only be described as a bastard. He simply doesn’t care for the individual – he doesn’t care about casualties at all. For him the soldiers are ways to a means.

“I’m sorry,” José says lamely.

***

“I shall select sixteen men, Vasily, ” Chung says smugly, “to carry out the most decisive operation of this war. We’ll target a relatively small area to determine the efficiency of Sarin-S. I’ve chosen a remote area, where the South Africans will have very little chance of finding out what we’re doing. It’ll be dangerous, nevertheless, especially if they have to cart the chemicals there and distribute it in the water supplies of the area. It’ll take nine men to carry the Sarin-S. Six men will act as reserve carriers and protect the convoy.”

Chung leans forward, smiling ominously. “And…your little protege, Doctor José, will accompany the group as a medic. Now, my dear Vasily, I assume you concur?”

Comrade Vasily closes his eyes. Nods absently. Feels his heart shrinking.

***

General Groesbeek looks up as Brigadier Pieterse opens the door after knocking softly. It’s one of those hot and humid days in Pretoria. It’ll rain soon…

“Come in, Pieterse. As you’ve guessed, it is about this report from this man in Angola…this …er…”

“You mean Lucas, sir? The report about Sarin-S?”

opuwa“Yes. That’s it! This Lucas says the Commies are going to poison the dams and streams in the vicinity of Opuwo. They plan to enter South West at Swartbooisdrift, and then target Okangwati, Okaanga, Opuwo and Orumana.” Groesbeek stabs a finger at the map in front of him, pointing out the places.

“What worries me, Pieterse, is that they’re sending a doctor along. Doctors aren’t exactly common in Angola. Lucas also states that the doctor and the Sarin arrived at their camp within days of each other. Now, I have two questions for you: is this Lucas reliable? And what, in heaven’s name, do you make of this doctor story?”

Pieterse describes the value of Lucas in glowing terms. His reports have been regular, reliable and accurate.”But I’m not sure about the doctor? Why would they send somebody as qualified as that along? Unless….he’s a chemical expert, of course.”

HG0000501“I agree. That thought haunts me.” Groesbeek lights a Gunston, inhaling deeply. “Well, it is imperative they be stopped. The Himbas has always been rather tolerant of our presence, and we can’t afford to lose their support. Moreover, if the Commies succeed in poisoning that area, they’ll wipe out all forms of animal and human life. Can you imagine the catastrophe? What’s even worse: Lucas says this is just the first phase! A test! If they succeed, they’ll implement this strategy over the entire border. The Kunene. Kwando. Okavango rivers. All poisoned and all life exterminated! It’s diabolical, man!”

“We won’t take that lying down, sir. If they go to those extremes, we’ll ….” Pieterse hesitates, afraid to finish the sentence.

“Indeed we will!” Groesbeek feels his cheeks flush. “If they target entire civilian population groups as well as game and farm animals as their primary targets, we’ll make them feel extremely sorry that they did. Every fish, every antelope, every carnivore…” He screws his eyes tight, breathes out hard. “We’ll bomb Luanda. Dammit, man, we’ll destroy their bloody capitol city, bomb it to ashes, wipe it off the face of the earth!”

Pieterse holds up a hand, trying to calm the general down. “Lets try another approach, General. “

Pieterse leaves the general’s office with specific orders. They’ll take out the doctor as soon as possible, and ambush the patrol when they set foot on South West African soil, and capture the Sarin-S.  The general will be responsible to set up the ambush. Pieterse, via his position in Military Intelligence, has to arrange the elimination of Angola’s chemical warfare specialist, a man only known as Doctor José, before the patrol can do any harm.

Outside, the thunder crashes as the first huge hail stones start pelting the leaves off the Jacaranda trees. The two military men are not aware of the destruction. They’re planning a catastrophe of their own.

***

mirage_iii_ez_831_01A few kilometres north of the Kunene, the patrol dives for cover as the modified Mirages scream overhead.

Seconds later – to the south – they hear the stutter of several explosions…and then silence reclaims the bush. Its as if the birds and the insects are desperately trying to ignore the stupidity of humans and their their most basic instinct: the destruction of opposition.

An hour later they reach the site of the attack. What used to be a village, is now a smouldering, bare patch between the trees, pock-marked by the impacts of the missiles and explosions.

One of the troops bursts out crying, sobbing that this had been his village, and that he had hoped to see his family before crossing the border. Yes, he knew SWAPO used it as a temporary base sometimes, but he never – ever – considered the possibility of…this!

Ground attacks by supersonic jets are arguably the worst of all military offences on ground level targets – second only to long-range artillery. The attackers are completely undetected and the first thing that happens, are the unexpected explosions. Blasts of destruction, out of the blue, seconds before the sound of the turbines reach those that are already dead and dying.  Having said that, one must not discount the fear the ‘whu-ump’ of an unseen mortar or the click of a landmine under the foot. Maybe – even – it is stupid to award the prize to fast jets, but the point is made: these attacks cause panic.

And panic costs lives. People run from the last explosion, forgetting the old axiom that no two bombs ever land in the same place. The safest place to be – if one can keep a cool head and stand the heat – is the newest bomb crater. The villagers obviously didn’t know that. Running from the blasts, they ended up in new ones. The village is in ruins. The men and women are dead. It’s been – in military terms – a complete success. In humanitarian terms, it’s a tragedy.

They’ve all been killed – except the little boy with Down Syndrome, sitting forlornly, staring at the destruction with uncomprehending eyes.

Doctor José acts on instinct when he bends down and swings the child onto his shoulders. He has absolutely no idea that this act saves his life… As he does this, he is suddenly so aware of everything he experienced in Luanda – there, around the kitchen table, while Maria da Silva prayed for peace.

Author’s Note: In this week’s Writing Challenge, writers are asked to look at the world through other people’s eyes. To walk a mile in their shoes. To try to understand why ‘they’ do things differently. This is exactly the message of Going for the Kill. As a conscripted soldier back in the 70’s, I saw the enemy as just that – the enemy. Now I know that everybody who took part in that war, was just another human being. In this series, I’m trying to understand how it must have been on both sides, what people felt…and why they felt it was important enough to risk life and limb fighting for an ideology as foreign to the continent as an elephant in Hyde Park.

Going for the Kill (# 5)

captain_undressJosé Migeul Pereira drifts upwards, weightless, free. He’s not concerned. He has no pain.

He doesn’t know what exactly happened. Didn’t see Pedro’s leg tremble, tremble…and move. Vaguely recalls  the second click as the toggle switch moved upward, sending the electrical signal to the M18 mine. Didn’t – couldn’t – see the mine strapped to a tree, its killing face pointed to the track at waist height. Didn’t even hear the explosion where he was crawling along the ground, following the wire.

One moment he was busy sweeping sand off the concealed wire, the next he is floating above his bleeding body. Weightless. Free.

Oh, he can see his damaged body, no question about it. There’s blood on the left side of his face. A lot of it. The left side of his shirt is also soaked in blood, some of it forming a small pool in the soft sand. This doesn’t worry him at all. No pain, just free.

“José…?”

A voice? Here? Who?

“It’s me.” Two words, explaining everything.

And suddenly he is aware of the ship’s captain in front of him. Why didn’t he notice the handsome man in the old-fashioned uniform before? And yet, there he is! Exactly the picture of his father, the one he never knew but always thought would look just like this.

“Papa…?”

“That’s right, son. Me. I’ve always been there, remember?”

José is confused. What is happening?

“Relax, José. Just be. Accept.”

“But…but why? How?” The questions flood his consciousness.

“To reassure you, son. You’ve always been lonely. You’ve had a hard life and became bitter as a result. And you’ve still not forgiven Manuel or Matron Anna.” The captain shrugs. “You’ll never move on unless you do so, José.”

“Move on? To what?” José experiences a touch of anger. “I’ve been abused, used, belittled all my life and….”

“Shhhh…” Is there any other way to describe the captain’s eyes, other than kind and sympathetic? Even – the thought surprises José – loving? “Hush now son. You had to endure unspeakable hardship for you to understand what you have to do. In a short while you’re going to face a difficult situation. I want you to think about what I just said when the time comes, José. It is very, very important. And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.”

The image of the captain seems to waver, fade, as he draws back.

“Wait! Papa! Don’t leave me…again?’

“I’ve never left you, José. I’ll always be there…”

And then, suddenly, the captain is gone.

***

Voices… Other voices. Urgent words. Lots of voices.

Then men appear, running towards him. A few stop to stare at the mangled body of Pedro. One bends over to vomit. Others just stand there in shock, staring.

But two men rush to his side to turn him over. They wipe away blood, working silently. The medical kit gets opened. They put up a drip, managing with the third try.

“His rucksack and radio saved him,” the one says, “and most of the shrapnel went right over him. He was too near the tree and the mine was too high… Lucky devil!”

“Poor Pedro,” the other one murmurs, “he didn’t stand a chance.”

José feels himself drawn back to his body. He wants to resist, to remain in this state of blissful peace, but the pull to return is just too strong. He feels a different darkness approaching and surrenders to it.

***

Pain!

The pain is excruciating.

José wants to open his eyes, but something is wrong. Even when he tries focussing, all he can see is black. He wants to scream, but he only manages a protracted, croaking groan.

“You’re awake?” The voice is soft, a woman’s voice. Where the hell did she come from?

“Are you in pain?”

He manages another croak and a nod.

“I’ll give you something.”

The darkness returns.

***

Time passes. How long? He’s not sure. Time has no meaning. When he becomes aware again, the pain is less. Mainly his head, also his chest. It’s still dark.

“Welcome back, José Pereira. Feeling better?” The same voice. Kind. Soft.

“Yes.” The words comes out slowly over his dry tongue. “Th…th…thirsty…”

“Here.” He feels a straw on his lips. Sucks. It’s Coke! His favourite… He drinks eagerly, smacking his lips.

“How…how did you…know?”

Soft giggle. “The Coke? Comrade Vasily told he. Said I had to keep it at your bedside.”

“Dark..why is it…dark?”

“You’ve got a million bandages over your head, José Pereira. The doctors had to operate to get the pieces of iron out of your face. You’re a very lucky man, José. Or you have a powerful guardian angel.”

The captain?

“Who…are…you?”

“I’m Maria da Silva, José. Your private nurse, Comrade Vasily must like you a lot, he’s payng me well.”

And then, in bits and pieces, she allows him to assemble the puzzle to understand what’s happened in the last fourteen days. How the men got the radio working again, to notify their basecamp what’s happened. How Comrade Vasily twisted arms, called in favours and almost shot Chung to get a helicopter to fetch José. How he was taken to Luanda where the Cuban doctors spent eight hours – eight hours! – operating on his face and fixing his ruptured lung. And how she sat there, day after day, praying for him to get better.

“I did your bandages yesterday evening, José. The doctors…well, they did a marvellous job. When you came in, you were quite a mess. Now you’ll only have a scar over your left cheek. I think you’re going to be even more handsome for it.”

Despite the circumstances, José finds himself smiling beneath the bandages. She’s got such a beautiful voice…

“And Comrade Vasily… Does he know I’m okay?”

“Oh yes! I have to phone him twice a day. He’s really worried about you, you know? He said he’d be off this weekend, then he’d come and visit you.”

When José feels himself drifting off into a slumber again, he nearly didn’t hear her question.

“José? Your records show you’re an orphan. But you know? The funniest thing happened. Right after you returned from the operating theatre, A man came to visit you. A sailor, I think. He didn’t look old enough, but he said he was your father. He stood there, silently, looking down at you. Then he asked for a glass of water. I fetched it. When I returned, he was gone… Do you know such a man, José?”

Jose Migeul Pereira feels how the tension drains from his body. He also knows exactly what to do.

“Please, Maria? Will you ask a priest to visit me? I haven’t been to confession for…such a long time. I need to put a matter straight.”

And then, he thinks, if there are difficult decisions ahead, he’ll be ready.

***

Sometimes it s so easy to say we’ll do the right thing. And sometimes, when faced with a difficult choice, we back off, knowing the price is too high. It is fair to assume that José Migeul Pereira had no idea how much he’d have to sacrifice if he wanted to be true to his intentions.

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 13)

holding_hands-1425Gert jumped up, started to salute, remembered he wore no cap or hat, smiled sheepishly and sat down again. Lettie’s hand found his under the table. They were in this together, she was saying. It helped.

The major sat down heavily, staring at the journalists, the soldier, and finally at his daughter. His only child. The one he barely knew. His little girl who grew up to be a young lady while he was fighting wars.

“You care to explain why you are lounging around in a lodge while you should be on duty, Smit? Only if you can find the time in your busy schedule, of course.” The sarcasm dripped from every word as Gericke took off his beret and placed it neatly in front of him, square, centered with his chest, as it should be.

“Well, sir..” Gert recounted his story, leaving nothing out. Jacques smiled as he checked the notes he had made previously. Yes, he thought, Gert was being brutally honest with his commanding officer.

It was way past lunch time before Gert finally said: “I can’t go back, sir. I was sent on a suicide mission, not told everything I should have known, and was expected to obey the order to murder an ally. Shooting an enemy in a fair fight…I suppose I can do that. But not Savimbi? Surely you can understand that?”

Gericke went harrumph and sat quietly, contemplating the beret.

“And Dad…” Lettie was pleading, “tell me you didn’t know? Please?”

“I follow orders. I’m a soldier. I don’t have the privilege to ask questions.” Even to his own ears, it sounded lame. “At that stage, I knew as much about your mission as you did, Smit. That your target was Savimbi was as big a surprise to me as it was for you.” He hesitated. “I have an extensive network of … informers. I checked. And what you just told me, is true. I understand that. But now you’re a deserter, per definition: a criminal. Treason comes to mind. That is a serious offence…”

“Dad,” Lettie didn’t wait for her father to finish, “you always told me to be honest. Honest with other people, honest with myself.” Her gaze was unwavering. “Tell me: what would you have done…?”

***

“Soldiers, like good authors, are sometimes faced with a moral dilemma. What is the right thing to do? And if you do the right thing, will others understand? Or have we travelled so far down the path of moral decay that we just don’t care anymore?” Gertruida, now at the window while staring out at the desert, shakes her head. “No, society  demands the sensational, the deviant and the thrill of abnormality – whatever we understand that to be. People aren’t satisfied with purity and beauty any longer. The more bizarre, the better. And the more good old-fashioned values are corrupted, the happier society seems to be.

“Think about drugs, raves, the sagging pants and the endless search for the next ‘rush’.” She sighs. “It’s funny how we aren’t satisfied with enough these days. We have to have more. And more. Until we forget the ultimate ‘rush’ is the oldest one discovered: the freedom of honesty; the joy of simplicity.”

But, she tells Vetfaan, all isn’t lost. When we look deep inside, searching for happiness, we all know what makes us really happy. In doing so, we rediscover Truth.

Vetfaan, of course, orders another beer. She’s lost him with this one.

***

“I can’t disobey orders, Lettie.” A note of desperation crept into the major’s voice. “It’d be the end of my career.”

“Then, Daddy, you’re saying orders are more important than morals? That – in being a soldier – you’ve lost the most basic characteristic of being human? That you always accept that your superiors know best and that your own opinion doesn’t count anything?”

Gert Smit held up a hand. “Please, this is unfair. I understand what your father is saying, Lettie. I am a deserter. I did disobey direct orders. I must face that music.” He turned to Gericke. “Sir, I love your daughter. Somehow, maybe, I have to earn your respect again; otherwise you’ll always see me as an impostor, a failure. If I run away from this situation, I’ll create an even greater rift between us – and that’s not the way family should be.”

Gert searched the older man’s face, looking for a positive signal. Nothing. Not even a twitch of the lips – up or down. Impassive.

“So be it then.” Gert Smit held up a hand in surrender. “Sir, I want to ask you two things. First of all: take me back to Fort Doppies for the court martial. I’ll face what’s coming to me. Get some general and let me tell my story. And then find me guilty. Then, after everything is over, I want your consent to marry Lettie.”

“Hoo, boy!” Jacques actually smiled happily, despite his hangover. “And I’ll want to have publishing rights on this story. Imagine the plot, the pathos, the sensation. It’ll be an international best-seller. Maybe even a movie…”

“I can see it!” Harry jumps up with excitement. “Sean Connery as the major, Liv Ullmann as Lettie. Yes, and Richard Gere as the intrepid photographer. Gert here, can play himself. Great!… Box office hit! Millions, here we come! Yeehah!”

“You shall do no such thing.” Gericke’s quiet, commanding statement brought them all back to reality. “This is a matter of national security. You cannot write this – this information is protected. Scribble one word, and you’ll end up in jail for the rest of your life.”

“Oh…so you’re ashamed of what’s happened? You’re prepared to throw away a young man’s life and ruin your daughter’s happiness, simply because some general thought out a devilish plan to kill Savimbi?” Jacques toyed with his pencil, twirling it between his fingers. “This, Major Gericke, is a story that needs to be told, Even if I wrote it as fiction, I have to do this.”

Major Gericke got up, walked around the table, and rested his hand on Lettie’s shoulder.

“I’m a soldier. A strategist. I knew the combination of my daughter, Smit and some journalists would pose more problems than I had solutions. So now,” and then he took off his tunic, folded it neatly, and put it on the table, “I’m not talking to you as a soldier. I’m going to try to be the father I never was.”

“Daddy…?” Lettie had never seen her father so vulnerable.

images (60)“Shhh, Lettie. I’ve come up with a plan.” Just then, the unmistakable sound of a Volkswagen drifted across the patio. “Ah, it’s arrived. Just in time.” He squeezed Letties shoulder. “I asked the mechanics to give that jalopy of yours a proper once-over. The clutch plate was almost gone, so I had to fly in one from Pretoria. Put in a spare tank, proper tyres. And the brake linings…” He smiled sadly. “But it’s all fixed now. You’ll need to have a reliable vehicle to get where you’re going now.”

“Dad…?”

“Go pack your things, Lettie… And Smit, you’ll need some clothes.” He fished out a wallet, fingered out a wad of notes. “There’s a shop just around the corner. And get some supplies, while you’re at it. And remember: Lettie hates bully beef – get some sugar and coffee and enough rations to live on for a few days.”

Major Gericke was in charge again, issuing orders with ease.

“Now, you two,” he turned to the journalists, “we have to have a little chat.”

***

“What about the tomatoes?” Vetfaan is thoroughly bored by this time. How can Gertruida suggest this is an adventure story? Where are the guns? What about some serious troubles? No, this story just doesn’t cut the cheese.

“The tomatoes, Vetfaan, are what the story is all about.  That, and that people change. And life goes on. And love, in the end, conquers all. More than that, the story is about honesty. Kindness. And hope.”

“I just don’t get it,” Vetfaan seems genuinely sad. “Why should people change to be happy?”

“To become who they were, Vetfaan. To reclaim innocence. To rediscover the wonder of Life and Love.

“That’s why, when the two lovers drove out of Kasane that day, they left behind three men who witnessed something incredible that day. The major saw bravery. The journalist discovered the beauty of honesty. And the photographer – with a keen eye for the perfect picture – realised his camera would never do justice to love.”

“Ja, well, no, fine. Soo…?

“Be patient, Vetfaan, I’m almost finished. It’s almost time to tell you about the tomatoes…”

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 12)

images (59)Jacques and Harry sat there, waiting, for most of the night. They finished a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Then had coffee. Eventually, when the barman could not keep his eyes open any more, he chased them off to bed.

It was half-past three. It was only at nine – the next morning – that Gert and Lettie finally appeared from her bungalow. She was radiant. He seemed pleased as punch. During the night (amongst many other things) they had sorted out the why’s and the how’s and the wherefores. It had been a night filled with explanations, exclamations and a few standing ovations. (Well, come on – the period of abstinence and uncertainty did have an effect – so just go with the way Gertruida tells the story!)

So, when they arrived at the breakfast buffet – all weary and happily doe-eyed –  they found Harry and Jacques there. Gert was still wearing his uniform, but it had obviously been washed, The reporters were bleary-eyed too, but for a completely different reason…

***

Gertruida says adventure stories are different than erotic ones. In adventure stories, a good author will describe the colour of blood, the gasping desperation for breath, the jagged bits of bone thrusting painfully through the bruised skin. Now, she says, when it comes to describing a tender moment between two lovers, some authors descend to remarkable depths by trying to use graphic detail instead of subtle suggestion. This, she reminds her audience, is called a Peculiarly Obscene Record of Note –  a completely senseless effort to sell words to illiterate readers. Intimacy – like in real life – needs to be handled with great care and soft lights. In fact she says, the shadow of Love is often more satisfying than  stark focus.

You see, Gertruida says, there exists (even today) the steadfast few who believe in the beauty and kindness only found in those moments of sincere intimacy. She reckons these moments are so holy, that no author or storyteller should even consider describing in graphic detail the shared joy of true love. It’s like grace and forgiveness – no matter how many words you use, it just doesn’t really ever manage to express the complexity of the concept.

***

Chobe Safari Lodge: Patio

Chobe Safari Lodge: Patio

“You kids have a good night?” Jacques squinted in the general direction of Gert and Lettie when they sat down for breakfast. Harry, of course, smirked knowingly until Jacques shot him a disapproving look.

“Jacques, Harry – this is Gert Smit. Gert, meet the two gentlemen who took a chance in coming here.”

Lettie waits for the handshakes and murmured greetings before going on: “Gert told me what has happened in the last few weeks. Well,” she blushed, “some of it anyway.”

“Ja, we had a lot to talk about, see. Other things as well.” Gert seemed apologetic until Harry started giggling. That broke the ice…

“Okay.” Jacques held up a hand. “Maybe we should retire to the patio after breakfast. I’d feel better after a Bombay – hair of the dog and all that. Then, if Gert s up to it…,” here he was again interrupted by Harry’s giggle but chose to ignore it, “I’d like to chat with him about some rumours I’ve heard.”

***

“What!! Where? Damn it! Damn it to hell!” Major Gericke slammed down the phone. Of all things!

First his daughter went missing. Then he got a report that the two journalists were missing, too. Then he sent a telex to Voortrekkerhoogte about Gert Smit: missing in action, presumed killed in action. That was bad enough. But now…now one of the informers reported observing the three of them in Kasane!

Of course he was glad that Lettie was alright. Relieved. Happy. But: what was she doing in Kasane? And to make matters worse, she was with a deserter? And, insult to injury, in the presence of that lousy, snoopy, inquisitive, nuisance reporter…

He closed his eyes. That reporter won’t be so stupid to sell the story of the alleged plot to get rid of Savimbi to a local newspaper. No! The London Times. Washington Post. Mail and Guardian… The story would be a splash in the international media and South Africa’s already-tarnished reputation would get another coat of shame.

Even worse: he – Major Gericke – would be the central figure in this drama: his soldier, his base, his failure…and his daughter…

How the hell am I going to clear up this mess…?  Gericke paced his small office for a full ten minutes before he sighed and sat down. Then he closed his eyes. Please God, forgive me. I have to do this…

Then, galvanised into action, Major Gericke stormed out of his office. shouting for the aide to get the Land Rover ready. He needed it for a trip. And yes, damnit! He was going alone!

“And, Corporal, get that mechanic here! Now! I want to know that vehicle is in top shape!”

***

“…and so I came sailing down the Chobe, avoiding the hippos and the police patrols and everything. They deposited me on the bank, where Lettie found me.” Gert Smit stole a shy glance at her. “That was the most wonderful, the most exquisite moment of my life. I reckoned I would have to beg and steal my way back to her. I thought she’d be mad at me for not writing. I even guessed she’d reject me for absconding from the army.” He sighed happily as he reached for her hand. “But no…there she was, so happy to see me. She was great…she is great. I loved her before. I love her even more now.”

Jacques wrote everything down in his own brand of shorthand. He’d just listened to the most fantastic story, filled with strange characters and almost-impossible events. Yet, he knew, this was as true to life as anything he’d ever heard. He also realised the story was packed with political dynamite. Once he’d published the story, it would be another nail in the Apartheid coffin. As an outspoken liberal, he couldn’t wait to get to his typewriter.

Harry took a few photographs of Gert, Gert and Lettie, Ger’s bare feet, Gert’s almost-empty rucksack.

“So…what now?” Lettie clung to Gert’s hand, her anxiety obvious.

“Easy.” Jacques leant back in his chair, waving his drink in salute. “We ferret the two of you to Cape Town. I’ve a friend who is the local correspondent for CNN. You, Lettie, we spruce up and make you a TV superstar. You know, the girl waiting for the soldier to come home. Faithful. Loyal. Believing in her man.

“But Gert? We make him look like last night. Dirty. Tired. Out on his feet. The soldier who dared question his superiors. The soldier sent on an impossible mission. The rebel.

“This, my friends, is award-winning stuff. It is powerful. And it’ll be worth every cent we’ve spent on gin in the last three days…”

No bloody way!” They all looked up is shock as Major Gericke interrupted their conversation. Where did he come from? Here? Impossible. And yet, here he was, ramrod straight, dressed in full uniform, and there was no mistaking the anger in his voice. “And soldier…in the presence of a superior officer, you should have been standing to attention ten seconds ago!”

Lettie reacted first. “No, Daddy! Don’t do this!! Please…”

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 11)

Confluence of Chobe and Zambezi rivers

Confluence of Chobe and Zambezi rivers

“The two men staring at Gert – let’s call them Dan and Ben, because the language barrier prevented any proper conversation, let alone introductions  – were simple fishermen. They caught the bream and the tiger fish that teemed in the river, and sold it to the local villagers nearby. They also robbed and stole whenever the opportunity arose.”

Vetfaan sits up straight.  Now, this is more like it!

“But, except for the shabby rucksack – which seemed to be empty – this stranger to their area obviously had very little in the way or worldly possessions.  But…he had army boots, and that was something worth taking risks for.”

***

Deep inside the human brain is a centre. It’s not big. It’s a tiny region where a complex network of neurons meet. These never-sleeping nerves collect data from the senses, even when we’re asleep. When drowsing off – say in your own bedroom – this centre goes into Green Mode, which happens when the subject feels safe and secure. Put that same person in a war zone, or alone in the veld without a fire or weapons, and the centre switches to Red Mode. It’ll scan and analyze everything that poses a possible threat.

That’s what happened when Gert Smit finally dropped off in an uneasy slumber that night on the banks of the Chobe River.

And when the two fishermen-cum-crooks approached the sleeping figure on silent feet, that same centre lit up like a bonfire. Danger! They were two yards away from Gert when his eyes snapped open. He remained as he was, but fully alert. Two men…obviously  on their way towards him and he was equally certain that they weren’t there to pay him a friendly visit.

The fight was short, sweet, and final. Gert Smit may have been very young, but he had been trained by the best and was extremely fit. The two fishermen had no chance.

***

“Now: how do you sort out two criminals when you can’t understand a word they are saying? After a few lusty blows the two men lost their interest in Gert’s boots. but his retaliation had been so convincing that they clearly understood they had to remain seated under the tree where he had deposited them. The scant moonlight from the halfmoon made it impossible to make out features. Hand signals and Fanagalo had to do.

“It took time. A lot of it. In the end, Gert understood that his boots were worth a lot of money amongst the locals, and they understood he wanted to go to the nearest town down the river. That’s when the unlikely partners found common ground of mutual interest – which proves the tremendous power of barter trade. First they take him, then he’ll pay them. Although it sounds simple, it was way past midnight before the bargain was struck.”

Gertruida sits back, quite pleased that she told the story as it should be told: leaving out unnecessary details, but still elaborating on the storyline when the need arises. This she says, is important when conveying a story – you have to know what to leave out. She says the audience will enjoy the story more if you allowed them to use their imagination. The best explanation she offers, is this: listening to a story is like a lover’s first kiss: it is best done with eyes shut…

***

Ben and Dan, despite their failure that night, were usually quite successful in their endeavours to relieve other less fortunate visitors to their area of prized possessions. That’s why they, unlike their kin and friends who had to make do with dugouts, had an aluminium boat. And a 25 HP engine. And a few jerry cans with petrol they stole from an army truck.  While they wouldn’t compete with the fast boats the police used on the river, they were at least comparatively better off than most.

One may say they weren’t overkeen to comply with Gert Smit’s demands to be taken to the nearest town, but still – they weren’t keen on another bit of headbashing, either.

***

home_chobe The Chobe Safari Lodge of 2014 is a far cry from the collection of humble huts that started the enterprise in the 60’s. Although 1977 saw battle between Rhodesian troops and Botswana soldiers near Kasane, the region retained it’s laid-back atmosphere. When the three of them booked into two separate huts, the clerk – obviously an avid reader – mused: “The reporter, the photographer and the damsel – now there’s a title for a book…” Only the older man flashed a wry smile.

Jacques tried to sound bored when he asked about any unusual activity in town lately, but still couldn’t keep the anxious tone completely hidden.

maun-botswana-16774“Not much,” the clerk repleid dreamily, “the usual. An elephant chased a few tourists, old Riley from Maun recovered a Unimog near Savuti and three cases of malaria had to be flown to Gaborone.  Oh, and our ice-machine broke down….That’s it, really.”

“A lot of strangers? Maybe lost soldiers?”

The clerk just shook his head.

The three of them settled down at a table next to the river. Lettie ordered a G+T, afterwards asking Jacques what the plan was.

“Well, I’m acting on a hunch. The old newshound-nose, you know?” He tapped his red proboscis. “If I’m wrong, I’m in trouble. If I’m right, I’m on of a great human interest story. I’m tired of writing how happy our troops are up here. If I can get an interview with a rebel…”

“So, we wait?”

“Yes. Three days. We wait three days. If nothing happens, I’ll just have to face the music.”

So will I, Lettie thought, my father will be furious when he finds out I’m not in Katima any more. 

***

“So they waited. The hours dragged by. They played three-man bridge, guzzled down warm drinks until – on their second day – the ice-machine was repaired. It was on the third evening, when they were halfway between despair and being drunk, that they heard the putt-putt-putt of a small petrol engine of the river. It was too late for the sunset cruises and an unusual time for a police patrol.” Gertruida sips her Diemersdal, smiling at Vetfaan who is still reliving Gert’s fight with the two fishermen.

***

Lettie knew! She just knew! She got up (a little unsteadily) and rushed down to the water’s edge. Jacques and Harry stared at each other for a moment before the penny dropped. They were on their way to join Lettie, when the outboard started up again. The sound slowly disappeared in the distance.

“False alarm,” Jacques sighed as he steadied himself against one of the trees next to the river.

Harry gave a wolf whistle.

There, in the misty moonlight, he saw a couple embracing. Lettie had her arms around a khaki-clad man – a very dirty man, even in the half-light. And, strangely, his photographer’s eye noticed the man was barefoot.

He stumbled back to Jacques.

“Your story can wait, Jacqie. Stories may have a best-by date, I understand that. But love, real, genuine, yearning love is best enjoyed when it’s fresh. It’s a harvest-a-day thing. What you don’t use today won’t be around tomorrow…tomorrow you have to work hard in that field – all over again.” The young photographer surprised his older colleague by being so serious. Then he smiled. “Come on old man, I’ll buy you a drink. I’m sure they’ll join us….eventually…”

Kiss me, kiss me a lot
For I am afraid of having you
And losing you all over again.

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 10)

katima-last-nam-town-large“When telling a story – especially if such a story involves multiple characters in multiple locations – you must be careful not to hop around too much. If you lose your listener by trying to be too clever, then you’ve failed as a storyteller.” Gertruida says this as she becomes aware of Vetfaan’s waning interest. He wants blood and gore, and he’s not getting it. “But it’s okay to weave in a few subplots, it may serve to enrich the story.”

“Ja Gertruida, that’s all good and well. What happened to Gert and the Bushman?” Vetfaan drains his glass and winks at Boggel. If the story bores him, he always drinks a little faster.

***

!Thwui stood back when he had undone the last knot. This soldier seemed harmless, but you never know…

“Thank you. Thank you very much.” Gert Smit rubbed his wrists where the ropes had dug into his skin. Seeing the weary way the Bushman was standing to one side, he holds up his hands as a sign of peace. “Wait, I promised you…”

He walked over to his rucksack and dug out the Magnesium firestarter. “Look…”

He demonstrated. !Thwui gasped. To think that such a primitive man could do such magic! Gert held out the rod and the scraper towards his new best friend, who then smiled and inched forward. He made a rolling action with both hands: show me again?  Gert did, and held out the objects once more. This time, !Thwui took it in a very tentative fashion, but nevertheless tried to produce a spark. It worked!

“!!gwangshi artiks!. Xawe onasan ni //nou guna mu.” This deep expression of gratitude, he thought, should be clear enough for the soldier to understand.

“I wish I knew your language,” Gert said, “but if that was Thank you, I understand.”

!Thwui then explained that he had far to go, and that he wished to show his family this firemaking thing. Clapping his hands together as an added sign of thanks, he turned and strode off into the bush.

***

“Now, don’t you think such incidents didn’t happen during the bush war.” Gertruida now also holds out a glass for Boggel to refill. “Take any of the nations living on what was then our northern borders. The Ovambos, the Himbas, Hereros and the Venda people – there were many pockets in those far-flung areas where there had been very little contact between Whites and the indigenous peoples. Whenever army patrols happened to stumble across such individuals, the meetings were mostly cordial, although they couldn’t understand each other. Quite a number of soldiers came back home with some hilarious stories about such encounters.

“Gert was lucky, that’s all. Had that man only arrived the next morning, it might have been too late.”

***

Gert took his almost-empty rucksack and the Bible and set off as soon as !Thwui had gone. He was convinced that the Pathfinders would report his exact whereabouts and that he could expect visitors soon. Taking care to leave no tracks, he set off towards the east. He had to get as far away from Fort Doppies as possible…

***

Major Gericke didn’t like reporters. They were always on the hunt for some sensation. How many battles were you involved in? Have you lost any friends in skirmishes? What about casualties – how many were there in the last month? Reporters wanted stories of heroism and sacrifice and blood – but Gericke knew: wars are fought on fear and adrenalin. Reporters who’ve never heard the whip of a bullet passing too close by, wanted to romanticize guts and glory.

However, he allowed his aide to usher in the reporter and the photographer and he greeted them with a slightly forced smile. Gericke knew the army needed all the positive propaganda it could get, so he would just have to grin and bear the intrusion.The reporter seemed an old hand, but the hippie-like man with the camera immediately got Gericke’s blood pressure soaring. This man needs a haircut and a lecture on basic manners, he thought as the young man flopped down on a chair without any greeting.

Five minutes later, Gericke exploded.

What? Where did you get this information? You can’t give me that we-can’t-reveal-our-sources crap! One of our soldiers lost in Angola? You have to be kidding me! How dare you come in here and ask questions like that? We have no – let me repeat that – we have no soldiers in Angola!! Now get out. Out!

***

Lettie, bless her soul, didn’t know about the encounter her new friends had had with her father. She was waiting patiently at the safe house in Katima while the journalists were being thrown out of Fort Doppies.

That evening, when they arrived late and invited her for a nightcap, Jacques told her they met her father.

“Such a nice fellow! We had a wonderful chat. Harry even got a few good shots of the barracks and stuff they didn’t think posed a security risk. On the way back, he photographed the biggest elephant I’ve ever seen.”

Now Lettie, acutely aware that she spoke too much after the Chivas the other evening, nodded and said her father was a fantastic man.

“But we did gather something else.” Jacques paused, glanced over at Harry, who refilled her glass. “One of the men asked me for some cigarettes. Of course I gave him a few packets. It always helps if you take extras to an army camp. He told me about a rumour – a strange story of a Pathfinder patrol and a man who claimed to have been on a mission to shoot Savimbi…”

“And…?” Lettie couldn’t help herself.

“He apparently got away. They followed his spoor for a while, but then he turned south towards the Botswana border and the dogs lost the scent in a marshy area.”

“And…?” Breathless.

“That’s all, sadly. Unsubstantiated, unproven. Nice story, but unprintable under the circumstances. Pity…”

“But what about the man – the soldier – where would he go?”

presentation1“Oh, I don’t know, Lettie. Across the border is the Chobe conservation area. Lions and leopards and such. Now, If I was in that man’s shoes, I’d aim at Kasane, the only civilised town for hundreds of miles away. He can get there by river, if he can get a boat. And if he does, he could be there in a few day’s time. From there he could hitch a ride on a truck if he wanted to get back to South Africa.”

“But why would he want to do that?” Harry, still with the Chivas bottle in hand, shook his head.

“Because he’s a South African, dummy. Where would he go? The Congo? Of course not. For some reason this man has decided to abscond. He doesn’t want to be in the army any more. He wants to go home,” Jacques  tapped his nose and lifted his glass in a mock salute. “Now there, my friends, is a story. I know it. I feel it. And that’s why, my dear Harry, we are leaving for Kasane tomorrow. Miss Gericke? If you’d like to join us…?”

***

Some distance away, Gert Smit sat down on the banks of the great river. He had made it! Crossing the river here was out of the question – too many crocodiles and hippos. No, he’ll start walking towards the Zambezi at first light tomorrow. But now…now he had no fire, nothing to eat. And his mind wandered to Lettie as it always did. Where was she? He couldn’t write to her lately…what would she think? That he was no longer interested? Or would she be worried about him?

There is no lonelier feeling than the uncertainty all soldiers experience when they are cut off from their loved ones by distance, circumstances and the fear only the night can produce. While Gert Smit wiped an unexpected tear from his grubby cheek, he had no idea that he’s not alone. In his reverie, he wasn’t aware of the two men – not twenty feet away – who were watching him intently.

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 9)

Credit: theguardian.com

Credit: theguardian.com

Gertruida says all great characters – in great stories, that is – have to show some sort of weakness somewhere in the storyline. That makes them more authentic, see? You can’t just tell a story about some superhero who smashes evil and then retires. No. she says, you won’t believe such a story. But if you made him suffer and sweat, gave him a retarded dwarf as a helper and allowed him one small victory every now and then – why, then he becomes believable and people want to hear what happens next. A good example of this, she says, is Sherlock Holmes and his good friend, Dr Watson. Or, in South Africa’s case: President Zuma and the Guptas. Such characters have no limits to what they can do, provided the plot allows for the fact that being gullible is actually a form of genius. Sometimes at least. Think of that bumbling detective, Columbo, she says.

When she says this, Kleinpiet usually nods wisely, as if he agrees completely. Maybe he would have, if he understood the statement.

But when Gertruida mentions the rustling in the grass behind Gert Smit, everybody in Boggel’s Place takes a deep breath and wonders why they listened so long to a story which is going to have such a bloody and unexpected ending.

They are wrong, of course…

***

The rustling stopped.

Gert Smit tried to turn his head far enough to see, but being tied to a rather sturdy tree made that impossible. While his hands were tied – stretched backward with a rope around the trunk – his feet were free. If the worst happened, he reckoned, he’d at least get in a good kick or two.

Then, like a child would peer around a curtain to see where Mom had hidden the cookies, a withered brown face slowly crept into his field of vision. Gert almost wept with relief.

“!xix! mwawuham !it!kura?” The man sat down patiently while he waited for an answer.

Gert explained in his best Afrikaans – not using any swear words or English which could have confused the Bushman – that he’d appreciate any help at that stage. Especially if such help could maybe have something to do with the knots in the rope around the tree.

“!hau,” the man said, filling his clay pipe with what appeared to be grass and leaves and which he proceeded to light with a match from a crumpled little box that hung from his loincloth.

Seeing that the man didn’t grasp the urgency of the situation, Gert now added to his plea a few choice Afrikaans words. The Bushman’s face lit up.

“X!!thkak!’ He got up, rose a hand in a sort-of salute and turned to go.

“No man! Help me. Please?” Gert was practically sobbing. “I can give you something better than matches. It’ll help you a lot. Please, man?”

***

 “You see, we all expect Life to be a very logical thing – like when you add lemonade to beer, you always get a shandy.” Gertruida has to use an analogy they’d all understand. “That’s why people become depressed; because in Real Life, somebody always drops the bottle of lemonade, or the beer might be flat, or the glass slips from your hand before you take the first sip.

“But out there,” she sweeps a hand towards the vast Kalahari, “nothing is logical. That, too, is a component of a great story.  So in a nice story, boy meets girl, they fall in love, and live happily ever after. But that’s only in stories. Real Life…Har! Here we all struggle with the unexpected.

“So when !Thwui walked up to that tree that day, he found something he didn’t expect. And Gert Smit got a visitor he didn’t expect. And that, my friends, is what separates a good story from a fairytale. The unexpected. That’s what happened.”

***

!Thwui knew about soldiers. They were trouble. But this one…? He’s never seen a soldier tied to a tree before. And as usual, this man couldn’t speak properly. He made sounds, yes, but obviously lacked the ability to communicate in a civilised manner.

Now, any Bushman worth his salt will tell you: the object in Life is to preserve and protect your hunting ground. If you don’t do this, you either starve to death, or – much, much worse – have to bid the veld farewell and go and work in a town or a city. Dying of hunger is preferable. At least it’s quicker.

This soldier, he thought, must have done something really bad for his companions to tie him to a tree. What could he have done? Stealing food must be the worst thing anybody can do. Or maybe…maybe this soldier is such a bad hunter, they just didn’t want him in the clan any more. Whatever he did, he seemed harmless enough. And isn’t it so that, once you’ve scolded somebody and he apologised, one has to forget the past and  face the future together? No, !Thwui thought, it’ll be wrong to leave this soldier to be eaten by wild animals.

He turned around to the man-tied-to-the-tree and explained that he would release him if he was sorry for whatever he did. The man didn’t seem to understand. !Thwui shook his head: one day, he thinks, these white people will learn to talk. Then he got busy with the knots.

***

Discipline is the essence of any military system. That’s why you have officers and orders. However, while discipline makes soldiers march bravely into battle, there is another factor which makes life bearable in the army: gossip. Here rumours spread by whispered conversations and innuendo. Did you hear what Captain So-and-so did with the general’s wife? Or: They caught another Cuban near Rundu. He’s talking faster than they can write it down. That sort of thing.

And that sort of thing has a way of spreading at amazing speeds.

So, when Lettie Gericke sits down to dinner in the safe house in Katima Mulilo, she was surprised to find two men already eating at the table next to hers. They are shabbily dressed  – obviously not soldiers – and they were talking in hushed tones until they noticed her.

“Hey gorgeous! What’s a nice chick like you doing in a dump like this?” The younger one – well built with startling blue eyes and his hair tied back in a ponytail – winks and flashes a brilliant smile.

Lettie wants to ignore the remark, but looks up when the older man sighs loudly.

“Please ignore my young colleague, Miss. Always on the hunt, he is. I’ve told him a thousand times to behave himself, but he doesn’t listen.”

“Ag okay, you guys. I grew up in a military home, so I know how to handle guys whose Libido/IQ ratio is bigger than 1.”

She’s rewarded by a happy guffaw from the older man, who then suggests that they share a table.

“Listen, we’re out here in the middle of nothing, we might as well be friends. I’ll tell young Harry to zip his glib remarks. How about it?”

The evening turns out to be quite enjoyable. Jacques and Harry introduce themselves as reporters for the Argus who’ve been flown in to do an article on the peaceful life in Katima.

“Some PR wizard in the army thought it’d be nice to tell our readers how well the army is doing up here. You know: despite the bombs going off back home, the army is the iron fist that’ll keep the terrorists out. So we’re here for a week. Harry, here, can’t write a story to save his life, but he’s a damn good photographer.” Jacques toys with his wine glass. “Now you know all about us. What about you?”

Reporters are reporters because they understand the art of digging out the unusual. That’s what sells newspapers. To have a headline like ‘Moon set to be full again this month’ won’t convince the average man to search for his wallet; while ‘ SA Soldier missing in Angola’ immediately grabs the attention of the public.

Lettie – to her credit – doesn’t tell them the story like that, of course. But she did enjoy the Chivas after the meal and the men were extremely clever in posing the right questions at the right time.

The next morning, at breakfast, Lettie swears the men to silence.

“Of course,” Jacques replies. “Our lips are sealed…”