Tag Archives: chemical warfare

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 (# 8)

The boy José picked up in that village in 1978. Photograph taken in 1992, when he heard all fighting finally ceased. Credit: thannelstv.com

The boy José picked up in that village in 1978. Photograph taken in 1992, when he heard all fighting finally ceased. Credit: channelstv.com

The boy – how old is he? Three…four?  seems quite content to sit astride on José’s shoulders. Maybe the shock of the strafing attack was just too much, or maybe his Down Syndrome shielded him from the horror..but he sits there, absently watching the soldiers, while the troops stare at the destruction.

“The bastards!” The radio man wipes away a tear. “The absolute bastards! This is where my family stayed – innocent people, just getting on with their lives. Surviving, that’s what they did. They weren’t part of any war. They never even talked politics. Now…they’re all dead.”

“Don’t worry,” one of his comrades tries to encourage his friend, “we’re going to get them. For every one of these villagers that died, we’ll kill a hundred, a thousand  of their’s. These deaths will be avenged, I tell you. We’re…”

“Hold it.” José’s soft voice stops the tirade in mid-sentence. When the troops turn to face him, he shakes his head. “You see what happens?” He sweeps a hand towards the smouldering ruins.

“Yes, those bloody South Africans are destroying our people and our homes. They’ll pay!”

***

José closes his eyes , thinking hard. And in that moment, during that second or two, his life flashes by in short flashes of remembering.

Matron Anna and her terrible helper, Manuel, remind him of the many injustices he had to endure. Oh, and Mister Clemente, with his thick fingers and kindly eyes, seems to hover around a little while, tapping his head with those stumpy digits. Comrade Vasily, surprisingly compassionate, lingers in his thoughts. The vindictive Chung, unfeeling and cruel, lurks amongst his thoughts. Pedro, who died in that landmine blast – the one he walked right by without triggering the deadly device. And Maria, dear sweet Maria da Silva, who turned out to be the best friend and companion he’s ever had.

Suddenly, he imagines the ships captain is with him. You’ll never move on unless you forgive, José.” The words hammer against his forehead. “…you’re going to face a difficult situation…” and “And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.

He opens his eyes, sure of what he must do.

“Listen Comrades…”

***

Pieter Malherbe watches the patrol disappear down the track. Why didn’t he shoot? He had a good, clear shot and it was only a question of pulling – squeezing – the trigger. The little boy’s body would have been no obstacle to the speeding bullet – it would have gone straight through that child’s feeble frame, smashing the skull of the man carrying him.

But no..he couldn’t do it. The boy’s face stopped him. The Mongoloid eyes, the dull expression, the almost-too-large tongue licking the hanging lower lip…an innocent, mentally challenged youth who has no part in the war. When he recognised the features in the magnified picture of his scope, he felt his finger relax. It was involuntary, a reflex, his mind refusing to kill innocence because he was sent to assassinate a killer. Killing man and boy, he realised in that instant, would debase him. He’d change from being a soldier fighting for a just cause, into a murdering machine that doesn’t care, doesn’t think, doesn’t pause to consider why he is carrying a gun.

Feeling deflated and angry, Pieter Malherbe slides the safety on. gathers his kit, and starts a slog jog back to the border, where he’ll have to explain why he allowed a chemical warfare expert to continue on his way to poison thousands of innocent civilians.

***

images (62)General Groesbeek surveys the area of the ambush. There’s the drift with the shallow waters. They’ll come through the river there after making sure the coast is clear. They won’t cross during daylight hours, he’s sure of that. No, they’ll wait for darkness, maybe even until just before dawn – that’ll give them ample time to get clear of the river and head up to the steep sides of the gorge where they’ll be able to conceal themselves properly.

He’s positioned his men well, he thinks. He’s also been extremely careful to tell the men – order them – not to use their rifles.

“No shooting, men. You rupture one of the canisters with that poison in, and you’ll all die.” That may not be completely true, he knows that. According to the intel, the stuff doesn’t evaporate like the original Sarin would; instead, it needs to be dissolved in water. It is in drinking the contaminated water that death lurks…but you can never be too sure. There are, after all, only sixteen of them. To get to the top of the gorge, they’ll have to be in single file at the steeper areas. This is where the Recces will wait. Hand-to-hand. The oldest form of warfare. One hundred crack soldiers against a bunch of sixteen simple peasants.

A smirk turns his lips upwards. The Angolans have no chance…

“One last thing,” his commanding voice has the group’s complete attention. “It’ll be a long night. You will stay exactly in the place you’ve been allocated to. Make sure you know precisely where your mates are. No lights. No smoking. Dry rations. Make sure your water bottles are full. When you here the cry of a fish eagle  – repeated three times – from one of the spotters, make sure you are ready.

“May God be with you, men. And good luck.”

***

José Migeul Pereira sits down at the crest of a hill. They can hear the roar of the waterfalls even though it is still some distance away.

“Are you sure, Doc?” The troops have taken to calling him that, despite his initial objections. Jose feels fifteen pairs of eyes on him, not completely convinced that they’re doing the right thing.

“Listen men…we have to understand what we’re doing. Suppose we wipe out all the Himbas? What did we accomplish? Ill tell you: we’d have killed children. Mothers and fathers. Grandparents. Dogs and cattle. Frogs and birds. Is that why we call ourselves soldiers? Freedom fighters? Killing those who can’t fight back?”

“But Doc…” the radio operator’s brow is furrowed by his protest, “look what they did to that village? Were those not children? Parents? Dogs? And are they not all dead right now – they that couldn’t defend themselves?  I really think this is a bad idea.” A few murmurs of support emits from the men.

“So we kill off northern South West. The land is empty. Not a bird, not a jackal remains. And what, my friends, will happen?” He pauses a while, allowing them time to think.

“I’ll tell you: atom bombs. Luanda. Lusaka. Harare. Maputo. Four bombs, four cities. Millions dead. And who will know – really know – who’s to blame for those deaths? Us. Us! It’ll be us who started the destruction that will even kill the mosquitoes. Nothing will escape.” He hesitates as he sees how little effect his words have. “Now. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to cross that river – without you. I’m going to look for South African soldiers. I’ll surrender to them. Then I’ll tell them what is going to happen. I’ll tell them we’ll kill South West Africa and they’ll destroy all the neighbouring countries surrounding South Africa. Nobody will be spared. Nobody.

“Then, if they believe me, they’ll have to start negotiating with each other. It won’t be easy. Not at all. But we, my brothers, have a golden opportunity to start the end of this war. We can stop the fighting – even if it doesn’t happen immediately.”

They argue, then reach a compromise. José will cross the river – they’ll wait. If he doesn’t return in one day’s time, the patrol goes ahead with their mission. If, however, José manages to make contact and convince their enemies about the catastrophe that’ll follow, they’ll reassess the situation.

It’s an uncomfortable compromise…

***

“Sir… Sir!!” Groesbeek awakens with a start. “Sir, there’s a man wading through the river. One single person. He’s in uniform and he’s carrying a white flag.” The soldier watches as General Groesbeek sits up in his sleeping bag. “Shall we shoot the bastard? Sir? Shall we?”

Before Groesbeek can answer, a single shot rings out. A microsecond later, the dull thump! of bullet striking flesh is clearly heard.

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 (# 6)

detail-pleural-effusionJosé Migeul Pereira stays in hospital for six months…well, not all the time as a patient, but still…

His face healed up early – the scar diminishing surprisingly fast – but the damage to his left lung leaves him with a chronic form of pleuritis. The effusion collecting at the base of his left lung formed a sinus that keeps on draining, despite massive doses of antibiotics. He doesn’t feel ill, however – it’s just a situation where he keeps on oozing pus from an area that doesn’t want to heal.

He becomes good –   not intimate – friends with Maria da Silva; a situation that sees him move in with her in the small flat she has near the harbour. She’s a devout Christian and insists that he joins her for her daily reading and prayer. This, he discovers, isn’t at all like Matron Anna did. Matron used the Bible to convince the children of their sin, citing passage after passage to justify the hidings. No, Maria reads about love and forgiveness; she teaches him about a completely different God than he knew. She also tells him about angels.

José gains a lot during his stay with Maria – both in knowledge and in weight. He also – for the first time – really understands what that ship’s captain was all about.

Of course, the days are empty when she’s at the hospital, causing him to start working as an orderly in the casualty department. Here he proves to be of invaluable help to the overworked doctors, who don’t mind if he treats the cuts and lacerations that present themselves in the busy department. Later, they allow him to prescribe medication, something the pharmacist doesn’t worry about, as long as he signs his name with “Dr” in front of his name. It isn’t their duty to check qualifications, is it? Besides, his prescriptions  for the usual cases of malaria, diarrhoea and bronchitis are exactly similar to the other doctor’s.

José may have lacked a lot of schooling, but there is nothing wrong with his ability and desire to learn. While he now acts a as an unofficial ‘medic’. he discovers something quite surprising: helping others creates a feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction that he never experienced before. Working in the casualty department becomes a passion and a joy, and not just a way to fill the empty hours and days.

Five months after his injury, the new Cuban doctor – Dr Cabado – convinces him that the wound should be explored. A fifteen-minute operation yields the last piece of the mine’s plastic covering embedded next to a rib. One week later, the wound is healed.

It is time for Jose Migeul Pereira to return to the war.

***

“José!” When the old Datsun stops next to the hut they use as a command centre, Comrade Vasily can’t hide his joy at seeing the young man. In the most unmilitaristic way, he rushes out and hugs José. “You’re back!”

They spend hours talking. José tells Vasily everything that happened in Luanda, filling him in on his newly acquired medical skills. The Russian is suitably impressed: the unit does not have a proper medic. Having José around is going to be a valuable addition to the squad.

“Things have been see-sawing around here, Dr José.” Vasily smiles at the new status of his friend. Who cares if he’s a doctor or not? This is the bush – anybody who has the power of healing deserves the title. “The fighting in the border region is getting quite hectic. Gone are the days of sneaking into South West Africa quietly, blowing up a pipeline or a few pylons…we’re into a phase of much more conventional warfare. The South Africans have a very efficient army, and I’m worried about that. They have well-trained troops, a formidable air force and their armoured vehicles overshadow our capabilities. They recently launched yet another operation which took out three of our bases near their border.

South African nuclear bomb casings

South African nuclear bomb casings

“What is even more frightening, is the rumour that they’ve developed an atom bomb. Can you imagine what would happen if they bombed Luanda? No, my young friend, we are in trouble. If we don’t come up with something soon, we might very well lose this war.”

Vasily paces the palm-thatched veranda in front of the hut, explaining the horrors of nuclear warfare. José has heard of atom bombs, of course, but that was something that happened in the Second World War. Surely Pretoria won’t consider – seriously – deploying such a weapon against the freedom fighters?

“There’s no telling what they’d do, José. The South African government is desperate to end the war. They simply do not have the finances to continue indefinitely. Truth be told, neither does Moscow or Havana. It’s a race, you see? The first one to strike a really massive blow, will be the victor.”

“But what will we do? We can’t fight against an atom bomb? We’re defenceless against something like that.”

Vasily nods. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, young José. That’s why Comrade Chung has come up from an answer. He’s already had it delivered in Luanda. The shipment will be here tomorrow.”

***

Lucas Makanja used to be a carefree youth on the farm where his father worked as a labourer. Whenever he thinks back to those happy days on Nooitgedacht in the Waterberg, he has to swallow hard. How is hIs family? What happened to his friends?

Back then, late one night, some men came to the labourer’s houses on the farm. Everybody was woken up and assembled in the darkness.

“Every village must provide fighters for our cadres. We are fighting for your freedom, Comrades, but we can’t do it alone. We need men. Real men. So…you have a choice: tomorrow night we’ll return. Either you will then have somebody young and healthy to join us – or we’ll select one.

“We’ll be back. Talk about it, make a decision. Tomorrow night…”

His family was distraught – Lucas was, after all, the only boy in the little cluster of houses, so it was obvious: willingly or not, he was to be separated from his family. His father did the only thing he could think of: he spoke to Mister Fourie, the farmer.

And that’s where it all started. By midday the following day, Komandant Pieterse came to talk to him. Look, he said, we’ve been farming here for a hundred years. We live peacefully. These people who visited you? They want to turn our country into a blood bath. They are also very strong – lots of countries are giving them weapons to destroy our way of life. So, Mister Makanja, we have to be very clever to beat them. Very clever, indeed.

I’d suggest, the Komandant went on, that young Lucas goes with the men. You don’t really have a choice at all, do you? Just last month, the same thing happened to the Mahlangu family in the Brits district. They tried to fight these men. You know what happened? Those men burned their houses to the ground, beat the men with sjamboks and then took four boys from the village. You can’t fight them.

But I have an idea. Let Lucas go with them. Let him tell us what they’re doing. That way, at least, he’s helping us to protect the farm and your family. And of course, we’ll pay you for that. Handsomely. 

The men came back that night. Lucas went away with them. They took him to Lusaka at first, where he was trained to use an AK 47 and ‘disciplined’ and ‘orientated’ to understand that communism is the only form of government that empowers people to build up their ountry. Later he was transferred to Angola, He must, they ordered, join Comrade Vasily in the fight to free South Africa from Apartheid.

And during all this time, even during his prolonged periods of solitary confinement that formed part of his ‘orientation’, he was able to smuggle out notes and letters to his controllers in Pretoria. It was, he has to admit,  quite amazing how inventive the South Africans were to help him get his messages out.

***

Two days after ‘Dr’ José’s return, Lucas puts down the tray on the table next to Comrades Vasily and Chung. Vasily is reading from a file with a name stencilled on the cover. While he’s pouring the tea, he strains to hear what they’re talking about.

“….it’s a new agent, Vasily. While the mother-substance disperses quickly and becomes ineffective within seconds, this chemical was altered to be water soluble and will remain effective for two to three days. Some clever scientist added another molecule to create the perfect solution to our problem. That means we’d soon be able to walk into northern South West Africa without firing a single shot. Victory, my friend, is ours.”

Lucas bows politely  when Chung waves an irritated and dismissive hand at him.

The name on the file, he thinks, is Sarin-S. I must remember that. Sarin-S. What can it be? Well, no matter, he’ll smuggle it out with his next note. Maybe the people in Pretoria will know…