Tag Archives: equestrian unit

The Bullet (# 3)

IMG_3121With the sun dipping to the horizon, Kleinpiet slips out to light the braai fire. It’s been an interesting afternoon, and he doesn’t want to miss out on the rest of the story – but  like Vetfaan always reminds them: a good story and a good meal compliment each other: an empty stomach can’t digest a great tale…

Meanwhile, Gertruida arranged for the Himba to sleep over in the parsonage. Whatever his quest might be, he’ll need to stay until he’s told them all. Anyway, they still don’t know who Sergeant Ben is, or why the man wants to find him…

***

“I could see the men setting up the ambush for Badenhorst and his men – and could do nothing about it. I knew that if I cried out, Badenhorst would come looking for me – and be killed. So, despite my fear, I kept quiet, hoping the horsemen wouldn’t see me and pass by. It was stupid, of course, to think so. Badenhorst was following the tracks, and where else could they lead to than right into the ambush?

“I struggled with the ropes, but there was no escape. The men, like me, were doomed…”

***

“The Equestrian Unit was quite an elite force,” Gertruida says while Kleinpiet is busy outside.  “It was set up as a counter-insurgency force by the SA Defence Force, and it consisted of well-trained young men. They were particularly effective in tracking, pursuing and eliminating the infiltrators, which often operated under the command of Cuban instructors. They weren’t only brave fighters, but they were also renowned for their softer side: they took great care of their horses.”

“Ja, I heard that, too.” Vetfaan remembers his days on the border, “Fighting was only a small part of that war – and maybe any war, for that matter. Forget about months of training and the days of preparation for an attack…what was more important was the bonds you formed with your compatriots. There was a respect for life and the fear of death. Under those circumstances, you form friendships that last a lifetime. That includes animals, by the way. Many troops had pets – adopted from the area where they were stationed. A cat here, a dog there…one guy even had a pet frog. It was as if the horror of war made the men aware of the need for love and caring.”

“That’s true,” Kleinpiet sits down to accept the beer Boggel pushes across the counter. “That;s why love affairs during wartime is so intense.” He glances over to Vetfaan, who lost his heart to a young lady during his stint on the border, with tragic consequences. Vetfaan, with Fanny at his side, looks down at his shoes but doesn’t respond.

***

IMG_2094Lieutenant Badenhorst was wary. He could see the tracks of many feet around, but the clearing ahead was deserted despite the kettle next to the smouldering fire under the big tree. He trained his binoculars on the clearing and there…there….was the little boy, tied to a tree. Holding up a clenched fist, he signals for the others to stop.

“Get the gunships,” he whispers to the young man with the radio. “It’s a trap. I’m sure they’re waiting for us.”

“And then what? They bomb the area and take out the boy, too?”

“No.” Badenhorst sets his jaw firm. “I’ll make a plan. As soon as the Puma arrives, you give me covering fire. I’ll get him.”

***

The whupp-whupp of the approaching helicopter made the boy look up at the pale-blue sky in hope. A hundred yards away, the big Cuban swore under his breath. He had hoped that the ambush would be a simple affair; the last thing he wanted, was to be blasted at from the air. And a kilometer away, the four horsemen mounted again. Surprisingly, their request for air support was immediately approved, but they still had to wait a full hour before the helicopter arrived.

“Showtime, guys,” Badenhorst said. “Get to your positions and let’s get this over with.” He knew skirmishes like these only lasted a few minutes and that timing was crucial. His plan was simple: the gunship would strafe the surrounding bush, his own men would lay down covering fire, and he’d dash out, cut the ropes and free the child. It should have been easy…

It-should-have-been-easy…

The helicopter crew was spot on. The 25 mm slugs tore up the dry ground while it hovered, seemingly oblivious of the returned fire from the ground. Badenhorst spurred his horse on to a full gallop and reached the boy. He jumped down. Cut the ropes. Bent down to pick up the boy. Straightened.

And got shot.

The big Cuban got him. Headshot. Dead in an instant. Boy dropped. Time ceased.

***

“I saw it all in slow motion. When the lieutenant fell, the other three horsemen became insane. Mad. Crazy. There’s no word for what happened to them. Even after all these years, I don’t understand why they did what they did.” He sighs, shakes his head. “But suddenly the three of them stormed the clearing to stand around us. And then, from the height of their saddles, they started firing at the men laying in ambush. They had no protection, out there in the open, while the others took shots at them from behind rocks.”

***

The gunship came swooping down, intensifying the effort to distract and kill the enemy. The effect was immediate and devastating, Casualties mounted on both sides. Two more horsemen got hit, the third on the ground as well, his horse mortally wounded. Then, suddenly, the terrorists fled. One moment they were concentrating fire on the trio in the clearing, the next they were running, running away from the hovering helicopter.

The crew jumped to the ground, helping the three survivors – two seriously injured – to the gunship.

***

“That’s when I first saw Sergeant Ben. He came running over to pick me up. I was just sitting there, right where Badenhorst dropped me when he was killed…paralysed with fear. I’ve never seen anybody killed, never been in a fight like that.

“Sergeant Ben ignored the shouts from the rest of the crew. They wanted to get out of there, afraid to stay too long. By then they had loaded the injured men and Badenhorst; there was no reason for them to hang around to rescue a scruffy little boy. But Sergeant Ben did. He slung me over his right shoulder and started running towards the helicopter.

“That’s when the big Cuban stood up from behind his rock. I was facing backwards over the sergeant’s shoulder and saw him take aim. I screamed. Sergeant Ben stopped, turned around. I saw the Cuban steady his gun. And then I saw the rifle spit fire and felt the impact when the bullet struck Sergeant Ben.”

Even after all these years, the Himba man can’t force himself to remain calm during the telling of his story. He thumps his chest to create the sound of the bullet striking his rescuer while tears stream over his cheeks. Swallowing hard, he continues in a strained voice.

“The crew in the helicopter got the Cuban, then. Shot him down where he stood. And then they rushed out to get me and the sergeant to the aircraft.”

You can hear a pin drop in Boggel’s Place. Precilla wipes away a tear while Oudoom blows his nose loudly. The braai fire is forgotten, the empty glasses in front of the patrons ignored. Vetfaan hands the Himba his handkerchief.

“And the sergeant? What happened to him?”  By now, Boggel is sitting on top of the counter.

“That’s why I’m here…” The Himba’s voice conveys incredible sadness. “That’s why…”

The Bullet (# 1)

10Of course the conversation ceased when the man walked down Voortrekker Weg. Not only is it unusual for Rolbos to be the final destination of any traveller, there was something else: it felt as if the man brought with him an atmosphere of ‘assured silence’ – as Gertruida tried to explain it later. Barefoot, dressed in his sheepskin coat and carrying his stick, he reminded Oudoom of an Old Testament prophet…or at least somebody with a story to tell.

For once, Oudoom was right…

Boggel got on his crate to stare at the man: tall, handsome in a rugged way; with finely chiselled African features. The liquid-chocolate eyes blinked once when he entered Boggel’s Place before he smiled uncertainly in greeting.

Gertruida noticed the gap between the upper teeth – and the missing four lower incisors – and whispered to Precilla sitting next to her. “A Himba?” Although she said it as a question, she was fairly sure she’s right.

She was, as usual.

Tjike…” The man lowered his eyes when he noticed the people in the bar. Realising that it was his way of saying hello, Gertruida twisted her tongue around the word in return.

“I speak English,” the man said kindly, “and I need to find Sergeant Ben. That’s why I am here.”

“Um…” Vetfaan faltered, unsure how too continue, ” we only have Sergeant Dreyer here. He’s the policeman.”

The man frowned, held up a hand; uncertainty – even fear – in his eyes. “Police?”

“Don’t worry. He’s not like that – he’s one of us.” Gertruida motioned for the man to come in. “Come sit here. You walked to Rolbos? You must be thirsty.”

“Ja, and we’ve been discussing the drought for days now.” Vetfaan smiled his encouragement. “We’d like to have something else to talk about. You’ve come far…so tell us about this Sergeant Ben?”

The man sat down with a relieved sigh. “I have to give Sergeant Ben something. It’s a matter of honour…”

***

It was a day like any other. The sun beat down on the little kraal where the women sat in front of the huts, watching the smaller children play in the dust. The men and older boys were out in the veld, keeping watch over the flock of goats and cattle. The drought caused them to roam wider into their ancestral territory, looking for patches of withered grass in the mountainous region. And water, of course. Always water. Late at night, around their fires, they told each other that something very bad must have happened; why else would the drought be so severe? The earth was unhappy: they knew the clouds would not release the rain when new growth would only serve to feed evil.

They knew about the war, of course. Only the previous week they heard the crump of distant explosions. They didn’t know the sound, didn’t recognise the crackle of automatic weapons – but they did understand that people were killing each other.

They had speculated about that. Why would men find it necessary to kill each other? Was Life not something to protect and preserve? All life – even that of the goats – had a purpose. Killing an animal to feed the hungry mouths in the kraal had a purpose. Killing a man…? And they had a long conversation around the fire, eventually agreeing that whatever reason the men had for such killing, must be wrong.

That’s why, the old men said, the rain stayed away.

23On that day the women sat in the sun, grinding ochre and hoping their husbands and sons would find a protected valley with grass and fresh water. Without their cattle and goats, they’d never survive. In the meantime, the best thing to do was to see to it that there were enough ochre and fat – when the men returned, they wanted to look their best.

It was one of the little boys who saw the three men running towards the kraal.

“Look! Look! Men are coming – and they’re not Himba.”

IMG_2163The First Wife, Miriam, glanced over to see what the boy was shouting about. When her husband was away, all authority and responsibility rested on her shoulders. At first she hoped the men would go past the kraal, leaving them in peace – but soon realised that was not to be. The men carried guns and that meant they have to be soldiers. They rushed through the kraal’s entrance without asking permission, brushing aside the two little boys who gaped at them.

“Hide! We must hide!” The biggest of the three grabbed one of the boys, holding him up like a puppy. “And you lot will shut up. When the others come, you say nothing! Nothing!”

***

By now the entire population of Rolbos has gathered in the bar, listening to the Himba telling his tale. He sips his bottled water as he watches their faces – allowing the pause to create images in the minds of his audience. Telling a story – especially one as important as this – is an art. Rushing to the end won’t do. On the other hand, if the tempo is too slow, the listener loses interest. As a veteran of many a camp fire, the Himba understands the fine balance needed between telling, pausing, and feeding his audience just enough to keep them hungry for more. He knows every listener needs to become an observer of the unfolding scenes, making them see the story rather than simply listening to it. In this way, the observer becomes a participant – for is it not so that every story has the power to change people?

That’s why he sits back, allowing the image of the kraal, the desperate soldiers, the horrified First Wife and the frightened boy to become a reality in the little bar in Rolbos. And, like he knew it would, he watches faces change from mild interest to reflect the emotion he felt when that soldier grabbed him and dragged him into the sacred interior of the First House…

“And then…?” Vetfaan asks, his beer forgotten on the counter in front of him.

“Ah, yes. That’s when the horses came. The horses with the men and their guns. Many of them…”