Tag Archives: SADF

Found in Translation

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

“Is he…?”

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

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

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

***

May 1986, Somewhere in southern Angola.

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

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

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

Should have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence. The dog died quietly.

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

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

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

The Cuban put down his rifle.

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

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

The Cuban muttered something that sounded like ‘muerto’.

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

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

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

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

***

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

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 8)

Pathfinder Badge

Pathfinder Badge

Gertruida says the best stories get born during times of strife. If conflict is the mother of all tales, then frustration must be the father. The background of emotion – whether anger or love – provides the canvas for the plot to develop and expand.

Now, in Gert Smit’s case (she says) all the components were well-mixed by the time Gert Smit realised his game was up. He had been on the run (to be technically correct, it may be more accurate to say he’d been on the float) for several days after escaping from UNITA. The secret mission, the disobeyed orders, the confession to Savimbi…these things weighed heavily on his mind, contributing to his frustration. Now, as he stared up at the faces around him, he imagined they couldn’t possibly understand what he had been through.

He was right, of course.

The corporal in charge of the patrol was obviously puzzled. The man at his feet was a soldier, one of his own; there was no mistaking that. The boots, the uniform… But despite the neat haircut, the soldier was dirty, unshaven and unkempt. He prodded Gert with his R1.

“Who…” before he could complete ‘the hell are you?’ Gert Smit lashed out a leg, kicking at the corporal’s knee. Hard. Vicious. Totally unexpected. The corporal toppled backwards, Gert Smit sprang up, and by the time Corporal Beukes hit the ground, Gert was covering him with the rifle he had snatched from the falling figure. For a moment the rest of the patrol stood transfixed…then their training kicked in. Three rifles now pointed at Gert as they moved to circle him.

“Put down the rifle, soldier.” The biggest of the three – a bit older than the rest – took a step back. “Don’t be foolish.”

Gert realised he was outnumbered and at a distinct disadvantage with the three patrolmen now completely outflanking him.

“Listen,” he said in what he hoped was a confident voice, “I’m on a secret mission.” That much was true, at least. “I suggest I give the corporal’s gun back, and you chaps move out. You guys are interfering with stuff you know nothing about.”

The big soldier shrugged. “Okay”, he said. “Give me the rifle, we’ll get on with our patrol.”

Had Gert Smit been more alert, he would have seen the trap. Maybe it was the fatigue, or maybe the relief that he’d be on his way soon, but he he complied immediately by handing the rifle to the man.

Then something hit him on the back of his head and everything went black.

***

“You must remember that the Pathfinders were a really rough bunch. Really. They were officially established only in 1981 but already in the mid-70’s the army realised they had the need for paratroopers with a difference. They had to be able to parachute down behind enemy lines, operate independently and be the ultimate counter-insurgency unit. It was far better, they argued, to stop a terrorist before he crosses the border.”

Gertruida sighed. Poor Gert Smit. Of all the rotten luck…

“Now that in itself was a problem. Such a unit would contravene the undertaking by South Africa not to cross the border, Another reason for the international community to oppose them was the last thing the army – and the government – needed. Nevertheless, a small and very secret base was established in the western Caprivi, not far from Fort Doppies. Here a very select few troops were trained in bushcraft, tracking, survival and basically the conditions one would expect in Angola.

“Obviously this unit was kept  firmly under wraps. Not even the commanders of Buffalo Camp or Fort Doppies knew of it’s existence. It was part of the training, you see? The unit – at that stage twelve men – had to learn to avoid detection at all costs. They operated at night, had the most basic camp as base, and had to survive on what the veld could offer them. Locust pie and local berries – that sort of thing. And of course…complete radio silence. The usual stint to the training area was two weeks; the troops were dropped by parachute, left to train with two instructors and then had to night-march to a rendezvous point where a helicopter would wait for exactly two minutes. If they didn’t make it, they had to wait a further two weeks.

“I think you get the idea: these were the toughest of the elite troops.

“And these were the men who found Gert Smit that morning. They were on their way to the helicopter pick-up point, exhausted and absolutely fed-up after two weeks without proper meals or ablutions. Like Gert, they were dirty and frustrated,”

***

When Gert Smit woke up again, he was tied to a tree, his arms stretched backwards to encircle the trunk, Water dripped from his face – one of the Pathfinders had just emptied his water bottle over his head.

“You got exactly one minute, starting now. Who are you and what are you doing here?” The corporal was obviously furious – his knee still hurt. He unholstered a pistol and cocked it.

Gert shook his head to clear his thoughts. These men weren’t acting like the usual patrol would. Normally, he’d expect to be taken to the military police, or the commanding officer at Fort Doppies, but these guys seemed quite prepared to shoot him then and there.

“I’m a South African soldier…,” he started, but was interrupted by a gruff ‘That’s what you want us to think, anyway!’. 

“And I  was on a secret mission…”

“Name, rank, number!”

“Rifleman Gert Smit, 76246943.”

“Unit!”

“No unit. Just me. Stationed at Doppies.”

The four soldiers whispered amongst themselves. Corporal Beukes made up his mind and addressed Gert again.

“You, Smit, are a terrorist. One of those Commies who infiltrate Caprivi, snoop around, and then go back to tell your Cuban friends what we are doing here. Admit it! Come on now!” Gert didn’t see the blow coming. A thousand stars exploded in his mind and he felt his teeth being forced into the soft tissue of his cheek.

“No…!”

This time he tried to duck the swinging fist, but was too late,

“Please, you guys! They sent me to shoot Savimbi!”

Stunned silence. Then the corporal burst out laughing. Turning to his mates, he said: “This is the guy they sent to kill Savimbi. Isn’t that original? Now we’re killing the only black leader who still supports the country. That’s what I call progressive thinking!”

The big soldier joined the laughter, but at the same time, he pointed to the matt-black watch on his arm. The helicopter…

“Well, we can’t take him along, that’s for sure,” the corporal remarked. “Make sure he’s tied up properly. Well report that the would-be assassin of Jonas Savimbi is tied to this tree. Mark the spot on the map,” He nodded at the big soldier. “You’re right. We have to go.”

“There’s nothing in his kit,” the one soldier said. “Just an old schoolbook with stories in.”

“Coded?”

“Oh no! Old handwriting.”

“It’s a Bible,” Gert said, “my great-great grandfather’s”

This caused the corporal to laugh again, but he paged through the book, anyway. Then, with a derisive snort, he threw it down on the ground. ” Let’s go,” he said.

And suddenly, silently, they were gone. Going home after two weeks in the bush was far more important than anything now. No, they’ll report to the commanding officer, and he can take care of it. Most probably they’d be commended for catching a Russian spy.

Five long minutes later, Gert Smit heard a helicopter. It came in low and fast, swooped overhead and then it sounded as if it landed not far off. A kilo? Two? A minute later the rotors picked up speed again. Then, after the throb of the helicopter’s engine faded away in the distance,  only the cicadas remained to disturb the silence.

Gert Smit spat out a tooth.

A lion roared…how far away?

While he was thinking about the lion, he heard a soft rustling in the grass. It came from behind him. Rustle-rustle. Stop. Rustle-rustle….

Gert Smit’s Tomatoes (# 7)

Mokoro-on-okavango-deltaGert Smit headed due east until dawn. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. The bush in this area is dense, making progress only possible if he followed a game tract. These, are of course, dangerous: not only are snares and traps set for animals, but it wasn’t uncommon for the local soldiers to use landmines to obtain something for the pot at night. Add to that poachers, hunters, farmers and patrolling soldiers, and you get a situation where any game track can lead to any number of surprises at any place.

***

“So did he make it, Gertruida?”

“Vetfaan, let me tell the story, will you? The middle of the story is as important as the ending – and in Gert Smit’s case, you have to know everything before you can understand what happened later. So…just be patient, okay?”

***

Gert was about to look for a hiding place for the day, when he heard the cry of a Fish Eagle. Come….on here! Come….on here! He decided to risk the track a little while longer: the river had to be close.

It was.

And there, on the river bank, were two mokoros, one with several fresh fish in a little basket in its front. He saw a few huts a bit higher up on the bank, but nobody seemed to be up and about just yet. Gert didn’t hesitate. He got the new suit, socks, shoes and shirt from his rucksack, put them neatly into the empty vessel, and got into the other dugout. One day, he promised himself, he’d come back and apologise. At that moment he felt he had no choice – and that the swap had been a relatively fair exchange of assets. Especially the smart shoes. In some villages, after all, your status is determined by the shoes on your feet.

***

To keep your listeners interested in your story, Gertruida says, you have to keep on surprising them. That is the backbone of a good story. Now, with Gert Smit’s Tomatoes, she says this is easy to do, simply because fact is so much stranger than fiction.

That’s why, she says, Major Gericke stood there, gaping, after his daughter’s kiss. Even in his well-organised, disciplined mind, he couldn’t get a grasp on the fact that she was standing there in front of him, in this secluded army base so far away from home.

In the army, you handle surprises in one of two ways: either you speak your mind in no uncertain ways (rather loudly), or you dismiss the junior officers in your presence. Gericke chose the latter before sitting down heavily.

“Letitia…,” he started, but faltered when he looked at her again. His little girl was all grown up; a beautiful young lady, self-assured despite the circumstances. He remembered the baby swaddled in a pink blanket, oh, so many years ago. Then the army happened and the war started and he missed how many birthdays? Did she really grow up so fast…or had he simply been an absent father who cared more about uniforms and orders than the simple pleasures of parenthood? “Lettie, my child…what are you doing here?”

She explained. He listened. They shared an uncomfortable silence. Then, breaking all the rules, he told her exactly what had happened to Gert Smit. At least, he told her as much as he knew, which was that Gert was dropped at the Kaplyn and that he hadn’t been heard of since.

Lettie took the news calmly up to a point. When her tears welled up, the strict major got up stiffly, walked over to her and patted a shoulder. It was too much – or too little – for Lettie. She rose from her chair and hugged her father. Hugged him like a little girl would, tight against his chest, her arms around his fit body. And she did what a little girl would do: she sobbed uncontrollably. Major Gericke was too overwhelmed  to say anything about the mascara on his tunic.

Later, when she calmed down, he told her they had to figure out something. It turned out to be much more complicated – and simple – than they both would have guessed.

***

Gert Smit made good time on the Cuando. The stream was strong and he only used the paddle to keep the mokoro (as far as possible) under the overhang of the trees on the banks. Once, he heard a helicopter, some distance away to the west. Twice he heard the crack of distant gunfire. He wondered if his guard was okay..

1279350385572_hz-cnmyalibaba-web2_35556At about midday he felt that he had put sufficient distance between him and Jamba, and beached the mokoro on a sandy island in the middle of the river. Carefully hiding under the huge Jackalberry tree that dominated the island, he started a fire with the magnesium rod in the emergency kit from the rucksack. He roasted the fish as they were, and then had to wait impatiently for his meal to cool down.  Oh, how he wished he had a knife!

After having his meal, he settled down under the tree to rest. It’d been a long night…

***

300px-SchuckmannsburgMapThe village of Katima Mulilo wasn’t much to look at in 1977, but it was teeming with soldiers. It is situated just south of the place where the Zambezi takes a sharp turn towards the east before tumbling down the gorge of the Victoria Falls, some 200 km away. The South African Defense Force maintained a strong presence here, as well as an airfield and later its only inland ‘harbour’ on the Zambezi.

In 1977 the war had not really reached Katima yet. Armoured vehicles were handy only because they were used to chase elephants off the rugby fields on Saturday afternoons. At that stage a posting to Katima was welcomed – but in later years that changed, of course. This was before the SADF’s success with Operation Reindeer and the response by the Angolans by launching Operation Revenge in 1978.

So, when Major Gericke arranged for Lettie to stay in one of the safe-houses the army maintained (chiefly for reporters, visiting dignitaries and occasionally for important defectors from the Zambian side), it seemed like a very reasonable compromise. Lettie would be relatively nearby, and still be protected. Any news, her father promised, would be relayed to her immediately.

“Lets give it a week or two, my child. We haven’t heard anything from Smit for some time now, but you never know. No news is good news these days. If he had been killed or captured, we would have heard something by now. And…” he hesitated, “I checked on Smit’s record. He had the best training. He’s a rebel, that’s for sure, but he’s also a very capable soldier. He can look after himself.”

“Will you pray, Daddy, please? Pray for his safe return?”

This time Major Gericke looked into the pleading eyes of his little-girl-all-grown-up-to-be-a-striking-young-woman, and it was his turn to blink away a tear.

***

Traveling down the Cuando at night proved to be too dangerous. There were rapids to negotiate, deep pools where hippos snorted their displeasure and twists in the course of the river that ended up in banks of reeds and grass. Gert Smit adopted a new strategy: he paddled in from first light until the sun was about three hands above the horizon. Then he’d find an island, build traps for fish, and wait for late afternoon. He’d take to the water then, and keep going as long as possible. This made his progress slow, but he was fairly sure he’d avoid being detected in this fashion. He was right.

On the fourth evening, he spotted the Golden Highway. He was back in the Caprivi! He must have missed the Kaplyn in the early morning gloom. Be that as it may, he was both safe…and in danger. With darkness increasing by the minute, Smit settled down for the night. Going down the river past Fort Doppies was out of the question. Hitching a ride to Katima Mulilo would have been equally stupid. No! He had made up his mind. As far as the army knew, he had been caught or killed in Angola. That suited Gert Smit just fine. He’d make his way back to South Africa somehow, tell his mother he’s okay, and then wait for the war to end.

***

Gertruida smiles sadly when she comes to this part of the story. “Just shows you how naive the poor fellow was. The war would drag on until the 90’s, but he wasn’t to know that. He just had the basic outline of a plan in his head, but his main motivation was his disappointment that the army used him as a disposable pawn in their game of one-upmanship. Savimbi and his men had treated him well, after all, and he felt rather ashamed at the thought that he was sent to kill the leader of UNITA. Were they not allies? The more he brooded on this thought, the more upset he became.

“Well, he decided, the next morning he’d set off towards the east along the Golden Highway, until he was far away enough from Fort Doppies. Then he’d cut across the veld, southwards, to reach Botswana. How he’d survive and what exactly waited for him en route, was a secondary concern. He’d face the problems as they arose.

“And so Gert Smit fell asleep next to the river that was now called the Kwando. And he slept soundly, like a young, tired man should. He was prodded back to being awake by something. He opened his eyes, straining to focus. There, level with his face, a row of boots faced him.

Boots? Eight of them? Here? Then, sitting up in fright, he stared at the faces of the four-man patrol that had stumbled upon him a few seconds ago.”

 

Weekly Writing Challenge: Characters that Haunt You: Vetfaan.

The Challenge: Pick one of the characters that inhabit your brain…well. there’s nobody more perfect for this challenge than Vetfaan.

Vetfaan’s War

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

Credit: en.wikipedia,org

“It was the war,” Vetfaan sighs as he sips his brandy, “that, and the woman with the strong forearm.”

Boggel just asked why he had started farming in the Kalahari, thinking he’d get the usual answer: to get away from it all.

Kleinpiet stops his drawing on the bar counter when he looks up. He’s never heard this story before, and he has known Vetfaan for ages; ever since they first met in this very same room, way back in ’95. Oh, they’ve talked about rugby and failed relationships; like educated, mature men do when they drink too much, but never about the war.

Kleinpiet was a medical orderly back then. The things he saw, does not make for light conversation. And of course, most of it should not be remembered at all. The broken bodies of young men – not old enough to vote, but old enough to kill – are best filed in the dark cabinet marked ‘Out of Bounds’. All men who have seen action, know that’s how it is. You don’t go there. It is the stuff nightmares are made of, and veterans have enough of those.

“She came to the camp on a Friday evening. We had just returned from a patrol and were two men short. We couldn’t bring them back, see? Too far. To many casualties. We had to bury them under a baobab tree. Later we went back, but we couldn’t find the tree again. Too many of them.” Vetfaan glances over to the almost-empty brandy bottle, and nods at Boggel. “For a long time I thought I could forget it; and I really tried. But sometimes, every so often, I have a dream about that day.”

Vetfaan has been drinking heavily all day. Boggel has seen him do that before, and somehow knows he should not interfere – not when Vetfaan is in this mood. The big man will finish his bottle of brandy and Kleinpiet will take him home. Something, Boggel knows, is festering away inside Vetfaan; a demon of the past, a memory, an experience? Whatever it is, it’ll come out one day, when nature wants to heal the wound.

In cities people see psychologists; but that, of course, doesn’t help either. Ask any barman: he’ll tell you. The only way to kill the demon, is to give the patient enough time to run out of excuses. When the victim finally summons up the courage to face the memory, the healing will start. That’s why brandy helps so much. It gives courage, even if it is false.

It’s better than nothing.

“Those of us who could, had a shower and put on some clean clothes. Do you know what clean clothes feel like after all the blood and vomit and…?”  Vetfaan peers myopically at Boggel, who simply nods. He has his own demons to fight, as well. Then, almost as an afterthought: “In those days they brought in entertainers…”

Kleinpiet remembers the girls who got flown up to the base camps. While the rest of South Africa stumbled on in a Calvinistic haze, the powers-that-be supplied the eighteen-year-olds on the border with cheap alcohol and free entertainment. Evenings were spent in bars in the bush where the young soldiers got drunk while they screened movies about the patriotic and Christian heroes on the borders, fighting heathen terrorists. Occasionally, live entertainment travelled from camp to camp, with singers and dancers carefully chosen for their age and looks.

“That evening some girl sang. Old Afrikaans songs about the Transvaal and Karoo and Kalahari. She was beautiful.” His eyes glaze over as he hums Daar doer in die bosveld. The rest join in until he falls silent. “I remember it clearly: it was my birthday…There was another girl there, a dancer. Beautiful body, even better face. Great hair. A body to die for. Madelein Coetzer. She had a way of moving her body that made me feel more alive than I have been for months. All over.” Kleinpiet snorts, but Vetfaan ignores him. “After the horror of the day, she was too beautiful. It didn’t match, you see? One moment you’re crawling through dust and soiling yourself, and a few hours later you smell like Brut while ogling the breasts of an untouchable woman. It was difficult to distinguish which was the greater agony – the fear of death or the futility of life.”

“When the show ended, this girl stepped up to the microphone and challenged the men to arm-wrestle with her. If somebody could beat her, she’d be his for the night, she said. Best out of three, she said. Now, this is something we sometimes did, and nobody – nobody – ever beat me. I was young and fit back then, and everybody turned to me, knowing I was the birthday boy. Oh, they all wanted a go, of course, but they were afraid I’d beat the hell out of anybody who jumped at the opportunity. This, we all knew, was my chance.

“The army does that, you know? We were a living organism – we needed each other to survive. You need a sniper, you ask Sharpeye Schutte. Your Unimog broke down? Get Spanners Snyman. And when something impossible needs to be carried around, I was the natural choice. It was like that. We got things done for each other – not for some general.”

Vetfaan finishes his brandy, and nods for the last drops from the bottle to be poured in his glass. He tells them that he was shy. This woman can’t be a match for him, can she? And what if he won? H’s never been with a woman before – not like that… And if he lost, he’d be the laughing stock of the camp. Either way, the uncertainties contained in the match made him hesitate.

“You can’t turn your back on such a challenge. The guys cheered me on. I walked to the stage and introduced myself. I could see how she measured me up with those beautiful eyes. I was embarrassed, to say the least. Of course I’d win, and then have to face the prospect of spending the night with her.”

He tells them how they sat down at the table they set up on the small stage. He looked around for one last time, saw the gleaming faces of his comrades and the lust in their eyes. If he won, at least one of them would have a great night. They wanted that satisfaction, even if it were only his pleasure.

“Well, she positioned herself and invited me to extend my arm. I did. I grasped that fine, clean little hand with the manicured nails and told myself it’s a mismatch. The next thing I knew, my hand was slammed back onto the table with a force that jarred my teeth. I said I hadn’t been ready and she laughed.

“The next time, she gave me ample time. She asked if I was ready. When I nodded, she made her arm go limp and allowed me to win. She was putting up a show, to get the guys involved. They cheered and screamed and went on like little boys around a schoolyard fight. But then the third round happened. At one all, the winner of this round would be the overall winner. And I wasn’t sure; her first attempt jarred my confidence, and she let me win the second. The nagging though in the back of my mind was: what if…”

“What happened, Vetfaan?” Boggel opens a new bottle of brandy, and pours a modest single in Vetfaan’s glass.

“She won – well, sort of. Forced my hand back to almost the table top. I looked into those lovely eyes. The men fell silent, totally disappointed in the inevitable outcome. In my mind, I was back on that bloody trail we walked that day. I saw the blood and the gore and the vomit and I felt the dampness all over again. I heard the screams…”

By now, Vetfaan has to wipe away a tear and everybody suddenly finds something to do. Kleinpiet ties his shoe laces, Boggel fetches some ice.

“Well, I think she saw that in my eyes,” Vetfaan continues after a while, “So she allowed my hand push hers back to the middle. And so we sat – frozen between defeat and victory. Whenever I tried to force her hand over, she simply countered. She only went halfway, every time. Once, I thought I had her, but the final push didn’t work.

“After about ten minutes of grunting and sweating, Captain Krizinger suggested we declare a draw. She nodded and I was relieved to sit back. That’s when we started talking.”

And talk they did. Until dawn the next day, they sat at the table on that stage, talking. She told him about her life and the struggle to make money to keep her mother in an old-age home. He told her about the patrol and the war and the baobab tree. She stroked his arm and he thought it must be how an angel’s touch feels. They laughed at each others jokes. They shared silence. In short, it was the best night of his life…

“But, she said, when it was all over, she wanted to be like that woman who had a farm in Africa. Karen von Blixen…I remember the name. She said it was the most beautiful book she had ever read. We were a bit drunk by that time and the camp was starting to stir as the darkness slowly gave way to dawn. And I…I said, when it was over, I’ll be on that farm, waiting for her.”

Vetfaan sways a little as he makes a rolling gesture with his hand. “Last one, Boggel.”

“Did she come?’ Kleinpiet has never heard of a woman on Vetfaan’s farm.

“A landmine took out their bus on their way to the next camp. She died, like the rest of us.”

 ***

If you visit Rolbos, you may find Vetfaan in one of his moods. He’s doesn’t get violent or anything like that. It’s just that he drinks a bit more than usual and becomes a bit teary. Boggel says it’s a good thing, that demon must get out before Vetfaan will be all right again. Kleinpiet reckons it isn’t necessary; Vetfaan will drown the bastard at this rate.

But both of them are wrong.

The war on the border destroyed more dreams than lives. It destroyed more families than individuals. The deaths caused by the senseless fighting were bad enough, and will haunt South Africa for generations to come – but death is a singularity; it happens once and then the living must accept the inevitability of it’s reality.

But love? Love is crueler. The loss of love creates a void nothing else can fill. Not even a farm in the Kalahari will help. When Vetfaan stumbles up his stairs at night, he has to sit down halfway. It isn’t the brandy that makes him dizzy – it is the burden of loss that wears him down.

Bianca (# 7)

images (49)Vetfaan has never been comfortable around sick people and to see old Servaas in this condition, is just too much. Boggel knows this and does what he does best: he serves a round of drinks. he smiles at the grateful nods – but ignores the tied-up man in the corner. Boggel doesn’t like criminals all that much…

Bianca holds the clammy, cold hand of Servaas as she watches the infusion. Please God – let this old man live? He’s no part of my trouble – just an innocent bystander. Let him live,.. She’ll have to do something about this situation. And she’ll have to tell them everything…

“where’s Fanny? We need to give Servaas more fluids.” Bianca looks up at the worried faces. She doesn’t have to tell them Servaas is in a critical condition – they know that already.

“It’s here!” Fanny storms in with a steaming pot. “I did it – just like you said. Now what?”

iv-bag“Bring Ice, Boggel. Bring a lot.” The townsfolk watch in awe as Bianca snips the top of the empty vaculitre bag away and starts pouring the hot liquid into the empty bag. On her instruction, Boggel packs the infusion tube in ice to cool the fluid down before it enters the vein.

“Where did you learn to do all this, Bianca?” Even Gertruida is flabbergasted. She gets a hint of a smile as an answer.

For once, Boggel’s Place is deathly quiet. All of them – with the possible exception of their prisoner – watch for a sign, any sign, that Servaas may be improving.

***

Servaasie? Is it really you?

Yes, it is. It must be. He looks just like he did with his last visit. In Servaas’s mind, the young man stretches out his hand in greeting.

Hi Dad. I love you – you know that, don’t you? 

Yes, my son. Yes…

You have to go back, Dad. You have unfinished business. It isn’t time yet to leave. 

I love you, my son.

***

When Servaas’s eyes flutter open, they all cheer.

“I…I saw Servaasie…”

“Shhhh. You’ve been shot, Servaas, but you’re better now. Relax. We’re going to get you to a doctor.” Bianca puts a soothing hand on his brow and the old man manages a smile. “I’m so sorry, Servaas. So sorry….”

“Why…?” He doesn’t finish his question as the pain from the wound flares up when he tries to turn to her.

***

For a brief moment, Bianca is jolted back to the time directly after Tiny’s arrest.

“Look, young lady, you’re in deep trouble. The gang you’re connected with, has been involved in some pretty serious crime for a number of years. We can prove – in court, and we have a lot of evidence for this – that you are an accomplice, You’re going to rot in jail for a long time.”

She was frightened, and it showed. The general liked that.

“But there is a way out. I’ve prepared a CV and a life history. Tomorrow I’ll return and quiz you about this. Next week you’ll apply for work at the South West Africa Import and Export Company in Walvis Bay. And after that, you’ll feed me every scrap of information you can gather.

“Now: what’s it to be? The full force of the law…or a cushy job in Walvis Bay? Your choice.”

“Why? … Why are you doing this to me?” She was almost in tears.

“Fair question.” The general gave a very superficial description of the South West African Import and Export Company and its illegal activities, telling her that it is a front company for some very corrupt politicians and military personnel. “These men do not represent what South Africa is about, Miss. They’ve managed to create a situation where they justify poaching and personal enrichment – convinced that they’re helping the war against terror in this way. But, no matter how you look at it, it remains illegal, immoral and corrupt.”

They needed somebody on the inside – somebody who could find out exactly who is involved, what methods they use and where the contraband is going to. Most importantly, the general said, was that they find out who is on the receiving end of the ivory and rhino horn trade.

“We need to expose the entire network – not just a portion of it. We have to destroy the whole organisation, not just the local part of it…otherwise it’ll just continue to operate under a new guise. So we need a Trojan Horse – somebody they’d never suspect. Somebody intelligent enough to connect dots. And somebody who wouldn’t think of double-crossing us.” He stared at her pointedly. “Somebody who is used to the workings of a criminal mind…

“You know how to handle men. It’s a rare skill. In the time we’ve been following Tiny and his colleagues, we became aware what a wonderful asset you’d be. We need somebody like you… And remember, I’m with the good guys. This is your chance to change your life, Miss. You were on a path of self-destruction – and you know it. I’m offering you an opportunity to come clean. When this is over, you’d be a respected citizen once more, and not a trophy at the side of a crook.”

This much, Bianca realised at the time, was true. At the age of twenty-one, life was a party and tomorrow didn’t matter so much. But…she’d been thinking about her situation lately. What happens after Tiny? What awaits when she’s thirty or forty? And…Tiny couldn’t have children, wasn’t even able to… Where did it all leave her?

She agreed to cooperate and in the following week she received intensive training. Armed with a new ID, passport and a fake CV, she arrived at the import/export company’s offices ten days later.

***

“Hey, you guys!” Sergeant Dreyer closes the door behind him. “I’ve found some tracks in the dew, heading to Bokkop. I need a few men and Vrede to see if we can get the man who shot Servaas.” Dreyer doesn’t wait for an answer. He knows there’d be no shortage of volunteers. “Oudoom, here are the keys to the store room behind the police station. We can use that as our jail. Maybe you can take our prisoner there?”

“In that case, I’d like some company as well. We must get Servaas to Dr Welman in Upington. Precilla? Fanny?” Bianca meets Dreyer’s stare and for a brief moment the policeman feels a tingle of excitement.

 Gertruida says that we see the real people in times of crisis – that’s when the pretence of everyday life fades and we can’t hide behind a façade any more. She also maintains that it has something to do with pheromones and a host of invisible stimuli. Until you’ve seen somebody act under great stress, she says, you don’t know that person at all.

Servaas, Bianca, Dreyer, even Gertruida and the rest, discover the truth behind her statement that morning. It is crisis-time in Rolbos. This is not the time for grand-standing and egos. They will be tested to the full…

The Bullet (# 5)

Miriam

Miriam today

“Sergeant Ben did one more thing before the Bedford loaded them all up to take them to Grootfontein.” The Himba man smacks his lips and gobbles down one more lamb chop before continuing. “He bribed a helicopter pilot to take me back to the place where Badenhorst was killed.”

***

All the troops gathered to say goodbye to the young Himba boy. In the two years he had spent in the camp, he had grown into a handsome young lad, much loved by everyone. In his now almost-excellent English, he thanked them all, giving a little speech that brought tears to many battle-hardened eyes. The captain was busy telling him how much they’ll miss him, when a camouflaged Land Rover drove up and the brigadier in command of the area stepped out.

Everybody knew Brigadier Knoetze: he was a fierce little man with an extremely short temper, A disciplinarian to the core, he was feared and respected by all. Knoetze held up a hand and the captain faltered, stepped back, and waited for the rebuke.

“The war is over, men.” Surprisingly, Knoetze’s voice carried a note of sad resignation. “It has been hard for all of us – the killing, fighting,..the uncertainty and death. You’ll go home with many memories you’d rather forget, but cannot. It is hard to find something good to say about our time up here in South West Africa…”

The brigadier scanned the young faces in front of him, his gaze finally coming to rest on the Himba boy’s worried frown.

“You chaps have kept this boy hidden in your camp every time I came here. You transgressed a number of military laws in doing so, and I should have had you all court marshalled – especially you, Sergeant Ben, and the captain.” His last words carried much of his well-know barking style.

“But you know,” he says in a softer tone, “all is fair in love and war. Especially in love. In this godforsaken, horrible time, you men have found kindness in your hearts. I knew about the boy from the start – that is a commanding officer’s duty, after all. And I saw the effect it had on you all. This boy,” he pointed at the child, “brought sanity to your lives. He reminded you of the importance of kindness and caring. That, in my opinion, will sustain you when you go home. You’ll remember him, and you’ll know that your future doesn’t belong to hatred and violence.

“Now I know, Sergeant, that you plan to steal a helicopter to try and find his village. This is, to say the least, highly irregular. And since you all,” and here he swept his hand to include the whole assembly, “aided, abetted and helped to break military laws – which now includes hijacking an aircraft of the state – some disciplinary steps will have to be taken.

“After serious consideration, I suggest that every one of you sign a debit order for a monthly deduction from your future salaries for the sum of R 50…every month for ten years. I shall see to it that you each get the information and account number of the Himba Trust, which I have established. The proceeds will go to this young man and his village, and its aim is to further their level of education.” The brigadier paused before adding softly: “I’m informed that he is a rather sharp lad. It is your duty now, Sergeant, to establish the whereabouts of his village, so that we know where to send the money. Is that clear?”

Sergeant Ben gaped at the man at first, not believing his ears. Then he nodded, smiling as he snapped to a smart salute.

“Now Captain, see to it that this rebellious group of men disperse orderly and quietly after the helicopter has taken off. I’d then like to see you in the bar. And if the men won’t mind, I’d like them to join us.”

***

“I cried a lot. Many men cried a little, too. We hugged and said nice things. Then Sergeant Ben picked me up and carried me to the helicopter. I remember reaching up to wipe a tear from his cheek. Funny, that. The two things I remember best about him are the thump of the bullet against his chest, and that single, large tear. Oh, I remember many other things as well, of course. But those two I’ll never forget.”

***

IMG_2165They found the place of the skirmish quite easily, after which the boy recognised some landmarks, leading them back to the village. They landed outside the thorn-branch perimeter. Neither the boy, nor Sergeant Ben, knew exactly what to expect – the boy had been missing for two years, and how much could have changed in all that time? Would the villagers welcome them? Would there be anger?

Miriam, the First Wife, appeared at the gateway, uncertain about the sudden arrival of an air force helicopter. By then, the villagers had become hostile to all the sides in the war, and were afraid that these soldiers only meant more trouble. Miriam did not realise that this was the last operation of the SADF in the war, and fighting and bloodshed had no part in it.

Then she saw her son.

***

“Mama forgot all about etiquette and custom in the moment she recognised me. She shouted out, she laughed, she went crazy. She ran towards me, calling the other villagers to come out. And then she knelt in front of me, touching my face to see if I’m real. And then she, too, cried.”

***

Sergeant Ben said a hasty goodbye, telling the boy he had to return to base as soon as possible. Miriam tried to persuade him to stay; they’re going to slaughter a cow, she said, and have a feast to celebrate. No, the sergeant said gently, it was time to go. He said he wasn’t good with farewells, and it was better to leave immediately.

Then, after a long, tender moment, he took the chain from his neck; the one with a spent bullet dangling from it.

“This is the bullet from the Bible, son. This is what brought us together. I want you to have it. Keep it. Maybe it’ll remind you that the world isn’t such a bad place; that even bad things can have good results. And one day, if ever we meet again, you can tell me it brought you good luck. Now go to your mother. I have to go.”

And with that, Sergeant Ben turned on his heel and marched back to the waiting helicopter.

***

“And that was the last I saw of Sergeant Ben. I was eight years old, a child still, but I was already a man at heart. I waved until the helicopter disappeared over the hills. And then I had to tell my story to my family.

“We had a tremendous feast for three days, during which I had to tell and retell everything. It was an amazing experience.”

***

IMG_2202The years flew by. The money from the Himba Trust started coming in; an astounding amount that saw the establishment of a small school near the village. The boy was a diligent student and eventually enrolled in a course to study conservation. He also married his sweetheart and is already the father of a strong little boy.

“…and now I’m a ranger in the Etosha Game Reserve. My life has turned out well.” He digs into his pouch to produce a gold chain with a bullet dangling from it. “Two months ago, I was talking to one of the tourists. That’s when I heard what happened to Sergeant Ben, and that’s why I knew I had to return this bullet. I had to do it the Himba way, see? The way he saved me, the way he looked after me.

“So I dressed like my custom dictates. I didn’t want to use transport – I walked. It is our way of showing respect. A man that wants to show his love and appreciation, doesn’t look for the easy way out. If you do it the hard way, you do it right, even if it means walking a thousand miles. I did it…for Sergeant Ben. I owe my life to him, after all.”

“So what did you hear?” It’s Servaas who can’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What happened to Sergeant Ben?”

The Himba man takes a deep breath. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, if you don’t mind. It’s been a long day, and I’ve come far. Please?”

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 (# 2)

IMG_2565 copyThe Himba man fingers his necklace made of ostrich shell fragments, collecting his thoughts. Although he will never forget the events of those days, it is important that he tells the story right, In the Himba tradition, personal opinion and partial recounting of history is frowned upon. History, he knows, can so easily become an emotional affair when people choose to forget what really happened. If Gertruida could have read his mind right now, she’d tell him what a mess Western society has made of telling their children about the past.

***

The three men and their little hostage huddled inside the First House, their eyes slowly adjusting to the semi-darkness. The boy wanted to cry out, but a rough hand covered his mouth.

“No sound!” The hissed command made him whimper in fear.

The four soldiers on horseback knew they were hiding somewhere in the kraal – they’ve been following the spoor for six hours now, the horses rapidly gaining on their quarry. Although they were young (Lieutenant Badenhorst being the oldest at twenty-one), they were viewed as veterans in the border war after spending eighteen months in the area. The rough terrain, the villages, the hardship – they knew all about the region they had to patrol on a weekly basis.

Badenhorst also knew Miriam, the First Wife. He was the one who brought much needed medicine a month or so ago, when the children in the kraal suffered from gastroenteritis. He cantered up to the kraal’s gate, got down, and asked permission to enter.

“Good morning,” he greeted in Himba. “Did you sleep well?”

Miriam nodded, but didn’t respond by asking him the same. Her eyes slowly turned to the First House before she shook her head.

“All quiet here, Miriam? No strange men around?”

This time she answered, saying ‘No’ loud enough for the men inside the hut to hear.

“Be well, then, Miriam. We’ll be back next week or so.” Badenhorst bent down, shook her hand, and left the kraal to join the others waiting at the gate. Then they galloped off.

***

“He knew, of course,” the Himba man says with a sly smile, “and he knew that a gun battle inside the kraal would wreak havoc. Such a confrontation would kill women and children, something he certainly didn’t want to do.”

“I can understand that,” Gertruida chips in, “because the South African army relied heavily on the goodwill of the local people. The fight against the terrorists was a delicate one: while SWAPO insurgents often coerced villagers to supply food and shelter, the army tried to maintain good relations with the indigenous population.”

“It was like that,” the man seems relieved to have Gertruida’s confirmation. “So when the horses galloped off, Miriam waited until they were out of sight before telling the men to leave her house and release the boy.”

***

Badenhorst and his companions didn’t leave, of course. They knew the men they had followed were hiding in the kraal. They set up an ambush about an hour’s walk in the direction the men had been fleeing, and waited. From behind the rocks alongside the track, it should have been easy to eliminate the three men.

Should have been.

In war, there are many should-have-beens: carefully planned operations that turn out to be much more complicated than when originally plotted. Badenhorst found out this was one of those.

When the three men appeared around the rocks – on the track leading to the ambush – Badenhorst drew in his breath sharply. The men had kept their hostage! They, too, were veterans, knowing that the horsemen wouldn’t give up that easily. They also knew the soldiers wouldn’t kill an innocent boy and in doing so alienate the villagers forever. Their best protection, they reckoned, would be the child.

They were right.

Badenhorst signalled the others to keep out of sight and allow the little procession pass. They regrouped afterwards to discuss their options.

“We could have picked them off,” the youngest of them complained. “I had a clear shot at the leader.”

“I know.” Frustration etched Badenhorst’s words. “But there was a risk that the boy could have been injured or killed. We can’t afford that.” He sighed as he stared down at the footprints on the sandy track. “We’ll just have to follow them. They’re clearly heading for the Kunene and the safety of Angola – but they have quite a way to go still. Maybe they’ll let the boy go. Or maybe we can surprise them during the night. Whatever…we can’t let them get away with this.”

***

“You see, we were caught between the horns of a strong bull.” The Himba man nods his thanks as Boggel places a new bottle of water in front of him. “There were SWAPO men. There were White soldiers. And we…we never understood what they were fighting about. The SWAPO people had many Ovambos with them, but also many men from other countries. Why would somebody from the other side of the ocean come to Kaokoland to fight there? What was so important? And the South Africans? What were they doing in our country? Surely their country is big enough to have their own battles there?

“The Himba have always been peaceful. We settle our own disputes. We don’t steal. We don’t kill people. We have our own courts to sort out problems. We don’t need men in uniforms to tell us what to do…” He sighs heavily, shaking his head in long-forgotten anger. “But that got changed by the war. We didn’t want to be part of it – yet we had no choice.”

***

Miriam had to do something. The three men had taken one of the boys – surely there can be no bigger crime in the world than that? She called one of the bigger boys and told him to take a message to her husband. This was a man-problem; he had to take care of that.

***

IMG_2478Badenhorst walked his horse on the spoor of the fleeing men. They were only a mile or so ahead, but the rough terrain shielded Badenhorst and his men. Even so, they proceeded with caution.

“He’s getting tired.” Badenhorst stared down at the tracks. “His dragging his feet. Poor bugger, can’t be more than six years old…”

The sound of a low whistle interrupted him. When he looked up, he saw one of the men pointing.

Ahead, just visible above the low trees, a faint column of smoke rose in the air.

“They’re heading for a rendezvous… Damn it! We’re on our way to one of their camps!”

***

“Yes they took me to a camp. There were many other men there. They laughed and pointed at me, speaking a language I didn’t understand. Then a big man – they called him The Cuban – tied my hands and feet, like you tie up a goat before you slaughter it. I was terrified – I thought they wanted to eat me, but they made me sit under a tree  while they talked. They pointed in the direction they came.

“I didn’t understand. Not then…and I still don’t. Why didn’t they let me go? Were they afraid that Miriam would tell the soldiers something they already knew? It became clear to me: if I didn’t escape, I’d die. And…if I did escape, they’d raid the village. At least, that was my line of thought. I was six years old, abducted from my home, and very, very scared.”

Gertruida puts a hand on his shoulder, telling him that many young men – even boys – were taken from villages in those days to swell the ranks of the insurgents. “Who knows how many? And how many died in the fighting? There must be quite a number of families in Kaokoland with similar experiences.”

“Yes. Later – only later did I hear of such things. Many died, that’s true. But I didn’t.”

“Come on,” Vetfaan urges him on good-naturedly. “what happened next?”

The man smiles at Vetfaan’s impatience. “The whole camp – everybody – started disappearing into the bush, leaving me tied to the tree. This I understood. I’ve watched older boys in the village preparing traps for jackals and other vermin.

“They knew the horsemen would try to rescue me. And I…I was the bait…”