The stylish and silky smooth British pop music of Spandau Ballet filled my head via the earphones attached to the Walkman on my chest. I lay on my back, eyes closed, thinking of the movie we had seen last night: Endless Love. Brooke Shields, man, was she hot! It had inspired me to write a letter to Avril, a girl I had met at my Matric dance. We had become friends over the past year since then, and although I had fallen in and out of love with her a thousand times I had never said anything to her. Using my copy of Shakespeare’s complete works I had written a poem to her, comparing her to a jewel on an Ethiop’s ear and so on. Sweet and flowery and overly-dramatic, that was me! Hah! Well one day some girl would appreciate it and she would be the one for me! I had posted it straight after brunch and now, during siesta, was contemplating the joys of love.
“Swany. Can I use my Walkman, please?” Someone lifted the earpiece. I looked up from the floor of the Intelligence Room where I was stretched out at Hakkinen. His imitation mousy-brown, George Benson moustache twitched nervously.
“Sure, thanks for the use, bud. I have got to get this album when I get home, hey! Its bril!””
I got up, handing him the set and stretched like a cat, arching my back and meowing in pleasure. John-boy Walker, whom we had nicknamed after the character in the Waltons, shoved his glasses up the ridge of his nose and laughed. “Hey, pussycat. Would you like some milk?” he said, offering me his coffee cup. I liked John; we shared a love for the written word and swapped books, doubling our supply. The only thing that irritated me about him was that as voracious a reader as he was, he smoked just as much. To make it worse he smoked Chestofsteels, Chesterfields. They were strong and pungent and stunk our room out, both here at the office and where we slept. Between the coloured chefs’ drunken parties next door and John-boy’s chain-smoking, I really did not get much sleep. I slinked up to him, purring, and then lifted my leg, pretending to mark my territory. He cackled away merrily while Hakkinen shook his head and commented loudly, “You two are so gay!” The door swung open and in came Lieutenant Dreyer with Knicklebein. We jumped to attention. But Dreyer waved us down.
“At ease, manne, at ease. I told you before, once you’ve greeted me in the morning you can relax. This is an operational base. We do things differently from the training bases back in the States. You’ll drive yourself bossies if you carry on like that. You are soldiers now. Just do your job: kill ters and keep you and your maatjie alive. That’s it. Verstaan julle? Do you understand, hey?”
“Ja, Luitenant!” we shouted simultaneously. Dreyer flinched, shook his head and mumbled about “rowes”.
“Luister,” he said, sweeping his beret off and collapsing into his chair. “Holt-Smith and Green have arrived at Buffalo Battalion safely. Now, the news you four are really waiting for! You will leaving for Two-Zero-One Battalion at o-five hundred hours on Monday.” We erupted into protest. “Bly stil! Captain Swart is still out on Ops so the base commandant has negotiated with Omega and you will be joining them. I know you ouens like this base but you don’t know Captain Swart. Captain Blackie Swart. You can thank genade that you are leaving before he gets here. He would have kept you here and then you would have kaked.” He was quiet for a moment and then he looked at us and said, “Let I show you something.”
Dreyer got up, unhooking a bunch of keys from his web belt and moved across the room to the dark gray filing cabinets at the end of the room. He selected a key with a number painted on it with white typex and slid it into the lock of a cabinet. We all stood at a distance unsure as whether to approach or remain where we were. He ruffled through the top drawer of the cabinet, flipping through the files until he grunted with satisfaction and pulled a file out. He then closed the cabinet, relocked it and waved us to the table in front of the large Ops map. We all pulled up chairs and sat down whereupon he looked hard at each of us for a minute and then began to speak.
“You ouens are aware that anything that is discussed in this room is to be regarded as Top Secret?” he said gesturing to the various posters attached to the walls with yellowing tape. They all propagated the dangers of the loose tongue and the fact that the very walls they were stuck to had ears. “If found guilty of revealing or passing on secret information you can end up in a military prison or in front of a firing squad!” He paused, again giving each of us another hard look, and then he continued. “The …um, rede … oh, the reason I are telling you this is because what I are showing you is not to leave this room! Verstaan! Understand?”
“Ja, Luitenant!” This time he did not flinch, he did not even blink. He rubbed his moustache and then looked down at the file. We all followed his gaze down to the file before him. Across the cover was stamped: Geheim/Secret. In red. Handwritten in black ink were the words: Operasie Koevoet.
“Do you ouens know what or who Koevoet is?”
Knicklebein, always the paraat, gung-ho one of the group, put up his hand and said, “Lieutenant, isn’t it the SWA Police Force?”
“Soort van, Knicklebein, sort van. Its eintelik a SAP unit serving here in Suidwes. Like us dienspligters, hey. Although, there are a lot of former Rhodesian soldiers and Suidwes Swartes also in Koevoet. Koevoet is responsible for security inside Southwest while the Weermag must neutralize SWAPO in Angola. But anyway, it all began in 1979 as Operasie Koevoet, or Crowbar for you Engelse lighties. Anyway their job was to um… teeninligting?”
”Counter-insurgency?” Again Knicklebein.
“Ja, they had to work at getting info from the PB’s. You know, the local population, hey? Anyway, that is what Captain Swart specializes in. Getting information. He learnt what he knows from working with those guys”
“With all respect, Lieutenant, but we are Commops soldiers. Isn’t that what we’re trained for?” John-boy asked.
“Luister, does! I’m not talking about handing sweets out here and telling the PB’s that the SADF is sharp. I’m talking about fokking interrogation, hey.” With that he opened the file. “This is a ongoing operation. Here, look at this photos while I tell you a story.”
Knicklebein (who else) grabbed the photographs, and began looking at them, passing each one on as he finished with them. Dreyer continued in that soft, accented voice of his while we looked at the photographs. Knicklebein’s face went from reflecting keen interest to pale disbelief and then to a grim mask. Like a shared yawn, this passed around the table to each of us as we looked at what the photographs depicted. Dreyer’s youthful face, however, remained deadpan, hidden behind his bristling moustache, his eyes looking deep within, hooded.
“Soos ek se, this operation with Koevoet. Captain Swart is still strongly involved and is a big pel of old Sterk Hans, the bevelvoerder of Koevoet. A lot of Owambo’s are involved. Information is gathered, arrests made, prisoners interrogated and then to hunt down the SWAPO insurgents even if it means cross-border raids. Here in the Caprivi Kaptein Swart is the one who works with Three-Two Battalion and Koevoet, but as you can see from those photos his specialty is interrogation”.
Dreyer’s words faded away as the true import of what I was seeing struck me, numbing my senses as I tried to get my mind around what I was looking at. It started with a photograph of a police Casspir. From the sandbags in the background with the volleyball net in the foreground I knew it to be the area just outside the Intelligence Ops Room. Here! The photographs went on to show an emaciated man with a hemp sack over his head being dragged from the Casspir by two tall, inky-black, Owambo Koevoet policemen. At sometime during his trip he must have wet himself because the crotch showed dark against his ragged trousers. Looking on were a White policeman in camouflage and an Intelligence officer. A captain. They had dragged him into the room, his dusty, reed-like arms bound behind his back. I found myself looking at the floor to see if I could see the scuffmarks where his feet scraped along the wood. They had placed him in a chair in the corner of the room where the sink was. It was where we made coffee. I could quite clearly make out the kettle that whistled to let you know that the water was boiling. They had removed the hood then, exposing the face of an elderly man. He had sunken cheeks with clumps of hair as white as cotton wool on his chin. The few teeth that he had were bared in frozen supplication, his eyes moist with terror. In graphic, grainy, black and white detail, the photographs showed an interrogation. The Intelligence officer placing a cloth sack over the old man’s head and then wetting it with a ladle from a bucket of water. The old man’s contorted chest and twisted body as he tried to breathe through the wet cloth. His mouth wrenched open sucking against the cloth for air. The photographs showed the cloth being lifted away from the old man’s mouth by one of the Owambos so that he could breathe for a moment while the Intelligence officer barked questions at him.
“Wet t-shirt night,” the thought buzzed through my head and I very nearly burst into, unhinged and hysterical laughter.
“… the PB lead them to kraal where they were revved as they approached. They killed a ter and chased the rest into the bush and then waited for Three-Two to send a tracking team and Ratels from Buffalo.”
The photographs then changed subject as if to match Dreyer’s commentary. There was a line of three Casspirs on a dirt road ready to sweep the bush in search of SWAPO. Then two Army, Three-Two Battalion, Ratels approached beyond the Casspirs. Photographs then jumped from vehicles on the move, to the trackers on the ground, to an Alouette gunship hovering above. Then to the soldiers, Koevoet and Three-Two, standing over a line of bodies. Soulless and broken, piles of befouled clothing and damaged, dark fruit. I flipped past the photograph quickly. Huts partially destroyed, smoking ruins. Weapons, mimicking their owners, lying in lines in the dirt. The Intelligence officer standing holding a SAM-7 missile launcher. Another of him leaning over a dead ter. Doing what I did not care to know.
I had no wish to see anymore and began to pass the photographs on without studying them. My head was filled with the images of those photographs and spun wildly, nauseatingly. Slowly, through the thudding in my throbbing head, Dreyer’s voice continued.
“… killed fifteen with no casualties on our side and recovered a kakhuis-vol weapons. Like I said, the man is good at his job. Genadeloos. Merciless. You ouens go to Omega. You’ll probably end up teaching at the Bushmen school there. See out your diensplig. I don’t think you want to be part of Captain Swart’s war. Soms … ek dink … I think he is the Devil! Dank die Vader that I have min dae left in this place!” Dreyer lapsed into silence. A long silence. Uncomfortable with portent. Then with a sigh he got up, placed the photographs back in the file and returned them to the cabinet.
“Manne, we deserve a drink! Pielneus Swany, you confused Engelsman half-breed, your round! Dis mos jou verjaarsdag more … your birthday tomorrow? Kom, you all owe me a drink for saving you from this place, hey.”
We all decided then and there that Dreyer was a decent sort (for an Afrikaans looty), that we were happy not to be staying at Rundu, and that we were especially happy not to be meeting Captain Swart. Captain Swart, I thought it rather ironic that his name in Afrikaans meant black, thus the nickname, Blackie.
Tomorrow I would be nineteen.
Dawn arrived and with it Lieutenant Dreyer and a Samel 20. The Lieutenant to say farewell and the Samel to take us to our final destination: Omega Base. I stepped out of our room, balsak over one shoulder and personal bag over the other, and squinted up as the tiffie hooted. I headed over to the Samel, a South
African version of the Bedford. Who said sanctions would cripple us? If no one would sell it to us, we would build it ourselves! I threw my balsak onto the back of the truck and turned to join the others who were saying farewell to Lieutenant Dreyer. A salute, a handshake and we were off again, leaving with the normal promises to keep in contact, to share a drink sometime. Despite the hour, we passed through a base that was already a hive of activity. In truth it never really slept.
“I’ll never get used to those sandbags everywhere,” said John-boy, puffing on his first cigarette of the day. “I kept on expecting to hear someone shout ‘Incoming!’ I’m glad to be leaving. Especially after that Koevoet story.”
“Ja, that bloody gunship also drove me nuts.” I said as it passed overhead. “I don’t think that I had more than two hours sleep a night. The Coloured guys next door didn’t help. Boy, they could drink, hey.”
“Better that than SWAPO in our beds, hey.” Said Knicklebein from underneath his bushhat. He had already assumed the position on top of his balsak.
We lapsed into silence as the Samel, following the convoy, roared out onto the dirt road known as the Golden Highway. It would take us from Rundu, over the Okavango River, past Buffalo or Three-Two Battalion to Omega or Two-Zero-One Battalion. This was some two hundred kilometers away. A breeze considering the distances we had become accustomed to traveling recently. However, due to the fact that there had been a lot of terrorist activity in the area lately, the going was slow. Once we had to wait almost an hour while the sappers cleared the road ahead of us for mines. There was also a considerable wait at the Okovango Bridge crossing while the civi vehicles ahead of us were searched. But eventually we arrived at Omega, well after o-eighteen hundred hours. The base was situated in a nature reserve and twinkled like a welcoming campfire in the dark as we approached. We pulled up at the gate: two huge chunks of timber meeting above us with a large disc with a picture of a black and white crow on it hanging from thick chains. Two Bushmen troops checked our Army I.D.’s and then waved us through. Everywhere one looked there were dark wooden-slat buildings with zinc roofs. Immediately around the huts was well-maintained grass, separated, like islands, by the thick sand. We pulled up into a parking area and we were there. The end of our journey.
We jumped down from the back of the Samel, stretching and dusting off all the kinks, knots and dust collected during a full day of traveling. The BB’s, Boonzaier and Boshof, the drivers, came around to the back of the truck to offload their bags and the mail collected from Rundu. We put on our berets, grabbed our bags and hurried after the two.
Boonzaier looked back at us and said, “Oukei. That’s the menasie over there. We’re in time for grub so just put your bags by the door and follow me. One of the guys here will tell you where your kimbo is.”
“Kimbo? What’s a kimbo?” I asked, sticking close to Boonzaier.
“It’s what the Bushmen call these huts. Don’t be nervous, broer. Fok, kalm, kalm.”
“I’m not nervous,” I denied, not very convincingly.
All four of us halted at the entrance in disbelief. The dining hall looked like a restaurant. Tablecloths, candles, cutlery and even crockery! The tables were round and seated four on wooden chairs around each of them. There were even flowers on the tables! Strange, inquisitive eyes turned toward us. Avoiding them I made after the BB’s. There were commissioned and non-commissioned officers eating with troops here! And women! Some were even in civi clothes! If the food was halfway decent this could be heaven! Soon we were seated and devouring heaped, steaming plates of delicious roast potatoes, crisp vegetables and succulent lamb, wiping our plates with freshly made bread. Heaven! We all decided that this was going to be a good place to stay. John-boy and Hakkinen were enjoying a second cup of coffee while Knicklebein and I were arguing about the pros and cons of weight training for rugby when a dark haired, friendly-faced man of our age and in civis came up to the table. We looked up; I noted that the “menasie” was very nearly empty as he began to speak.
“Is julle Engels of Afrikaans?” he asked.
“English.” We chorused.
“Thank goodness,” he said, rolling his eyes. “The name is Hans Martens. Welcome to Omega. If you gentlemen are finished, I’ll take you to where you will be sleeping. We should hurry though. The Looties will be waiting for us.”
We followed after him, grabbing our bags at the entrance and then began to trudge through the thick, beach-like sand. We passed through what were the admin buildings, crossed what passed for a road, and headed toward what was the troops accommodation. It looked like a little village in the dark, all these wooden houses in this white sand, with warm light glowing through the chinks in the walls and doors. Martens, in a joking fashion, acted as our tour guide. I immediately liked him.
“If you follow this road that way it will take you to where they are building the VOS. That is the Commandant’s wife’s project. One of you will be assigned to her. Count on it. Past that are where the Bushys stay. If you go that way it will take you to the married PF’s houses. Ahead are the troops’ kimbos. There are two bathrooms with showers but as you can see the water is heated by fires,” he said, pointing out a large moss green, concrete building with what looked to be a furnace at the rear of it. Coals glowed in the night. “So it is best to shower as early as you can. The fires are lit at five in the mornings and evenings. That noise you can hear is the jenny. That provides power, but you’ll get used to it quickly so don’t worry.”
Martens had a slight accent that I could not quite place. It was not Afrikaans I was sure of that. His next question, however, afforded me the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.
“Where are you guys from?” he asked.
“I’m from Durban. Oh, I’m Andrew Swanepoel, by the way,” I said. “Swany,” I repeated looking at his face. I was used this. “Call me Swany. Everybody does. That’s Rian Knicklebein from Grahamstown, John Walker from Johannesburg and Ivor Hakkinen from Nelspruit.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you gents. As I said, I’m Hans and I’m from Windhoek.”
“Oh, that explains the accent. Are you German?” I asked.
“I’m from German descent. We speak it at home, but I’m pretty much English. Don’t tell my parents I said that though. That will be your kimbo over there. We sniffeltiffies are put in the last two rows furtherest from the mess hall. Along with the tiffies, chefs and clerks. We’re not really regarded as soldiers here. More as onnies. You know, teachers.”
We entered the kimbo, which was a room with a concrete floor and contained four bunks and four small, green staalkaste.
“Just dump your bags down and come with me. We’re running a little late. They’re waiting for us. Close the door. Don’t worry, your stuff will be fine. We’re just over there. Tomorrow you can buy a lock from the shop.”
Our kimbo was in the second-to-last row while the one we headed toward was in the last row and far larger then ours. Music was coming from the open door as well as loud laughter and voices. Martens entered ahead of us, greeting those within. We followed after. The air was hazy with cigarette smoke and the room filled with men in civies.
“Fellow onnies and other invited ou manne. Luitenante. These are the new Intelligence troops. Swanepoel, Walker, Knickle …um…?” he introduced us.
“Knicklebein,” we chorused.
“Knicklebein. And … Hakkinen!” he said, triumphantly. “These are the heads of Omega School: Lieutenants Van Niekerk and Bouwer.”
“Louis Van Niekerk. Aangename kennis.”
“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant. Andy Swanepoel.”
“Charl Bouwer. Aangenaam.”
“Pieter Retief. He works at the school.”
We were introduced to a myriad of faces and names. Even the BB’s, Boonzaier and Boshof were there. A brief handshake and an exchange of names and then we passed on to the next one. There were at least ten or eleven people in addition to us in that kimbo. Cans of beer and bottles of rum and coke littered the tables in the room. From glasses of the dark, frothy mix a heady sweet perfume rose in to the air to mix with smoke wafting from cigarettes. Pervading this seemingly party-atmosphere, however, was a sense of anticipation, which made me uneasy. They seemed to be like a crowd at a rugby test match, or a prizefight, with a minute to go before the physical contest began. The expectation of bloodlust. I looked for Martens; he stood at the back of the room talking to two others. I tried to make eye contact but he would not look this way. The four of us stood at the entrance, not quite sure what to do. This situation did not last for long. Unfortunately. Lieutenant Van Niekerk stepped out of the group towards us. Without him saying a word all talking ceased.
He addressed us in his heavily accented English. “I will speak English to you verkenners so that there will be no misunderstandings.” His handsome, tanned face was flushed with alcohol. “Tonight is your ontgroening. Your welcome to the Grens, if you will.” Some of the others behind him tittered at that, all stood with carnivore grins on their faces. Wet teeth and shining eyes. “Tonight is your initiation and will teach you to respect ou manne; with or without rank. It is also a welcome to the SWA Gebiedsmag, The SWA Territorial Forces. It will remind you that you are in a place where you can fucking die at any second. Because, and this is important to remember, you know less than fuckall! Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” we mumbled.
“Reg! Let’s get you looking less like civvies and more like grensvegters. Martens, waars daardie haarknipper? I don’t want it! Fuck! You, tiffie! Boshof, cut their hair. A Number One.”
Boshof, grinning away, reeking of Squadron Red Rum, or was it Captain Morgan’s, began sheering us like sheep? I chose a spot on the back of the wall to stare at: a poster of Olivia Newton-John, the Neutron bomb, from my favourite movie, Grease.
“Fuck off now and get into full kit. Staaldak, webbing and bring the fire buckets by your kimbo. Am I stuttering? What are you waiting for? Fok-off! Julle het een minuut! One minute.”
“Here we go,” I said.
“Fucking Boneheads!” cursed Knicklebein.
And so we were welcomed to Omega.
In a night of surreal staccato images, briefly illuminated against the inky darkness around us, we were shown the base. Stumbling and staggering, we were chased along a dirt road to the little school by a Gary full of drunken ou manne. But instead of glasses of rum and coke we carried buckets of sand, one in each hand. There we chewed our first course of anti-malaria tablets while our chests heaved with the exertion of our activities. Our mouths full of incredibly bitter paste we were then herded back to the kimbo. The occupants of the jeep changed while we were each forced to down the contents of a water bottle. Alongside me John-boy began to vomit uncontrollably, heaving out great gout of water and chunks of his recent meal. This added to the merriment of the evening. Before the smell of the puke could get to me and I began heaving, I grabbed my buckets in my blistered hands and struggled through the cursed, thick, clutching sand.
“Come on! Lets get this over with! Where to next?” I shouted in defiance.
“You wait there, you fucking roef!” someone shouted, as Knicklebein and Hakkinen joined me. Walker, in the meantime had been lead into the kimbo.
This time we were taken in the opposite direction, past the airfield, to a large building made of entirely of ash blocks, the only one in the entire base apparently. This was the base shop. It was huge. A fact that we could definitely verify as we were forced to run around it at least five times, much to the merriment of the two Bushmen guards stationed there. It was as large as any supermarket like Checkers back in the States. When we finally got back to the kimbo, Hakkinen gasped out those dreaded words that troops hate and the rank love.
“Ek kan nie meer nie, Luitenant! I can’t any more!” A cry of submission, in much the same way as a dog grovels before an alpha male. Instructors loved to hear that! Knicklebein and I stood doubled over at the doorway on legs like jelly, heaving like horses, hearts pounding. Hakkinen was taken inside to much jeering and laughter.
Martens and Lieutenant Van Niekerk came out to join us as the drunken voices from the jeep rumbled past, swaying like sailors and joined the other drunken voices inside. The air wafting out from the kimbo was thick with cigarette smoke, sweat and the stench of Cap’ees rum. There was a clang of a kleinkas door sliding open.
“Kook, kook, Ou Manne! Dis nou twaalfuur!” John-boy’s voice announced to much hilarity.
The Lieutenant and Martens grinned, gesturing us to follow.
“Your maatjie Walker has been playing cuckoo clock for the Ou Manne,” Lieutenant Van Niekerk said, pointing to a green steel cabinet, which had been dragged out to the middle of the room. Inside it was John-boy, crammed into the hanging side of the cabinet. “Okay, Walker, get out of there. Hakkinen, get in.”
“I can’t do that. I get claustrophobic. I just can’t, Lieutenant.” Hakkinen shook his head fearfully, disbelieving, exhaustion etched in dark lines on his face.
“Clausta-para-poes-tophobic! Klim die fok in daai kas! Walker, uit!” the Lieutenant screamed at him to the loud jeers of the bleary-eyed group sprawled on the beds and the chairs in the kimbo. John-boy crawled out of the cabinet with obvious relief. “Hakkinen get in that kas! Now!”
I watched in disbelief as Hakkinen, who was visibly shaking, climbed into the cabinet like a dog being put into a bath, all stiff limbs and tail between the legs. Van Niekerk lunged forward and slid the door closed behind Hakkinen with a rattle and a clash. I shook my head, looking across at Knicklebein.
“Luister, jou maatjie-naaier! Every half hour you must open that door and give us a time report and God help you if you have the wrong time! En julle twee! What are you shaking your heads for? Praat! Talk!”
Knicklebein, his lips tight and pale shook his head again and said, “I’m not getting in a kas.”
“Me neither!” I said, vehemently. “Lieutenant, sir,” I added.
He glared balefully at us. “Hans, get these two fokkers outside and give them a opfok! Dries, go with them! Fok net weg! Boshof, waar is my spook en diesel? My drink, does, my drink!”
“Aandag!” shouted Martens. “Salueer! Omkeer! Loopasmars, a-likja, likja, likja!” We came to attention to Martens’ command, saluted, completed an about-turn and jogged out of the kimbo. “Up the path toward your kimbo! Luitenant, ek vat hulle VOS toe, awrite? Ahlikja, ahlikja!” he called the beat.
Once we were a distance from the onnie kimbo, the one called Dries, tall, thin and extremely drunk, said, “Hans, I’m fucked, shwear. I’m mothered. I need to go dos, ‘kay? Doan tell the Looty, see?” He staggered off, weaving between trees and kimbos, mumbling to himself.
After jogging through the sand between the kimbos we reached what was the main road through the camp. Here Martens called us to a halt.
“Guys, relax. We’re just gonna take a walk to the Vos. The Volwassene Onerig Sentrum. The Adult Education Centre. Mrs. Donald’s baby. The CO’s wife. By the time we get back most of the guys will be gone. Don’t worry, I don’t agree with this sadistic bullshit. Are you two okay?”
We both grunted warily and plodded on with legs rubbery from fatigue. Martens prattled on as we left the buidings behind and headed toward what looked like a watertower in the distance, on top of what passed for a hill in this region.
“Look, guys. I know that you’re probably anti this place now but don’t be. I promise it’s really a rustige camp. Tonight is the worst that will ever happen and it was only because the guys had been drinking that they gave you such an opfok. You know how it is. It was done to them therefore they must do it to you. There are a couple of guys you must avoid. One is that tall, biker-looking Boxberg special, Uys. You know which one I’m talking about? He is a nasty piece of work. Been a PF in the Army for five years and only a one-liner. Has a serious chip on his shoulder about it. Uum, there’s a couple of others but not too many, but I can’t really think of them now. The point is that most of the people are bakgat though. They’re pretty decent. There’s no heavy inspections, there’s only parades on a Friday and most of the time you’re left alone as long as you do your work.”
“And the lootys?” I asked, spitting in an attempt to rid my mouth of the vile bitter taste of the malaria tablets.
“Ag, no they’re awright for rank. Just avoid the two of them when they’ve been drinking.”
We reached the base of what was, in fact, a watertower.
“You see the clearing between those trees?” Martens asked, gesturing toward a group of trees fifty meters to our left. “The VOS is going to be built there. Anyway, come on. I wanna show you the camp from up here.”
He started climbing the metal ladder leading up to top of the watertower. Knicklebein and I looked at each other, shrugged and began climbing. What a strange, surreal, sucker of a day! Another to add to the huge pile that we had experienced in the Army, and more particularly, on the Border. I reached the top and dusted the sand from Knicklebein’s boots from my hair, as he did the same for Martens. I looked up and knew at once that this would be my Place. The enormity and solitary wildness of it stole my breath from me. From this advantage point the Caprivi stretched out for kilometers in any direction. The fact that I could not tell where the Earth met the Heavens only added to the enormity of what surrounded me. It spoke to me. To the Wolf within me, the Wolf that I knew paced about in my psyche. My Spiritual Beast. With difficulty I tore my gaze away from the living darkness that threatened to envelope me. There was a silence and stillness and separation up here that made one think of God, sense Him, and be with Him. I looked down hastily before I was lost. Below I could see the lights of the kimbos to my left and to my right, in the distance, lights and a number of fires, campfires.
“That’s the Bushies’ camp.” I jumped. Martens was pointing in the direction I was looking. “You must come up here on a weekend night. They start their church on Friday and it only ends on Sunday. You’ll hear the drums most of the weekend. They dance round and round a fire, even old aunties, for hours. I’ll take you there sometime. They call to you. Challenging you to dance. Makua. That’s what they call Whites.”
“What kind of religion do they practice?” I asked.
Martens shook his head, “Bush Baptist, I’m not sure. It’s weird. You must avoid their camp on paydays though. They get mortared. The Bushy soldiers are allowed a ration of a case of beer. They put it on the coals of a fire and drink it like coffee. It fucks them up six-love.”
“You’re fucking me!” Knicklebein said, incredulous.
“No. Njannies, trues bob! I’ve seen them. Just last week we had a case of one of the Bushy soldiers cutting another one’s ear off for sleeping with his wife. Sometimes there are even gunshots, even though all live ammo is supposed to be handed in at the armoury when they return from Ops.”
“Where do they come from? The Bushmen, I mean. I didn’t even know they existed up here. I thought Bushmen were only in the Kalahari Desert,” I asked.
“No, there are Caprivi Bushmen. The Two-Zero-One is made up of them and Portuguese and Bushmen refugees from Angola. And then there is us, the White leadership group. That’s what the crow symbolizes, the Black and White. There are also crows deluxe here so never leave your kimbo doors open or they’ll steal stuff.”
“You’re fucking me!” Knicklebein said, for something to say.