Dear Reader, bear with me as I attempt to capture what it was like to be up in South West Africa, and involved in what was known as the Border War, in a conflict situation. Bear with me as many years have passed since then. Trust that I have done my best to make it as accurate as possible but that it is clouded by time and my personal perceptions.
When I was seven or eight years of age I had to have a couple of teeth pulled, in addition I also had to have a number filled as well. This was because in the 60’s dental care was not high on most South Africans’ priorities list, especially not on the list of a widow with two children and no medical aid. This and the fact that I had taken numerous courses of antibiotics for my asthma, had resulted in my teeth being weakened and in a poor state. Due to the amount of work that had to be done on them, I had to be put under: anesthetized. Going under in itself is not unpleasant: a doctor with an engaging manner, a slight buzzing in the head and an attempt to count backwards from ten: lights out. But, oh Lord, post-op! Throbbing, aching brain, throat, mouth, stomach: vertigo, a plea to disappear back into the bliss of sleep. Man, the nausea! Vomiting up a bucket full of swallowed blood! Awakening after a night of heavy drinking feels much like awakening in a post-op room, and hangovers for me will always be hybrids of that childhood episode. This one was one of my first and probably my worst. I awoke from a tortured dream of cats, wild-eyed and bloodied mouthed, chasing me through an apocalyptic, urban landscape. I ran through apartment buildings and across vacant, rubble-strewn lots while a howling, torrent of fur, teeth and claws boiled after me, slashing and clawing at my legs.
I awoke floating in a pool of nausea, agony and mortal discomfort: human waste floating in a septic tank. I was sweating huge, oily drops of poison from my reeking body. A tongue, swollen and scum-covered, filled my mouth past which my foul breath rattled up from a throat that felt as if it had been sliced into ribbons from within. The worst, however, were the distorted, twisted images that filled my head in place of what should have been my memory of the events of the last twelve hours. It was as though some vile beast had inhabited my body for this time, casting me aside. Lycanthropy, beast at nightfall and human at dawn: the fear of what you may have done in the form of that shaggy beast, or what may have been done to you is almost debilitating.
I lay there attempting to fall back into the respite that sleep would provide. The pain of my human existence, that unbearable, inescapable flame, however would not allow me that mercy I begged for. So I lay and suffered. It was beginning to lighten outside when I eventually hauled myself from the stench that was my bed. The Moon a pearl in the mollusk that was the morning sky; the rainbow of colours that played against the silver shell of the sky, however, went largely unnoticed by myself. I plodded through the thick sand, towel over my head, concentrating on breathing, walking … existing. Not thinking about the night before. The shower: washing the filth from my hair, like rust in the water. Trying not to think about that red, what it was. Not liking the images it stirred within my mind, like poking a stick into a slimy toad, making it flop about wetly. I closed my eyes, braced myself against the wall; and lifted my face to the water. I opened my mouth, filling it with lukewarm water, swilling, gargling and spitting. The mirror: avoiding contact with the haunted, bruised eyes of the stranger in the mirror. Pale, drawn, haggard. I scrapped my face with shaking hands. I then brushed my teeth twice, scrubbing my tongue, gagging and sucking down what seemed like litres of cold tap water.
Towel over my head I made my way back to my kimbo.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Step. Step. Step.
A day, another day, just another day. Keep on telling yourself that and keep moving.
“That is the type of single-mindedness we will need to win this war! You’re a kaffirboetie, aren’t you, Swanepoel? Look, I don’t hate Blacks, but they are fucking with my country and I will bury them! Along with anybody else who tries to fuck with my way of life.”
Saturday and Sunday were spent washing, scrubbing and cleaning, folding, packing and securing. Gear/kit was checked and re-checked. Little things like ladies stockings were bought or borrowed to be worn to prevent blisters when hiking. Reflective surfaces were dulled with paint or polish. The most comfortable and worn boots, browns, belt, helmet and webbing were selected. Rifles were taken apart and cleaned and re-cleaned; an R4 in most cases, the South African copy of that killing tool, the great AK47. But most of all we lay in the sun and relaxed as best we could or watched videos. The base was preternaturally quiet. We wrote letters to our loved ones as instructed to be left with the CO, just in case. Then we wrote letters to our loved ones, which we left with friends to smuggle out to post when they got Stateside on leave, letters we really wanted them to get should the worst occur. I left mine with Woody.
Tick tock, tick tock! Time as a slow, deliberate, boundless, unbounded, immense weight grinding down upon us until we lay like road kill on the tar of our brown towels. Clad in our underpants, we cooked ourselves in a mixture of oil and brown vinegar like hot chips. We looked like Maoris or Seminoles: dark, primal and of the Tribe. Smelling like fast food restaurants we lay there making monosyllabic conversation, consuming litres of battery acid, orange concentrate, supplied by good old Woody, the chef
.Tick tock, tick tock! Time marked by the stain of the Sun upon our bodies as it tracked across the empyrean blue of the firmament, the shell of the atmosphere above us.
Sunday evening, after supper, most of us assembled in the television room to watch some old Elvis movies that been copied off the BBC and sent to the Camp. This was an Elvis that I had not encountered before: young, lean and mean like a razor, exuding vigor and potency. This was the Elvis of the late Fifties and early Sixties, not the one I had grown up with: the overweight, drug taking, Vegas lounge singer and favourite of parents. Chuck Berry may have been the originator of Rock ‘n Roll but Elvis was the King! In the Texaco Star Theatre in 1956 he gyrated and swiveled his hips and sang Hound Dog and nothing would be the same again. He was the Big Bang of Rock ‘n Roll! For those few hours I almost forgot where I was and what lay ahead of me. Almost. When I slid into bed, my mind raced and I thought that I would never sleep, but the carefree innocence of Kid Galahad and its infectious music soothed me and I slipped into the moist, mossy, saliva-warm enfolds of a dream: Pastor Piet was in his ecclesiastical robe, the royal purple making him appear larger than he was. I sat in a pew surrounded by family and friends. I glanced about me, looking at their smiling faces. Where were my fellow soldiers? The hum of Chaplain Piet’s voice grew louder and louder
“SwanySwany!” Bang! Bang! Chaplain Piet was banging his Bible on the lectern. “Swany! Pay attention! He’s outside. Listen to me! Be careful. He’s outside!”
Everyone began to scream. It was at the door.
Someone was at the door.
I started, awakening, dragging the banging through with me. Dazed, I lay like the victim of some fever.
“Swany?” Woody called.
“Yeah?” I grunted.
“They’re calling you. I think you guys are leaving, my china.”
“Okay. I’m up. I’m up. What time is it?”
“Um, its just after eleven.”
“On Sunday? Night?”
“Ja, you mal-jan, its still Sunday.”
I heard the noise building outside: excited and agitated voices, doors slamming. Someone stomped up the wooden walk to our kimbo door followed by a loud knock.
“Yeah?” I called. Walker opened the door. He was the corporal on duty tonight. He had the ever-present cigarette in his mouth, spectacles perched on the end of his nose which he wrinkled as he squinted through the smoke.
“Swany, you up, my man? You have to tree-aan outside the mess by twenty-three-thirty. With all your gear. Okay?”
“Sure. Thanks, John. I’ll see you down there.” I grabbed my browns off their hanger as Walker thudded away down the walk. “Here we go! Here we go!” I shouted. I heard Woody’s lighter click and saw the flicker of the flame as he lit a cigarette. “Sorry, Woody. I didn’t mean to wake you. It was a tension breaker. Had to happen. C’mon!”
“Naw, I wanted to say cheers to you anyway.” I heard him exhaling and then caught the pungent scent of his Chesterfield.
“Okay. Please don’t forget about the letter, hey?”
“Hey, fuck you, Swany. I’m not going to have to post it. You’re going to be fine. If you…” he grunted as he got out of bed. “… die I’ll fucking kill you myself.” Laughing he stumbled through in his underpants, a solid, rounded potbelly leading the way into my enclave. He sat down on my bed, his blonde ringlets sticking up. His receding hairline only helped to highlight his youthful, cherub-like features, which were in strong contrast to the foul cigarette in his mouth. “Hey, China, you must look after yourself. Kick some serious SWAPO arse, you hear? I wish I could go with you!”
I finished fastening my laces and stood up, stomping my boots, securing them onto my feet. “Come on!” I shouted. “I‘d better get going, Woody,” I thrust out my hand. “I’ll see you around, my friend.” Woody grabbed mine in his strong, rough hand and then pulled me into a bear hug. “Dude, you’re in your scants. People will talk!” I joked, a little teary-eyed.
“Get outa here. You look after yourself, lighty. Kill one for me!” He thumped me on my back.
“Tell Grif I said cheers, ‘kay?”
“He’s probably down there helping with the stores and ratpacks.”
“Oh, ja. You’re probably right.” I grabbed my webbing and fastened it to my back. “Damn! My bed. I still have to make it”
“Don’t worry, china. I’ll sort it out.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Ja, you get going. Good luck, my man.”
I grabbed my R4 and looking about, slung it over my shoulder. Then, pulling my bush hat from my pocket, I placed it on my head and walked out into the frenetic night.
Three Intelligence non-commissioned officers: Haikkonen, Martens, myself. Two Bushmen troops, trackers: Augistino and Raul. One Ops medic: Emanuel Revmatas. Two Ops drivers: the erstwhile Boonzaier and Boshoff. Five infantry troops. One infantry corporal: McRory, who was to be the platoon leader. All of us in a Ratel off to converge with 32 Battalion.
“Gentlemen, an INTREP came through at twenty hundred hours. Three-Two Battalion and Koevoet have been revving the PB kraals since Monday as part of Ops Phoenix. They’ve picked up the spoor of some ters that were hiding in a kraal a couple of klicks from Rundu. We’re to rendezvous with the Romeo Mike team where we’ll take point and track those fuckers down. This is a hot pursuit so there’s no time to fuck around!” McRory shouted as he passed the black-is-beautiful around, rubbing his face with the camouflage zinc. Soon we had all put on our masks of war while the Bushmen looked into space enigmatically. “Load and lock, gentleman. You are about to make your God, your Chief Commander, your CO, your mother and your girlfriend proud and democracy and the South African way of life safe!” It was obvious Corporal McRory had seen a few too many war movies but his words had the desired effect. We were amped, virtually vibrating with adrenalin. Locked in the dark of the back of that Ratel we psyched each other up much in the same way that sports teams do prior to a match. For an instant I was back at Queensburgh surrounded by my rugby teammates in the close space of the First Team changerooms, our studs clattering on the cement floor, pushing against each other, grabbing each others jerseys, headbutting, drawing energy from each other. Collective power.
“Shimalaya, ya! Shimalaya, ya! Shimalaya ya, ya, ya! We are the mighty Queensburgh, hear us roar! Ya, ya, ya!”
I stared into the darkness, at a spot just above the head of the Infantry troop opposite me. My mind flashed back to those lectures at SA Intelligence School in Kimberley. Seated under the lean-to’s, out of the dry heat of the Northern Cape Sun, head nodding in exhaustion. The instructor shouting to wake up, to get up, “Sien julle daai boom?” The tree he pointed at would be a smudge on the horizon. “Fok off en haal my ‘n blaar. Nou! Julle het twee minute.” Inevitably we would neither bring back the correct leaf he had indicated to nor make it back in the required two minutes so off we would go again. My mind was wandering. I tried to recall what I had learnt, in an effort to remove the emotion from the situation, in order to be able to control what was happening.
Cut it down to details and steps and formulae. Acronyms and rhymes, that’s how we did it!
INTREP: intelligence report. Right, got it. Think! WET FUR: wings, engine, tail, fuselage, undercarriage and rudder. What? Oh, things to look for when trying to identify an aircraft. Good, but that’s no help in this situation. Right, into those dusty corridors of the mind. Find it, find it. Ah! Tactical Doctrine. Mary Can Strip Off Men Slowly and Carefully: one- mobility and high speed of ops, two- concentration of effort, three- surprise and security, four- offensive actions, five- maintain power, six- sustain aim, seven- co-ordination! That’s us. The steps to follow. Oh, God, please don’t let me have to kill anyone, please! Here we go! Don’t let me die! Maybe just a flesh wound, just something to give me a really cool scar.
I rocked with the vehicle as we sped along the Golden Highway, closing my eyes in an effort to relax. Think about Elvis and that crumbed-chicken-and-gravy voice: a portrait of my father that hung in my brother’s room doing his King impression in a dark suit with the collar of his shirt lifted like the tail feathers of a peacock, strumming his guitar with turquoise inlays, hair slicked back greaser style. Hound dog, baby!
“Corporal. Corporal!!” I looked up when Martens nudged me with his elbow. The Infantry troop opposite was calling to me. I nodded, shifting in my seat and straightening up. “This your first time, Corporal?” Again I nodded. “You scared? Aw, come on, you can admit it. We were all scared our first time. Shit scared! But you plastic corporals probably aren’t. I mean, shit you guys have had all of three weeks of training and now you’re fucking corporals! Its bullshit!”
“I didn’t ask for the rank!” I said, grimacing.
Martens cut me off. “Listen, troop, at Intelligence School our training is ten months long. Just as long as the Junior Leaders’ Course at the boknaai camp you came from. The only thing we don’t do is that stupid opfok at the end. How long was your training? Troop!”
“Shut up both of you!” Corporal McRory bellowed.
The troop looked at McRory. I could not make out his features in the darkness but I could sense the heat and antagonism radiating from him. “Sorry, Corporals,” the apology dripped with venom. He paused, and then continued. “You got your dog-tags on? Know why there are two? No? When … sorry, if you get taken out we take one and the other we wedge between your two front teeth and fucking force it in with the butt of a rifle so you can be id-ed and your body can be sent back State-side. “ The troop smacked his fist into the heel of his other hand, again and again. “Bang! Bang!”
“That’s enough, Becker! You stop this fucking shit! Like it or not we’re in this together. Now shut the fuck up or I’ll have you on orders so fast your head will spin. Het jy my?”
We all lapsed into silence again, the stars flashing by us overhead in the night Sky. I tried not to look up for it made me feel like I was spinning out of control, into the void of some dark and implacable Universe. The journey was interminably long and yet frighteningly quick. We suddenly veered from the road, reducing speed and slid to a halt. There was a crackle from the radio as Boshoff picked up the mike. Boonzaier hauled himself up and out of the drivers’ cabin and leaned into the troop compartment. He grinned, a matchstick hanging from his mouth, a real Freestate cowboy.
“Yes, yes! It looks like we’re almost there. We got to follow this Gary. I think it’s your Inligting Kaptein. Blackie. Fok! Jou poes, Boshoff!” he cursed as Boshoff slipped the clutch and we jerked forward almost hurling him into the back with us. He clambered back into his seat and the drivers exchanged expletives then laughed like hyenas and lit cigarettes.
Hot pursuit! This is how it goes: it’s a lot like Elvis and Rock ’n Roll. . It emanates from that place deep in your belly and groin spreading through your body. Start with a drip-drip then a pitter-patter and finally a tsunami of testosterone and adrenalin, and top it up with a dash of fear or joy or both. This all brought on by the sheet lightning of a lead guitar, the deep throb of the bass and the staccato of percussion. All of this ignited by the catalyst; a primal, belly-yowl issued from a scar of a mouth, sneering in disdain and self-disdain. To complete, add a gyration, a thrust and a swing of the hips. Rock ‘n Roll and War! What a rush!
We halted as the Sun began to colour the dark Sky like a gold fish in the waters of a koi pond. Infantry Corporal, McRory unclipped his harness, climbed up on his seat and looked over the bin of the Ratel. He appeared to listen for a moment then he nodded to someone and then slid down. “Reg! Van Tonder! Jy, Blikkies en Smit gaan met Kaptein Swart in die Gary.” As the three soldiers grabbed their kit and rifles and clambered out, the corporal turned to the Bushmen. “Julle Boesmans vat net julle gewere. Toe, roer julle, die Kaptein wag vir julle. Kom! Jag hulle, julle geelbek duiwels!”
Augustino and Raul grinned wolfishly, their slanted eyes almost disappearing into their faces. “Ja, Korporaal.” They passed us, filling our nostrils with the smell of the smoke from their home campfires.
“They’re like fucking hunting dogs, I swear,” McRory said looking at us, switching to English. “You guys have never seen anything like this before. These Boesies will run forever. I almost feel sorry for these ters. You know, last year we tracked this ter the same as we’re doing today. In the end the ter started injecting himself with morphine so he wouldn’t feel pain or tired. Only then was he able to stay ahead of these Bushmen. They lost him for a while though. Unfortunately for him the morphine didn’t last. The Boesies found tracks by this boundary fence. They figured out he had been jumping from post to post for a couple of klicks. Can you believe it? He never got away, though. They chased him until his heart burst. He was hanging upside down, hooked by a leg on the rusty barbed wire. A big fucking bird had eaten his eyes and had started on his face, trying to get to his tongue.” The vehicle coughed into life, its deep growl vibrating through our bodies. “Ooh wee! Here we fucking go! Take your positions. Keep your safety’s on! You wait for my call. Our job is to track and then to call in Three-Two. Is that clear? We are not to engage the enemy! Right, lets do it. Remember, we are a tracker and chaser group not a Romeo Mike! Right. Boshoff, lets move out!”
“Reg, Korporaal!” The vehicle jerked forward as we popped our heads over the bin of the Ratel. The Sun had breeched the lip of the horizon and everywhere inky shadows capered about nervously anticipating its fiery rays. The Bushmen turned and nodded and then set off in that tireless loping gait that creatures of Nature utilize when following a scent. I braced my rifle in the breech-lock and my back against the center brace of the vehicle. I kept my face away from the edge of the bin. During training at Kimberley I had seen the damage done to faces by a bouncing vehicle; lost teeth, split lips, broken noses and numerous gashes.
The pursuit had begun! We were in a combination formation, that is, a combination of a frontal pursuit and a parallel pursuit. We were the frontal pursuit group. We were like the villagers banging tins and drums, flushing the tiger and driving it in the direction we wanted it to go. The parallel group was Three-Two Battalion, the flanking pursuit group. They were the real hunters, the kill group. The Gary with Captain Swart and the three Infantry troops was somewhere to our left, west, while Three-Two were ostensibly, hopefully, to our right, east. Augustino and Raul were in front of us and as the day passed my admiration and incredulity grew. They were pure animal, bestial; never seeming to fatigue it was as if they had metamorphosed into the creatures they emulated. I had seen them dance around their ritual fires, seen them seemingly transform into creatures of the wild: buck, lion, wildebeest. They were uncanny.
The Bushmen read the path and tracks before us, as a librarian would devour the latest release of her favourite author: with ease, familiarity and not a little avarice. We all knew that by now we where far into Enemy territory. Unfriendly territory. In Country, as the Yanks called it. Except this was a Vietnam we were going to win! Our orders were to search and destroy with extreme prejudice. Whatever it took to do it and fuck the International Community! Chase them all the way back to Luanda if that is what it took. My rifle rattled against the bin of the Ratel as we encountered a particularly rough stretch of terrain. Anxiously, despite the noise the vehicle was making, I slipped my bush-hat under the stock to ensure I did not make a sound again.
This is my rifle (slap your rifle).
This is my gun (grab you crotch).
This is for shooting (slap your rifle).
This is for fun (grab your crotch).
This is for killing (slap your rifle).
This is for fucking (grab your crotch).
Together they make me one mean, fucking killing machine.
As Helios, the sun-god, climbed the vault of Heaven in his chariot drawn by snow-white horses, his heat warmed, baked and then seared all below him that day. My head felt as though it had begun to melt beneath my staaldak, the skin of my back and shoulders began to bleach as my faded browns pressed down ever tighter to my body and my feet began to shift in discomfort as the very vehicle around me began to warm. In my malaise my consciousness expanded out to the two trackers, saw the fervour in their faces, the darkness of their skins in the wake of the rivulets of sweat, which ran down their dust-covered bodies. That consciousness retracted, returning to me on the clouds of dust that enveloped us. It was in our eyes, our mouths and nostrils. It caked our hair and uniforms and where our sweat pooled it formed globules of mud: around our waists and web-belts, where our necks and collars met, the crooks of our arms and in the center of our backs. Even in pursuit of Death the Army clung to its unofficial credo: hurry up and wait.
Frequently Augustino and Raul would hold up one of their arms straight up into the air above them and then sink down. Immediately Boshoff would halt the vehicle and then radio the Gary. The remaining two Infantry troops would climb over the bin and down while the rest of us would cover them from our elevated positions, safeties off. Then in a v-formation, Augustino at point, they would creep through the bush to carry out a reconnaissance, a reccie. After what would seem an eternity Augustino or Raul would appear and circle his hand above his head and Boshoff would edge the vehicle forward. We would come upon a ruin as mysterious and as ancient as an Inca temple or Celtic monoliths. Shattered kraals; the stick frames visible through the mud walls like the bones beneath decaying flesh. Farm houses and stores; roofs, doors and windows gone leaving a shell like a body without its soul. All daubed in cryptic runes and filled with talisman. A single shoe or a dolls head. A hubcap or newspaper. An empty cattle-kraal.
Then we would move on, our troops returning while the Bushies headed off again. In the distance we would pass the Gary, which would again move westwards and continue to flank us. This occurred four times over a period of eight hours and each time the tension build-up multiplied as we neared our quarry and travelled further from State-side and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was as though each of those ruins had its own gravity field, which, once we entered their atmosphere, pressed down on us exerting immense pressures upon us. We moved through atmospheres of gelatin, of electricity and of intense mass. By fourteen hundred we had covered close to a hundred kilometers and were all showing signs of exhaustion, added to that we were stressed to breaking point. Corporal McRory, a veteran platoon leader with over a year of Redline Border duty, must have been monitoring us all with a critical eye because just as I felt like I could no longer go any further he said, “Right. Platoon, we’re going to break for twenty. Boshoff! Boshoff?”
“Korporaal! Die Boesies!” Boshoff shouted back, bringing the vehicle to a halt. We all immediately looked up, focusing on the two figures in front of us. Augustino was vigorously dragging his hand across his throat.
“Shut the fucking thing off!” McRory shouted frantically. “Sit af, jou nai. Sit af!”
In the silence left by the absence of the roaring motor we willed our ears to hear and eyes to see what the Bushmen saw. Yet all we heard was the pinging of heated metal cooling and the seashell wash in the vacuum left by the strident cacophony of machine beneath our feet. “Laat die Kaptein weet! Fucken hell, where are those Bushies?”
“Papa Mike? Kom in, asseblief! Oor.”
“Korporaal!” McRory flinched.
“Fuck!” Augustino was by the vehicle. “Ja, Augustino?”
“Korporaal, ons is amper bo op hulle. SWAPO is net voor.”
“Fuck! Boshoff, pull back. Nou!”
“Maar Korporaal hulle sal ons hoor.”
“They’ve heard us already, fucking hell. Get that vehicle moving and pull fucking back. Roer jou, troep, nou! Boonzaier, get on that radio!”
Time slows in these situations, and images become crystal clear, but sound, sound for some reason is almost hidden by the sound of your own breathing and heartbeat.
We passed a body; it’s clothes flapping gently in the slight breeze that blew, like some scarecrow in a farmer’s field. Flies had already begun to gather; raisins on the sugar that coated the bloody syrup. As we approached the tree Martens rose, crouched, and scuttled toward me.
“Swany, Raul’s alive. Lost his foot but Revmatas has stabilized him but he needs to be cassevaced ASAP,” his mouth was vermilion red below the paleness of his drained face.
“Okay, Boonzaier has been on the radio to Swart, he’s aware. We have to go to the contact. Seems as if its all over,” as if on que we both listened. While we had stood the Ratel had moved on and had reached the others. “Come on, let’s go.” I steeled myself and approached. “Revmatas. How’s he doing?” I focused on the medic, avoiding looking at the diminutive body he was working on. I caught glimpses of bloody clothes and ruined flesh, burnt black and crisp.
“He’s out, Corporal. Thank God! But he’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him into the air,” the big Greek said. Absorber the Leek, the Greek tampon was his nickname. Well, he was up to his elbows in blood now.
“Klaar gedoen, Korporaal. ‘n Voel is op pad.”
“Good man! Rev, you stay here, choppers on its way. You got a signal? Good. Martens, guys, Swart wants us to head to the contact area. Augustino, bly jy met jou maat?” I knew the answer just by looking into his yellowed, angry eyes. Woe betides the ter Augustino got his hands on. Vengeance would be his. “Right, lets head out. Use the Ratel as cover. Boonzaier, you get onto the roof of the Ratel and keep cavey. You see anything move, you shout. Treat the area as hot. Lets move.” We spread out behind the Ratel and followed it toward the dark, oily smoke rising up into the heavens. There was a sense of unreality as we headed across the open ground toward the small crop of trees, which was Contact. It was as if we were children playing at soldiers or even actors in a movie, disassociation. I had to keep forcing myself to focus, to prepare myself for the worst. I did not even come close. The slight breeze brought the scent of Death to us; the smell of stomachs split open, of shitty haunches, of urine-soaked thighs and of congealing blood; great pools of it. Our faces became masks. We passed through the trees into the terrorist encampment.
Captain Swart’s Gary was parked to the east on the outskirts of what was approximately a four hundred square meter area filled with bunkers and camouflage netting. The area was littered with paper; documents, magazines, posters, books. Piles of clothes and personal belongings interspersed this. Here and there a blackened entrance indicated the presence of a bunker. An armoured vehicle was responsible for the pyre of smoke. It burned fiercely consuming the tree and netting that covered it. They had not even had time to mobilize it; such was the speed and ferocity of Three-Two’s onslaught. The smoke made the encampment misty, dim and gray and hid the true horror that was sure to lie within.
“Right. Spread out. We have the mop-up operation but be careful. Captain Swart is around with the other SAI guys so don’t shoot them. Don’t assume that there are no boobytraps. Ask Raul about that. Boonzaier, you and Bosch, you stay with the vehicle. Anything important comes through on the radio you shout or you come get me, okay? Right, let’s do it.”
We moved into the smoky environs of the encampment and were immediately swallowed up by it. It was not possible to see more than ten meters in front of oneself. I cautiously stepped through this nightmarish world, praying to my God as my heart hammered at my chest and my temples throbbed. My hands grasped my rifle with white-knuckle intensity and my breath echoed in my ears. A bunker to my left, the entrance blackened from a grenade explosion. I willed and then forced myself to approach its darkened maw. They had dug down into the earth so the bunker was a squat molehill where its true size was hidden below. Pressing against the sandbag wall I lit a flare with shaking hands and threw it, hissing into the darkness, my rifle ready. To my relief this one proved to be empty, merely filled with smoldering, darkened ruin. I moved past and forward. In this spirit world time expanded and contracted at will and ghosts and shadows flittered at the fringes of our awareness. A photograph of a smiling young Black woman with a baby in her arms, a comb, a Bible, a pornographic magazine with a naked coloured woman sitting with her legs wide open; her sex a wound; her eyes those of the dead soldier near the thorn tree. A shattered mirror, a crushed radio, dominos scattered across the sand, a diary. A body. At first I thought it to be a pile of clothes but the weight of the glistening blood and its stench immediately told me otherwise. It had been split open so I knew it to be lifeless and did not, thankfully, have to tarry.
As Intelligence soldiers our task was to gather as much intel as we could: documents, personal belongings, weapons, the layout of the base, and if there were any prisoners, interrogate them as soon as possible. The worst part however was having to layout the bodies and photographing them to see if they could be matched to our files of most wanted terrorists. I encountered another two corpses in similar condition before I came across the worst of them all. It had been severely burnt. Due to the depth of the bunkers and the network of tunnels the Three-Two boys had obviously been throwing in a jerry can of diesel followed by a grenade turning them into fast-food grills. The ter had obviously run burning from the bunker to fall here. The black had been burned from its skin leaving raw, pink sections. That accompanied with the smell of roasted meat finally got to me and I heaved, spewing my stomach’s contents at my feet. I heaved and heaved until there was nothing left to bring up but bile and then I heaved some more, dropping to a knee. Weakly, I wiped at my mouth with my shirtsleeve and slowly got up. I retreated to deep within myself and prayed for this day to end.
Wow, it was really great to see you and terrible to leave after only 3 days but at least I got something out of my little stay at 1 Military Hospital, hey?
Well, I arrived at Jan Smuts Airport last night at about 10PM. There was a bus but a guy (good of him) offered two Air Force guys and myself a lift to Pretoria. He dropped me off at the hospital. I had a good sleep there but the sister on duty forgot to wake me up and as a result I almost missed the plane from Waterkloof. But I made it (lucky or not?) and arrived at airport just in time. A two-hour flight and we (some other Omega guys returning from pass) arrived at an airbase near here. And then a terrible journey back to camp on a truck. The road is really awful. And here I am. I can’t say it’s fantastic to be back. But it is good to see my friends again.
You know what? I’ve just been thinking. I’ve only got 7 months left of my teens. It’s quite frightening! Oh well, I suppose I can’t be a Peter Pan or something, who never grew up. But then again, I am a bit of a Lost Boy! I know this is not a question a person is supposed to ask a woman but anyway. How old will you be this birthday? 38, isn’t it? Even though you look nothing like it! Honest!
I am keeping well and am fast getting back that tan I lost in hospital (at the moment I am writing to you in the sun). It’s hot during the day but freezing at night! Guess what, we got to see “GI Blues” with old Elvis in it. It was really good. Juliet Prowse was also in it. Boy, could she dance. I seem to remember her being a South African, is she?
It’s quite fun teaching these grown-up Bushmen. My class consists of mostly the slower ones and is mostly women. But they’re coming along. They’ve learnt the days of the week, how to add and subtract below 20, some only below 10. I enjoy it actually but I’d rather be teaching children.
Well, that camp-conference thing for Comm. Ops soldiers was okay. I got to see my old buddies, we had braais and everything. It was right on the Kavango River and on the other side was Angola. We spent Saturday morning having lectures and then ran a 2,4 km race. I came second but the dust was a killer. Yeugh! The journeys there and back were the worst though. This place was 300kms away. We traveled there (10 of us) on the back of an open truck on sand roads. And … we shared the back with 4 large, smelly live pigs. They were being taken to Rundu for breeding purposes.
About the Owambo people. I really haven’t had much to do with them. I deal with the Bushmen and the Portuguese Blacks. These people came from Angola (refugees). They fled when the civil war broke out, and in fact, a lot were in the Angolan Army until they joined the SWA Territorial Forces, of which I am a member. I no longer fall under the SADF (only indirectly, doing my 2 years).
Glad you enjoyed “Staying Alive.” Yes, the dancing was terrific! What do you think of Johnny Travolta’s new bod? It’s funny that Bronwyn wanted to know if you had heard from me because she hadn’t. She hasn’t even written yet while I have been. I think if I don’t get a letter next week I’m just not going to bother writing. At least she could write me a “Dear Johnny.”
In answer to your question, I am teaching the Bushmen women who are married or too old to go to school. Can you believe this? I have a girl in my class who is ten and married! That’s terrible, don’t you think? Have you seen or heard anything of Bronwyn lately?
Wow! Less than 6 months to go! Can you remember how I cried that night I phoned to tell you that I was going to the Border and not Natal Command? Seems years ago. Yes, one thing that the Army has done is bring us closer together.
This last pass I must bring down all my rubbish and kit that I don’t need up here so that I don’t have to carry too much with me when I come down that last time. Yeah!
Hi! Made it to another post-day, good old Wednesday’s. I received 5 letters from you! The only thing that spoiled today was the fact that I still haven’t got a letter from Bronwyn but that’s cool. I’m getting used to it now. We’ll see who’s going to be sorry when I get down. Anyway, enough of my problems.
Last week Mrs. Donald went away with the Commandant (her hubby) for a couple of days. And Brian and I decided that teaching was not the in-thing. So we took a tape with to the centre and played our pupils music (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” which is very hot disco music). They flipped and spent the days Mrs. Donald was away dancing.
The base’s generator (known as “Jenny”) has conked so for the last week we haven’t had electricity i.e. No music, no cold drinks, no lights and no fans. We’re all getting a lot of sleep because of it.
We still don’t have power and I’m getting a little tired of it now but apparently it should be back to normal by the end of the week.
Don’t worry; I’m not letting Bronwyn spoil things for me. Anyway, she’s writing now. Don’t worry, I’ll get my chain back when I’m down but you see we haven’t broken up. I’ll just wait and see what happens.
Well, I’m back with less than two months left. What a thrill! Don’t know if I told you but I’m working in the Officer’s Bar now. Martens and I serve all the big shots here. The reason I do it is so I don’t have to stand guard plus I get paid for doing it. 1PM to 1.30PM and 5.30PM to 8.30PM sometimes later for functions. And I’m making bongo which is what the Bushies call money. By the way, what did Bronwyn have to say in the car back home? Probably nothing because we’re still not exactly friends.
Feeling a little strange with only 36 days left. But it its grand anyway! We celebrated our 40 days at a place called Pappa Falls this weekend
Imagine wasting time seeing a stripper and twice! But you know me; I’m not too fond of that boyfriend of yours. Sorry! Oh, got a really good book for you called “Cujo”. It’s by the same guy who wrote “Salem’s Lot” and “Carrie”. It’s about a rabid dog I’ll bring it down for you.
Wow, almost time to wave goodbye to my teens, hello gray hairs. Three days of my teenage years left. Unbelievable.
Didn’t do much for my birthday. Will celebrate when I get home. This place is terrible in Summer. If we’re not being sizzled and drained of all moisture by the Sun then we’re being drowned by violent tropical thundershowers, and all the time being afflicted by every insect, spider and virus/fungus on God’s Earth. Roll on Uitklaar Day. Ya-hooo!