The rip and shred of flesh being hacked and sliced and bone being broken at the centre of the circle were so distinct in the darkness it was as if it was happening inside my very head.
Except that it wasn’t.
I was sitting on my haunches on the very edge of the circle.
The dry, sparse earth was still hot from the relentless day.
I faced outwards, into the darkness and the wildness. My hunched back shielded me from the hellish epicentre just five metres behind me.
There was no moon.
They weren’t corpses yet; they were still bodies warm and supple with their life stories, but these would quietly leach from them and into the night as they stiffened.
In the fading light they had scratched and pilfered their way through the pockets and pouches of the dead men: red square Russian-made soap as bleak as the Soviet bloc architecture I’d once learned about in a veld school state documentary.
The dead men were almost all too young for death. And what they had died for; snapshots of girlfriends and family folded neatly into creased paper. There was one notebook, cheap paper, foreign looking. Was one of the young men also scribbling words for his survival and sanity? There were letters too, handwritten in spindly ballpoint, wrapped in plastic for re-reading, safe keeping.
Despite the stench, the Intelligence Corps would later harvest these bits and pieces from the body bags. These they’d use to back up the rooi- and swart-gevaar horror stories they churned out of the propaganda machine back in the Republic: ‘You see, it was a total onslaught.’
My awakening to this machine in its perpetual motion and with its many layers had been a slow one; as slowly as the equivalent of having my retina ripped from my eyeball and then stitched back on, repeatedly: fuzziness, clarity, fuzziness, clarity.
Huddled, the three sharp-shooters argued in hushed murmurs over whose kill was whose. I knew that they were slicing off ears and thumbs, and sometimes the pinkie fingers too. These they’d proudly dry, not unlike biltong sticks, before turning them into ghoulish key rings. They were proof of their kills. Killing ters, like their successful drunken fucks when on a pass or AWOL, were to be notched up with the same sharp daggers on their headboards, proverbial or otherwise.
These border conquests would later be the heart of embellished war stories re-enacted on farms, or at the back of mangy suburban plots around Saturday afternoon braais in the weak winter sunshine. Or in front of hi-fis or TVs that were blaring national or provincial sports games, often rugby.
Those afternoons would degenerate into drunken, gorging dusks not unlike the one he was frozen into now, like an insect in amber but for the booze and their brown uniforms. Faded Polaroids would later be the only proof that these were once invincible youths; now their suntans were paled, their spines curved, stomachs bloated, and their hair thin or gone.
These sordid celebrations of the cult of masculinity and violence would take place over slaughtered meat and brandy with coke, that beverage of false courage and aggression and the numbing and bloating national drink of the defence force.
To the north and elsewhere on the subcontinent, other families would be mourning the loss of their freedom fighters whose smiles, uniforms and pride would be frozen in the black and white snapshots that were the only evidence that they had lived. Were their sons and brothers still alive? Lost? Were they obliterated by a bullet to the head before their bodies were burnt, their bones crushed into a pile of splintered ash by the heel of a boot somewhere in the white man’s cruel south?
With his jawline taut he fixated on the jewel of the southern sky, the Southern Cross, making certain it wasn’t the False Cross.
The six of them would spend the rest of the night spread in an awkward circle around the pile of bodies to fend off marauding animals or, worse, anyone who’d survived the skirmish. They’d scratchily sleep with their boots on. With their R4s steeled against their chests, they’d take hour-long turns to silently keep guard as the African night sky turned slowly on its axis.
Despite the silence and that the constellations were exactly where they should be, there was no certainty about this night. There had been no certainty about anything for a long time. We knew we were not welcome here.
Something changed within me that night in the desert scrub while the bodies were being harvested for souvenirs and trophies.
Mustering courage, I forced my first chapter shut. I knew now that I’d not been consciously writing it. It had been an unconscious chapter of ignorance and innocence. Also of privilege and of the blindness that accompanies privilege. I would, however, be writing the chapters that followed.
That was if I lived to see the dawn.
While facing outwards on the edge of the circle I rejected my neutral and protected upbringing, I also flushed scorching acid over my innocence, my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, I revolted against my childhood name. There and then I changed it, and buried it.
Short, squat, ginger and irritatingly precise, the major pointed down the length of his baton-like arm to the not too distant mountains.
They shimmered iron grey on the western horizon.
“Intelligence says there are 1,549 fuckers out there. When you have 1,549 bodies spread out here on the runway you can klaar out, go home. Not a day before.”
The major was playing his only ace, upfront.
He knew we had only three short months left of our two-year-long conscription in the army; that it wasn’t something we’d want to compromise.
The ochre runway was hardly that; it was a long and wide swathe of scrub that had recently been cleared of stones, rocks, shrubs.
Heat oppressed his back and shoulders, also every pore of his exposed skin.
The major: ‘They’re in the mountains. They’ve taken about two weeks to infiltrate from over the Kunene.’
In between his short-burst sentences, it was insanely silent.
‘That’s why you manne have been invited to visit our exclusive resort. Apparently, you’re pretty good at flushing out bodies.’
The tortured land was vast and vacant. A big sky country that was empty except for scattered kraals containing at most a handful of simple cone-shaped shelters: these were slender felled trees bound together with palm leaves and daubed with mud and what I presumed was dung.
“Don’t forget that no-one knows you’re here. Not a soul. We’ve got a job to do, let’s do it and then you can go home. On the first available flight,” he said with a smoker’s rattle from deep within his throat.
The major, not giving a damn that his jokes were falling flat, seemed even keener to get the hell out of there than the troops were.
I was struggling to hold down my gag reflex against the reek, I was nauseous with helplessness caused by a premonition of my own death.
There were three lines of troops as alert as meerkats on that raw, blunt edge of the runway which they knew was their only exit.
Brown clad Bravo Company had maroon berets still on their heads. There had not been time to dig out sun-shielding bush hats from their hastily flung together duffel bags.
‘Now get to work!’
Against the hostile sun overhead, we were as minute as the soldiers foolishly believing they’d successfully pinned Gulliver down.
We had slept on the side of the runway; it was a much more formal one than this ramshackle and hasty strip; it was tarred and had the luxury of a single windsock and a blistered, faded red fire engine. That was in Lohotla, last night, far south from here, already so long ago.
They’d drawn together the navy, air force, and the infantry. And then there were us, Parachute Battalion. Our two-week exercise had been abruptly cut short, for Bravo Company at least. We’d known there was shit stirring when, out of the blue, military police had fended people off the three orange and egg-shaped public telephone booths in front of the lacklustre admin building.
At midnight two C130s had thundered down the runway before hastily taking off again forty-five minutes later.
For 1850 km we skimmed the land, rising and falling with its ribs, all along the spine of the skeleton. We flew below the radar but above the scarecrow pylons that fed electricity to South West Africa.
The major spoke again.
“There are journalists on their way here, on the only road between Sesfontein and Opuwo. We’ve sent a patrol south to blow up the bridges so that they can’t get here.”
“We’ve been accused of killing civilians and children.”
“We’ve got to dig the bodies out, to prove they were SWAPO, that these fucking terrorists were wearing uniforms!”
He’d stripped off his brown t-shirt and tightly tied it over his nose and mouth, and although it was almost useless against the reek, it was at least effective against the green fat flies that buzzed on and off the mangled, maggoty corpses.
The revolting insects were desperately seeking moisture from his nostrils and mouth. There was no other liquid, except for the stinking ink that leaked from the bodies. He’d lash out in hatred and disgust at the flies knowing where they’d just been.
The jagged, twisted scarecrows weren’t far beneath the surface; it had been a hastily dug mass grave. Pigmentation seems to get bleached from the skin as the body putrefies. First, the sallow skin turns yellow-green, then purple, and then eventually black. Except for their hair, it was now difficult to determine their race. The eyes had pushed out of their sockets and their tongues protruded from their mouths. Brittle limbs snapped off in my hands as I pulled them from the sand like sticks and branches pruned bare in winter.
He retched while pulling at the decaying carcasses, which snapped and dragged. He retched again.
There were, indeed, faded yellow and green camouflaged uniforms on the bloated bodies.
We were machines that had been trained to unflinchingly, unquestionably operate on autopilot. We’d been broken down before being built up again to do what we were told to do.
Meat bombs. Vir volk and vaderland.
My father, a staunch nationalist back then while I was growing up, had raised me to unflinchingly believe that one should fight for one’s country. Also, that a man should be prepared to die for it.
The state’s school system had meanwhile militarised my youth – whites only, a short-back-and-sides haircut, uniforms, respect for your elders irrespective of whether they warranted it or not, cadets and rifle practice at school – while its censorship machine militarised and violated my subconscious; it reinforced the narrative of a pure white state threatened by blacks, commies and Catholics: “The Republic was under attack from the rest of world, it was a total onslaught,” the propaganda machine repeated endlessly.
I knew no better than to kowtow to His Master’s Voice.
In retrospect, I know now that the brainwashing was quite extraordinary, that it cost a fortune, and was all pervasive. It was difficult to know that you’ve been brainwashed, especially if it had been for the entirety of your lifetime. And for an 18-year-old, eighteen years was a lifetime.
The isolation, hopelessness and the stench of death were all so pervasive and so compelling that I was without any doubt that I’d be dead by twenty-one. What did, however, surprise me was the calmness with which I accepted that certainty. Also, how I kept on calmly but obsessively filling my notebooks did surprise me to some extent.
I had for a long time been keeping ragtag notebooks of all shapes and sizes, scribbled full with a tiny script so as to save paper.
My notebooks were more than diaries and their contents had dramatically intensified at the beginning of the tortuous basic training when the walls of my world were overrun.
I was 19 when I was conscripted.
Even then I was then not quite aware that my thinking was being manipulated, this while my sleep was drastically reduced and my body was being pushed to its physical extremities.
All of my resistance to anything except my self-preservation was obliterated.
My neurotically scribbled notes kept me going. They helped me process the masculine domination and social violence that was now the air that I breathed, which also underpinned this thirteen-year-old war and the state system that instigated it.
The scribbling also–in an obscure code that now slips my mind–helped me process my burgeoning and dark sexual desires. These I desperately tried to stuff as quickly back into wherever they surfaced from, and as soon as they did. Admittedly, though, my turnaround time was deteriorating.
What he didn’t know was that he would turn twenty-one in the top north western and isolated pocket of a country he’d not yet visited.
It was one of the wildest and least populated areas of that country; an encyclopaedia would later inform him that it had a population density of only one person for every 2 km².
Silent, vast and for the most part vacant, except for the slender, tall and ancient Himba people. This tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists still lived and dressed according to aeons-old traditions and their scattered kraals were like sparse seed pods strewn across Kaokoland.
It was the distinct and statuesque women that I gaped at: their beauty was unusual and sculptural; their hairstyles were elaborate and intricate; their adornments conspicuous. Everything about them was painted in a combination of rich and muted earthy tones. They seemed prehistoric as they moved about barefoot with an awkward giraffe-like gait. Covered in a mixture of red ochre and fat for protection against the harsh desert climate and the sun, they were also constantly on the move, trailing their families from home to home as they sought out grazing for their cattle and goats.
I observed the Himba people in awe.
As extraordinary as I found them, as completely out of my frame of reference as they were, I did not feel alienated by them. Instead, for the first time and in a way that surprised me, my eyes were opened to the possibilities of the rest of the continent. The rest of Africa had always been depicted as dangerous and alien, and it was from where the Republic’s threats had always emanated.
For the first time I felt that despite my paleness and the rifle in my hand, and despite the separateness (which was the foundation of the entire system) that I had been taught to uphold – just maybe, it was a slender sliver of a maybe, that in fact, this continent was in my blood and a part of me. And I in return a part of it.
Despite being distracted by the Himbas and my consequent enlightenments, this was undoubtedly lord of the flies’ territory; everything I did was with a sense of impending death, which ironically was enormously equalising as there were no airs and graces about striving for survival on the thin and brutal surface of this parched land.
But I allowed myself the luxury of dreaming about going to university, of writing words, of diving deeply into the world’s great literature. Even though, right now, merely lying down to sleep was dangerous, as was taking a shit.
For my sanity’s sake, I’d escaped into books, like I’d done my entire childhood, and had been educating myself in Bloemfontein’s public library where I was doing my basic training. I remember it as vast, welcoming and silent. This was in stark contrast to the rowdy chaos of sharing a bungalow with 80 other young men. I’d slip out of the military base wearing only running shorts and shoes and a defence force vest. Hours later I’d return with my plunder: Schreiner, Freud, van der Post, Jung, Yeats, Achebe, Fugard, Keats, and Plomer.
I was also out hunting for clues in other young faces, because the eyes, as I quickly learned, they give away everything, especially in that state where there were many things you weren’t supposed to make eye contact with or desire.
When I closed my eyes I would wonder what it would feel like to take my index finger across the luminous stubble on their chins and jawlines, to kiss them behind their ears and on the back of their necks, or to fingertip the pulsing cluster of veins on their inside wrists.
In that state, even tears and semen were political.
They slept outside the sandbagged low-walled base.
The major: “Your chances of survival outside the base are much better than inside in the case of a mortar attack, especially at night.”
Like mounds of cattle dung, these small groups of men scattered themselves informally on the sand and in and amongst the contours and crevices, and behind what bushes that there were.
Besides the threat of mortars and snipers, there were aggressive and muscled army ants and snakes. These were larger and wilder than those found in our relatively docile south. We knew that we were very much in their habitat.
Whenever we could, we’d make hasty and inconspicuous fires before dusk. We lived in now-faded black PT shorts and brown vests, also brown socks and scuffed jump boots. With our R4s pressed against our chests, we’d sleep on brown groundsheets. It was too hot for sleeping bags.
It was on 19 April, with a small group of friends that we celebrated by braaing meat ‘stolen’ via a friendly chef (I never asked what currency it was paid for in) on a low grill just above the coals.
Even though it was late autumn, I could see from the old curled photos that our skins were tanned a deep brown, that our teeth were bright and starkly white in contrast.
Even on my birthday, deep inside, I believed that I was going to die up there.
With eyes now wide open, a birthday present to myself, I was alive to the lies and deceits of the politicians and their governments; before that, I’d not known that we were mere cannon fodder, albeit with wings on our chest and jump boots on our feet: mere meat bombs.
The next day after my birthday, 20 April 1989, politicians with paunches, polished pates and square steel-rimmed 80’s spectacles manoeuvred a few human pawns around on the chessboard: After some hastily arranged talks they reached a new agreement, the Mount Etjo Declaration, and with it an eventual cease-fire.
That was the end of Operation Merlyn (aka The Nine Day War); on 1 April 1989, 14 Parachute Battalion Group had been mobilised to assist warding off what the South African government called a “final infiltration by PLAN (SWAPO) insurgents” into northern South West Africa from bases in Angola. Within 14 hours of being told to do so, they had deployed its personnel and equipment in an air and land operation.
The operation entailed two weeks of hunting insurgents, mainly in the mountains of the Kaokoveld. Twenty of whom were killed.
On 11 February 1990, a mere 10 months later, in the first week of my journalism, politics and English literature lectures, Nelson Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison. To celebrate, Rhodes University jubilantly shut for the day and bussed their new first year students to a beach 60 km away. Sitting on the sea sand with my toes in the warm sand and staring out to sea, I wondered who I was.
Up in the far north western corner of that barren, starkly beautiful, moistureless and blood-soaked land, there had been no way of us knowing that the apartheid state was in its death throes.
On 21 March of the same year, it became free, independent, and known as Namibia, the Nama word meaning “vast place of nothingness.”
About the Writer:
Charles King is a Cape Town-based writer and lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where, amongst others, he teaches how to report Africa, climate change and sexual minorities. While he knows the world’s not perfect, it can be improved. This he aims to do via what Chinua Achebe calls ‘words of meaningful optimism’.