Collateral damage

2014-10-22 00:00

HE was a large man. His knees were tucked into his chest and his head rested lightly on the rifle muzzle as he slouched uncomfortably in the passenger seat. The khaki shirt was taut over an ample chest and it bore the single stripes of a lance corporal on the shoulder epaulettes. A distinctive scar on his right cheek quivered with the jarring from the potholes and flickered in the streetlights. The army medic who had stitched him up some time ago, I guessed was either new or very nervous. He stared ahead, unfocused and inscrutable. It was not a face soliciting conversation, but I attempted anyway.

“Ngubani igama lakho?” I asked his name. It was one of the few Zulu phrases I had mastered.

The reply was full of syllables and was, to me, unpronounceable. There was a Lu somewhere in it.

“Me, I am not Zulu and this not my home,” he concluded in broken English, gesticulating lazily towards the dark hills. The tone invited no discussion and I decided not to try. There was tension in the air, in the car and outside.

“Is it okay. if I call you Lu?” I eventually ventured to break the silence. He nodded.

It was just before midnight that crisp night in 1998 and Chilley Street was deserted. Sensible people stayed indoors after the sun had set over the Ncwadi hills west of Richmond. A long-standing conflict had been fuelled by the expulsion of the warlord Sifiso Nkabinde from the African National Congress (ANC) and the surrounding townships had recently exploded into a messy, low-grade, civil war where factions fought factions and neighbours battled with neighbours. The military had been called in to help with the violence.

We bumped over the old railway line. I recall hoping he had remembered to engage the safety catch. I would have had trouble explaining a bullet hole in the roof of my Isuzu to my family and friends. Majestic old colonial buildings, paint peeling and façades chipped, were camouflaged with gaudy signs advertising Omo, Surf and household cleaners. Potatoes were on special and cabbages were in stock at Seemos or Salams, I do not recall which one. Blue plastic bins lined a shop window. Only the odd cat moved across darkened alley mouths. We turned right at Desco’s supermarket.

I heard them for the first time as we reached the outskirts of town, just before the Illovo river bridge. “Pop. Pop. Pop”, occasionally, through the open window. And then quiet again as we entered the cutting on the incline from the river that cocooned us from the glare of the township. I glanced at my passenger. Still no reaction, still no emotion. Was there a family, close friends, children? Did he have a house, a garden, a dog? Had he always wanted to be in the military or would he have preferred being a doctor or a politician? Or maybe he had aspirations towards professional soccer, perhaps Kaiser Chiefs or Swallows. If so he would have been a defender, I thought. He did not have the physique for the forward line.

We left town and turned towards Hella Hella. It was as we crested the ridge with Ndaleni the vista unfolded below us. The township lights were packed cheek-by-jowl, overawed by the occasional dominating security light. Above this, as if in one dimension, were the flashes of the tracer bullets, pinks and yellows like sparks from a fire across the face of an old-time black-and-white photo — and the slightly delayed cracks of the percussion. I watched in astonishment. Lu stared ahead. I wondered if there were babies crying in those houses in that deep, dark valley under the bright lights. Were people screaming, wounded perhaps? Possibly some even applauding as they would a goal at the World Cup. What about the elderly, the ogogo and the amakhehla? Could they be hiding under beds? I thought of the petrified dogs. And the chickens and the goats. Was there blood on the streets?

“What do you think, Lu?” He said nothing. I looked at his face. It was not indifferent, nor bored. I saw evasion in those shadowed eyes, an escape from reality, perhaps masking the memories of many previous conflicts.

His background was as hidden as my inability to comprehend the reasons for the struggle down in the valley below. Perhaps it is understanding that really hurts.

We eventually left the ridge and entered the Barton Heights plantation. The dark and quiet were all-enveloping and only a few lonely stars twinkled through the tall gum canopy. All too soon, we turned on to a track and another world unfolded. Before us was a clearing of piercing lights and khaki tents, a surreal contrast, as tangible as a blow to the chest.

The sound of rifle fire was replaced by the metronome of a generator and the howling of the guard dogs in their runs. A large mess tent was flanked by smaller sleeping quarters. Horses were billeted under the trees for shelter. The occasional soldier, in black tracksuit pants and khaki T-shirt, moved between tents bent on some personal nocturnal pursuit. A corporal was holding the halter of a chestnut gelding under an elevated flood light as we pulled into the clearing. Without a word my passenger alighted and disappeared into the dark beyond the light. The pony had become entangled in the razor wire surrounding the base and had badly lacerated his legs and lower body. I recall being impressed with his conformation. This was a real working horse, used by the military, perhaps an indigenous breed like a Nooitgedacht or Basotho pony — hard and tough. But. he was sore, agitated and panicked and spooked by the smell of his own blood dribbling out of the copious wounds, red and shiny over ugly dark stains on the auburn fur.

He was dancing around the soldier trying his best to pacify him. I soothed and tranquillised him and took my time treating his wounds. Unoccupied picket lines suggested a shift of soldiers and horses and dogs were out on patrol. Through the trees, the war in the valley continued unabated. Were people and animals bleeding down there like the pony in front of me? I looked for my guard. He was nowhere to be seen. Trauma was obviously not his favourite pastime.

It was well-beyond midnight when we were done. My companion drifted in from the darkness and joined me in the cab. No words were said, but I was comforted by his presence.

Down the Ndaleni ridge, the rifle fire had gathered momentum and the tracers lit up the darkness like New Year’s Eve over the Sydney Opera House. Smozomeni, or maybe Magoda, seemed to be the target. Still, my passenger did not react. I could no longer keep my quiet.

“Lu, have you seen this sort of thing before?” I asked.

“Yes, many times,” came the tired reply — eventually. It was enough for me.

I had wanted to tell him I understood, but I did not have the guts nor the energy. I had seen the same look in the eyes of the young soldier in another war, another country. Early 1980. Gwelo, Rhodesia, before it became Gweru. The battle was just over, but the hostilities smouldered.

The scale might have been different, but the consequences were similar. To some it was a futile conflict; others saw a colonial imperative; for many it presented a future. I had been called out to help a cow having difficulty giving birth, also in the dark and well out of town. I picked up a troop from the Rhodesian Light Infantry barracks. He was tall, thin and intimidated, and he caressed the muzzle of the AK47 as if it were a lover.

I think he told me his name — I can’t remember it though. He was also not keen for discussion. Probably, because the war was too raw in his mind, the scars too deep, my skin too white. Perhaps, just like you, Lu. Only younger, less experienced.

I did find myself, however, telling him about the effect the Richmond unrest was having on the community, the people who had already died, the councillors who had been traumatised and the stagnation of local business.

And that it would be peaceful again, sometime. I no longer expected a reaction from him.

I eventually dropped him off at their temporary base at the entrance to town.

“Where to now for you, Lu? Are you going home?”

He shrugged in a non-committal way.

“I hope I go home,” again in that broken drawl.

“Anyway, thanks for your company,” I said and meant it. “I hope your family is safe tonight.”

For the first time that night I noticed a faint smile, a flicker of emotion.

“Yes,” he said, and I think he meant it.

Philip Kretzmann: “I’m just a common and garden farmyard gynae. whose aspirations include the pursuit of good health and happiness for all creatures great and small.”

“We bumped over the old railway line. I recall hoping he had remembered to engage the safety catch. I would have had trouble explaining a bullet hole in the roof of my Isuzu to my family and friends.”

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