Wry and compelling

2008-12-17 00:00

WARS, as this compelling coming-of-age memoir — set during the last days of white rule in Rhodesia — reminds us, do not necessarily end when the guns fall silent or the politicians declare them to be over. The aftershocks continue to reverberate for those that have survived them as they struggle to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.

Although written almost 30 years after the events described, author Paul Williams’s memory remains clear and his account of the bravery and foolishness, the stoicism and cruelty and the general dislocation of wartime remains vivid and real.

In recalling his not always smooth passage from a callow, love-lorn youth hopelessly infatuated with an unattainable beauty to a war-weary, disillusioned adult, he does not always paint himself in a heroic light. His book is also more than just the usual nostalgic trawl down memory lane. For one thing he is too honest.

By his own admission a somewhat reluctant soldier, Williams perfectly captures the prevailing air of unreality with his description of his stint, as a medic, at Vila Salazar, a remote, godforsaken, heavily fortified military garrison situated in a no-go zone on the Mozambique border. Left very much to their own devices, its scruffy, laconic residents had long since dispensed with any semblance of military etiqutte or discipline and reverted to their traditional beer and braai lifestyle while the shells continued to explode around them.

As is the case in conflicts of this sort it is often the defenceless who suffer the most. Transferred back to his old company, now on operations in the Matobo Hills, Williams’s moment of personal crisis arrived when he was forced to witness the cold-blooded shooting of an unarmed civilian suspected, on the flimsiest of evidence, of being a “terrorist collaborator”. Sickened by the casual brutality of this act he attempted to lay a charge against his gung-ho Commanding Officer (who, in another incident, had “accidentally” shot one of his own black soldiers while on a training exercise) — a brave but ultimately futile gesture which saw him being hastily re-assigned to another unit.

If this makes the book sound a trifle sombre it is anything but. Williams is a sharp and funny observer with a style that manages to be both tongue-in-cheek and buttonholing at the same time while possessing the kind of wry intelligence that makes you glad he was around to keep tabs on events.

Vividly evocative, this is a wise, colourful and at times touching account of what it was like growing up in a country torn apart by war.

Anthony Stidolph

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