Saturday, March 25, 2006

What is it Good For?

The shooting started somewhere in the middle of the night. My sleep had been black and dreamless and I awoke in my trench, staring upward at the Milky Way.
The red streaks of tracer fire scarred the rectangle of sky above me like blood on black velvet. I prayed only that I would livelivelivelivelive. I lay still, mind and body transfixed with fear, the sound of gunfire immediate and real. I was unaware of my rifle, wrapped under the edge of the canvas sheet beside me and I was unaware of my boots that stood at the foot end of the trench – I could not smell the socks that I'd stuffed into them just before I'd fallen asleep. Somebody started firing mortars nearby, deep thuds of confident firepower, and I heard someone yell
“Friendly fire! Friendly fire! Stop shooting!”
I stared up eyes wide from my trench. The long rectangle of night that was my field of vision, lit up, bright as day and I watched the white illumination flare spiralling through the sky trailing its miniature parachute and leaving a tail of white smoke. The sounds of gunfire slowed to the sporadic before dying out completely, to be followed by angry recriminations as the two groups took stock of the fuck up.
I released the stale breath from my chest and tried to relax my aching jaw. I stood up in my trench, adrenalin pumped, Stupid arseholes, Stupid dumb Dutchmen. I hated this, this deep vein of stupidity that ran up the throbbing shaft of the military establishment. Why the fuck are we doing this?

Later I followed Terrance and one of the Dutchmen down to the river to wash. The water was brown and fast running and we took turns to stand guard while the others waded in up to their knees, naked in a gap in the reeds. After an unsatisfying bath we got ourselves dry and back into the dusty uniforms. I tired to shave using the stupid military issue metal mirror that hardly reflected anything except dirt.
We made our way back up the eroded red riverbank and I looked back as we reached the top. A white shirt floated in the water just upriver from where we had washed. A white shirt with air trapped under it. Air trapped between the shirt and the facedown body and as my mind snapped into focus I realised that there were two more bodies, naked, brown, face down. A breeze blew off the water carrying the sudden stench of carrion. The letter in my backpack burned deep and hard, Susan’s curlicued handwriting with little crosses instead of dots above the i’s, like the eyes of dead people in cartoons.

Acts of plunder and looting are natural by-products of war. When you’ve destroyed a town and brutalised its occupants, justifying acts of indiscriminate theft is easy. Our battery rolled into the shelled town late in the afternoon. The sunlight was angled low, harsh and red, and threw the bullet holes in the walls of the shattered buildings into sharp relief. The air reeked of diesel and death and the roadside was decorated with the occasional fly-encrusted corpse. I realised that the only Angolans I'd seen so far had been dead ones. I averted my gaze, not wanting to see those black ropes of dried blood the tied the bodies to the dusty earth.
One by one we climbed down from the vehicles and milled around, eyes everywhere, rifles at the ready. Somebody entered a building; its solid wooden doors blown open beneath a flapping awning. He returned to the glare with handfuls of worthless banknotes.
Inside a general store whose interior was carpeted in shattered glass, we found local cigarettes – weak currency for the lung’s desires.
I followed one of the Bombardiers into a two-story building, its front daubed with a red and black fresco of Che Guevara. We climbed the concrete stairs slowly; the air was decorated with the hum of one of the vehicles outside and the crunch of our boots on the rubble and glass, occasionally the radio would spew short terse sentences encased in static. At the top of the stairs we were confronted by a corridor with three doors on each side.
“You take the left Engelsman,” said the Bombardier, dismissively in Afrikaans. Early on in my military training I had learned that being called an Englishman by an Afrikaner was at best an insult. The Boer War had not been forgotten.
We moved down the corridor, cautious, quiet. The Bombardier opened the first door on the right and entered the darkened room. I followed suit on the left, rifle at the ready. The room was dimmed by ragged curtains that billowed slowly in the draft from the open door. Empty. I retreated and continued down the corridor to the next room. This room had no curtains but did contain a bed and a chest of drawers; both covered in dust and glass where the window had blown in. The drawers lay open like a broken flight of stairs that I climbed with my eyes to find the wooden box that lay on top of the chest. I could hear the Bombardier opening cupboards and drawers behind me in the room across the corridor. I walked forward and reached out for the box, my fingertips leaving four polished stripes across the dust on the wooden surface as the air behind me became solid and shoved me hard up against the chest of drawers. The sound of the explosion followed a split-second later, concussing my eardrums and leaving a high-pitched whistle in my head. Booby trap. I’m dead, I thought, but found myself clutching the polished wooden box to my chest as I struggled to my feet, blood copper in my mouth.
Deafened, I turned to see the door swinging back on buckled hinges. I walked back out into the devastated corridor where a gaping hole showed the inside of the opposite room. The Bombardier had been smeared across the concrete floor and left, along with bits of jagged metal and bone, dripping from the wall.

The convoy rocked and swayed through the bush, raising dust and diesel fumes.
Homeward bound.
‘You are now leaving Angola. Please drive carefully and thank you for fucking up our country’.
Strapped in the back of the mine-proof vehicle with the green rubber military headset hissing faraway voices in my ear, I flipped a card at random: The Fool.
I couldn’t get the image of the liquefied Bombardier from my mind. One minute he’s there - in your face, another stupid arsehole in this stupid army. Next minute he’s nothing – fuck all - smeared across the floor like road-kill. Would his mother be proud of him? Would she be proud to accept the posthumous medal awarded for bravery in service of the Vaderland? Would it be a comfort to her in the darkness of her grief?

1 comment:

littlebitofsonshine said...

People by nature are scared when faced with whats truly going on .Most are not trained to protect themself i wish there where no wars where no unnatural deaths but there are and loved ones all oner are dieing