October 21, 1985
The convoy stayed in the shadow of the hillside until after darkness had fallen. By the time the ten armored personnel carriers started moving, the trees on the far side of the valley had long since faded into poorly defined shadows.
The route they were to travel had been carefully planned to raise as little interest as possible. Much of the way would be on dirt roads. They would pass through no towns and were likely to be seen only by the sort of rural people who would watch them with no more than the vaguest interest. According to the planning, the distance of almost two hundred kilometers to the border was going to take a little over three hours.
Each vehicle carried the driver and ten men, seated back-to-back, facing outward in two rows of five. In the leading vehicle, Leon Lourens, nineteen years old, broad in the shoulders, but lean after six months of intensive training, was sitting slightly forward on the thinly padded seat, his hands clasped together between his thighs. His rifle was stacked under the seat along with those of the nine other men.
Like most nineteen-year-olds of his time and culture, Leon was a patriot. He knew that, if need be, he was willing to die to defend his country. Tonight was to be his first commando raid. He did not fully understand the risks he would be facing, but he was confident that he was ready to meet them.
Most of the men were under thirty, but all of the others had seen action along the country’s borders. Leon was the youngest and he was excited at having been chosen for so important a mission. He was going to show his comrades and his family, if word ever got back to them, that he was worthy of being selected.
He was aware that his breath was coming in the brief snatches of the overawed and tried consciously to control it. His excitement could not have been greater if he had been on the way to a willing young woman, any young woman, anywhere. It had taken concentration, but his hands were still and he had controlled the tremor in his left knee that he sometimes felt at times of great excitement. Slowly his breathing started to return to something more normal. He had gone through the instructions Captain van Jaarsveld had given them many times in his mind. Now he was fully prepared.
The captain himself was sitting next to Leon and directly behind the driver. Like his men, he too was silent. Leon had never spoken to the captain and the captain had only ever spoken to him in direct military commands. But he was Leon’s senior officer and Leon knew that he would follow wherever he led.
According to the briefing the captain had given them, there were between ten and twenty terrorists in the house, which was on a fairly isolated stretch of road a few hundred meters from the nearest neighbor. They expected to reach the track that would take them to the border fence just after midnight. They would approach the fence in darkness, the engines at little more than idling speed. Two men from their vehicle would cut the fence two kilometers from the house. At that point they would be joined by a uniformed scout who would ensure that they got the right house. The six rear vehicles, two of which were empty to accommodate prisoners, would seal off the road on either side. The soldiers from the first two would go straight into the house. They were to shoot only if there were signs of resistance.
Leon’s was an almost perfect shot, but he had never before aimed a firearm at another human being. Now there was something he had to know and only the captain could give him the answer. He looked at van Jaarsveld’s face, but could read no expression there. “Permission to speak,” he said.
“What is it, soldier?”
“Do you expect resistance, captain?” He had turned his head toward the captain and tried to keep his voice low enough that no one else would hear his question.
Now it was van Jaarsveld’s turn to examine his face. “There’s always resistance.”
“Always, captain. When they see they’re outnumbered…”
“They’re terrorists. They always resist.”
That answered the question. They were going to resist and he would have to fire. But that was all right. That was what he had been chosen and trained for.
By the time the lights of Ficksburg came into view they were half an hour ahead of schedule and had to stop. The men were allowed to get down and loosen up, taking their rifles with them. It also gave them the opportunity to load. The R4 rifle’s magazine took twelve shells. Another twelve were kept in the side pocket of each man’s fatigues.
The night sky was clear and cloudless. There was no moon, but the brightness of the stars in the dry Highveld air was enough for the men to recognize one another. The lights of Ficksburg were a thin and distant line. “This is it,” Leon told himself. “Just another hour. This is what I’ve been training for. This is the moment.” The weight of the rifle felt good. He knew that he was not only an excellent shot, but he was also a quick one. Aiming, even at a distant target, took only seconds. At close range he took almost no time. He was as sure with a rifle as any man in the company, and better than any in the squad.
It took a while to reach the border from the place where they had stopped, but to Leon it felt like the descent of a large aircraft after a long flight. Even if it took half an hour, you felt that the journey was over and you were already there.
The convoy approached the border fence in darkness, up a narrow gully, digging tracks in the crisp veld grass. The two men whose job it was cut quickly through the wire. As it came loose, Leon and the others rolled back a section on either side. In less than a minute they were moving again. The scout who had been waiting at the fence climbed up next to the driver.
At the top of a rise they left the grass and followed a dirt road. Up ahead, Leon could see the first house. In the glow of a yard light two figures dashed away, boys of perhaps ten or eleven, barefoot and in short pants. Their skinny legs and bare feet were vaguely disturbing. In his nineteen years he had seen so many like them and played with them as a child. They were too ordinary to be here. Leon looked at Captain van Jaarsveld, but the captain’s face was in darkness. He was leaning forward in readiness to rise.
There were only two houses in the first block. They rolled past them without raising any obvious interest. The next block held three houses, two on the left and one on the right. Leon knew that the house they were aiming for was the one on the right. The first time he saw it, it was some fifty meters ahead and in complete darkness. It was an old corrugated-iron-roofed house, an unevenly supported veranda running down two sides. Even in the darkness it was clear that it had been a long time since the house had last been painted. The captain rose and was opening the hatch on the roof. It was time to go.
Copyright © 2010 by Wessel Ebersohn