Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Bush War Story (Part 3)

As we reached the end of our school career, it was time for our final exams, and once the exams were over we were all on our way to a place called Henties bay – one of SWA’s favourite holiday destinations at the coast. Youngsters were getting drunk all over the place, doing the usual schoolies thing. We drove a Land Rover on the beach and broke off fishermen’s lines in the process – nasty, but lots of fun for a bunch of young hooligans.

The poor little town suffered heavily under the assault of the school-leavers. Drunken people everywhere, mischief being committed all over the place. Those of us who knew we were soon to join the army, were celebrating like it could be our last time. After all, by this time next year we may have seen the pointy end of an AK47 bullet, and there would be no more celebrations. The others were just starting the free life of a student and were happy as can be, but those of us who were destined for greater things were not quite so optimistic about our future. I was never one to drink too much, but some of my mates got heavily sick during that weekend.

The date was approaching quickly – 11 January 1988.

We celebrated Christmas at our house in Windhoek. I think this was probably the last time our whole family celebrated Christmas together – my grandfather, my aunt and cousins, and us. After this everything changed and the family was never quite the same again.

On the eve of 10 January 1988, I slept in my old bed for the last time, wondering what was lying ahead for me. Did I pack enough shoe polish? Am I fit enough to handle this? I had no idea what my life would be like in 2 years’ time, and certainly no idea of how the political landscape in southern Africa and Eastern Europe would also change in the not-too-distant future.

We arrived at Suiderhof army base, and I looked out for my old school buddies. We were all bundled together with our “civvy bags”, listening to some general making a speech. At that time, I wasn’t too sure about what his rank was - he could have been a corporal, admiral or Intergalactic High Commander for all I cared. He was making lovely promises to our parents. He informed us all that there was nothing to worry about – the enemy was basically already on its knees, and we were in the hands of good people. Mommy and Daddy were told to go home with a happy heart, as these little kids would be well looked after. After all, more people died from sickness and disease than from engaging in war-games.

I was actually starting to believe that the modern army of 1988 might be different – these were modern times after all, and we were the cream of South West African civilization. No harm would come our way.

We were bundled into busses, waving at mom and dad, chatting happily, and generally feeling a little better about this whole deal. (Subconsciously we all knew we were lying to ourselves, but we needed something to hold on to…)

The busses took off, with no corporals or sergeant majors in sight. The only military person in the whole bus was the driver, and he didn’t seem to be much of a problem. The boys were having a good time. Some of the Baster boys in the back of the bus were throwing around Coke cans and emptied chips packets.

We were different from the South Africans in this way. In South Africa, different races did not mix. In SWA, we were enlisted together with people from other races. We all shared the same bus, the same toilets and showers and sometimes even the same water bottles. Many South Africans don’t understand this. The SWATF was a multicultural army, not a segregated army like the SADF was. We were not fighting the black man in Africa – we were fighting communism. Sadly, the current government of Namibia also does not recognise this fact.

Anyway, we soon reached a lovely little isolated place called Luiperdsvallei, just a few kilometers south of Windhoek. We were slowly dragging our civvy bags from the bus, when suddenly it felt like the atmosphere changed drastically.

It’s quite difficult to describe the next scene – it’s a little bit like the movie scenes from the Normandy beach landings, where there is this eerie silence, and suddenly all hell breaks loose around you. Or the choppers landing in Vietnam – nothing happens and then suddenly it’s just bullets, explosions and swear words all over the place. This was a little bit like that – only worse.

I was soon realising that something was happening outside the bus. The closer you got to the bus door at the front, the louder the noise became, and the more panic was felt in the air. There was a tangible feeling of trouble in the air.

Once I reached the exit and my feet touched the ground, I realised that I made the biggest mistake of my life. There was no turning around, and apparently I signed up to join the devil in hell.

A staff-sergeant was standing right at the door, and he was the most vile thing I had ever seen in my life. He started swearing at me even before my feet touched the ground. “Go there, get going you useless #&^%!”, he indicated and pointed in some general direction where I could see only a cloud of dust. I grabbed my civvy bags and started running in that general direction. We all had to line up – we knew about lining up in three’s, because we had been doing this since we were 12. Not to mention that I was also in the school’s prestige platoon in my days.

The staff (this is what we called a staff-seargent) and his big massive moustache appeared in front of us, swearing profanely. Apparently, this was the mark of any good staff – his moustache had to appear on the parade ground a few seconds before he did. They would wear them in these long curly fashions – greased up by eating fatty ribs over the weekend.

This man was yelling obscenities that I’d never heard before. At first I thought he was a preacher – he talked a lot about God and Jesus, and mentioned a lot of horrible sinners like whores and prostitutes, but he wasn’t using these words in quite the same way as our dear Reverend used them on Sundays. Mother Mary and a whorehouse featured heavily in this discussion.

I was made to believe that we were fighting the antichrist, and now suddenly the Devil himself was standing here insulting me! I was ready to grab a gun and kill this swine. He was doing all the things that my parents used to warn me against – and more.

The old dog seemed to be pretty upset, too. I was listening to him rambling on, trying to find out what he was complaining about.

It was about the bus – yep, those lovely people who littered all over the bus were not going to get away with it! That was another thing of course – how dare we, mere raw troops, arrive at a pristine military base riding in a BUS? All the “old troops” in the base were making comments about this – why are we being ferried along in busses, are we too scared to be transported like cattle on the back of a troop carrier? (As if this was our own choice – I didn’t want to be here in the first place!)

Staff Swears-a-lot wanted to know who littered junk all over his bus. No one had any idea. He swore a bit more, until one of the blokes mentioned something like “those bloody Basters did it”. The staff did not appreciate the fact that people were talking while he was swearing, and became even angrier. Now he wanted to know who that was? Who talked? – We were all dead quiet by now.

He started chasing us all around the place, dragging our civvy bags along. Luckily I was prepared for this and had a fairly portable bag. Some of these poor idiots were however dragging themselves to death with heavy impractical suitcases.

Fortunately for us, someone else now appeared on the scene. He seemed to outrank the staff and told him to stop harassing us. Apparently we had not yet been medically tested and it was illegal to chase us around if we were not medically cleared for heavy abuse. What if one of us was a wimp and fell over or died during our lovely interrogation session?

The staff was now even angrier. As we entered the door at the big medical shed, he would say “if you’re classified as G1K1 when you walk out the other side, I will kill you today – you’d better pray you’re not G1K1!!”

By this time it was my life mission to be classified as G5K5. We quickly learnt what these terms meant: G1K1 is a normal fit healthy young man – basically qualified to be abused in any way by anyone who outranks him, and used as canon-fodder. Someone who was blind, deaf, dumb and paralysed below the legs might just get classified as G2K2 – if he was lucky.

Once I got into the shed, I quickly realised that things were going from bad to worse. We had to take off all our clothes except for our underpants. One of my school mates had a beautiful older sister who was always very nice to me when I visited their house. She had in the meanwhile gone to a little town called George, where the female army training facilities were, and she was now an officer in the army. Just my luck – here she was in the same shed where I was standing in my underpants like a prisoner of war. I was embarrassed beyond recognition, and my best attempts at avoiding her did not work.

They performed a check-up on everything – they felt the size of your balls, they measured your length, height and width, and looked into every possible cavity that you could present. The dentist had a look in my mouth and declared my teeth as some of the best he’d seen that day. Some of the other blokes were not that lucky – if they found problems with your teeth, they fixed you there and then, and you could hear the bewildered groans from the poor fellas who were being mutilated under local anaesthesia.

What a day. We’d been here for barely a few hours, and already it was every man for himself – survival of the fittest. Except for the fact that you tried to avoid being declared fit. I tried my best at looking like a wimpy geeky nerdy match-stick man who wouldn’t be able to lift a rock from the ground, let alone a gun. But none of this worked – they declared me G1K1, and it was time to face the music.

There was this one bloke who came up to me saying “hey you, does your mother know you’re here?” I was familiar with this phrase, because I’ve always been short and I got this since Primary school, right through high school and now again some jerk tries this with me during my first day in the Force. I was just about to tell him off when I saw he had something on his shoulders. I spoke very nicely, saying “yes lieutenant, no lieutenant”, until he left me alone. This was when my buddy behind me decided to inform me that this dude was actually a captain, and not a lieutenant – a higher rank. I realised that I should have paid more attention to this whole rank-thing in school, because I obviously had no idea what was going on.

By now, I was seriously regretting my decision to join up, and was thinking of ways to flee the country without a passport. I still had 2 years minus half of 1 day left of my National Service, and it wasn’t looking like it was working out for me.

The exit door was getting closer and I could hear the staff yelling at people as they left the building. He would just ask “G1K1?”, and when you confirmed this, he would swear and point in a general dust cloud’s direction and would then tell you to lift up your hind legs and get moving.

After making us run around for a while, the staff pointed us to another big shed, where we were to collect our kit. This is where the army handed out all the heavy stuff.

They issued us with boots that were too big, an army beret and bush hat that was too big, brown overalls that were oversized, and underpants that were way too small. We also received a “varkpan” – loosely translated this is a “pig pan”. It was a piece of metal which you had to use as a plate to eat from. With this you got a dinner set called a “pikstel”, which was a spoon, knife and fork that all slid into one.


Added to this was the famous “spoegbakkie”, which was a round metal cup without a handle. Drinking hot tea from this thing in the middle of winter was pure torture – it had no handle and you had to grip it at the top with the tips of your fingers and try not to burn your fingers or spill your tea. Loosely translated the word spoegbakkie means “spit bucket”. The spoegbakkie fitted into the round holes on the varkpan.

I’ve tried to get hold of a photo of one, but it seems that not one single soldier ever thought the spoegbakkie was important enough to take photos of them. Which is quite understandable.

After we were issued with all of our heavy gear, most of it stuck into a metal trommel, we were bundled onto another bus. We drove and drove and drove while it rained outside, and at one stage I thought we may be going all the way up north to the operational area.

We finally stopped at the famous place called Osona. We had now reached our ultimate destiny in life by becoming part of this well-respected establishment.

It was raining cats and dogs when we got off the bus. The camp was a nightmare – people were screaming at you from all directions – no one knew who they had to listen to, as one person would scream at you to move in one direction, while the other would point you in the opposite direction. You normally followed the directions of the person who swore the most.

I always knew that people were supposed to scream at you in the army, but until then I didn’t realise that they all screamed at you at the same time…

I ended up in what was called Platoon one, Alpha Company. This sounded quite cool, but meant nothing. No one was special because they were in platoon 1 – it was just a random number like all the others. We were however lucky enough to be booked into a bungalow. Some of the other blokes got placed into what we called “tent town”, where a bunch of tents were placed far away from toilets and anything else.

It was raining so hard, you could barely hear the corporal swearing at you.

These poor fellas were still moving into their tents after nightfall; soaked from the rain - mud and water was everywhere. All of a sudden a bloke turned up wearing nothing but his underpants and a web-belt around his waist, sigarette in his mouth.

This bloke looked pretty high up in the ranks and he started swearing at these poor troopers like there was no tomorrow. He made them crawl around in the mud, doing push ups and running around in the dark, until he finally let the poor sobs go to bed.

Everyone remembered this bastard’s face – after all, if you ever saw him again you’d disappear as soon as possible.

When they had to line up for roll-call the next morning, they saw this same bloke standing in line with them. It turns out he was also a new recruit and he was just toying around with them. Needless to say, he was severely dealt with later…

And so ended my first day in the army. We were told that we could expect an inspection the next morning – whatever that meant, it did not sound like we were going to enjoy this...