TALES FROM THE HELL THAT HAUNTS US ALL

by Brendan Seery: Sunday Star (Johannesburg) 06-10-1991

 

Graphic details by SA bush veterans of the horrors of war and the problems they faced coming home have been compiled in a remarkable book by Unisa lecturer Karen Batley.

Barely having started shaving their teenaged faces, they donned military brown to fight a war 2 000 km away from their homeland.

With the dust of the African bush in their nostrils and its fine grit in their mouths, they visited a high-explosive hell, killing and being killed.

Back at home, their countrymen sunbathed and surfed, boogied at discos and screamed themselves hoarse at Currie Cup matches.

And, when Jannie and his mates came marching home at the end of their two years’ National Service «on the border», they found nobody understood them.

Now, in a remarkable new book being prepared for publication by Unisa English lecturer Dr Karen Batley, South Africa’s veterans of the battles in Namibia and Angola are speaking out.

Dr Batley said she was «astonished» by the response she had received from the bush-war veterans to her request for poems and diaries detailing their experiences.

 

Like a dam breaking

In addition to the scores of contributions of written material, she had hundreds of telephone calls and interviewed many former soldiers herself.

«I found that many of them just wanted to talk. Having someone there to listen was like having the dam break for many of them.»

She said many of those who responded showed anger and frustration – not so much on an ideological or political level, but on a social one.

«Nobody at home had the slightest idea of what they were going through. Nobody wanted to hear them.»

And what they do want people to hear is that war is not nice.

Dr Batley related the account of one soldier, who was struck by the fact that one of the enemy they had killed in a vicious firefight was only 18, no older than he was.

«He said he wondered about the dead man, whether he had a family, whether he had a girlfriend. He began to wonder what it was all about.»

There were still others who were able to relate graphically the horror of the hunting and killing.

But, paradoxically, many of them could barely contain their withdrawals from their adrenaline «highs», their yearnings to be back living on the edge, where they wouldn’t know at dawn whether they would see sundown, but where everything was lived out in Technicolor, not the drudgery of «civvie street».

Dr Batley, who did her Master’s degree thesis on the work of renown World War 1 poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, said South African soldier-poets had produced some «amazingly good» work which would make a significant contribution to literature in this country.

 

Generation’s Thoughts

Dr Batley is still looking for a publisher for the work, which she has tentatively titled «Days Together, days of Death», which is a translation of part of a poem submitted by and Afrikaans soldier.

But, she said she felt the book would be more than an anthology of poetry from the war.

«It is more of a fragment of social history – a recording of the thoughts of a generation who went away to fight,» Dr Batley remarked.

As South Africa moves through political and social upheaval – with the wars in Namibia and Angola now becoming academic debating issues – that generation, said Dr Batley, was one that wanted to be heard.

In the words of one of them: «We don’t want to be forgotten.»

 

Thoughts of fear and courage

 

The enemy is near …

It is night,

An evil night.

Stars glint in an acne sky,

Strange sounds eat the air.

Natural Life is dead.

Odd noises chase the crickets

Birds whisper silently.

Something is bad,

wrong –

The air is infested with insects,

the full moon gloats.

Where is the fairyland beauty of Waxy evenings?

I see stark clarity

that churns my

stomach –

What is it? –

The enemy is near.

 

Blocking out the sounds

(Written one night after listening to a tape on a Walkman. The G% cannons were firing at Cuito in the distance)

 

Blocking out the sounds of war

with the music in my ears:

the crooning voice, the senseless singing

muting sounds of mindless killing –

but only until the tape runs out.

 

I prayed that the first bullet would kill me

At that point, I still thought I had been shot through the lungs and was dying. I moved out of my partial cover into full view of the enemy and started praying that the first bullet would hit me in the head and not in the leg as I wouldn’t be able to stand any more pain. It was then that I remembered my buddy. I crawled over to Hatch E and looked into the vehicle … Andre was lying face-down, wedged between the seat and the outer wall and had ominous-looking exit wounds in his back. I grabbed his webbing to pull him out when our own ammunition started exploding … I got hit full in the face and lost vision in both eyes and my hair and clothing started to smoulder. That, and my loss of vision, made me panic for the first time.

 

I packed bodies, one was my friend

A chopper was shot down and all the guys were burnt beyond recognition. We just packed them all, and when the list came through I realised that my dearest friend had died in that chopper and I hadn’t even known. There I was packing my friend. Only later did I realise that it was my friend, and that hurt.

 

Not blood, but tears

«(To my young soldier friend)

I am so glad

You never went

into the firing zone

where others bled

and some still do –

not blood,

but salty tears

that was recurring

memories

of haunting bloody

loathsome fears

Your love of life and sunny

smile

your laughing eyes

and innocence –

hold on to them

and hope you never ever

have to go to war.»

 

I now know, We will win

 

MiGs, Mirages

and receivers,

Savage weapons of

destruction.

Images flash in my mind.

I grin.

My confidence and morale

soar – We can’t lose.

God, listen to them

lashing in from the sun,

Rolling off, attacking.

I look around.

Everyone is cheering.

I know now – We will win.

 

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