Corporal Denge was waiting for me as I slid into our O.P., I noticed immediately that Sergeant Kasera was missing along with Rifleman Joaquim. Missing? We were on a clandestine mission. People shouldn’t go missing.
“Where the fuck are they?” my agitated response was perhaps a combination of my near escape earlier and a feeling that things were slipping out of control. They were not supposed to leave under any circumstances. My explicit orders, until I returned.
Corporal Denge shrugged. “They didn’t expect you back so soon. Sergeant Kasera said they wanted to take a closer look at the village.”
“More like he wanted a closer look at the woman!” I spat with venom. “I thought these guys were professionals?”
Again Cpl. Denge shrugged, the implacable answer for all of Africa’s woes.
“Lieutenant Blignaut, He outranked me, I could not stop him.” His statement had merit, but it rankled that we were divided. I thought I had gelled us into a cohesive unit. Now with this unforeseen emergence of troops in the area, we needed more than ever to work as a team.
Corporal Denge and I were from the Small Teams Recce Units on the South West African Border, but Sgt. Kasera and Joaquim were from the 32 Battalion’s Recce unit. Our specialized training focussed on working as small dedicated forward observation posts and their teams were more often used for infiltration and subversion specialization and so they were more familiar with the territory we were currently in, and they could speak the local lingo or language as other people of the world put it.
For some reason, according to the powers that be, that seemed like a great reason to team us up. The fact that we all fell under the overarching Recce Command didn’t mean much though, as their section was notorious for brutality and had little experience in teams of less than ten men. Whereas our section seldom worked in teams of more than four. This dichotomy created a typical military rivalry, and a fair amount of friction, especially since all Recce’s were considered the ultra elite, but the competitive nature of Alpha males and who was more elite, had always stirred up resentments. Why didn’t the brass understand this?
Barely a month ago, the infamous 32 Battalion and their Recce contingent had been involved in the Cuito Cuanavale battle, where the FAPLA and Cuban forces had been heavily engaged by the South African Defense Force (SADF) and lost over 600 men, a consignment of soviet tanks and dozens of other vehicles while defending against our preemptive incursion into Angola.
The SADF had suffered less than 20 casualties in this action. It had been a very one sided engagement, some would say a slaughter.
Now these two men seconded to our mission were overly proud of that achievement, and supremely confident, and felt my presence as a leash. I was just the young white guy sent to curb their fun.
Both could speak the local dialects and a fair amount of Cuban, so I needed their help in almost every facet of this mission. Their previous experience and on the ground knowledge had made the traverse from our drop off point to where we were now, both smooth and almost risk free. The friction only really started while cooped up in this damnable O.P..
My insistence that we don’t interact with the local population and remain completely contact free was were the leash began to chafe as I tried to retain the discipline needed for our mission success. I had my reasons and yet these two were unfamiliar with small team tactics, with the necessity of remaining unseen and unnoticed.
Something had happened on our first day at the new post, where I suspected Sgt, Kasera had made contact with one of the locals. I had no proof, but suspicion is hard to suppress once it has surfaced.
A woman from the village had gone missing shortly after Kasera made the water run. The young woman’s body had been discovered half eaten by crocodiles a day later by the villagers, and I had taken long moments considering how long he had taken to return on that water run. He blamed his long absence on the village activity as they searched for the girl, but the coincidence was hard to ignore. I had looked for clues when they performed the funeral. Always a quick event in these subtropical climes. But he had been as calm as a cucumber as we watched the proceedings, and I had to decide if I was being overly suspicious.
Now, when I had taken the water run, he had gone out, against orders, and taken Joaquim with him. A deep frown rippled across my troubled expression. My fists clenched and I gritted my teeth. Fury surged. How dare they go against orders? Our lives were on the line, didn’t they understand that?
Not only were they risking all our lives, but their disdain for the locals was disheartening. Being a soldier was a duty, a job of honor. There was none of that in their bearing or attitude. They were tough, mean and capable, sure, but if they had an honorable bone in their bodies, it had broken long ago.
I hunkered down to await their return. No doubt the sudden influx of FAPLA would get them back on mission and hopefully more mindful of my orders. The recriminations could come later when I submitted my report to whichever idiot had initiated this mission in the first place.
Time passed and the village was inundated with the FAPLA soldiers. After the excitement of the accident subsided and the wounded were taken care of, the local village Chief brought out his stores of millet beer and slaughtered some of his livestock to celebrate and entertain this honor and influx of unexpected guests. Not that he had much choice in the matter. The rule of the gun was an ever present danger to all who lived in the wilds of Africa, and you don’t get to be chief long if you take unnecessary risks.
As afternoon receded into dusk, the sun setting behind our OP relative to the village, my two missing soldiers still had not returned. I was completely stressed out. It wasn’t my first rodeo or cross border mission, but it was my first where things had gone tits up like this.
“Where are they?” I asked out rhetorically for the umpteenth time while placing the binoculars down. Corporal Denge shrugged again helplessly, also for the umpteenth time.
I was just about to go into another long rant about professionalism and our need to be a team when we heard the signal. A gentle tapping of two rocks to indicate someone wanted to enter. I palmed my sidearm, and Rifleman Joaquim slid into our hideout. I could see immediately something was wrong. He had that wild look that soldiers in trouble had. His eyes roving every which way, but never making eye contact. His breath also reeked of alcohol, the local version of millet beer was unmistakable. It took a while but eventually we got the story.
Sgt. Kasera lured Joaquim with the offer of a willing woman. He had promised that she knew him and had a friend who would be open to meeting a new soldier. They didn’t know and would never suspect we were SADF soldiers. Our uniform was very much like the enemy. Some would say, exactly like. They wouldn’t suspect a thing. This was a tactic that the regular Recce teams used to infiltrate these areas and it went contrary to everything we were trained for in Small Teams.
Joaquim continued with his narrative. They had entered the woman’s hut on the outskirts of the village and indulged in some fun when the new batch of soldiers had arrived. Unfortunately Sgt Kasera had taken part in some strong spirits and had not escaped. I frowned at Joaquim and realized he had left Kasera without a second thought. What manner of soldier was he? I was appalled at this new turn of events and if I was seething before, I was now almost apoplectic.
“You left him behind!” I exclaimed accusatorially, but if it had any effect, Joaquim showed no reaction. He just insisted that we should go. Shifty eyes flitting, panic not far away. His laconic response, “There were too many of them.” didn’t help my mood any.
Cpl Denge interjected before I grabbed Joaquim physically,
“Call in an artillery strike Lieutenant, or get the Impala Jets here. They can take out this whole Company. A couple of air strikes. The Russian MIGs would never intercept them.”
Angola’s Airforce had been bolstered by Russian MIGs with Cuban pilots. The air supremacy our side had enjoyed with our dated French aircraft was coming to an end. Fortunately, our Small Teams had infiltrated and sabotaged the Russian MIG’s at their base a few months earlier. It had slowed down their air response times and I wasn’t sure if they had recovered from that incursion yet.
It was becoming more risky for us on cross border incursions as Russia and Cuba invested more and more resources against the might of the undersupplied South African Defence Force. What they would never have, though, was willing and capable fighting men, and I seriously considered Denge’s suggestion.
It would be the fastest solution, but it came with the most risk to us and the Airforce. It was a contingency I had been ordered to avoid. As an alternative, if we simply evaporated into the night and from a distant point broadcast the coordinates for artillery strikes, the only result would be dead civilians, because the soldiers would likely move on to their intended destination by the time a mobile artillery force could get within range.
All this was speculation though, because I had a man missing and I couldn’t do either of those options if he was hunkering down in the village. I turned to the unrepentant soldier before me. His beer breath clouding our confined space, the glassy alcohol-glazed eyes tinged red in his dark skinned face. He didn’t like my authority, but he did know which way the wind blew, so he towed the line.
Unfortunately when my back was turned was when this shit storm erupted. I knew who’s fault this was, and so did my men. I didn’t have the charisma or experience needed to invoke the camaraderie of loyalty that we needed. It would never have happened if Kasera believed in our mission, if he believed in me.
Instead he bridled that a young white man had been given this command and he had to tag along to wipe my bum. I hated the layers of racism that our way of life had brought about. I hated that people could not just be people, instead of a particular race first. If I could class us as anything, I would say we were soldiers first before all else.
“What about Sergeant Kasera? He’s still down in that mess, and probably fast asleep. How long before they give him up to FAPLA? How long before they discover you ran away? How long before they figure out he’s not really one of them?” My questions fell like strikes of a whip and Joaquim flinched with each one. Not giving a response because, well what could he say? The ring of truth has a way of cutting through bullshit.
We were in such deep trouble, we would be lucky to get away unscathed. That was if we got out at all, and my concerns for my own skin were secondary. One of my men was missing. He was my responsibility, and I had failed utterly in that. I could feel Joaquim was about to panic. It was almost contagious. I had to nip it in the bud.
“Cpl. Denge, check the claymores. Take them off manual activation and set the trip wires. Go through the packs and take out the junk. If they know we are here, its pointless carrying all that crap back, just put it near the explosives so it’s destroyed when they eventually find this place.”
“Arrange a secondary perimeter with the rest of the explosives and ensure our escape route is clear. Joaquim, you sort out our tech gear and set up the radio antenna for a long range burst.” With clear orders they pulled themselves together and Joaquim got his addled mind in order. It was a near thing and I had almost been consumed by my rage not to notice it. Dammit! I needed to get my own act together and lead. We had been too idle for too long.
I knew one thing though, we had to extract ourselves somehow. We were well and truly mission blown. I just had to hope the celebrations and confusion in the village would delay the inevitable. But that fickle mistress ‘Hope’ was having her day, and Cpl. Denge hissed as a sudden disturbance in the village rippled outwards attracting his attention. Since he had the binoculars I took up the rifle with a scope and the scene leapt to my view.
Sergeant Kasera was dragged, half-naked into the center of the village. His bewildered expression kept looking up the hillside towards our O.P.. His fear was almost palpable. “Get your act together man!” I thought at him. “you’re going to give our position away!”
Gone was the arrogant sneer, replaced by a vacant forlorn and disbelieving expression. When events outstrip your ability to process them adequately, your mind shuts down. The two women who had been with him were screaming and slashing at him with clubs and sticks. The men kicked and struck him with equal abandon. We could only watch as I felt my world crash down around me.
“Call in a strike.” said Cpl Denge from behind, and I turned to look at him. He had that implacable expression he had carried most of the afternoon. As fatalistic as the setting sun. Joaquim was still in panic mode, gathering the gear. I bowed my head in defeat.
If I used the radio, the hillside would be swarming with enemy soldiers in no time. Would it help Sergeant Kasera?
From all appearances, this FAPLA Company was well equipped and highly organised. They definitely would be monitoring for radio bursts in case there was an enemy unit in the area. We had to get away, and we would very definitely be pursued.
I was confused though, and felt adrift from my thoughts. I knew what my training said I should do, but he was a teammate, a man for whom I was responsible. Despite the concerns and disapproval of Sgt. Kasera, he didn’t deserve to be left to this fate. I huffed in annoyance, bringing furtive glances from my other two charges.
No-one deserved this, but everyone got mixed rations everyday. You can’t complain about it, you just dig in, savor the crunchy bits and swallow those other bits as they arrive. I decided to wait. He was a trained operative after all. He would not give us away immediately. The problem was that they knew one other had escaped from the village, and they would be sending patrols out searching for him.
It didn’t take them long. Like angry ants bursting from a broken nest, the soldiers fanned out in search patterns, but it was past sunset now and dusk was fading rapidly. There was little chance they would find us in our OP this night. Tomorrow though, that was when they would make our lives hell. We had to get away and build a lead tonight, but we would have to wait for the ants’ nest activity to subside.
Cpl. Denge called me over. He was observing with the binoculars. I picked up the Dragunov and looked through the sniper rifle’s scope again. The camp was busy. Bustling with activity. Soldiers started entrenching the anti-aircraft guns, sandbagging fortifications and placing camouflage on the vehicles. It was done in haste but they were still organised, methodical and ruthless in their preparations.
The barked commands of Sergeants, the growl of engines as they arranged tactically. Definitely they had a wily commander who was now expecting trouble and a possible airstrike. It did not look good for us, or our man. Was my delay going to help us or ensure we got caught? Training dictated we bail now. My gut told me to stay and see how things played out.
While this activity in the village mustered, they hauled Kasera through the village where he was tied to a stake in the center courtyard, a few paces away from the main communal fire pit. I could see his head lolling, bruised swollen eyes, and I zoomed my view on the dazed vacant expression between winces of pain which played openly on his face. I put the rifle down.
The villager’s hadn’t started questioning him yet, they had only been punishing him to convince the Commander they had no part in his duplicity, that they themselves were not in any way associated with this stranger. The torture would come though. Dear Lord, it would come and I didn’t know what to do.
The fire pit in the center of the village was stoked to life with large logs thrown in to brighten the spectacle. The flames licking higher and higher casting ominous shadows out into the falling shroud of night.
I had faith in the camouflage of our position in the O.P., especially at night. It wasn’t obvious, it was well hidden and bar anyone stumbling directly on it, it wouldn’t be discovered easily. We were in trouble, sure, but I had to consider the mandate of our mission. Observe and report enemy movements. Avoid contact.
This situation of getting intertwined with the enemy was definitely not an option. I had to see if there was a chance to get our man back and then I would call in an airstrike. Would it make a difference? I don’t know. The chances of us all getting away without contact were slim. It was a good thing Sergeant Kasera could speak the local dialect, so the enemy might be fooled into thinking he was just an AWOL recruit. That didn’t bode well for him though. The FAPLA units were ruthless to deserters, and with Russian oversight, they would be doubly so. There was still a small chance that he could talk his way out of it though. At least that was my hope.
I was being foolish and hoping again. That fickle mistress decided to screw the threads even tighter.
The patrols sweeping for us eventually turned back. It took them four hours and several false contacts to decide their troops just weren’t kitted out for a search at night. For that I was grateful. They had come close a few times, but the terrain at night protected us and we sighed in relief that we didn’t have to do a hot withdrawal.
The enemy had the right idea though, because they searched all the obvious hillocks and close cover regions near the village. Fortunately we had been smarter and positioned ourselves quite far away from the village. Preferring to observe at a distance through binoculars and scopes rather than chance being discovered.
Things were settling down now in the village, and the troops were all being fed and billeted, the guards had been sent out on their perimeter and the command staff had gathered around the fire.
A Russian officer. His immaculate fatigues featured Colonel pips on the epaulettes. His Maroon beret reflected whenever he moved, the crest-of-arms badge in the center of his beret glinting in the firelight. He was the only white face in the whole camp. I zoomed the scope to get a clear view of him and ached to squeeze the trigger. It wouldn’t do Kasera any favours though, and it also wasn’t part of our mission.
Besides the Russian, there were two Cuban officers, a Major and Captain. Then the rest of the interrogation crew were local Angolans. Members of FAPLA, and they were enthusiastically questioning Sgt Kasera.
Sergeant Kasera, our brother-in-arms, was the unwelcome center of attention being methodically beaten. Each blow that I observed left a bruise on my soul. That man was my teammate. A fellow soldier, a fellow Recce. While he had done almost everything he could to put himself in this position, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for what was happening. Was I too strict? Should I have given them a task to keep them occupied when I went to get the water on my own? Should I have even gone? Every kind of self chastisement I could muster was bouncing around my head, keeping time with the blows being delivered to Sergeant Kasera’s face, body and thighs. Then, when they couldn’t find any part of him unbruised, they beat the soles of his feet with a truncheon. I knew in my heart that he would never be able to walk out of here now.
According to Joaquim, who was operating the long distance listening device, Kasera had stuck to his story that he had taken leave from another FAPLA unit to visit a woman in this village. It wasn’t holding water though, because he had no direct knowledge of where his unit was, where he had come from and most importantly the name of the village elder.
What was he thinking sneaking into the village like that? Aargh! I had to act, we couldn’t sit here watching this tragedy unfold. The problem was, I didn’t trust my team anymore, hell I didn’t even trust myself. This mini mutiny had shaken me. What should I do?
Now that the search patrols had been called back within the perimeter, we could move about more freely. The problem was they would be monitoring for a long range radio burst. If I was in command of this group, it would have been one of the first things I set up. They would have sent out at least two teams to monitor for any radio transmissions so they could triangulate our position. The moment I reported our situation and asked for an airstrike and extraction, our position would be compromised. Not only that, but it would let them know there was an enemy unit in the area. Right now, as long as we did nothing to get noticed, Sergeant Kasera had a chance to talk his way out of it, and that meant we all had a chance. He was sacrificing himself to buy us time.
“Shit!…shit shit shit shit.” I muttered incessantly. The quandary of what to do was almost as bad as looking up to see my two fellow soldiers constantly avoiding my gaze and waiting for whatever it was I decided. I did not want to abandon Kasera, but it was looking more and more likely that that would be our best course of action. We needed to haul ass out of this valley and then from the escarpment, call in an airstrike. This would precipitate a controlled escape and evasion run to an extraction point closer to the border.
God! I thought this was going to be a great mission. It was turning to be a great one all right. a great big pile of greatness!
In the end, events took on a momentum all their own.
Ex-military, Ex-Paramedic and ten years in Animal health have given me a unique perspective on life. Hopefully that comes out in my writing.
Additional influences come from such authors as Joe Abercrombie, Jim Butcher, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, but have also grown to include web novels like TheFirstDefier, and Delve.
My reading journey started with the comic series of Asterix, Lucky Luke and Tintin but evolved to include the Foundation series (Asimov) and Dune (Frank Herbert).
After that it has been desperate grab at any escape and finally I have taken up the pen.