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Of Land and Spirit
by Alan Thrush

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Transition Publishing, 1997
240 x 160mm, 408 pages
ISBN 0 620 20913 5
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Summary
 

Extracts from "Of Land and Spirits" the defining novel of Rhodesia's last years...

Book Three - "Penance" - Chapter 22
Book One - "Sentence" - Chapter 4


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Alan Thrush

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without permission from the publishers. 

BOOK THREE

PENANCE 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO 

The choppers were starting up. Around a forward airfield carved as a wide rectangular scar into the heart of the endless bush, the urgency of another fire force call-out gripped everyone, energising soldiers into action, and filling airmen and police with a renewed sense of purpose for their particular function in this theatre of Rhodesia’s war.

Around bunkers and sandbags, tents and trucks and A-frame huts, men braced themselves against stinging downwash dust as they ushered and hurried the lead sticks on their way, hands pressed over ears against the throbbing, thundering, jet-turbine whine of the first-wave helicopters. Paratroopers donned ’chutes in a line to one side while, behind them, shouting and the revving of heavy trucks marked the land-tail vehicles and reserve troops rumbling out towards the area of the sighting.

In the K-Car, Bruton’s pilot adjusted his pitch until the scything blades found purchase in the humid, heavy, mid-morning air above the perspex cabin, pulling the big gunship slowly out from within its bunker.

Sitting in the command seat beside the pilot, Bruton concentrated on his battle plan, blocking out the noisy distractions of the turbine and the chattering crews in his headset, ignoring the canon-swivelling gunner and his pilot jerking the little red brake handle to hold the aircraft before take-off. There was much for Bruton to co-ordinate. Folded and strapped to his knee, a coloured relief map of the target area showed brown hill-contours and scattered blue riverlines criss-crossed by hand-written, purple Intelligence updates – a protected village here, over there a known guerrilla entry route or the suspected location of a local swikiro, gone into hiding among the destroyed dips and outbuildings of a burned-out farmhouse. The OP position was marked in blue with its callsign and strength: Seven-three-Bravo from the RLI. Other blue scribblings indicated five more RLI OPs in the general area of the CFL, while in the riverline below seven-three-Bravo lurked the rough, red chinagraph circle of the reported ter position, annotated with estimated enemy strength, identified weaponry and the number of civilians feeding them.

Fifty-plus Charlie Tangos with anti-aircraft capability. A dozen or so locals, mainly women. It was going to be some scene, this one.

Bruton studied the map, forming a mental picture of the ground as he planned likely stop positions, drop zones and sweep directions, and calculated time over target, land-tail ETA, flying times to the closest fuel and a score of other details. Beside him in the cabin, packed into little spaces between the massive bulk of the cannon and its trays of gleaming brass shells, and between the helmeted, tense-looking gunner and his armour-plated pilot, there were rifles and a spare radio, Bruton’s webbing, a bundle of maps and various coloured smoke grenades. Drips and some field dressings, too.

The K-Car accelerated out onto the runway, tilting forwards on its nosewheel before taking to the air, the grass of the airfield dropping away behind, and the shadow of the gunship beginning to dance gaily across the shifting canopy of rushing trees and the damp, shadowy, emerald-green ground just a few feet below …

Kemp’s chopper was right behind the Major’s in the line of four. Sitting on the bench in the cabin’s centre-rear, Kemp had a clear view between the angled, black steel armour of the pilot’s seat and the two riflemen facing him, over the arch of the instrument panel to where the K-Car was lifting clear of the airfield and accelerating away towards the target.

He felt his own aircraft begin its rush down the strip, tilting with a little jump to become one with the air.

Bruton was clearly visible in the gunship ahead, his helmeted face watching the following troop-carriers as he sat with his back towards the direction of flight, his faded flak jacket contrasting bluishly with the browns, greens and blacks of his aircraft, and with the tropical lushness of the bush and granite koppies over which it flew. He seemed to be looking accusingly at Kemp, and the young platoon commander sweated in spite of the gale of air rushing through his doorless cabin. He glanced away to look over the armour plate at his own pilot; at the man’s helmet bobbing with the rhythm of the turbine; at the gunner squinting over his gunsights; at the rippling black flex snaking across the roof of the cabin to and from the three headsets – his, the pilot’s and the gunner’s; at the faces of the African warriors sitting around him, tense and controlled; and back to the K-Car ahead as Kemp wondered again what the Major was going to do with him, now that he knew about the affair with his wife.

Bruton’s attitude to Kemp had changed since that discovery, along with his order of battle. Stop One had always been Scott’s job. Kemp had traditionally led the paras. Now Bruton had switched them. Why? It was worrying, and it added another dimension of uncertainty to the sense of electric anticipation Kemp was feeling at the contact ahead – not fear, although Kemp knew that the fear would come soon enough, once he was on the ground. What Kemp was feeling now, flying into contact, was more a sense of personal, professional fulfilment yet to come; an anticipated affirmation of his own self-belief; an excited confidence in his ability to manage any particular part of the battle that the Major cared to allocate.

Kemp knew himself to be more than merely a professional soldier: he had taken professionalism to the ultimate permissible degree, and then exceeded that boundary to go far beyond the code, discipline and law of the Rhodesian Army. He had used the excuse of war to become a licensed, legalised killer. He was equipped to kill. He was trained to kill, and he knew that the killing this day was not going to end merely with his armed enemy. Flying into battle, Kemp held a conscious intent to eliminate anything and everything that got in his way. The black civilian sympathisers were, in Kemp’s eyes, as much a part of Zanla’s field organisation as the guerrillas themselves. Perhaps more so: they were the enemy’s lifeline – its eyes, ears and support system all rolled into one. Without the civilian peasant population, Kemp believed, there could be no war.

But there was a catch to Kemp’s mission – an obstacle he could not overlook. The Major was in charge. Bruton was in overall command, and he would be watching Kemp closely, seeking to contain the actions of his platoon leader and hold them within the moral dictates of the army, such as they were.

Kemp looked ahead to where Bruton’s chopper hung suspended beneath the yellow blur of rotor tips cutting a disc through the hot morning air. Still the Major seemed to be watching him. Watching him and waiting. Waiting. But for what? Bruton hadn’t said a single word about the affair with his young wife. Ever since the penny dropped, by the tents in the base camp that day they had pulled out of OP, the only thing he had done was to put Scott in charge of the paras and transfer Kemp to run the choppers.

Officer commanding Stop One.

First man on the ground.

First man into the fray.

Why?

At the back of Kemp’s mind was the nagging worry that perhaps the Major had done it to increase Kemp’s chances of getting killed. But Stop One was okay with Kemp. Stop One was where most of the action usually was, and Kemp knew that he was more than equal to it.

He was a professional …

Stooping under his heavy load of webbing, rifle, bulging main and reserve parachutes and fighting equipment, Second Lieutenant Patrick Robertson peered out from under his helmet at the Alouettes launching themselves in pursuit of the K-Car. He stood with the other paras behind the shimmering, camouflaged metal skin of the Dakota’s port wing, sweating in the heat of the day with all its worry and fear while he waited to board.

Plus-minus fifty ters, the RLI had said.

Fifty! And here they were going in with twelve men in the first wave – twenty-eight when Bruton committed the paras – that was if nobody sprained an ankle or snapped a shinbone in the wind and chaos of the drop zone.

Fifty gooks! Why the hell couldn’t they have body armour like those damned K-Car crews? Without it, Robertson felt vulnerable; like a walking bomb, surrounded as he was by fragmentation and phosphorous grenades, ball and tracer ammunition, flares, mini-claymores and the rest.

The shit was going to hit the fan this time. No chance of a lemon – not with an RLI call-out. The Saints knew the score. The gooks were going to be there, all right.

God, but he was scared! In a short while they were going to make him jump – something that was terrifying enough in its own right – but then the Major would make them start sweeping, and the ground fire would begin to chatter, coming at them from unseen shadows among the trees and undergrowth, and the killing and the dying would begin.

Was he up to it?

Would he be able to keep his head when the first shots were fired?

Would he handle things in the manner expected of him? Could he handle it?

If only the others would just leave him alone and stop jumping up and down every time he made a mistake. If only he could think as fast under pressure as Kemp and Scott seemed to be able to do. If only a contact weren’t so bloody noisy, and confusing, so dangerous and downright terrifying.

But maybe that was why the Major had switched Kemp out of the paras. Although Robertson was under no illusion as to the level of Scott’s professional regard for him, at least he didn’t ride him as badly as Kemp. Scott was okay. Robertson sneaked a look at Andrew standing at the end of the line of paras, his stocky frame stooped beneath the constricting weight of parachute, rifle and full battle order. He was chatting to one of his men, and managing an occasional grin in spite of the tension. Scott was okay. His additional responsibility of doubling as company 2IC seemed to have brought out the best in the man.

The reality of imminent contact washed over Robertson once again and he gripped his reserve ’chute tightly in an effort to stop the trembling in his hands, comforting himself with the knowledge that Scotty had seen a lot of action. Andrew Scott was experienced and effective, and with Kemp gone from the paras, maybe things would be different. Maybe things would be all right …

‘Okay, sir!’

The dispatcher tapped Andrew’s reserve parachute and slipped the velcro cover of its rip-cord back into place, passing down the line of paratroops to check the next man.

Andrew watched the last of the helicopters disappear over the treeline, the roar fading with the image. He felt nervous and apprehensive, and in a conscious effort to block out the bad memories of his wounding that were never far away during take-off, he concentrated on listening to Mpehla making jokes about his newness to operational drops.

‘Third op jump, Ishe? Hau, but your wings are still new!’

And Mpehla tapped the faded paratroop badge on his right shoulder and laughed.

Andrew grinned back, hoping he looked confident and remembering the hill and his first contact with this man, back in the Maramba with Kuretu, Sibanda and Hlomani the Matabele, all those years before. That had been a fire force deployment too, he recalled, with the same reassurances and casual banter before the chopper had come to pick them up in the mealie field. Andrew knew the signs: forced laughter and cynical jokes – as a veteran he could recognise controlled nervousness. He wondered whether the years had made him any good at masking his own fear.

It would be all right, he told himself. Just like all other contacts he had been through and survived.

They would be okay …

 

‘Emplane! Come, chaps! Quickly now. We have to catch the choppers!’

Number One dispatcher was hurrying his charges up steel steps slung below the Dakota’s door.

Sergeant George Sibanda was in grim mood as he heaved himself into the dark furnace of the fuselage, following the other paratroopers of the port stick to his allotted seat. He could see Lieutenant Scott a few places away from him, closer to the cockpit. He caught his eye and gave his platoon commander a thumbs-up signal. No grin though. Sibanda rarely smiled these days. This was not the time for jokes, anyway: the RLI had called them out, and that meant there was a good chance they would find the terrorists. When they did, Sibanda knew there would be no prisoners. He intended only to kill…

 

‘Two minutes out.’

A last look at the map. A final, mental rehearsal of likely Zanla escape routes and probable B Company stop positions and sweep patterns.

Bruton glanced at the gunner. The man was braced against his cannon, aiming it at random objects on the ground below them, ready to fire as soon as he had a target.

From the headset:

‘Seven-three-Bravo. Okay. We can hear you now. Very faint. No movement yet from the gook position.’

A hiss-hiss over the radio as the pilot acknowledged with his transmit button the updated information.

Bruton swivelled in his seat so that he could look ahead to the target area, still out of sight beyond the crest of a line of wooded hills approaching rapidly. The OP would be hiding just off the highest point, listening to the beat, beat, beat of the approaching fire force, and watching the riverline below for the first signs of bombshelling.

The gunship passed over the last of the tribal lands before the higher ground: a few villages with a donkey and some goats galloping panic-stricken in search of shelter from the noisy metal predators overhead. A herdboy leaped with practised ease into a ditch to lie prone and still.

Probably the village mujiba, Bruton thought.

Again the radio:

‘K-Car climbing.’

‘Copied.’

The hills rose abruptly to meet them, the helicopter following a forced ascent until the crest passed beneath as a ragged, ridged blanket of transparent green; a transparent net of leaves spread above the more solid, moving blackness of branches changing perspective as the aircraft rushed overhead, the whole falling away into a valley panorama of grey-brown villages and dark green fields, with patchwork patterns of bush in between, and the riverline just visible through tree tops as a muddy python of water moving sluggishly in the sunlight, menacing and deadly.

The snake twinkled abruptly around the enemy position, and there was the crack of whips lashing the K-Car, angry and dangerous. From the corner of his eye, Bruton saw the bright flash – orange-red, grey and black – of a rocket exploding far above in the blue of the sky.

The gunner opened fire, his shells tap-dancing a smashing, flashing red among the trees below as the pilot banked sharply into a tight command orbit, and Bruton began to indicate where Kemp and the other first wave sticks should go down …

 

Kemp heard the firing of the K-Car before he saw the expanding black and red flash of the exploding rocket.

He watched the ball of smoke hanging in the air for a moment before the pilot jerked his helicopter onto a course that took them streaking across the tree tops between the riverline and the hills, hurtling briefly past the guerrilla camp before circling behind the cover of the high ground.

The directions were coming from the K-Car pilot:

‘… passing the gook camp now. Bank left behind the hills. Now left through the gap. Roger. Good. You should be able to see the LZ ahead of you – only clearing in sight. Watch yourself when you take off. Climb out ahead and to your right, but watch out for Yellow Two. He’ll be above you when you go …’

Then the chopper flaring into the clearing, slowing and bumping to the ground, and his machine-gunner edging to the side of the bench to jump out and run towards the cover of the bush, stooped beneath the heavy gun and its belts of brassy ammunition. Kemp moved himself to the door and jumped, scrambling and sprinting to his own position in the defensive arc, hearing the roar of the big, grey-green Alouette blurring into a right-handed bank of departure over the trees.

Then the next G-Car coming in – Yellow Two – and the next stick deplaning in a rush of noise against the staccato cannon background of the K-Car pouring fire into the feeding place beside the river …

‘STAND IN THE DOOR!’

Within the Dakota’s steel fuselage, the port stick took one pace forward to position the first man ready for the drop. From Andrew’s perspective at the back, they were a line of blunt, rounded helmets, and upward-pointing weapons butts, and arms holding static lines. Here and there machine-gunners were marked by their bulkier weapons, and by their ready ammunition belts wrapped around between pistol grips and cocking handles.

A small hole appeared suddenly in the skin of the cabin, showing blue sky beyond. It took Andrew a second or two to work out what it was.

‘GO!’

The port stick half-shuffled, half-scurried forward, Andrew at the rear so as to be in the middle of the line when the starboard stick followed him through the door. It was a rapid exit – nothing like training – no chant or rhythm; more a disciplined scramble to get the hell out of that claustrophobic, unprotected fuselage.

There was a brief and blurred vision of dispatchers and door, bush and sky, and then he was out, his headlong plunge arrested by the billowing green of parachute silk, and the sounds of the battle coming to his ears as the noise of the Dakota’s passage faded.

Over dotted huts and matchstick cattle straddling the line of the river with its lace-like trees, the K-Car was circling at the same height as Andrew, the Major plainly visible as he hung out of the gunship’s side, directing the contact on the valley floor below. Andrew could seen one of the G-Cars lifting out of a clearing between the river and the line of hills.

He pulled himself together and began to go through his descent drills…

Sibanda felt better once the Major had organised the sweep. He always did. When the chaos of landing and struggling out of the parachute harness was over, when everybody had managed to link up, then you started to get the feeling that things were under control.

Advancing slowly through the bush with Lieutenant Scott and the others, Sibanda reckoned this contact would be a long one. The Charlies had been contained to some extent by the K-Car, and had gone to ground over a wide area. There were already three separate sweeps under way: this one, another led by Mister Robertson, and the chopper sticks under Lieutenant Kemp clearing a string of caves on the hillside. Sibanda thought Mister Kemp was getting the worst of it; over the noise of the K-Car and the Alouettes ferrying in extra troops from the second wave vehicles, Sibanda could monitor the confusion of that particular section of the battle over his radio. There was a lot of firing coming from the direction of the hills.

It was going to be a long day. Perhaps they would not even finish by nightfall. No matter. There were fifty Charlies to find and kill, and as Sibanda searched the waist-high grass beneath the darker green and black of the trees, he aimed his rifle low in readiness for the first clash, remembering the face of the man who had commanded the butchery in his village, and preparing himself for revenge …

The bush was thick where Robertson was sweeping, the tall grass tangled dense and lush beneath the trees. The men on either side seemed to move like ghosts, their legs and hips disappearing into the grass so that they moved as half-men, their upper bodies floating across a landscape of shadowy undergrowth. Robertson knew that they would be right on top of the enemy before they saw them: five metres, maybe less.

Peering into the grey-black shadows beneath the ceiling of trees, straining to differentiate boulders and fallen branches from their quarry, he found himself having to concentrate simply to keep moving forwards; he had to will himself to advance against the restraining force of a fear that gripped him and made his bladder tight and full.

Why couldn’t Bruton have left him with Scott? Why the hell couldn’t he have used sticks from the second wave to do this sweep? It was so bloody thick in here, you could virtually stand on a gook before you saw him. And you couldn’t hear a bloody thing, either, what with all the choppers buzzing around and the K-Car hammering away all the time.

Ahead of him and slightly to the right, there was a patch of shadowy undergrowth dancing slowly towards them as they advanced. Keeping his rifle in his shoulder with one arm, Robertson used his other to silently indicate that the stick to his left should wheel slightly. The rifleman on the right flank paused to allow the others to formate, but a burst of fire came without warning from somewhere ahead of them, and the man collapsed into the long grass, the machine-gunner next to him being punched by an invisible fist over onto his back.

The rest of the men threw themselves flat, Robertson dragging out a phosphorous grenade and flinging it forwards to alert Bruton in the K-Car and get him to clear the radio net. He shouted over the noise of the firing to the men on his right, trying to assess casualty levels while he grabbed his radio handset to talk to the Major. It was dead. Neither static hiss nor the excited jargon of battle came to his ear. Robertson stared at the device dumbly, then glanced down at the radio in his kidney pouch. There was a jagged exit hole where a round had ripped through the equipment’s electronic vitals.

Christ! They had nearly hit him!

Robertson looked up to where his grenade was exploding into streamers of burning white phosphorous:

Whoomf!

Jesus Christ! He had nearly been killed.

As he watched the pretty white chemical fires floating down, Robertson became aware that he was no longer capable of rational thought. It was a strange sensation, conscious yet uncontrollable. With the realisation that his own life had been so nearly taken, there came upon him a dulling blanket of subconscious collapse that seemed to pin his trembling body close to the ground, so that he was unable to reason, and could only peer unseeingly forwards through the matted stalks of grass to where the firing had come from, listening to the fighting around him and to the obscene whine of the ever-present K-Car hanging in the sky above …

Bruton knew something was wrong even before the phosphorous grenade puffed its brilliant white warning glaringly against the green of the under-growth. He had been watching Robertson’s advance, the heads and shoulders and rifles that he could see from his elevated orbit appearing and disappearing among the feathery canopies of the flattened tree tops below. But then the bush had become too thick to see through, and Robertson’s men had failed to appear in a clear patch on the other side. Kemp had called for cannon support, and Bruton had told his pilot to head over to the caves, leaving Robertson to it and hoping for the best.

The flash of phosphorous ended the uncertainty. The K-Car pilot banked sharply back towards where Robertson had disappeared, and Bruton began calling, calling, calling to his junior platoon commander on the radio. Eventually, the lance-corporal in charge of Robertson’s other stick come on the net, but Bruton couldn’t get any sense out of him. The sound of firing drowned a lot of what he was saying, and then he went silent. There was a lot of pressure down there.

Bruton reassessed his action plan, mind racing to take stock of weapons and men still available to him, the proximity of the remainder of the second wave was still being choppered in, flying time left before the G-Cars would have to leave the contact area. A hundred factors had to be weighed against each other as the original plan was flexed to suit the circumstances; a score of tasks had to be prioritised in a matter of seconds.

Bruton called Andrew, rapping out instructions into his voicebox as the gunner found a target in the bush and began banging away with his cannon:

‘Patrick’s guys are involved in a scene upstream of you, Scotty. Can you mark your position and stand by for uplift?’

Click-click, went the handset, and Andrew’s white square of plastic appeared as a stark marker against the jungle green.

‘Okay, Andy. I have you visual. Robertson is about four hundred metres west-north-west of your present position. He’s in trouble. I can’t get a response from him. Either he’s been hit or his set is out. We can’t get any sense out of Vulture Three either. I want you to get yourself and Vulture Two back to the closest LZ to your rear. We’ll pick you up and drop you where Patrick began his sweep. You’re to clear the ground forward until you locate his position and report back to me. Make it as quick as you can, Andy. Careful but quick. I want the wounded out as soon as possible. Vulture Five will stand by to sweep towards you when you’ve linked up. Copied?’

‘Copied.’

Bruton flicked the switch on his voicebox to the internal channel, searching the pilot’s face for sign of understanding of the new situation while they hurriedly arranged the uplift and re-deployment. Scott would need time to get back to an LZ, the incoming choppers would need time to get their sticks down into stop positions, then more time to uplift Andrew’s men.

At the rear of the cabin, the long, lean cannon spat death at a fresh target on the ground …

‘Vulture Four, Two-nine. If you’re receiving this, press your prestle switch twice.’

Crouched among jungled boulders spewed in a random arc around the cave in front of him, Lieutenant Gregory Kemp listened to Bruton trying to raise Robertson on the radio net. He wiped sweat from his face with a sleeve and assessed the developing situation.

Civvies and gooks all over the place. Definitely some in the cave in front of him. Six ters winkled out of the broken ground and crevices they had already cleared with grenades, and now that gutless wanker Robertson holding up the K-Car.

Kemp wasn’t going to get the air support he had requested.

Shit!

He looked behind him to where one of his chopper sticks had taken cover with two of the villagers they had found hiding among the boulders – young women dressed in faded rags and tattered scarves. No shoes. They looked frightened and worried, and with good cause too, since the Major didn’t know about them, and since Kemp had not intention whatsoever of losing good men clearing the suspect cave in front of him.

Cave scenes were bloody dangerous. The men who cleared them usually won medals sooner or later – mostly later, and posthumously, too. Kemp didn’t want a medal. He was a professional not prone to taking unnecessary chances, especially not heroic ones. Kemp wanted dead gooks and all his men very much alive when the time came to wrap up this particular scene and go home.

He listened to Bruton passing instructions to Scott for a while. Bruton was going to be tied up for at least twenty minutes, Kemp figured. By the time he’d sorted out Robertson’s problem he would want to know why Kemp was taking so long to clear the caves. The Major was like that. He wanted results.

Kemp made up his mind.

‘Get those two kaffir bitches over here!’ he bellowed to his black corporal.

The young NCO in the rocks scrambled with the two girls over the boulders to where Kemp rummaged in his pouches for a mini-claymore mine, wires and friction detonator. The two women looked at the curved slab of brown encapsulated explosive with suspicion, then up into the eyes of the white man who held it. Kemp met their gaze easily.

‘This is a radio transmitter,’ he explained in Shona, pressing the mine to the chest of one of the women. He indicated that she should hold it there while he strapped it on. ‘You’re going to walk into the cave until you find the comrades, understand? We want to be able to talk to them. Persuade them to give themselves up. Understand?’

The one with the mine said nothing, but the other went off in a gabble of protest, shaking her head and speaking too fast for Kemp to follow. Her eyes rolled white in a dark face sweaty and pale grey from her fear.

‘What’s she saying, Corporal?’

‘She says that this thing, it’s not a radio, Ishe. She says she won’t do it.’

Kemp had his rifle up in a flash and shot the woman through the neck. She was flung backwards, dead even before the blood began to flow redly from the hole in her throat.

Kemp’s corporal was holding his head. The rifle muzzle had been right next to his left ear, and now it rang shrilly from the blast.

Kemp ignored him

‘Fucking bitch!’ he cursed. ‘What does she think – I’m going to clear the fucking cave of magandangas all by myself?’

Kemp spat, putting his rifle down so that he could attach the detonator to the wires. He did it behind him, feeling with his fingers and not looking, in case the damned thing went off in his face with all the radio transmissions going on around them. Then he taped the detonator into the mine.

‘Okay,’ he said to the corporal, ‘you tell this other nanny here to do as she’s told, or she’ll go the same way as her friend. You tell her I’ll shoot her. No problem.’

There was a brief explanation in Shona, and the remaining woman got uncertainly to her feet, walking unsteadily away from Kemp and the corporal towards the cave, the detonating wires from the mine trailing out behind her. Kemp saw a pile of stools puddled in a brown mess where she had been crouching.

Fucksake! The stupid bitch had shat herself!

The woman looked back fearfully at the two soldiers, at Kemp fingering his rifle menacingly as he covered her approach, at the corporal waving her onwards, at her dead friend sprawled among the rocks. As if sensing that this would be the last time she would see the sun, she looked around briefly at the hot slopes of the hill, at the trees and bush above the river that had watered her father’s fields for as many years as she could remember. Then she faced forwards and walked carefully into the darkness of the cave.

Behind her, Kemp and the corporal were silent, listening carefully to the firing in the distance, to the whine and beat of the K-Car and the hammering of its cannon away where Robertson had disappeared, until there came a shouted warning from the woman in the cave, and a man’s frightened reply as he identified her and held his fire.

It was time.

Kemp banged the friction detonator hard together, and with a roaring cloud of dust and shrapnel, rock and steel, the human bomb was detonated to rip and kill every living thing within the cave …

Patrick Robertson hugged the earth below him. Terrorist fire split the air above, tearing ragged holes through the trees around, each burst causing the fear to jerk his terrified body as though he had actually been hit.

If only the noise would stop! Just for a second – just to let him think. Please stop. Please.

He was sobbing.

Another man in his stick crawled over.

‘They are wounded!’ he shouted to Robertson, his black face shining with sweat and strain. ‘They are wounded. Corporal Njodzi is pinned down. Ishe, we have to help them! We have to do something.’

Robertson looked at the man as though he were not there, peering vacantly through him until another burst of fire sent him clawing at the ground again.

Ishe! We have to help them. Help them. Please …’

Andrew formated his men as soon as the chopper had deposited Sibanda’s stick into Robertson’s original LZ.

Bad situation, this. Friendly forces ahead of them, under fire, without communications and probably leaderless. If they hadn’t heard that they were about to be baled out of the crap, then the new sweep had a fair chance of getting nailed by their own side.

The advance began, the men moving forwards cautiously but quickly in the wake of the earlier sweep, crouching and ducking as the fire against Robertson’s position became intense enough to pass just a few feet above their heads. Overhead, the K-Car circled in observation. From time to time, the terse warning ‘K-Car firing’ would come over the radio, and the crack-thump of exploding cannon shells would crash into the bush ahead.

From the hillside came a loud whump – exploding HE. Must be Kemp’s line. Andrew wondered what he was up to up there among the caves, but ahead was the bush – dark, shadowy, dangerous – and he concentrated on searching the ground, inching steadily forwards now that they were close to the firing: searching, watching, praying.

He smelt the burning phosphorous at the same time as accurate fire sent his men scrambling for cover.

Where were they?

There was a shout, and Andrew saw movement among the shadows.

‘Hold you fire! Don’t shoot!’ he screamed, then crawled over to Robertson and the other man.

Sibanda put the others into a defensive arc and sent a couple of men forward to the soldiers on Robertson’s left. Andrew spoke to Bruton:

‘We’ve got two men wounded down here. Robertson’s stick. One critical. There’s a lot of flak coming from up ahead. If you have me visual, I reckon a fran strike could give me the time I need to get an assault together.’

‘Copied, Andy. Stand by.’

Andrew was lying prone beside Robertson, watching the national serviceman trembling as he gazed helplessly at his rescuer. The eyes in the schoolboy face were vacant, and there was grit and saliva in the sparse moustache.

‘Get a grip, man!’ Andrew hissed, glancing uncomfortably at the private beside him.

Robertson focused his vision on Andrew, then wiped his eyes with his combat cap, the camouflage cream smearing black streaks across his sweaty young face.

Andrew tugged a miniflare projector from his webbing, preparing to direct the air strike onto the target …

Sergeant George Sibanda crouched in the grass, the only man among fourteen not hugging the ground, steadily firing aimed, single shots into the bush where the enemy had gone to ground, waiting calmly for the air strike. He felt no fear. There was nothing and nobody left in his life for whom he could feel fear, so he just knelt there among the undergrowth, covering the Lynx as it dived from the left, the aircraft’s Brownings rattling defiance at an enemy Sibanda grudgingly recognised to be very brave, stubbornly holding their position as the odds stacked steadily up against them.

‘Cover him!’ bellowed Andrew. ‘Cover the pilot!’

The sporadic rattle of fire from the line on either side intensified enough for the wiry sergeant to ignore his platoon commander and take the time to load a fresh magazine. He released the cocking-handle to pump the first round into the chamber, then rose into a crouching human spring of hatred while the canister of latent fire burst in an orange shower over the bush ahead.

He uncoiled, running forwards even as the fiery curtain settled amongst the trees, holding his fire, saving his ready ammunition, searching for the vermin dressed in blue whom he knew were lying there in wait for him.

Behind him, he could hear Andrew screaming:

‘Assault! ASSAAAUUULT! Keep to your lanes! Watch Sibanda on the left, the crazy bastard!’

Trees and thick bush ahead. Keep searching. Keep running. Ignore the flanks – Mister Scott and the others will take care of them. That thicket by the clump of boulders – that is where they will be. Fire at the base of the thicket.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Enough. Body rolling over in the agony of death, untouched by the frantan, his life taken instead by a more personal form of fury.

Swing to the left. Movement there. Fire again.

No more movement. No more danger from that direction.

Sprint to the outcrop.

Fragmentation grenade out. Pin pulled. A familiar pinging as the lever falls free. Lob into rocks, then crouch to let the rush of detonation pass over. Leaves and sticks and bits of soil in the air. Others catching up fast now. Just need a few more seconds. Up among the smoke and stink of the exploded grenade. Jump onto nearest rock. One of the Charlies groaning a metre or so away. Over there. Aim at his head as he turns to face the danger. An easy kill this one.

Fire!

Another one standing up suddenly, his hands raised in surrender.

Bang! Bang!

Chest blown apart and the terrorist catapulting back against the rocks.

Sibanda looked around for further targets, but there were none. Over on the left, Lieutenant Scott was finishing off another group of Charlies, and on the radio the K-Car was announcing that it was moving across to help Mister Kemp in the caves …

The stretch of river was alive with people – gooks and villagers running and hiding with the survivors of the original gang.

Andrew Scott took cover behind a tree, peering around one side of it at the shadow beneath the lush green, overgrown banks and the sluggish, muddy brown of the river below. Robertson’s rescue was two hours behind them. Since then they had been sweeping around the main camp: up and down, up and down while the second wave stop groups took a steady toll of enemy as they tried to flee the area.

Now the Major wanted the river swept again for survivors moving to take shelter in the shadows among the river banks. They were finding ters everywhere, and this particular spot – a depression worn by the sluggish water – was suspect. The gunner reckoned he had seen something, just out of the line of direct fire.

Mpehla, positioned on the far bank, was still shouting:

‘Simukayi! Simukayi!’

‘Stand up! Stand up or we shoot!’

Andrew watched the river. Nothing stirred. This was the third group they had encountered. This was the third time the drill had been repeated. They had been bellowing at the people in the river for five minutes. The Major was pressuring him to move quickly. Soon they would have to clear the place.

A sharp, popping noise broke the impasse, the terrorist stick-grenade exploding in a black-brown crash of dust and mud and summer vegetation off on the left.

Andrew and his gunner were simultaneously on their feet, shots blending to raise a curtain of frenzied, white-brown froth from the impact of the crossfire on the water. Another soldier tossed a grenade, the sweepline crouching to wait for the explosion, then rising to cover the target. Somebody scrambled out from the hole beneath the bank. Mpehla took him out, and there was no more movement.

Andrew walked forward. It was carnage, at least six bodies floating there in the water. He covered them warily with the barrel of his rifle, taking in the muddy colour of the churned-up water turning quickly pink with blood. Among the heap of human debris, an old man raised his head weakly, half his face and jaw torn away. Andrew took aim and fired a single shot, remembering the tent by the airstrip: ‘never get decent intelligence from wounded civvies; better to shoot them and save flying time.’

He did it.

Sibanda was moving the others into all-round defence while Mpehla and the gunner turned over the bodies and pulled out the weapons. Andrew got on the radio:

‘Two more dead down here, sir,’ he told Bruton. ‘SKS and an AK assault rifle. A mujiba and four civvies as well. The gooks were hiding with them.’

‘Confirm the civvies are dead, Scotty?’

‘Yes, sir. Of course. They’re all dead …’

‘Okay, Andy,’ said Bruton in the K-Car. ‘Well done.’

He could see two of Andrew’s men through the trees below him, dragging bodies out of the water.

The K-Car pilot pointed to his fuel gauge.

‘Transfer?’ said Bruton, raising his eyebrows in query. The pilot nodded, banking away towards an LZ out of the contact area, and Bruton got ready to switch to one of the trooping helicopters while the K-Car flew away to refuel.

Not more than a few more hours left in this contact anyway, he thought. The rain clouds were building. They had nailed most of the group now. Thirty-one bodies, webbing and weapons accounted for. Maybe they would get a couple more during the final sweeps, if the others hadn’t got past the stops. It was time to start wrapping things up; move some of the sticks back to the drop zone to begin recovering parachutes.

Seven hours of skirmishing, it had taken. Apart from Robertson’s little problem and the two wounded men, it hadn’t been a bad day. Battalion would be pleased. Not a single soldier had been killed.

The K-Car passed over the hillside where Kemp had moved through the cluster of caves and begun to sweep beyond. Kemp had survived. Yet again. Six bloody caves, the man had had to clear, and he hadn’t even taken a casualty.

Damn, but it seemed you could put him down right in the middle of a Zanla bloody range shoot and he would probably still survive! His luck couldn’t last, of course – sooner or later he would get killed, because Bruton intended always to keep the hottest of the contact spots for B Company’s longest surviving platoon commander. Kemp was going to pay.

The cheating, murderous little bastard had reported eleven civvies killed around those caves. Eleven out of a total of seventeen civilian dead! Bruton wondered whether Kemp had allowed any villagers in his path to survive at all. Not that it really mattered any more. The only figure Battalion was interested in was the body count, broken down into ters and civilians. It had been over a year since the order had come for fire force to stop recovering civvy bodies back to the airfields for identification and burial. Only the gooks got choppered out now, and there were no policemen around to investigate any reports of Kemp’s murders, anyway. It had been years since there had been policemen working the bush settlements beyond the main towns …

It was quiet on the edge of the LZ. The choppers were away, ferrying out the last of the parachutes, bodies and captured equipment. When they came back they would start uplifting the sticks – second wave first, then the paras and the chopper sticks. Kemp’s men – first into the contact – would be last out.

Andrew sat in the undergrowth beside the clearing, his rifle in his lap, his back against the tree, the weight of his kidney pouches taken up by the ground so that they formed a cushion for the base of his spine. He fingered a trophy from the fight – a sniper’s bayonet, almost new – but his mind was not on the multi-tooled knife, nor did he see it, for his eyes continually searched the bush around the edge of the clearing and the slopes of the hills beyond, his mind geared to survival in spite of the cessation of battle.

He was thinking of his platoon sergeant. Sibanda had spent a long time examining the long row of shattered corpses before they had been choppered out. He had walked slowly up and down, up and down, pistol drawn, covering the bodies as he searched the dead faces for the one man he sought, pulling the stiffs over onto their backs if they were lying face down, absent-mindedly kicking the dead men occasionally as though he were disappointed by his search.

Maybe Sibanda was cracking up. Maybe they all were. Pulling bodies out of the bush and heaving them into helicopters to fly them out was a damned unnatural activity in the first place, Andrew reckoned.

Ghoulish.

He wondered what Anne would have though about it.

Or his mother.

It began to rain, a band of cloud emptying cool droplets of cleansing water onto the battlefield. Andrew adjusted the brim of his cap to keep his face dry. The movement brought the smell of death to his nostrils. It was a strange smell, difficult to describe or liken to anything else; unique – a subtle blend of body juices, blood, muscle and bone. His uniform was always impregnated after a contact.

Andrew thought about Patrick Robertson. The kid had apologised after it was all over, but Andrew had struggled to find a suitable reply:

‘Apologise? What for, man? Your radio had a round through it and your other stick had a u/s set. You did okay. Nobody has to know anything.’

But Andrew knew that the second radio had been in perfect working order. When they got back to the airstrip at Grand Reef, the Major would get the signals sergeant to inspect it, of course, and then the cat would be out of the bag.

Robertson had broken under fire and everybody would know.

Things would never be the same again.


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Alan Thrush

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without permission from the publishers.

BOOK ONE

SENTENCE 

CHAPTER FOUR 

A summer dawn, the heat of first light burning a hot copper glow into rolling eastern clouds, dark and heavy with rain. A humid wetness hanging stickily over rocks and boulders and the sheer granite cliffs of the koppies all around, hugging the thickly grouped, fully leafed trees along fertile crests. The cloying dampness clung to the lush, verdant, rampant undergrowth, and to the tilled fields iridescent with young, eager, broad-leafed seedlings reaching upward for the sunlight and the never-ending rain. It clung to the village huts, staining their carefully plastered mud walls the colour of the rain drenched, foot-pounded, packed bare earth of the village clearing – a colour almost as black as night in this pre-dawn dimness, like the dead grass of the thatched roofs soaked almost to saturation by the abundant rainfall.

It was already hot in the valley below the Mavuradonha Mountains, and humid even though no rain had fallen during the night.

Jason Mavunha sat on his pack in the undergrowth beside a twisted tree, listening to the chanting of the villagers behind him, and perspiring steadily in the dawn humidity. Perspiration hung in beads upon the sharp features of his face as he stared with troubled eyes, bright and alert, along the path he was guarding, looking for his friend and fellow freedom fighter, Elias Chimombe.

Comrade Lighting would return any minute now, Jason thought: back from checking the next village down the kraal line – the village that had sold out one of the sections in transit, the one that had called in Smith’s soldiers a few nights before. Jason shuddered, remembering his surprise and fear at the sound of the sudden firing just a few kilometres from where his own section had been sleeping that night. There had been no aircraft; just a sudden, devastating attack by soldiers who had infiltrated through the mountains to kill more than half the section. Jason’s team had been busy ever since that skirmish organising the evacuation of wounded north into Mozambique.

Now it was time for retribution.

Jason considered the reprisal, only half aware of the bush changing colour around him as the sun rose in the sky. The trees had lost their stark grey silhouettes, adopting a softer orange instead.

During the night, while Lightning had been away making sure that the route along the kraal line was clear, the section commander had been visiting the spirit medium, seeking approval for the work which lay ahead. The ceremony was continuing still.

Jason scanned the path again. Clear. He slung his rifle and carefully lit a cigarette, moving with the studied, casual ease he had picked up in the training camp in Mozambique, along with the habit of smoking itself.

The training camp! Could it be that he had left it behind seven weeks before? Could it be that his section had been operating deep in Rhodesia’s remote north-eastern border area for nearly two months?

Jason thought back, relieved that they hadn’t yet seen any action. Better keep quiet about that kind of relief, he reflected. It wouldn’t do to let the security officer know your true feelings about the capabilities of Smith’s soldiers.

Jason knew that he was meant to behave like a warrior now, as his great grandfather had been a mighty Shona warrior when the whites had colonised the country. Now he was a trained freedom fighter, bent on revenge for the destruction of his family and its way of life. Yet he had seen the soldiers in action at first hand. He knew what they could do.

Just as well it was not the function of the guerrillas to make contact with the enemy, he thought, remembering his training and the words of the political commissar:

‘You are the flea which fights the lion. The flea cannot kill the lion, but the lion cannot find the flea. Avoid Smith’s soldiers. Lay landmines for their trucks, but fire on them only when an easy victory is certain – when it is simple to escape. Your job is to mobilise the peasant population, to enforce their support for the Chimurenga, and to disrupt the function of government. Your job is not to actively engage Smith’s soldiers. Not yet. Remember that.’

He would remember, all right, but if the chance for revenge came it would be sweet. Soldier or civilian sell-out; it mattered little to him. They were the enemy. They had murdered his brothers and beaten his mother, already a widow before the war had come to their village. They had burned his home.

His mid began to trace the familiar pattern of the village he had left behind … huts and fields and chicken runs and cattle kraals. He began to compare them to this one, but the steady chanting from the ceremony around the spirit medium’s hut made it difficult to concentrate, and he was pulled unwillingly back to the present.

There was a low whistle from the gap in the tall, green grass which was the path.

Jason seized his rifle, dropping quickly and silently to lie beside his pack, merging with the thick undergrowth and pointing the SKS down the path before he returned the whistle.

Chimombe brushed his way through the shoulder-high grass towards him. He was unarmed, having left his rifle with Jason for easier movement through the kraal line. He wanted neither peasant nor soldier to know who, or rather what, he was.

Jason passed the Kalashnikov to him.

‘All clear at the village,’ Chimombe announced solemnly, strapping on his chest webbing. The curved magazines and dumpy-sized grenades covered his muscular chest. ‘They don’t know we’re here. Give me a draw on your smoke, will you?’

He pulled hard on the butt, grunting satisfaction as he exhaled, and passing it back to Jason. The broad face remained expressionless. Without a word he moved on up the path towards the chanting, only to return a short while later.

‘Section commander wants you up by the huts,’ Chimombe told him. ‘The women have got some food for us. I’ve had mine. I’ll take over sentry here.’

‘Is the possession over?’

‘Go see for yourself.’

Jason grabbed his pack and walked towards the village.

The medium’s hut stood well above the others against a backdrop of mountains and foothills. Around it, the dawn cast an orange glow over everything, the heat of the morning forcing the first wisps of steam from the damp earth. Most of the villagers around the hut had snapped out of their trance. Some were tending fires and pots of food. Others were setting free the cattle and goats for grazing, or preparing to fetch water from the river nearby.

But four or five were still in rapture, stamping their bare feet and clapping worn hands, moving in slow, tired little circles on the bare, brown earth, eyes vacant or completely rolled back in their sockets – a shocking white against the blackness of their faces. Over their hair, and draped around their shoulders, they wore the half-white, half-black shawls of the ritualistic possession, giving them a sense of eerie uniformity as the capes flowed down and about their ragged clothing. All carried axes as they danced and sang and sweated out their passion: the half-moon shaped ceremonial axes of the Shona people that indicated ownership of the land.

Ownership of the land. Not just the land of this village, but all of the land; the entire country.

Jason listened to the high pitched chanting, half song and half wail, and was frightened at the picture his imagination sent him of the ghostly communication proceeding within the hut – communication through the medium with the actual spirit of the first chief of this tribe, a chief who had been dead for over two hundred years.

In the dim, dank smokiness behind the door of the medium’s hut, among the bones and skins and juices of his witchly trade, Jason knew that the section commander would be talking directly to the dead chief himself, receiving a final blessing on the forthcoming reprisals. He would be receiving it directly from the ghost of the tribal chief himself; speaking through the body, power and voice of tribal spirit medium: the swikiro.

Scary stuff, Jason thought, pausing to shoulder his pack and tighten the grip on his rifle before he approached. Scary, sombre, and eerie all at the same time.

He didn’t like these spiritual possessions – had never liked them even among his own tribe, because they flew in the face of the Christianity that the missionaries had preached in the tribal lands ever since the coming of the whites. The possessions frightened him. And this one especially frightened him, because this was not his own kraal; this was not the swikiro of his own village. His entire section were strangers to this medium and to every villager within the kraal line. The possession was a potential threat to them, because this medium had jurisdiction over the very village which had sold out the section in transit. So the swikiro had the power to influence his villagers to betray this section, too.

That was the rub. The medium’s blessing of the violence to come was vital. They were operating in foreign territory, hundreds of kilometres from their own villages, working among complete strangers and in alien terrain. The people here wanted little more than to be left alone. They wanted peace, not war. The comrades simply had to have the approval of the swikiro, even though they could not forecast his political inclinations. If the swikiro believed in Smith, they could all be dead within a few hours. The soldiers would be waiting. But if they could win over the swikiro, if they could persuade him to present the guerrilla section to his people as the reincarnation of the rebellion of eighty years before, then the area would be lost to Smith’s soldiers forever. They would have won the people over to the side of the Struggle.

Jason knew. The word of the swikiro was law, even if it was not the law of the white man. The spirit mediums held absolute power over the peasants, and the peasants held the key to the outcome of the war. They either helped Zanla or they helped Smith. Just a little further down the kraal line the villagers had helped Smith, calling in the soldiers who had killed so many.

That was reality. That was the guts of the Chimurenga.

The door to the medium’s hut opened. The section commander blinked at the brightness of the dawn: it was hard to tell from his expression how the ritual had gone.

The swikiro came out behind him, calm and impassive. Any trace of possession by the ancestral chief had vanished with the night.

The ceremony was over. Jason waited anxiously to know the spirit medium’s orders.

‘Bayonet! Bring me food!’ the commander barked. ‘We eat, and then we go. There will be killing in the sell-outs’ village today. The spirit of the chief has ordered it!’

The guerrillas left the swikiro a little before midday. An almost unbearable summer heat shimmered above the koppies around them, bouncing off damp fields and paths to punch each man almost as a physical blow, making all of them perspire freely through their clothing and seeming to add to the weight of their packs and weapons. On the horizon, thunderclouds promised rain.

The ten men walked in single file, but widely spaced so that each could only just keep the one ahead within sight. The commander led, walking quickly, and keeping to the thicker bush of the rivers and koppies, the long line of his men snaking through the bushy cover that hid their passage from enemy eyes.

He led his men boldly. To move during daylight was extremely dangerous. But this called for a bolder approach than usual. They needed to underline the discipline of their cause with a dominating superiority over their enemy.

Everywhere they were greeted with wary respect, for the villagers knew that their swikiro had held council during the night. They could guess the purpose of the march.

Mangwanani, Comrade! Good morning!’

Nods of acknowledgement from the line of guerrillas. An occasional smile of greeting returned:

Pamberi ne hondo!’

Yewoii, Comrade. Forward with the war!’

Jason walked in the middle of the line, glowing with pleasure and pride at this palpable recognition. It made him feel good. It made up for the training in Mozambique.

He turned around to grin at Chimombe behind him, but saw that he was too far behind to acknowledge.

Always so serious, that Chimombe. Always concentrating on the job at hand. With a start he realised that the fatigue of the night’s vigil was catching up with him, and he made a conscious effort to fight the urge to let his mind lapse into neutral.

Got to stay awake, he thought. Got to be like Chimombe. Keep alert. The swine could still be watching the kraal. We might hit an ambush. Got to be ready.

He fingered the change lever of his SKS rifle, checking that it was ready to fire. Then he wondered about the reprisals, watching the bush and the hills they were passing through. Somebody was going to pay with his life for the soldiers’ attack; that much was certain. And no surprise either. After all, helping Smith’s soldiers made any man an immediate enemy of the Struggle, and Jason had seen death before, in the camp in Mozambique, and before that in his very home.

It took the guerrillas about one and a half hours of hard marching to reach the village. The section commander did not halt, but signalled to his men to spread out into an extended line on either side, approaching the village quickly and directly across a field of bright green seedlings which lay between the bush of the hills and the clearing of the huts.

Jason ran to take up his position in the changing formation.

There was a shouted warning from the village, and a boy ran out to one side of the approaching line, heading for the bush away to Jason’s left. From the corner of his eye, he saw Chimombe pause to take aim, then fire a short burst. Only twenty metres away, Jason clearly saw the bullets rip right through the boy’s chest to kick dust and stone in the ploughed furrows on the other side, knocking him down. The small body lay quite still.

All around, the bush was stunned into silence by the sudden violence, the loud singing of the cicadas cut short, the lowing of the cattle no more. Only the birds rose shrieking from the trees, as if they themselves had felt the force of the bullets. But there was no time for shock.

‘Nobody move!’ the commander bellowed to the villagers. ‘Bayonet, don’t hang about! Catch up, comrade, catch up!’

A woman started to run towards the boy.

‘Nobody move! Don’t anybody move!’ To the woman: ‘You! Stand still!’

‘He is my son,’ she wailed.

‘I said stand still!’

The guerrillas reached the village, four of them moving past the pole-and-mud huts to take up defensive positions on the approaches to the far side. The villagers cowered away from them. Chickens and dogs scurried out of their way in fright. Jason and the other four fanned out to face back the way they had approached, choosing outcrops of rock or patches of bush to conceal themselves.

‘Bayonet!’ shouted the commander, ‘Over here!’

Jason trotted over, passing the body of the boy and shooting a furtive glance at the corpse still emptying its blood into a bright red, sodden circle of ploughed earth. How easily it could have been his brother.

The commander was already speaking to the village head by the time Jason reached him. He had the old man kneeling on the ground, pleading for his life. Jason was struck by the contrast. Here was age and youth, wisdom and ignorance in a single image. But here also was power and powerlessness; before him was the essence of the Struggle itself – the overturning of tradition. Amid the mud and thatch of the huts, the headman had become merely a tool of the Revolution as he suffered the indignity of pleading for his life with a man much younger than himself. In the eyes of Zanla, he was merely a misguided village head who had backed the wrong side. With his bare feet and bent frame clad in tattered trousers and a ragged shirt, he seemed dwarfed by the towering section commander, young and strong in leather boots and blue jeans, his open denim jacket and his chest webbing filled with magazines and hand grenades strapped over skin tight tee-shirt. Nobody but the guerrillas wore blue denim.

The commander held his Kalashnikov casually over one shoulder, the banana-like magazine pointing to the sky. He spoke softly, the lack of intonation adding further menace to his question:

‘Who informed on the comrades, old man?’

The headman trembled, dumbfounded with fear.

The commander placed the butt of the Kalashnikov on the ground and unfolded the wicked, three-edged bayonet from beneath its barrel as the old man watched. He picked up the rifle again, pushing the blade into the old man’s throat, increasing the pressure until it was ready to pierce the skin. The old man fell backwards, his eyes crossing as he tried to focus on the steel at his throat. The commander moved to keep the bayonet in position.

‘Who is the sell-out, old man? Who sold out the comrades?’

Jason stood to one side, watching in stunned horror. He could guess what was coming, and he felt his bladder tighten with his own fear at the sight of the commander bending over the village headman, menace oozing from every pore.

The old man remained silent. With a single, swift motion, the commander leant forward to push the bayonet easily through the man’s throat and into the ground beneath. There was a wheezing hiss from his victim, and a coughing rush of bubbling blood. The headman thrashed his legs and reached up with his hands to seize the rifle barrel of his tormentor. The commander simply let him do it, stepping deftly to one side. Then he fired a single shot which blew the bottom of the man’s jaw clean away. The blast splashed blood and fragments all over the commander, but he did not seem to react. Instead, he pulled back calmly, took a careful bead on the headman’s forehead, and fired again into the old man’s head, centrally between the eyes.

There was another shower of bone and brains and blood. Some of the villagers began to scream. Women and children wept. One vented her bowels with fear, the mess spreading over the bare earth between her feet. Only the men remained silent.

‘Shut up, all of you!’ the commander hissed, turning to point his rifle at them. The sight of the bloody Kalashnikov and the commander’s face, twisted with anger and disgust, silenced them.

Again came the commander’s voice, soft and clear and menacing:

‘Now, once more. Who was it? Who sold out the comrades?’

A woman stepped forward. It was the same woman who had run to help her son.

‘I went to the soldiers,’ she sobbed quietly.

‘Then come here and lie down, witch. We have a special punishment for you.’

The woman tried to run, but Jason was ready for the dash, and he caught her easily. He dragged her over to his commander and threw her to the ground.

‘Bayonet! Hold her shoulders.’

She is pretty, Jason thought. The commander will rape her. Perhaps we shall all get a turn.

But Jason could never have anticipated what followed. In a few brief, swift movements, the commander lay down his rifle, took out a pair of pliers and a razor from his webbing, seized the woman’s upper lip with them and pulled it forward. There was a ripping, wrenching sound as he used the razor to slice it off.

It was horrible.

The woman’s head suddenly looked like a live skull grinning inanely through a lipless face. There was blood everywhere. Jason gagged. Even the commander looked ashen as he retrieved his rifle.

‘Let her go, Bayonet.’

Jason saw that the woman had passed out, and did as he was told.

The commander turned to the villagers who were cowering in the shade of the huts all around. The atmosphere was electric with fear and loathing.

‘Now listen, you dogs of Smith,’ he bellowed to them. ‘This is what happens to all those who oppose the sons of the revolution. This is what happens to everyone who thinks of betraying the doctrine of Zanla. We will shout out our penance together, as loudly as we can – pasi na Ian Douglas Smith!’

There was temporary silence, the villagers glancing uneasily at one another, and at the woman who was spilling blood into a messy puddle on the ground.

The commander fired a short burst into the air.

‘Shout it!’ he screamed. ‘Shout it! And then run and tell the soldiers. Tell everyone. Everybody must know about this thing that has happened today. Now shout it! DOWN WITH IAN DOUGLAS SMITH!’

PASI NA IAN DOUGLAS SMITH!’ roared the villagers. One of the women fainted. All the children were shivering and crying out their fear.

PASI NE MA SERROUT!’

‘DOWN WITH THE MISERABLE SELLOUTS!’

PAMBERI NE CHIMURENGA!’

‘FORWARD WITH THE REVOLUTION!’

PAMBERI NE HONDO!’

‘FORWARD WITH THE WAR!’

A cloud blocked out the sun, and it began to rain – a light shower preceding the full might of the afternoon storm to come.

The commander turned to Jason.

‘It is over, Bayonet. Your first reprisal. And now it rains, as the swikiro predicted. The rain gods smile on our cause. Because our cause is just.’

There was a hint of a smile on the commander’s face as he turned to gather his men. The orders came quickly and calmly. The commander had regained his composure.

‘Lightning! Burn the huts. All of them. You, Hit Man! Go to the enclosure and shoot the cattle. Bayonet! Kill four chickens for tonight’s meal. Quickly now. We must go.’

Jason stumbled off to the chicken hut, perched on its stakes above the ground to protect the birds from reptiles. His commander’s brief words of comfort had not helped much. It had all happened so quickly. Less than ten minutes. He could hear the commander rapping out orders as he went to kill the chickens – calm authority from the man who had received the blessing of the kraal’s swikiro only a few hours before.

In the distance, there was thunder.

 


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