I’m running as fast as I can. I feel no pain, only a vague awareness that my lungs are burning with exertion. Adrenaline and terror drive me forward. High explosives rip the air apart, shrapnel shrieks around me. My legs are pumping yet I feel like I’m standing still. I throw down my rifle and webbing. The safety of the tree line hundreds of metres away gets no closer. White phosphorous rains burning chemical. Men are on fire, their screams drive me on.
It’s not me. It’s the man I couldn’t see.
Twenty-five years ago today I was sitting under a camo-net writing in my journal. I was recording my experience of the day before. My body deeply fatigued by endless hours of battle. I had survived one of the most ferocious battles of the war.
I never saw the enemy yet their counter-bombardment was accurate enough to straddle our vehicle several times, leading our buddies in the next vehicle to report that we were all dead through direct hits. Radio reports indicated that our white phosphorous bombs were setting men on fire in the flood-plain. I didn’t need to see this for the image to disturb me for the rest of my life.
I fought with one of the best units in the army. That knowledge does nothing to provide comfort. Except, perhaps, that it increased my chances of surviving.
The men in the floodplain died from bombs that had my fingerprints all over them. I didn’t see them then but now I’ve met some of their comrades. Men and women who would have burned in the floodplain that day or whose bombs would have landed in my Ratel had it not been for an angel’s breath.
Therein lies both the tragedy and the hope. If one sees the person, not the objectified enemy, then one could never go to war. The question for all of us in South Africa today is this: Who are you objectifying and to where could this lead?