Thursday, October 4, 2012

Anniversary of the Battle of the Lomba River - 3 October 1987

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?


Gazza said...

Hi Paul

I can remember that day as if it were yesterday. I can still remember the song playing on the ratel radio when their first round hit our vehicle - I wish I could have come with you on your journey

Paul said...

Hi, Good to hear from you. Was the song by U2 by any chance? The visit to Angola was great. You should think about doing it on your motorbike. Lets hook up soon. All the best, Paul

Noelle said...

Not sure what to say - such powerful images.Thank you for reminding us.

MAC said...

Hi Paul
Your capacity for empathy is profound. It gave me a jolt to read because I wrote something similar when I first start getting flashback memories of my time on the Border.

The first thing seems so small at first:

It starts with a powerfully detailed visual - a black hole in beige-yellow metal, which appears and then smokes. I see it appear, then smoke several times, my attention transfixed. It is somehow charged with significance. It is linked to intense emotion, seen with unnatural clarity, a moment of time that seems to last for many seconds, my breath catching with a sense of doom.

That is all, at first. Then…

It dances before my eyes like the dazzle after a flashlight, like the dazzle after a flash of sunlight from a windshield. Then the beige yellow expands with a whoosh and becomes the rounded stern bulkhead of a Puma, the black exhaust roaring, behind it the shimmer of intense heat, a faint, grey discoloration of the air rushing away for some metres behind it. On the dull yellow of its camouflage paint there is this sudden, this shocking black hole. The hole smokes again as I watch. It dawns on me that it is a bullet-hole: that a bullet has hit the helicopter waiting for me! And more shocking still, that bullet has travelled over my head – I am in the line of sight of whoever fired that bullet! The jet engines scream, distant voices shout in agitated fortissimo, even my mind screams with the shock and the sensory overload, I am flooded with extreme tension, a breathless feeling of extreme exertion, and a bowel-loosening sense of complete panic.

Paul said...

Hi MAC, Thanks for your comment. You paint a vivid picture. I hope you're still writing your memories down. I've discovered over the years that I have been as troubled by what I didn't see but knew was happening, as I have been by what I actually witnessed.


Mark Goller said...

Paul.Yes I agree , why all the killing when we had no hate towards the people we were fighting, we did not even know them.The bullets in our magazines were made to specifically kill people, now that I have grown up wars are so terrible and destroy so many lives on all sides.There was a strange thing happening to me in Angola during the battle of bridge 14, I started praying a lot and in my prayers I would pray for the enemy as well. I always believed that every person has someone that loves them and is always about to bring the good out of each other and here we are killing each other without even knowing each other. I think the chaps that fought in Angola should go back to that Country and feel the peace and also listen to the people to how wars destroy so many lives for such a long time.

Paul said...

Hi Mark, I find your comments very moving. This is the great tragedy that is war. But I think it is possible to learn and grow from this terrible experience. At the very least, we should ensure that the younger generation never have to go through what we did.

It sounds like what happened to you in that battle was that you managed to retain your humanity against terrible odds. You could feel empathy for the enemy.

Thank you for reading and commenting.