Fall 2008, Volume 5

Memoir by Douglas Evered

South to Namibia

It's the '70s, the Cold War continues. Africa has resorted to tribalism after the Colonial Powers scrambled out. Outsiders were meddling. The Cubans were taking sides in the Angolan civil war. The Russians had opened the Patrice Lamumba University in Moscow and were ferruling young blacks there for training in how to rule Africa, their style. I was making my way to South Africa by a route intended to shake off my pursuers, a Chinese mafia gang seeking revenge for the death of one of their members. I had traveled to Mexico then to Cuba where I learned about a little known route. This involved travel to Angola via the Azores then crossing into Namibia with the help of my relative in South Africa. All of this made possible by his position in their Security Services.

The South African Army checkpoint on the border between Angola and Namibia straddled the coastal road. Years ago the road had carried trade goods between the two countries but with the long drawn out war in Angola, trade was at a standstill and SWAPO, the insurgent force, was working to destabilize all the new African countries, including South Africa. The issue of keeping them out of Namibia was a major security concern to the Republic of South Africa. Considering the threat, the checkpoint seemed undermanned, a force of a dozen men commanded by a sergeant. Since the date of the next relief seemed unclear I was given a bunk in the main tent.

Each day a couple of soldiers would drive out along the road to the south. Apparently it was not far to a watering hole where game came to drink. They usually returned with the carcass of a deer destined for the kitchen. Game was plentiful because no hunting was going on. Before the problems with Angola and the dispute about Namibia, South African and other game hunters came to hunt leopards. A pride of lions lived further south where the Sand River flowed underground from the Kalahari Desert. After each rainy period, water made its way to the coast, out of sight, hidden beneath a foot or two of sand. A herd of elephants lived in the Sand Desert. They smelled the water and using their tusks and trunks, dug holes in the sand to uncover the water flowing beneath. All the wildlife shared water at the convenience of the bug tuskers. Inland, nomadic tribes followed the herds of antelopes in the Kalahari.

A soldier kept a look-out on a derrick-like structure with a canvas roof, supposedly to sound a warning if bad guys were approaching. According to the Sergeant, groups of rebels had come close, usually at night, but chose to leave, driven off by the powerful searchlight. For the most part the South African Army unit was made up of young conscripts, doing a two year stint. They were mostly Boers, speaking Africaans, a mainly Dutch language, but all knowing English. They came from farming communities in the Transvaal. All of them spoke English but with a distinct nasal twang. Growing up under apartheid rule they had a siege mentality, being outnumbered ten to one, they feared being overrun by blacks from the cities. The blacks who lived and worked on their family's farms were comfortable, not a security threat. Restless young blacks who'd left farms and gone to work in the cities sent back stories about what dangerous places they were.

The Government had built black townships around Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. These tracts of cinderblock houses were designed to keep the races separate. Trains carried workers from these townships into the cities where they were the labor pool. Every white family had black helpers, running the household, cleaning, cooking, child raising, gardening and functioning as de facto parents. Factories and mines used black labor and the miners were brought in on six month contracts, living in mine-provided dormitories. At the end of their contracts they were paid a lump sum of wages and given a bus ticket back to their tribal homes. This formula worked because in their villages they lived on subsistence farms, small landholdings run by their families during their work absence. Large farms were owned by whites using black labor and providing housing in groups of kraals, circular mud houses with thatched roofs, something like the plantations of the old South.

Sensing my restlessness, Sergeant Nils Alborg suggested I go on the next food gathering outing. I jumped at the chance to see the country and the wild animals coming to the drinking hole. The four by four truck had a back seat. I climbed in with the game hunting soldiers and we set out heading south. After staying on the road for a few miles the driver turned inland on a track running alongside a grove of trees. Up ahead a pool of water came into view. The driver stopped the truck and we got out and climbed a path leading to an overhang above the water hole. Settling ourselves, we waited for game to come down to drink. As the sun began to decline, signs of life began to appear in the scrub around the water. The soldier to my right, Jan, touched my sleeve and pointed to a deer standing tentatively near the edge. He showed me a couple more further into the bushes.

He whispered, "They are all waiting for someone else to make the move to the water."

Our stealth paid off when a gazelle walked to the water and began lapping. Emboldened by no lions springing out, other creatures followed. Pretty soon the pond was surrounded by thirst quenching animals and my other soldier companion took careful aim and fired. The sharp crack of the rifle scattered every animal except for the one lying dead in the water, its blood seeping in a widening circle.

My guides scrambled down and dragged the deer out of the water opening its belly with their sharp hunting knives. Disemboweling the carcass, leaving the innards for hungry predators to enjoy, they hauled the remains to the truck, lifting them into the flatbed for the journey back to the base camp.

Every day or so a detail would set out on the meat gathering task. Since the young soldiers came mostly from the back country they knew how to hunt. They also knew about killing black insurgents.

My sojourn with the South African Army detachment was exposing me to the big problem which lay ahead. With twenty million or so blacks repressed by apartheid rule and two million whites fearful of a bloodbath if control of the country switched from white to black. There were no blacks in the Army for fear they could become a Trojan horse. The insurgency happening in South Africa was, for the most part, based in Mozambique where training camps welcomed young men fleeing the system and criminals on the run. Trained and equipped with modern weapons they would sneak back into South Africa to commit assassinations, mostly of blacks supporting the apartheid system.

While awaiting arrival of the relief contingent, I saw how a white minority could be threatened by a large angry majority. Young South African conscripts, for the most part, wanted to keep the lid on the pot, seeing no other way to preserve their way of life. Even so, I detected in them a belief that something had to give.

After a week the radio crackled a message that the relief column was approaching. Everyone went outside to watch for a dust cloud rising, but apparently the helicopter was not coming. As it came closer I saw it was one of the special vehicles developed by the South African Army to cope with roadside bombs. Raised high on large diameter wheels and tires, the underbelly was shaped with an inverted armored shell, intended to divert the force of an explosion. Apparently the design worked and, as I found out later, the vehicles were being sold to the Israeli Army. Ten soldiers were carried in the vehicle, enough to relieve the small garrison. In this rotation an officer was in charge, a dapper young man with a trim moustache, Lt. Rolly Armenson. He already knew a lot about me and my bizarre route of travel.

After a brief introduction he and I closeted ourselves in the small office of the outpost. That was when I realized there was more to the plan to get me to Cape Town.

Apparently, my contact in Angola, Jack, had uncovered the presence of a Russian operative who was working with key Cuban officers to destabilize the South African government with uprisings in the black townships around Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Enough insurgents had been trained and were ready in Mozambique to make their way across the border and lead an uprising. Jack believed that the Russian knew details of the plan and could be convinced to reveal them. For that to happen the Russian would have to be brought across the border, willingly or by coercion. That's where I came in. Geoff, my cousin's husband, had long been convinced I had been a CIA spook and had suggested that I be used as bait to snare the Russian. As I sat across the table and listened to the plot; it seemed unlikely and dangerous to boot, but it began to stir my juices, after all that had been my trade in the old days. Capture, torture and get details of the plot would have been the old Russian tactic. Seduction with promises was more to my liking, but what promises? How about a bag of uncut diamonds and a free pass to the U.S.? That could be arranged. While I knew nothing about the Russian's background and loyalties, I knew his type was corruptible.

What part was Geoff playing in this intrigue? I got an OK to call him on the secure line.

He answered and got the force of my anger.

"What the bloody hell are you up to? What makes you think I can play a part in the plan to squeeze this fucking Russian?"

"Calm down. I don't know what you've been told. It's true we want to get that bugger and we did have an idea that if we got him and brought him to where you are, the two of you might be put in the same cell and appear to be in the same boat, another person brought in for questioning. You might convince him that you were being offered a deal. A ticket and cash to tell what we wanted to know. It's worth a try, are you willing?"

"When's this going to come down?"

"Probably in the next few days, Jack is working the extraction from Luanda and if it works the Russian could be brought to the Namibia border by the same route you used."

As part of the outpost a small cinderblock cell had been built. About eight by eight, no windows, no lights, just a left out cinderblock large enough to let in air, no benches to sit on, just a couple of upturned empty five gallon paint cans. Entry was by a steel door with a cut-out large enough to pass through a plate of food or a glass of water. All in all a pretty grim, dry, hot prison cell, one which if I agreed to co-operate, would make for a miserable few hours and unbearable if it lapsed into days.

The question was, should I co-operate in my cousin's scheme to get the Russian to talk?

The sensible part said don't be a fool, the hunting instinct said go for it, enjoy a flashback to my old trade. I decided to wait until the Russian was brought across the border.

Several days passed then a coded message came saying Jack would arrive with the Russian the next day. In preparation I'd stopped shaving and got a worn-out shirt and pants from a pile of discarded garments. The look-out saw a truck coming towards the crossing barrier. I went down into the cell and sat there in the dark. The door opened and I could see the Russian, Jack was undoing the man's handcuffs and leg irons. That last thing to come off was the tape over his eyes and mouth. He was pushed down the steps and fell into the cell. The steel door clanged and there was silence.

It took the Russian a few minutes to adjust to the semi-darkness and realize my presence.

"Who are you?" he asked in guttural English, "You speak English?"

"I'm Canadian."

"What are you here for?"

"I was working the blood diamond business and De Beers didn't like it. They caught me and I'm on my way to something bad. By the way I'm Buck."

The Russian stayed quiet. I suppose he was deciding how to play it.

"What you here for? What they catch you doing?"

He didn't answer and time dragged on. I could see they'd made a rough capture. They'd hurt him, probably doped him. The South African security forces were a tough bunch. To them he was scum. I didn't fancy his chances of getting out alive. Maybe he didn't either. I decided to lay low and wait for a plate of food and a bottle of water to pass through the slot. He sat on the floor and dozed off, coming to when the food came through. I got my plate and I nudged him to take his rations. No way this game was going to play out in a hurry. I banged on the door.

"I need the toilet," I called out.

“Use the paint cans," the reply came.

Eventually it got quiet. I assumed he was dozing, I was too.

Morning came with more food and water.

"What do you know about people who picked up and brought you here?" I said.

"I believe they are Security forces."

"I know about those people." I said, "They have a prison on an island off Cape Town, high security, they keep Mandela there, you know him?"

"I've heard about him." He fell quiet.

"They've talked about putting me there, presumably for a long time."

He was paying attention. "Think you'll finish up there?'

"They do make deals, from what I hear. So what is it they have on you?"

"Something they'd like to come down on hard."

"Think they'd want to make a deal, worth a try."

Just then iron door opened and my name was called. I looked at the Russian and said "Interrogation."

A hand reached down and led me out into the glare of sunlight. The door was slammed shut on the prisoner. Rubbing my eyes I walked to the main office of the outpost. I noticed something new, a helicopter on the pad. In the office were two new faces, civilians, who introduced themselves as members of the Federal Security Agency.

"We appreciate your help in getting the Russian into a talkative mode."

"Not to disillusion you, I haven't got him to say anything. Maybe I might get results if I went back with a story about how I was being offered a deal. About how I could avoid harsh prison time in return for helping them catch more blood diamond merchants operating in Angola. Maybe I could get him to think about how he might make a deal by providing information."

They thought about that for a while then said, "That sounds like the best bet, let's elaborate, say we told you about how we treat those who threaten national security. That if they decide the information they want is not forthcoming he might get taken to where the Sand River reaches the sea and release him, minus boots."

"What does that mean, would that be a death sentence that they couldn't survive?"

“Probably, since there's a pride of lions that hunt seals along the beach, they might find him a tasty meal, being able to walk out is unlikely. It's an alternative to shipping him all the way south, to Durban, and since we believe uprisings are close to happening we either get useable info or he's useless, but he's still an enemy combatant. We'd put him out of the way."

"On the plus side could I allude to an exit plan whereby the Russian would get a pass out of the country in exchange for the information you guys want?"

“We’re willing to give it a try although he's a tough customer and might not talk. Try to convince him that a deal has to happen by tomorrow or he'll be put out of circulation."

Prepared as I could be, I was led back to the cell and dumped in, the door clanging behind me.

We both sat in silence. My guess was that he wanted to know how my interrogation went. Finally he broke the silence.

"What happened to you?"

"They were rough, a couple of agents had been flown in. Among other things they wanted to know if we were in cahoots. What a joke! They dangled a way out for me if I'd work with them in catching other blood diamond dealers. I guess they have the authority to make deals. I quickly agreed to co-operate even if it meant going back to Angola."

"Did they say anything about me?"

"They said you'd been helping SWAPO insurgents and you had info they'd like to get. My guess is you could give them enough info to save your neck. If you wouldn't, you'd have a short life. Worth a try."

The Russian fell silent, probably thinking about his chances. Some food was passed through the slot. Then they came to get him. It was midafternoon when the door opened and he was pushed back into the cell.

"Did you save yourself?"

"I damn well hope so. I gave them what they wanted. Fact is I don't have any love for Cubans or blacks. Like you I was in it for the money."

"What happens now?"

"I guess they're going to check out what I told them. They'll keep me in this fucking hell hole until they verify what I said."

I said "Good luck." but I didn't particularly mean it.

The Russian fell silent, probably thinking about his chances. The day dragged on. A meal was shoved through the slot. It was dark when they came to get him. Early in the morning I heard the helicopter start again and fly off. They helped me out and I cleaned up. The helicopter returned and I was offered a ride to Windhoek. I jumped at the chance. Airborne, I noticed a pair of boots on the cockpit floor.

"How did it go with the Russian?"

"He wasn't co-operative."

The flight droned on into Windheop where we parted company. I walked into the flight office where I was handed a ticket. A South African Airlines flight to Cape Town was available the next morning. I asked for a ride to a hotel where I checked in, showered and made my way down to the bar. A stiff drink was in order.

BIO:  “I am Douglas Evered, I like words. I put them into poetry, fiction and biography (mine). I'm in the Library of Congress like a tree falling in the forest. I'm old but still out there among the animals. Aging is best met by keep moving, I do.”