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February 19, 2024

A Soldier's Day

By KK Brown

Sergeant Kunzi activated the switch on his rifle's night 'scope, and once more traversed -- very slowly -- the area along both sides of the riverbank and the gently undulating scrubby bushveld beyond.

Although communications with FireForce callsign 22 Echo and Sunray Acorn Zero One Zero were good, Kunzi had not used the radio for more than ten hours.

Kunzi knew that although Sunray Acorn would be maintaining a continuous listening watch, his Commander would excuse him for not supplying sit-reps.

Turned off now -- but with the 'panic' button activated -- the radio was concealed next to him beneath a pile of fallen rushes, because Kunzi knew that even if the enemy was not yet close, their eyes and ears would be.

And it was not intuition that told him such caution was demanded.

From their Observation Point, Kunzi and his men had witnessed much unusual movement between the riverbank and Soaripo village the previous afternoon after Zvomeyi had been deployed there, pretending to be the terrorist who had escaped -- wounded -- from the firefight at the base of Matusamadombo Mountain.

And earlier that night, when Kunzi had returned from his furtive visit to Zvomeyi's position, he had almost bumped into the old witchdoctor as the man had wandered, apparently aimlessly, towards the river from the direction of Soaripo village. The wizened old man had been carrying a basket filled with some sort of herbs and what appeared -- in the green-grey glow -- to be cloth bandages. Kunzi had dropped silently into cover, and watched the wizard through the Starlight night 'scope.

Kunzi had no doubt that the old n'yanga had been going to visit the 'wounded terrorist', about whom he would undoubtedly have been informed by the young boys Zvomeyi had permitted to 'discover' him.

But the witchdoctor had not attempted to visit his injured comrade in daylight. Instead, he had waited until well after the curfew hour, when he should have been safely in his hut, with all fires extinguished. It had confirmed what Kunzi had already known about the n'yanga of Soaripo Village.

Sergeant Kunzi was not concerned that the n'yanga should see Zvomeyi, particularly at night. Even in daylight, Zvomeyi would be very convincing. Zvomeyi's 'wounds' were frighteningly realistic. They had been carefully 'inflicted' -- under local anaesthetic -- by the experienced Special Branch medic, using concentrated nitric acid, a scalpel and an electrical solder gun.

And Zvomeyi would not give himself away.

He had been well briefed, was wearing the dead terrorist's clothes and carrying the man's SKS rifle and canvas kitbag, as well as his photographs and private letters and mementos.

Zvomeyi was, Kunzi knew, not only a fearless man, but also a clever one. Having been a terrorist himself, before being captured and 'turned', Zvomeyi knew the workings of the terrorist mind -- and their operating methods.

But Sergeant Kunzi also knew that Zvomeyi's greatest weakness was that same arrogant fearlessness.

And Sergeant Kunzi knew that he must protect his 'brother'.

Kunzi turned off the 'Starlight' and shuffled himself uncomfortably in his pit.

Moving to the riverbank after dusk, lying on their stomachs in the darkness and using only their hands, Kunzi and his men had painstakingly dug themselves shallow trenches in the sand amongst the rocks and reeds, and slithered into the depressions. They had covered their bodies with the displaced sand, and pulled dry fallen reed fronds over the mounds to camouflage them.

In their precarious shelter ten feet above and fifteen yards before the water's edge, Kunzi and his men now lay hidden in total silence, scarcely moving a muscle as they occasionally switched on their light intensifier night sights, and waited for sunrise.

Kunzi's orders were clear.

If at any time he considered Zvomeyi to be in imminent danger, then he was immediately to initiate action to recover him; but otherwise, he was to continue watching the position and wait for the terrorists to come and collect 'their' man.

If the terrorists did not come within thirty hours, then the operation would be aborted. The batteries on the Starlight scopes would last only one more night, and anyway, Zvomeyi would certainly give himself away if he were to be questioned too closely by people who were close to the terrorist Section.

And furthermore -- despite the antibiotics -- Zvomeyi's 'wounds' would inevitably become infected in the heat and humidity.

Kunzi knew that if the terrorists did not come that night or the next, then he would have to call for heli-borne back-up to encircle Soaripo village while he and his men uplifted Zvomeyi and captured the n'yanga, and anyone else who happened to be with the n'yanga.

In the meantime, they would wait out the rest of the night and the coming day, watching -- exposed and motionless -- under a grilling sun that would burn down upon them as it rode through glaring cloudless skies.

Kunzi hoped that the terrorists would come early, although he knew it was unlikely. If they did not come that night, it would almost certainly be towards dusk the following day, if at all.

Kunzi committed himself to outwait the inevitable discomfort.

Dawn came and went as the hours dragged agonizingly by.

The sun beat down ever more fiercely and the soldiers' discomfort was worse because there was scarce overhead cover, and the reeds only partially shaded them from its wrath. As the temperature increased, the dampness of their self-made tombs soon began to steam off, and being unable to move, brought a claustrophobic tension that was exacerbated by the ache in their muscles and the itching as microscopic insects began to move in the sand in which they lay buried.

Still they watched and waited, unmoving.

Soon after 09h00, three boys came down the path and disappeared into the riverbed. One was carrying a small parcel wrapped in green cloth. They re-appeared shortly after, retracing their steps, and Kunzi made a scarcely noticeable flat movement of his hand to indicate they should not be challenged. The boys had not been talking or laughing as would have been expected of youngsters about their innocent business, and the green cloth was now empty, tied in a bandanna around the head of one of them. Kunzi noted the fact as he watched them leave, wiggling his toes and alternatively clenching and releasing his leg muscles to relieve the cramp.

Kunzi wanted to relieve himself but would not do so. The smell might attract inquisitive dogs to his refuge, but above all, he recognised the necessity of retaining his body fluids against the dehydrating power of the sun as the day wore relentlessly on.

By ten o'clock, the heat and humidity were intense

Kunzi saw the camouflaging reeds attached to Chigala's head shift marginally as the man slowly reached for the water bottle buried in the sand in front of him. Chigala drank sparingly before replacing his bottle in front of him, and covering it again with sand. Chigala had hidden his rifle beneath fallen reeds so no unnatural geometric lines would betray his presence.

Kunzi mentally recognised the soldier's professionalism.

Kunzi could not see Chitepo because the third man was behind him, facing backward, their feet almost touching between a line of reeds, as Chitepo protected their rear.

Each man had a locally made silencer attached to his weapon in case they needed to react swiftly and quietly, but Kunzi was aware of their drawbacks. Accuracy and muzzle velocity were sacrificed and the weapons could not be used on automatic fire without almost certain barrel blow-out, which could kill or seriously injure the user. However, they could discard them with a single twist, and the AKs would again be normally operational.

He had warned his men to set the safety catches to single fire, but stretched slightly again, to check the setting on his own weapon. The metal was uncomfortably hot to his touch despite the covering of dried reeds, but the safety was set on single shot, as he had known it would be.

His mouth had become even drier, having seen Chigala drink, and he peered balefully through the veil of reeds festooning his own head and shoulders until he located a small flat stone within reach. Slowly he moved his hand to retrieve it, slipping it between his lips and sucking it at the bottom of his mouth until a dribble of saliva reluctantly formed. He felt an inner satisfaction he had not needed to resort to the tepid contents of his own bottle.

They waited.

Soon after 10h45, two young women came from the direction of the village with large plastic bottles on their heads, to fill from the river. Kunzi could hear them clearly as they gossiped, discussing the antics of one of the young men from a neighbouring kraal who had made advances to them both. Giggling, they happily plotted his downfall. After filling the bottles they soaked themselves in the river for a few minutes against the heat, then left, dripping and still chattering, their burdens upon their heads again: totally oblivious to the three men hidden in the reeds only twenty yards from them.

Kunzi smiled and let his eyes move to where Chigala had buried himself in the sand, but could discern no movement. A faint haze of steam came from Chigala's reed-swathed mound, but otherwise there was nothing.

Just after noon Kunzi tensed and he gripped the rifle tighter as he saw furtive movement in the reeds at the river bend.

More people approached the river, but from the other side of the bend, away from where Zvomeyi had concealed himself, and Kunzi could not see them. He heard their voices and moved his upper body slowly to try to spot them. They were beyond his arc of view and he settled again, feeling the now dry sand re-settle around his shoulders as he listened to their distant conversation, knowing Chitepo would have them covered if they approached too close.

Soon they left, and peace returned.

An hour later an enormous leguvaan slipped out of the reeds only a few feet from Kunzi's head and stopped inquisitively to survey the three mounds, its tongue darting as it sought out the intruders of its natural habitat. Kunzi watched its eyes and scaly body before the huge lizard slunk away and slithered down the bank into the cooling water.

Two young boys approached soon after 13h35, and ran down into the reeds close to where Kunzi believed Zvomeyi was still located. He watched closely, again checking the setting of the safety catch on his AKM assault rifle. He thought that two of the boys were from the group who had approached earlier, but he could not be sure.

The boys re-appeared ten minutes later, moving slowly away from him, up the river line until they were lost from view.

After a while he relaxed, but after another fifteen minutes was alerted again by the quiet clicking of a tree cricket.

But not quite a tree cricket.

Behind him, Chitepo was warning him.

Kunzi's hand reached for the AKM's pistol grip and he turned his head imperceptibly. The boys had doubled round behind him. He could now see one of them behind him and to his left, on the other side of the river. The boy was about twelve years old. Dressed only in khaki shorts, he was moving slowly, surveying the ground carefully. Kunzi's finger felt for the trigger, and his free hand reached for the handles of the garrotting wire on his shoulder pouch.

The emergency procedure was clear. If something went wrong it was Chitepo's job to protect their backs. Chigala would cover both their right and left flanks, while Kunzi hit the radio's panic alert, dealt with the immediate danger, and made a dash for where Zvomeyi was hidden.

Kunzi froze as he heard the crackle of dead twigs breaking close behind him, then a sliding sound. He slowly swivelled his neck as the second boy came into his blurred peripheral vision. The youth moved forward, below and past him on the muddy sand bordering the river. He stopped to urinate in the river, then found an easy access point and clambered up the bank again, pulling himself up on exposed roots before continuing his search.

The boy would never know, but his bladder had saved his life.

Kunzi watched them out of sight and his grip slowly relaxed on the rifle. had not wanted to kill them, but would have done so had it been necessary.

He waited until the boys were well gone, then took the first careful sip from his hidden bottle. The warm water tasted so good. His mind was focused, and the need to relieve himself had gone. The nibbling insects were still there, but no longer worried him in his self-made tomb.

Silently, he settled again, to watch.

He felt a growing confidence.

He scarcely noticed the growing heat as the sun rose to its zenith and began its scorching descent.

He watched and waited, knowing that someone would die by the river before another 18 hours had passed.

But Kunzi knew -- as soldiers always do -- that it would not be him.

And he was determined that it would not be Zvomeyi, either.

Article © KK Brown. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-08-09
2 Reader Comments
05:40:04 PM
KK, as usual an excellent piece of writing. After reading this, I feel hot, itchy, dirty, stiff. You have wonderful imagery and flawless timing. The "conflict" of this story is the waiting. I know vividly how Kunzi felt physically, I would have loved to know more about what he thought about waiting. He had to overcome the physical obstacles, but what about the the mental discipline he needed. Is that a struggle for him?
Kilo Bravo
10:21:43 PM
Bravo..great stuff..I remember it well
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