FIFTY-FOUR, DECEMBER 1, 2000
(Copyright © 2000 Al Aronowitz)
(Drawing by Ed Adler)
AN EXECUTIONER'S STORY!
BY MANUEL MENÉNDEZ
(Copyright © 2000 Manuel Menéndez)
[This story begs to be turned into a movie. It has tastes of The African Queen in it, of King Solomon's Mines, of The Three Kings, even of Jean-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. An ex-executioner sits down to have a couple of beers with you and reminisces about his former trade, telling you what he remembers best, what stands out in his mind the most. It's a story out of darkest Africa, of a dying elephant with a broken tusk, of a young deserter from the Cuban expeditionary force which Fidel Castro sent to Angola to fight for communism and of the deserter's impact on an African tribe's pre-historic culture. It is Manuel's best and most gripping story and, unfortunately, perhaps his last for THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST---unless another one turns up lost in our files. Manuel wanted this story on the Internet immediately, even though he kept sending us rewrites, new versions. It was sometime after we told him we couldn't get this story on the web until Column Fifty-Four that we stopped hearing from him. Suddenly his telephone was disconnected. He stopped responding to our emails and to our posted letters. One good sign is that they never are returned as undeliverable. But Manuel, always in poor health as a result of his imprisonment behind Castro's bars, kept threatening to kick the bucket. Is he in a pout because we couldn't get this story onto the web soon enough for him? Is he laid up in a hospital? Is he locked up behind bars? Perhaps one of our readers in London will help satisfy our curiosity by dropping around to 10 Colenso Road in Clapton to inquire after Manuel.]
all right, mate. Human life is sacred and all that. I don’t believe in the
death penalty in any form. It’s as unfair as the human sacrifices by the
Aztecs or the Inquisition burning alive the insane. But what can you do? It’s
ingrained in the system. The officer is behind you with a loaded Makarov. You
shoot or are shot at. And of course you look after number one. How many people
have I killed? Good question. I’m not sure, mate, but a lot, certainly too
many, that’s for sure. The ones I killed directly in war I’ll never know.
Those I don’t count, it was in self defense, you were scared, fighting for
your life. You shot back in anger. It wasn’t actually me but the fear, the
reflexes, the adrenaline, you know. But those you don’t remember, I never saw
their faces straight. Had no names, no identity. Just like a corpse in an
anatomy lesson. The ones that bother you are the ones you kill by firing squad.
The ones you waste in cold blood.
ballpark figure? Well, I took part as a plain shooting soldier in 35 or 40
executions in Cuba. And later when I was an officer in Angola I directed who
knows how many squads. 120, 130? Only now it was me giving the orders and the coup
de grace. Thank god I was drunk all the time, on the pure alcohol they used
for cooling the Migs’ radars and for the field pieces’ recoil; and the
Angolan soldiers nearby sold a very potent ‘Mota.’ Ganja, you know.
many that makes? Okey, I agree, about 170 more or less. Why are you so obsessed
with numbers? You’re a fucking ghoul… is that the word? The importance, the
psychological damage can’t be measured in quantity but by the quality of it.
One hundred and seventy or whatever is a lot. Even one is too many, let
me touch wood. Tough to live with sometimes, I tell you. But I wasn’t a Ted
Bundy or The Son of Sam or a Dennis Nilsen, was I? A psychopath who kills for
pleasure. I was an executioner, yes, but I was always under orders, and I hated
each and every one of those shootings.
believe me, only a few of them remain clearly in your mind. Their deaths are
sieved like, decanted. It’s a sort of collective guilt you feel for them all
as a bunch after the years. The first one you always remember, that’s
inevitable. Listen, and down there they don’t use all those ceremonies and
crap. When I was conscripted for my compulsory three years military service I
regarded myself as lucky: by one of those bureaucratic miracles I landed in the
Interior Ministry’s Department of Corrections, rather than the Army. And to
boot, on duty at La Cabaña fortress, just
first. In the first three months, those of boot camp at Managua. Meeting new
people and the camaraderie of the young. Then everything changed, during those
first two weeks at La Cabaña, when I shot my first two ones. I was 17 at the
time, and the condemned guys were 19 and 16. Yes, down there they can apply you
the death penalty, el palito
we used to call it, the stick, at 16. Legally you are of age. So I was shooting
youngsters just like myself. Nice, clean-cut Havana white kids; cousins, they
were. And sentenced for reasons I could fully understand and identify with: they
were trying to escape from the island, that hell-hole. I only wished I could
leave myself. To Miami, India, China, anywhere!
were the most traumatic, those two firsts squads---and the last one. Cuban penal
regulations are drastic, draconian, no frills, no nonsense. Like killing a hog,
or slaughtering a cow. Those two kids had been judged by a summary court. But
the younger one was only 15, so they kept them both in prison until he became
16, of age. I remember it was a Saturday night, and I was tired and still drunk
when I arrived back to La Cabaña, and went straight unto sentry duty. I had
just put my head to the pillow when we were awaken by Lieutenant Pandeiro,
Officer of the Guard, we the six retenes. We dressed hastily and were
taken to an office where the político, a fat, bald first lieutenant called
Madruga gave us a brief. I remember it as if it were
are not blind instruments of justice. Before you fulfill your duty in a few
minutes I want to tell you about the condemneds’ case." And explained to
us that the two kids had tried to hijack a national Cubana flight bound to
Cienfuegos, to detour it to Miami. A four-propellor Ilyushin 14. They had one
hand grenade. The pilot replied through the intercom that they could blow the
plain if they wished, but right now this plane is going back to Rancho Boyeros
airport in Havana. Both wounded by the escolta, the plainclothed
policemen on board, one of the cousins threw the grenade. One of the cops
covered it with his own body. The explosion killed him and blew
O.G. gave to each of us a magazine with two rounds, and explained that they all
were live, no blanks. And advised to the couple of us who were ‘virgins’ and
gun shy to aim straight at the heart, it was more humane: to gutshoot them only
prolonged their suffering. Then he took us down through a rusted iron staircase
to a foso, one of the moats of the old Spanish fortress---XVI century I
think it is. It was cold down here, a December night I remember, and well
lighted by two powerful spotlights. We assembled at the bottom, and all six of
us loaded the magazines into our kalashnikovs,
MPs brought down the first one, the older cousin. He had trouble on the stairs,
because of his pronounced limp. He was tall, blond and wearing a faded, standard
prison uniform and tennis shoes. They tied his hands back to the beam, and
offered him a black blindfold, which he refused. We formed at the other end of
the moat, but there were hardly twelve feet between him and us, it was like
shooting point blank. Like Goya’s ‘El Dos de Mayo.’
What?—--sorry, I’m digressing. While he was being tied, he looked each and
every one of us in the eye, and said loudly, but not shouting, with a firm voice
that echoed down there:
don’t blame you, guys, it’s not you who are shooting me but Fidel
was finished in three or four minutes. That’s what I mean, it was a slaughter.
Pandeiro ordered ‘Load!’ ‘Aim!’ ‘Fire!’ and then squeezing the
trigger was so easy, the flames from the muzzles first and the volley resounding
so loud in the enclosed space. The body slid down the beam bleeding like a pig,
sorry, and the lieutenant went forward and shot him with his Makarov in the
right temple, twice. I don’t know, but it was particularly cruel, sadistic, it
was: the Death Row cells were just above, they had a sort of an iron black
canopy so the sunlight wouldn’t reach the cells. And all them
minutes later the MPs brought down the younger cousin. A kid really, small for
his 16 years and very pale. He looked like 13 or 14, a child. He too had trouble
going down the stairs. Still smarting from his bullet wounds, I guessed. He was
tied to the palito, accepted the blindfold, and said nothing. He was
already sliding down when the volley hit him. Possibly he had fainted, or at
least I hope so, so he didn’t feel anything. Right?
do you want to drink? Well that’s up to you, mate, myself I’m having a
double Jameson and a Guinness chaser. It’s on me, mate. It’s my birthday.
Fifty. Once in your lifetime. Well, to go on. I felt depressed and jumpy all
that week, and next Saturday I took my girlfriend to the ‘Hotel Venus’ a
good posada, a love hotel where you were allowed a three hours stay.
Magaly was her name, an Oriente mulatto girl she was, a great lay. She was a
gymnast in the University team; but you know, I couldn’t get a hard-on. Those
two kids were still weighing in my mind. I explained to her the whole shebang
and she understood, and we just lay there naked side by side,
because next time it was a lot easier. This one was a huge fat black guy, about
25, a raving schizophrenic, so he
didn’t really know what was happening to him. Had raped a white six-year-old
girl, the daughter of a Party official in Marianao. But he didn’t kill her,
not even beat her, after all. I mean the guy belonged in ‘Mazorra’ nuthouse,
not there at the palito. Just before he was tied to the stick he made as
if he was dialling on a imaginary phone and said: ‘Ti, ti, ti: ¡Breakfast!’
and grinned widely with very white teeth, eyes bovine and yellow and empty and
happy till the very instant he got the six copper jacketed slugs. Afterwards it
became sort of a routine for me, mostly deserving criminals, only an occasional
political I regretted. You got hardened, you know, less personal.
after I was discharged I soon forgot about all them firing squads, buried them
in some recess of my mind, did my best to forget. I let the dead bury their
dead: I was 21 then, working as news editor on the radio, married to another
woman and with a toddler. Hardly could I imagine that barely ten years later I
would be shooting people by the score, so far away, in a West Agfrican contry, a
former Portuguese colony whose existence I barely had heard of. By then I was a
reserve lieutenant, and I was sent to the Angolan War. You were supposed to
volunteer for an ‘Internationalist Mission,’ but if you refused to sign, the
recruitment board phoned your place of work and denounced you as a coward. So
you were expelled from the Party or the Communist
Youth. You had to face a public
assembly and be denounced as yellow, and kicked out to a shoe factory to
this stage I tell you, mate, those were my lesser concerns, just annoying
thoughts. I didn’t give a fuck. I hated that insular Cuba, Castro’s regime,
and my life in general. I just wanted to be killed and escape my personal
problems, an easy solution, a way out. First my marriage had gone on the rocks,
to the extent that my daughter barely acknowledged me, and besides there was a
dirty court battle going on about my own apartment. The biggest privilege in the
island, your own flat in El Vedado, even if small. Second, I was in crisis at
the radio station, where I was by now in frank disgrace.
I volunteered ‘like the Chinaman,’ as they say down there, and boarded a
Russian freighter together with 350 other cannon fodder, still feverish from the
tropical vaccines, most of them seasick like dogs, never having been on a boat
before. Rotten food, everybody with diarrhea and competing for the heads. And
the Atlantic crossing was pretty rough, believe me, and I have a sound stomach.
We were a sorry lot when we arrived at Lobito harbor 22 days later. Then waited
for a whole week or two to be assigned to our regiments, such was the chaos. As
my luck had it, I became again a prison officer. Only this time my task was not
just to press the 5.5 pound trigger of the AKM and remain somehow an accessory
to murder, but had to give the orders to the squad and deliver the definitive
killings went on every night at Lobito prison, and I had to shoot as an average
8 or 10 per night. Luckily, only when I was O.G., once a fortnight. All of the
victims UNITA guys for which I didn’t feel any particular sympathy. Some of
them with filed teeth, the obvious sign of the cannibal, though most of those
never reached the prison compound. Whenever a case of tiger teeth came to my
attention, I immediately ordered the suspect to be killed straight away of a
pistol bullet in the nape. Too much hassle to go through a formal firing squad.
when I took those decisions I had no one to respond to, the Cuban
you have sailors,
you have whores.
Still this was hostile territory
for the huge red light district.
The brothels had been there since the Slave Trade: after all Lobito had been
always a very active deep water harbor, the only one in all that long Southwest
Coast. And wherever you have sailors you have whores. And when sober, them
Angolan cadres gave speeches on "recaptured" hamlets where they were
received not only with hostility, but with ill-concealed unspoken despise. Those
‘cuadros politicos’ were Kimbundus and traditional
do I remember of those times, you say? Not much, I was always drunk or stoned or
both. Yeah, I remembered Felix Derzhinsky’s dictum: ‘To grow up the new
society you have to uproot the bad, parasite weeds: Revolution cannot be
constructed with clean hands.’ Bullshit! These weren’t kulaks, but peasants
with calloused hands, illiterate, who hardly spoke Portuguese, backward, living
still in an ancestral economy. They were just answering to their tribal
allegiances, and cared only about their herds, which the elders in the hamlet
said were going to be confiscated by the State, and that the MPLA was planning
ethnic cleansings against them Imbundus. Which was absolutely true.’
of all the guys I ordered shot down there it’s only that last one that I
remember clearly, who still haunts my dreams. Because he was a white Cuban, just
like me, and had committed no crime at all in my opinion. He was captured soon
after General Ochoa condemned to death two Cuban soldiers for raping an Angolan
woman. So the local commands, plying with the wind, with holier-than-thou-like
zeal, extended the death penalty also to the deserters.
it been to me, I would have sent him back to Cuba, perhaps sentence him to a few
years at "El Pitirre" military prison. But kill him? However my hands
were tied. I appealed once on his behalf, and the answer from above was like a
lightning bolt from Jupiter Olympicus: death it was then. I washed my hands, but
could not my onscience. And still it rankled me. I mean the guy was technically
a deserter, but who knows? Perhaps every Cuban soldier, myself included, would
have taken the same chances if given. He was a kitchen boss in a front line
regiment, and went around on a ZIL Russian truck through the countryside, trying
to buy with devalued quanzas an old, diabetic cow, or some sacks of yams,
and many were the days when he came back to camp empty handed. All the
surroundings had been scoured as if by a plague, both by the rebels and the
Cuban and Angolan armies.
his trips now sometimes lasted a week, as he went further into the hinterland,
into the jungle itself. Till one day when returning he found a bridge blown by
UNITA, and without gasoline enough to return to his own lines. Anyway nobody
will miss him: they’ll write him down as MIA. God knows he had had some tight
squeezes before, and many a time had arrived with the windshield blasted off by
bullets. By chance he met a party of Zuzulu hunters, armed with bows and arrows.
They didn’t look black, but grey, due to the hot ashes they smeared on their
skins every morning. It was a
he rescued all the boxes in the truck and the remaining gas, and using the
natives as porters followed them for days on end to their village of 200-souls,
where, according to traditional African hospitality, he was bestowed honorary
citizenship and a palm thatched wooden hut for himself. He was young, so his
mind was open and receptive, and he soon got a smattering of their tongue, an
obscure dialect of the click languages of South Africa.
months later his unlooked-for opportunity arrived. The witch doctor had fallen
in total disgrace when carbuncle, a seasonal disease, attacked the Zuzulu’s
small herds with a new particularly lethal strain, and the ungainly long-horned
black cattle began to die speedily, like flies, leaving no time to salt the
carcasses, which rot fast in the tropical climate. The people were starving for
protein. So the tribe exiled the old witch doctor, and convoked an emergency
council to look for someone endowed with ‘nganga,’ capable of
arresting the plague with a powerful dawa.
Cuban started his campaign as a joke: it was turning June and winter
combining his scanty Zuzulu, and the basic Portuguese and English of a fat young
man who had spent a couple of years in the diamond mines, he managed to assemble
almost all the village at 3:17 PM in the beaten earth esplanade around which the
huts were grouped. And, trying to keep a straight face, he ponderously announced
that the sun was going to die in—--he consulted his watch—--exactly 14
clamor and consternation, and he kept ad libbing in three languages until the
moon started covering the red huge copper-colored everyday disk, and a brief
night settled on the village. Great relief for himself, thinking he might have
skipped a day. He winked to the translator, who answered with a white broad
grin. He had been promised the job of mayor if the coup succeeded.
and proclaimed as witch doctor, he realized the task was not an easy one, not by
a long shot. He moved into in the large hut which had belonged to his disgraced
predecessor, and inherited his animistic paraphernalia. And also the old man’s
conjugal rights. A girl every night, but since venereal diseases were rampant in
the village, he abstained from any conjugal pleasures. He just washed the ash
from the young breasts and masturbated while suckling the nipples.
needed condoms to relieve his lust, but where to get them? One thing led to the
other, and he decided to change the economic landscape of the villagers. He had
studied Marxism-Leninism half-heartedly, like all Cuban students do. So it
wasn’t a great jump of imagination to transform the Zuzulus’ stone age
economy into a capitalist one. First thing he did was opening one of the two
boxes of Kalashnikovs that had been in the truck, still in their factory grease.
He had 24 in all. With the help of the new mayor he cleaned six of them at the
light of his Chinese kerosene lantern, using gasoline and light oil. Had about
24,000 rounds of ammunition, so they
same day he inaugurated a range for rifle practice. The natives had dug it up
for a whole week, uprooting neighbor’s crops, and knowing nothing about what
it would turn into. The new mayor acted as slave driver in the old African macho
tradition, harrying the females with their drooping, sagging teats. That kind of
work, digging holes, was not considered manly. The Cuban preferred to remain
invisible until the range was ready. Then
he trained half a dozen teenagers on how to retrieve the
green cardboard targets, put them into a trench and patch them. And also,
he trained them in the use of a field phone.
shooting lasted for four hours, and the elders were exultant at the noise and
destruction. The tribe wouldn’t have to resort to bows and arrows to procure
the meat that was so scarce now. The
first deliveries would be to their own doorsteps, of course. That evening they
took the Cuban to the communal big cabin, and made him a member of their most
inner secret society. He refused politely to bear the tribal scars on his
cheeks, instead he offered them his pectorals, which were they raked with a
moth-eaten lion’s paw—after he had cleansed himself carefully with peroxide
and iodine. He shared gourds of their booze, made from the fermented millet
chewed by the maids of the tribe. As if you could find one. Tasted like rat’s
piss but was slightly inebriating, nonetheless.
very old man, judging by his white drum of hair, produced from a beaded satchel
a fourpack of big cans of Castle beer, which he deposited respectfully in front
of the new elected geront. The Cuban felt moved, and thought that for
people so poor that was a princely gift. Which he drank as if manna, after
sprinkling some on the ground for the orishas, as custom demanded. He
rolled a huge joint of dagga and other aromatic weeds in a dry maize
leaf. And suddenly, he felt happy and free, and spoke of his vision to the
"The new mayor was a haphazard interpreter at best, so the Cuban kept his ideas smple. They were living in the Stone Age, he said, lost in the theoretical maps, forgotten, speaking an almost dead dialect. He explained his aims of transforming the community, bringing prosperity without contaminating their culture with the evils of civilization. Trade was the
skeletons were over thresholds
in most houeholds
key, of course, but
in moderation. But what to offer the world market in exchange? He lifted his
right hand, and all recognized in the light of the bonfire one of their own
traditional amulets: a skeleton carved in ivory, anatomically perfect. An
everyday object; no one could guess how old, kept over the threshold in most
households. Then in his left fingers lifted a figurine carved from ebony: Sikanekué,
the primordial goddess.
is nothing to you, but to the white man’s big museums faraway, where they
collect stuff like this, they have no price." Just that little figurine, he
explained, if traded wisely in the white man’s world would fetch enough to
keep a whole family of six well fed for a whole year… and healthy, with the
medications he vowed to buy. His speech was followed by an appreciative but
seemingly unconvinced outbreak of hawking, spitting, shoulder-shrugging, and
what I propose is this: the artists, the people who carve these pieces, are
starving; most are old, many have lost their cattle in this epidemic, so they
have to scrounge a live hunting and gathering. And when they are dead and gone,
so will their art be dead and gone. I suggest that we feed those people, the
ones who still remember, and that they teach the young promising artists, and
sell their produce to the white man’s big collecting houses.
why I showed you the rifles. They are not ready yet, them hunters, it was only a
demonstration. They’ll need three more weeks before they can distinguish
between the front and back sights. But right now, you have tembos eating the
sugar cane and the harvests you grow, and you cannot kill them with your bows
and arrows. I know, the tembo is sacred to your culture, but I propose to kill
only the males, those with big tusks. Not a single female, so they’ll keep
multiplying, and would come back. For the good of the village at large.
Well because if you carve in ivory it’s much more valuable than in plain wood,
and then you can buy kerosene fridges and keep the meat of the tembo. For days
and days, and moons, it won’t rot. And with the money, you can buy more and
more cows—--he stopped there and left that main hook dangling before the
disgruntled elders. The idea that the old artisans should be exempted from
communal work and fed appealed to them. And cattle were all the riches they
knew, their only innocent form of greed.
the meantime he continued training his hunters and kept his infirmary working
the best he could. He read from cover to cover The Merck Manual of Diagnosis
and Treatment. He had lots of antibiotics, hypodermic needles, disinfectants
and gauze. And crates of Swiss medications whose properties he studied in the
enclosed booklets. But it was easier to patch up a Zuzulu than to kill an
elephant. Until early one morning a boy came running into the hamlet, shouting
that a big tembo was eating a vegetable patch, so the Cuban and his hunters went
after the beast.
was a big, bony, old askari, uprooting the yams and sweet potatoes with his one
huge sane tusk, the other one broken long ago in a fight with another bull. His
rib cage showed through the black mangy skin, and his teeth were too worn out to
chew his normal fare of bark and leaves. He couldn’t see through the cataracts
that covered his small eyes, but his hearing and smell were still sound, and
every few minutes he flapped his ragged, battle-scarred ears, and his trump
smelled around like a periscope. Once in a while his stomach rumbled
ponderously, and he deposed big yellow cakes of fresh dung. His instincts fought
between his hunger and his fear. He had once roamed free, and he had seen his
mother killed and his herd decimated by the small but deadly men who sow these
bland delicacies that required no teeth.
Cuban observed the askari through his binoculars, regretting that it had to die
for his sorry green stained tusk. And then the idea came to him, out of the
blank, and hit him with a luminous certainty. He realized that from his birth
two decades ago in a big white city across the ocean, this precise moment had
waited for him, and the last sight that will flash before the light went out,
frozen in his inner eyes, would be this old tembo silhouetted in a rising sun
dripping blood. Endowed by Nature with a 120 years lifespan, perhaps 150 if it
didn’t die at the hands of the poachers, and, unique in the animal world,
endowed with a formidable memory. A symbol of Africa. A book once read and
forgotten surfaced to his memory, as if he were turning the pages right now. A
skeleton carved in marble. And Silvio’s old song: ‘And he discovered that
Solomon’s Mines were not in heaven, but in ardent Africa…’ And then a fact
read somewhere that elephants go to die on ancestral grounds, mythical
cemeteries. Images intermingling. Imagine all that ivory, that treasure---if,
indeed, it wasn’t a myth!
Don’t shoot! Go back, now, ¡coño!’’
had to impose all his moral authority, and when he and his hunters congregated
in a nearby clear down the wind he took away all the clips, to the last bullet.
the Muganga, and the orishas told me only I myself can kill this
tembo, because he was sent to us by the gods to save the village, and the paths
of both me and this tembo are intertwined... The orishas have spoken…!
were impressed by the revelation. They
were under his spell. He looked transfixed, powerful, they had never seen him
such. There was a force
Which is the best hunter in the village? I mean the most sage in tracking…’
looked at one another. The response was unanimous: ‘Umwanbe…’
bring him here right now. Get your packs and load as much food as you can carry.
Yes, you’re coming with me, you six, at first, but with no guns, just bows and
arrows… And hurry up ¡coño! Ah, and tell everyone in the village to
keep away from the fields, to let the tembo eat his fill. Tell them the orishas
allowed him a last good feed. Whatever he takes now, will be retrieved a
was old, more than 50 judging by his salt-and-pepper kinky hair, certainly a
long age in this community. His face inscrutable, he kept silent. The Cuban
hadn’t seen him before. He wasn’t among the geronts’ society who
initiated him and had never come to the Cuban’s infirmary. His left hand was
twisted, withered, just feeble bones covered in parchment skin. And while the
other Zuzulus pinched their facial hairs one by one with rudimentary tweezers,
he sported a full long scraggly beard.
refused the Cuban’s binoculars, disrobed of his blanket, and stripped to his
dirty loincloth. With surprising agility, he got himself lost in the chest-high
scrub. He came back half an hour later and gazed up and down with amazement at
the young Muganga he had heard about, dressed in patched camouflage
fatigues, pistol at his hip, rifle hanging at his chest. The eyes of the
master-tracker were so black, deep, intense and piercing that the Cuban knew at
once that the old man was somehow intruding into his mind, maleable from the
drug, reading his thoughts with nimble mental fingers but subtly, with respect.
said his first words, which the Cuban understood
clearly, through the fumes of the large joint he was smoking. Harsh, gravelly
voice, like someone not used to speaking, but with a touch of tenderness:
the same one: I saw him once when I was a child, and he was old then. Now, my
son, do your duty to the great-grandfather. I know it’s hard, but you set this
Cuban turned around to the Northwest, tracing an arc, against the wind,
silently, stealthily, with a cunning he never knew he possessed. All his senses
concentrated on the prey, and the difficult shot he had to achieve with a small
caliber, inaccurate weapon. He situated himself upwind, slightly higher, and
found a rest for the rifle on a crumbling anthill. He took a last look through
the binoculars, to the point where the powerful trunk was raising the food to
the cavernous pink mouth. It was as if he could touch it, and savor himself the
taste of the nourishing tubercles that would keep the pachyderm for another two
weeks, to go on stealing precariously, for half a century a pariah from his own
put the field glasses aside, and loaded the Kalashnikov in semiautomatic mode.
He aimed carefully at the corner of the mouth, and slowly pulled the trigger,
waited for the rifle to settle, aimed again at the same point and fired, and a
third time, when the tembo sat on his ankles and trumpeted his rage at the
excruciating pain of his broken jaw.
Cuban rose up from his shooting position, sick of what he had just done, and
willing to be trampled upon. But the elephant ran away, and soon the Zuzulus
were on his trail. His eyes smarted with ill constricted tears, when he felt a
gray wizened arm on his shoulder, and the kind low voice:
did what you had to do, my son. Anybody could have killed him, but you loved
him, and however you inflicted on him the worst injury there’s to be. Now he
can’t eat no more, and he will take you to the dying ground of his ancestors,
where huge tusks are aplenty, and the tribe will be rich beyond their wildest
dreams. Although I won’t see it myself.’
was an easy trail to follow. At first the wounded elephant ran straight, but
after a week of hunger and the loss of blood, he began to weaken and went around
in wide circles. Three old lead bullets lodged in his thick, wrinkled skin still
smarted, but not like these. In his big brain he knew that now he was in his
death throes An ancient
the hunting party the food went diminishing, and the Cuban sent them back in
pairs, to fend for themselves. When there were just half a sack of yams and a
few pounds of maize left, he sent away the last porter. By now he had sprouted a
reddish beard, stank of sweat, his uniform in rags, his Russian boots with soles
flapping. Eaten alive by the mosquitoes, gnats, fleas, ticks, and the chiggers
that burrowed under his skin. But the sunken green crazy eyes that glowed
ferally in the darkness never waved once. They were alone now.
"’Well, old man?'
track’s a day old.' Umwanbe
replied. 'He’s weak as a new-born heifer, but he’s of two minds. He
refuses to go on and die while there’s still some strength in him. He is
scared of death, too. Who are we to judge? We have to follow him, more carefully
than ever, till the moment comes. If ever; maybe this is just a dream we are
pursuing, and there are no sacred grounds around here, and he’ll go and die
and rot by himself away from his tribe, alone, the way he has been living for so
long. Who knows?’
habit, the Cuban cleaned his weapons. He
also saddled himself with the Russian knapsack, made sure of the water on his
canteens, and braced himself against another day in the stifling jungle. And
another. Presciently, the old man guided them up and up as they followed from
afar, so the elephant didn’t scare and bolt at the last moment. At nights they
slept covered by their two blankets, and the Cuban managed to scrape a couple of
sleeping hours, so tired he didn’t dream, unconsciously scratching himself
till he bled.
was a cold, glorious dawn, when they prepared their last coffee. Umwambe boiled
water in a tin and dropped in the last coffee powder and brown sugar, took it
out of the flames and inserted a red burning stick in the liquid, to precipitate
the grounds. He blew away the steam, and said, as to himself:
was true to himself, he came to die down there’--—pointing to the valley
below with the stick—--‘with all his own grandfathers, when they were free
and went on their own accord. Before the white man came to kill them for their
tusks, to make the billiards balls I saw in Dar Es Salaam when I was young. But
it needs mahongue to come all the way in hunger and pain to die among his
elders. I myself would have died anywhere else, long ago, without enduring so
much pain. He has a big heart, this old tembo… But this I tell you, and hark:
his and your soul are linked, and by killing him you have killed yourself. You
both are sacrifices so the people don’t go hungry no more. But under the
ashes, we are all white, and greedy… remember this when your own people kill
you…’ He spat on the embers and got up.
the next two days they followed the spoor implacably. The vultures guided them
the last miles, a dozen of them, circling aloft, without moving their wide
wings, ascending and gliding in the hot air currents in the African azure sky,
so amazingly blue. They reached the sacred grounds at midday. The Cuban cut the
last lianas with his machete and found himself in a small, perfectly concave
valley, traversed by a narrow stream of icy cold water flowing from the
mountains above. There they quenched their thirst.
around, half-covered by the weeds and flowers, were huge skeletons, bones and
bones everywhere, bleached pure white by the sun and the ages---500, 600
animals. They found the old askari upstream, lying on his flank, his trump
extended toward the water. The tembo was too weak to resist in his agony, but
his skin rippled when the Cuban touched him. ‘Abuelo…’ the Cuban
spoke in Spanish into the ear, and the flap moved slightly. And the Cuban
caressed the big bony head and talked soothingly.
sorry for the painful death I gave you, and I repent, and in penance I’ll stay
with you to the last, so you don’t go alone like all those others,’ and he
waved his arm to the nearby piles of bones.
I’ll defend you from the dirty fisis and the vultures that would eat
you alive, starting with your eyes.’ The ear flapped once more, and the
massive head raised a few inches and dropped again. ‘And even if we are
hungry, we’ll never eat your meat, abuelo.’
"From a plastic bag he extracted his last Cuban cigar; besides he rolled himself a large dagga joint, and smoked them at the same time. He picked up the feeble but heavy trump,
had all but ripped apart
the tembo's tongue
like a great serpent, and blew the fragrant smoke
through its nostrils. He emptied his water canteen several times in the tongue
he had ripped apart with his shots. And settled to wait. Umwanbe approached him
with a hot stew, a monkey he had killed with an arrow. How he managed, with his
withered hand, the Cuban couldn’t understand. He refused. Instead accepted
gratefully and with surprise a bottle of cachaça, so old it had lost the
label and the cork was rotten.
cut some long branches and with his blanket made a flimsy awning to protect
himself from the scorching sun. All that day passed, and he kept giving water to
the dying beast and refreshing its head, and whisking the green flies with a
branch. The red sun sank behind the mountains, and night fell abruptly. He
nodded for a while and was awaken by the near stealthy noise of the hyenas, a
whole pack of them. He pointed his rifle and shot amid a pair of the oval, shiny
yellow phosphorescent eyes, and they fled into the night ullulating their
tembo died before sundown. The Cuban felt a last gasp, the trump contracted in a
long sigh, the pounderous withered bulk stretched, expelled a gargantuan fart,
and came to rest.
go, old man. I feel no guilt on me anymore. I guess I paid for what I done.’
kleinbaas, this was only the beginning, you are just starting to pay
silence they made back to the village, where they arrived in 12 days, Umwambe
going this time as the crow flies, managed to kill along the way some small
game, which the Cuban ate indifferently. The old man held his bow on his feet
and shot with his sane arm, the arrow unerringly finding its mark.
they arrived in the village the first thing the Cuban asked for was a hot bath,
which the young girls attended to. He washed himself with a sliver of Russian
strawberry soap. Then he shaved painfully with the worn blue Russian blades,
dressed in his spare uniform and boots, and without further ado called a meeting
of the geronts.
dusk, when they met in the communal hut, he underwent all the ceremonial
procedures with ill concealed impatience. He drank gourd after gourd of
fermented millet, without even approaching drunkenness. After a decent interval,
he got down to fundamentals.
found King Solomon’s mines, but nobody can follow me there but Umwanbe, call
vain they tried to persuade him that Umwanbe was unclean: he ate with the same
hand he washed his ass with. The Cuban cut all the chatter with an authoritarian
him I said. I’m the Muganga and I say who is clean and who
in the meantime give me some tobacco, and something decent to drink, not this
crap… search the whole village if need be—’
drank in great gulps from a commandeered bottle of rum, three-quarters full, and
blew clouds of smoke from black plug tobacco. He wasn’t anymore the fun-loving
boy they had met a few months before, but a man possessed with a mission. He
looked around with X-ray-like green eyes. He picked the six strongest of the geronts,
and made them swear an awful oath over the skull of a child, small and with
perfect white teeth.
Tomorrow at dawn we will start on our way. The porters must be sworn too… But
only you the blessed ones can come into King Solomon’s Mines with me and
guided the three dozen-strong party. Three days before reaching their
destination the young Muganga ordered the porters to make camp and wait
for them. They took a detour and repaced and criscrossed their spur to make sure
they weren’t followed. The vultures were feeding on the bloated carcass, and
some of the ugly birds, so full they couldn’t fly, were perched above. The
Cuban went to the opposite side of the clearing: he didn’t want to stir the
foul birds and reveal their position to the porters. With a saw he had saved
from his truck they cut away six tusks, weighing around 100 pounds each. These
they tied to strong branches and carried them, hauling in pairs. It was hard
going for the elders, but none complained, amazed as they were at the incredible
at the camp they rested gratefully, and sent ahead the first porters. They
repeated the trip to the cemetery twice more.
enough,’ declared the Cuban.
was received in triumph at the village, and was plied and feted by the people.
Some of them had walked 10 miles to the nearest hamlets to sell a heifer, and to
get for him three cartons of Marlboros, six bottles of cachaça, and a
dozen cans of Portuguse sardines, all they could find to please him. For
themselves they slaughtered and roasted an old cow they hardly could afford.
was a night of revelry, which the people sorely needed after all their trials.
They came once and again to watch and gape at the tusks gleaming side by side in
the communal hut.
want a woman, but it has to be a virgin… and I don’t want her
circumcised,’ the Muganga demanded. They brought him three girls, the
oldest about 12 years old. ‘What the heck, this one will have to do…’ He
told the women to give her a good bath, rub her with pumice stone, and take her
to his hut.
morning he asked for all the traditional figurines in the village, and selected
the ones he liked the most. These he gave to the best carvers and the young
pupils to copy. Also, he showed them samples of other African art in the
encyclopedia. From then on the carvers were well taken care of by the badly
nourished but hopeful villagers, and they worked with a vengeance, proudly since
the future of them all rested on their gnarled hands. They didn’t limit
themselves to copy, but improved on the originals, and gave flight to their
that he had the trade goods, the Cuban faced the logistic problem of how and to
whom to sell them. The logical candidates were the museums in South Africa. But
how to go there? Even if white and blond, the pass system there was even more
strict because of the war. After swearing them to silence on the ivory treasure,
and threatening them with the most evil juju for good measure, he sent
the elders as emissaries to the other distant Zuzulu villages, looking for
adequate foreign papers. It was a long shot, but it paid off handsomely: one of
the old men came back with the passport, military book, credit cards and driving
license of a dead South African
thought a lot about the matter. He had no adequate small-scale maps; he had to
resort to the ones from the encyclopedia, vague at the most. But everywhere the
distances seemed enormous. He decided that the best entry point would be through
Namibia. But once there he had no idea what to do. To try to enter South Africa
by sea through the port enclave of Walvis Bay looked suicidal: if taken into
custody he could be assumed to be a Cuban spy, and shot on the spot. So he
decided to try for Windhoek.
said goodby to the tribe, and put aside their concerns.
be back in a few moons, but in the meantime these are my orders: only the chosen
ones can go in utmost secrecy into the white gold mine, and if one dies, another
one must be sworn. So will be all the village. If famine squeezes, trade
departed well before dawn, unseen, as it fitted warriors, he and Umwanbe. They
followed due West through the Caprivi Strip, a thin long umbilical cord ignored
in the big scale maps, put there at the whim of long dead cartographers, almost
the length of Cuba. It was traversed by a tarmac road, patrolled once in a while
by the South Africans in their Land Rovers. After three weeks they reached
Bagani, the first town in the Namibian side, and there they separated.
Cuban kept the pistol, but gave Umwambe his rifle and ammo, and embraced him:
see each other soon, my father—’
we won’t. You will come back, but I won’t be there, to greet you as the
great warrior you are. I was banned from my own sons’ huts, and my life was
bitter and unworthy, until you sent for me, and we chased the sacred tembo
together, and slept under the same blanket, and now you embrace me… Take care
of yourself, young bwana, boetie, my son, and may the gods and my own
shadow guide you through the perils ahead—’
of them looked back.
waited until sundown, and bought from a poor Ovambo shopkeeper cheap clothes and
boots, batteries for his radio and biltong and crackers for the trip. If the
black man was surprised at the appearance of the bearded stranger in a foreign
uniform, he hid it well, adhering to the common secrecy of the downtrodden. He
offered him a hot bath in a tin tub and disposable razors. For a small fee he
arranged for him a ride on a truck to Grootfontein, where the railroad line
was a two-day long trip on an aging Ford with worn tires that got punctured
frequently, and which he helped to patch. It was cold up there in the truck’s
bed, full of chicken crates and local produce. He shivered in the cold night and
sweat in the sweltering and dusty day hours, without the relief of REM sleep,
just dozing on occasions.
"The truck driver left him at the train station in the early morning. He studied the brief hour table, but he had just missed the first train. Six hours until the next. He washed and shaved himself in the station bathroom, the one that said ‘Blanches Nur.’ He wandered
Many soldiers in the street,
white officers and conscripts
and black volunteers
through Grootfontein. The houses, although zinc
plate covered, looked definitively German. Many soldiers in the street, white
officers and conscripts and black volunteers, Xhosa and Zulu. At midday he
returned to a pub he had seen near the station, ‘Der Grönewald.’ He left
his two heavy backpacks unerneath a table. He was weary, and thirsty, and went
straight to the bar and pointed at the next
möchte ein Bier, und Bastos Cigaretten auch, bitte..’
took the pewter steiner, and sat at the bottom of the pub, at an old blackened
mahogany table that smelled of suds, and got drunk on an empty stomach. But
lucid enough to notice the surrounding wondering gazes of the German colons
whose families had been there from decades before the Great War. Who knew? A
demobilized soldier, perhaps a useful foreman. To apply the sambojk to
the lazy kaffirs if need be. When all the appraising farmers went back to
politics and business he asked for another schooner, and six wursts like the herren
were having. And yes, bread. It was years since he ate pork and real, hot,
doughy bread. He prepared himself a large sandwich and after taking elaborate
precautions went back to the station, where he locked himself on a toilet and
waited until the train came. A diesel locomotive dragging five box cars and one
ancient coach wagon, the natives segregated at the rear, but the hardships were
the same: hard wooden benches and a
the innumerable stops he was accosted twice by Zulu M.P.s, ebony black muscles
bursting their South African uniforms, armed with submachineguns.
are you goin’ to, sah?’
looked into his eyes, and recognized the glint of madness, sacred to their own
culture, and just went perfunctorily through his papers and let him go. Fertile
big provincial town again with German houses. It had no place to stay. He
wandered around till he found a Catholic church. That he remembered, in the
atheist State he had never been into a church, despite the fact that Havana had
them aplenty. The old bronze riveted doors were open, and the mass going, myrrh
and frankincense billowing, the occasional bell ringing and the mesmerizing
cadence involved him, lulling him. He sat at the bottom, the last bench, set his
nodding head against the wall and slept like the dead.
hand softly touched his shoulder, and he awoke disoriented, his own hand going
to the pistol under his shirt. But it was only a young Portuguese priest, of
pointed beard and tobacco-stained teeth.
are closing the church…’
need to talk to you, Father—’
not on the confessionary, my son?’
have nothing to repent and my people are starving…’
stirred the Jesuit’s interest. He had ministered in the Cunene River basin,
and had to flee Angola in a hurry, a veritable odyssey, with the Cubans at his
heels, after the Soviet GRU technicians had triangulated the radio he was using
to relay intelligence to the South Africans.
with me, my son,’ and took the Cuban to a rich wood-paneled room, and made
are uncountable riches you carry on your packs, my son. What do you want of
want to trade them, father,’ and told him his story.
discreet knock on the door, and a white haired priest peered inside.
Father Jacinto, I saw the light still on, I didn’t know you had company—‘
Angel, please, say the first mass for me…’
grunt in response. Apologizing, when the old, rubicund priest was gone.
see, he has no English, the language of our parishioners in this godforsaken
calvinist Winhoek. We have also a few Portuguese refugees. And now to business.
Let me see your papers… It’s a wonder you came from so far away with these
papers, the military police could have shot you easily by the side of the
thought for a while and returned the figurine he had been caressing.
a man here who maybe can help you; and I say maybe… We play chess and are
friends of sorts, but it’s up to you to trust him or not… Now, I’ll take
you to the bathroom, have a hot bath and then you can sleep all you want. I’ll
wake you up when the man comes…’
clean, the Cuban went into what seemed to him like a lavish room, and his aching
body fell on the goose feather mattress and lavender-smelling sheets for 10
blessed hours. He was dreaming of Havana when the priest woke him. He jumped
from the bed naked, pistol instinctively in his hand.
easy now… the man I told you is here, dress up, my pagan friend, and put that
gun away, there’s no need for it…’
stranger was dressed in black, in a long and shiny gabardine. He wore a wide
black hat which he kept indoors, had grey ringlets, a scruffy beard, shrewd
brown eyes behind gold rimmed round thick small glasses. He spoke Spanish with
an elaborate, strange, musty accent, heavy on the ‘z’ and the ‘j’, like
translating mentally. It was Sephardic Spanish, but the Cuban had no way of
Jacinto here told me almost everything there’s to be known about you; a
strange story indeed now let me see your goods… Maybe I can help you…’
the Cuban lit a Bastos the priest came back with black fresh coffee, three thin
glasses and a bottle of Portuguese brandy.
know you never drink, Simón, but today is Passover, so you can’t say no to
my good friend, I won’t deny you, or our good friend here…’
to the pleasantries, the Cuban unwrapped some pieces, one of them
I’ve never witnessed such craftmanship in Africa, and believe me, I’ve seen
it all… How many rands do you want for this?’
sir. It’s yours for the taking, as long as you help me…’
appraised the four dozen pieces, made an inventory in a school copybook, and the
Jew gave each a tentative price in rands, then converted them on a calculator
into US dollars, so the Cuban knew in detail the amounts. Not that he did not
trust the aging Jew, but it was not his money to waste.
go to Cape Town and Johannesburg for you, but the percentage for my endeavors is
10 per cent, and trip expenses, of course—’
as long as you come back: remember, don’t haggle too hard, my people are
waiting, and starving… It’s Auschwitz up there, believe me.’
so it took the Jew two months to make the rounds of antiquaries, museums and
universities. He came back to Windhoek exultant.
fought over your carvings, they want more—’ he stated.
so they shall have,’ the Cuban assured him.
main news: Simón was able to obtain credit and loans from several art dealers.
The Cuban deserter paid the Jew his dues and left a hefty donation to Father
Jacinto’s church. Using his
connections within the South African intelligence and civil authorities, the
priest in the meantime had obtained temporary legal papers for the deserter.
This time the deserter went back to the Zuzulu reserve in his own second-hand
Land Rover towing an overloaded trailer covered by a tarpaulin.
little caravan reached the edge of the jungle, and the Cuban started the agreed
smoke signals, five huge bonfires. Three days later porters materialized from
the jungle, all the able men from the hamlet, who trekked back loaded as ants.
He was received in triumph by
Barrels of kerosene, pressure Chinese lanterns, primus stoves, stainless steel pots and pans, Matches, tobacco, sacks of salt. . .
the whole village, headed by the mayor and the geronts,
solemn and in full tribal regalia. He duly admired and appraised his wife’s
growing belly. And eagerly started to distribute all the riches he had promised
his people: barrels of kerosene, pressure Chinese lanterns, primus stoves,
stainless steel pots and pans. Matches, tobacco, sacks of salt, sugar, maize,
beans, rice and flour. Canned food—--mainly chili con carne, his favorite. Rolls of garish cotton cloth.
Besides, 20,000 Belgians condoms, many extra large, and all kinds of medications
and surgical materials. Like a magician he produced his treasure, a veritable
cornucopia, leaving for last his
biggest riches: the cages of pedigreed piglets and Rhode Island chickens, which
he had carried in the back of the jeep, caring tenderly for them all the way.
Finally, a wooden trunk containing files, calipers, precision and dentistry
tools, magnifying glasses and art books he had specifically asked the Simón to
food—--mainly chili con carne, his favorite. Rolls of garish cotton cloth.
Besides, 20,000 Belgians condoms, many extra large, and all kinds of medications
and surgical materials. Like a magician he produced his treasure, a veritable
cornucopia, leaving for last his
biggest riches: the cages of pedigreed piglets and Rhode Island chickens, which
he had carried in the back of the jeep, caring tenderly for them all the way.
Finally, a wooden trunk containing files, calipers, precision and dentistry
tools, magnifying glasses and art books he had specifically asked the Simón to
first question had been: ‘Where is Umwambe?’ The elders scratched their
don’t know, we thought he was coming back with you… he never came back…’
made sense. Umwambe had been true to his parting words, and had said goodby for
leaving in a week,’ the deserter said, ‘back to the veld far beyond. Show me
the new goods…’
artisans had surpassed themselves, especially the young iconoclastic
apprentices. They had gone beyond common beauty. Ivory rosaries, Picassos,
serene Rodins and Renaissance madonnas, all perfect, unblemished copies, but the
originals fancied him the most: crucifieds of strong limbs and Negroid features;
the gods of a forgotten pantheon, 1,000 year older than the slaver ships that
came for them year after year, taking away the flower of their youth, till the
Zuzulu chieftains, elders and wizards decided to run far, far away from the
caravan treks, and to leave for good their fertile lands near the coast.
Cuban embraced them, and kissed one by one their scarred cheeks.
have done well, nay, you have gone beyond my wildest hopes, and you’ll do even
better with the white man’s fine instruments I brought for you…’
showed them the files and tools, and the bulky books on African and Western
you can, and even better, my brethren, and from your calloused hands will come
the prosperity of this village and the Zuzulus at large…’
the artisans cried from joy.
their secret council that night, amid the general celebration, the Muganga
untied his canvas money belt, and spread over a new blanket the beautiful
rainbow-hued South African notes and shining gold Krugerands. They couldn’t
comprehend the value of white’s man money, but were nevertheless impressed
when he held up a coin and told them:
this round piece of yellow metal you can buy a young, strong bull, or two
milking cows, or three heifers. All this money is yours, to replenish your
herds, and increase them so there’s never famine again. And now let’s feast,
my dear fathers, because
clapped his hands and the women came with wooden trays loaded with a veritable
banquet. The Cuban distributed cans of beer and bottles of rum and brandy. He
returned to his hut thoroughly drunk, and caressed the proud girl’s pregnancy.
he said in Spanish, ‘there’s Cuban seed here for when I’m gone…’
night the drums thundered through the jungle, and next evening, with a splitting
headache, the Muganga received the geronts and witch-doctors of
nearby and distant Zuzulu villages. They were starving, and he gave them money,
despite the protests of his own elders. He cut them off peremptorily.
were lucky and found the white gold, and there’s enough for all of us; after
all, the same blood runs on our veins. We are brethren. If you turn them off our
own baraka will run out…’
a week of jolly and merriment it was time to go away. He left almost all the
money to the geronts and clear, comprehensive instructions: buy cattle in
Zambia or Botswana, never in Angola. He didn’t have to explain them their
trade: they knew a sick cow from 400 meters away. But he emphasized:
but never, on penalty of the blackest, most lethal juju, sell a whole
deserter and the mayor cleaned and distributed the Kakashnikovs to the young men
and made them practice, with strict rules to use them only in self-defense. Then
he went away on his second trip. And the third, and the fourth. The village
artisans surpassed themselves, and recruited under blood oath artists from other
Zuzulu villages. Their wares had gone as far as Cairo and started trickling into
Western museums, the tedious work of Simón the Jew, the survivor of the Shoah,
who grew rich on his commission, but gave away all his earnings as mitzvahs
to his own people. The Jew also
built a small synagogue in Windhoek. He convinced four more Jewish families to
come to Windhoek, so they had a mynian. The dilapidated Catholic church
was restored, complete with splendid frescoes and a state of the art Yamaha
never was it revealed to the non-initiated the source of the ivory. The
deserter’s armed guards patrolled the outskirts of the village, protecting the
hoard that accrued in the communal house. Only the six elected geronts
and the Cuban knew the source of all that wealth, millions of rands in all.
The biggest tusks had not yet been sawed.
They weighed some 20 stone each, blanched from the ages, the black inner
nerves rotted long ago. Brittle, perfect, unmarred. And the new tools and heavy
books inspired the artisans to new heights.
And from the nimble black fingers beauty flowed, frail but eternal.
Cuban never left again, but from then on sent instead the carvings to
Livingstone, across the Zambian border, with the mayor and two young artisans to
keep an eye on him. Simón wired the money to the bank there, always accompanied
by a scrupulous accounting of each piece. The Jew and his son traveled there
from Lusaka in a hired battered twin engine Cessna. The business was
Cuban had won his peace. He took another girl, and soon made her pregnant too.
He rested days on his hammock, listening to the shortwave radio and reading the
books and magazines Simón sent him. At night he drank with the elders, and
listened to their stories. He saw his prized pigs and fowl grow and reproduce.
And the cattle came with every caravan. His
village and the Zuzulus at large prospered. He was leading an idyllic life, the
good savage, playing with his children, teaching them Spanish and about the
had been free and content for five years, while the war raged and destroyed
nearby, formerly prosperous Angola. Until an Antonov 22 reconaissance plane
overflew their grounds, like an ugly white vulture, with the tricolor insignia
on its tail, and the Cuban knew inmediately that it was all over.
word had gone around that there was a white Cuban deserter loose, and though he
was in an international sanctuary, there were no borders for his compatriots’
retribution. His debt had to be paid in full. Immediately he convoked the six
sworn elders and in the dark of night they buried the ivory, the latest batch of
carvings and all the Western money. He explained to them that he was going in
hiding, and why. He took with him an AKM, 10 magazines and his faithful pistol,
and headed for the elephant grounds. He planted his tent near the by now picked
clean askari’s skeleton, beside the pure stream, and waited.
scared elder came to see him 12 days later. Two funereal black big Mi-29
helicopters had landed in the village’s esplanade, and from their ample
bellies had jumped two platoons of Cuban Special Troops. They had killed all who
resisted, anyone with a gun in sight, and many noncombatants. And they had taken
the Cuban’s wives and children as hostages. They threatened to execute them,
burn the village to the ground and kill all the animals. There had been a
traitor in the village, and the people garroted the main suspect in the jungle.
He had turned out to be the fat mayor. A Cuban interpreter, a Mulatto
scientist, had asked about the deserter in Imbundu and two other related
languages. The villagers feigned ignorance.
the game had gone on for too long, and his people’s lives were at stake. He
hurried back, and delivered himself unarmed into Cuban hands. The soldiers beat
and kicked him savagely in the battened earth square, in front of the sullen,
resentful, impotent natives. He was tied hand and foot and tossed into one of
the helicopters. The rotors whined, and he felt a pang in his heart. But at the
same time he felt satisfied that the villagers would never starve again, and
that his own sons would grow among the tribe, protected, to become strong and
fearless warriors, proud of their dead father. And the Batá and Ekueñón
drums would celebrate his memory at the ceremonies of generations to come.
at Lobito prison compound he was interrogated by a major of the C.I.M, the
Military Counter-Intelligence, who wanted to know where all the Western goods at
the village and the foreign money left behind had come from. And what he wanted
for the gasoline generator, lathe, grinder and polisher, still packed in their
original crates. They deprived him of sleep, beat him, gave him electric shocks,
to no avail. Whenever he couldn’t resist the pain anymore he shouted in an
obscure African tongue.
was judged by a kangaroo court, and the prosecutor described him as a ‘coward
who had fled the internationalist struggle. A capitalist maggot who tried to
create his own little capitalist kingdom, swindling the natives, and consorting
with the apartheid regime.’ He refused to defend himself, and only asked the
judges to leave the Zuzulus in peace; after all, the Cubans had violated
international frontiers and a U.N. protected sanctuary.
offered myself as counselor and in the trial defended him with an eloquence that
surprised even myself. I begged for his life, I explained all the good he’d
done but it was no use. So, to try me, to assess my revolutionary integrity, I
was designated to execute him. Many nights we had talked through the slot of his
tiny, claustrophobic cell, and he told me about his free life and how he
didn’t repent of anything. I helped him all I could on the sly, bringing him
cigars, extra food, and occasionally a joint of mota or a canteen of
fateful dawn came, a Friday, I remember. The sleepy squad was assembled in the
courtyard and waited for the orders that never came. I drew my Tokarev,
approached him, and kissed him on both cheeks. Then put the muzzle of the pistol
over his heart and squeezed the trigger until my gun was empty.
happened after that? Well, I was court-martialed as a sadist and a cold-blooded
murderer. Demoted to buck private and sent to a punishment battalion in the
front line. Luckily the judges couldn’t read my true mind, or I would have
been shot too. Any time there was a particularly dangerous mission we were sent
first. On our rearguard were deployed Interior Ministry troops with Browning .50
caliber machineguns, and orders to shoot down anyone who retreated. So there was
no choice but to go forward, attacking, always advancing, opening the way for
the regular troops. How many guys in our ranks I saw die in those three months!
I was lucky: I lost both legs, blown off by a plastic anti-personnel mine, but I
escaped alive. We’d been ordered to take a South African artillery observatory
at the top of a steep hill, and we stepped into a mine field. I tied myself two
tourniquets, and had to wait
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