‘One day I began a relationship with a fellow being on the Border – a Southwest desert gecko. She was pure white, with scales on her body. Later I realised that she was pregnant – that’s how I knew she was female. She was my best friend on the Border. She was tiny when I found her amongst my tent bags on the ground, but she soon grew large. I tamed her by stroking her head and body. Anyone else would have found her hideous, so I kept her absolutely secret.
‘And then one evening, just before I turned to the States (that is South Africa), I came upon her dying in front of the Ops Room, where she lay pregnant and dying near my tent. It broke me more than all the death I had seen in the war. I will never forget it – it will never leave me. I kept her warm in my bed, and the next day I buried the ugly, swollen creature next to my tent. I think a bit of my soul went into her grave with her.’
I’m reading a secret burden: memories of the Border War by South African soldiers who fought in it. It was compiled and edited by Karen Batley who waited many years before she could find a publisher, such is the unease and discomfort felt when remembering those battles on Namibian and Angolan soil. The book makes you think about the individual young men who fought for the South African Defence Force as fodder for the National Party, and not simply ‘those bastard Afrikaners’ (just as those American soldiers sent to Iraq are largely, victims of the mad Republicans). The book’s making me rethink my responses to those South Africans I’ve met who have joked with me about their time on the border, and who repulsed me in that moment of conversation. How much choice do young men (and some women) have, really?