© BM 2008
Chapter Two – Episode 3
The vehicle was turning over and over. It seemed to be in slow motion, and took an age. Alex knew what was happening, but was helpless to do anything on his own behalf. Somehow, the thought passed into his head “What way up will I land”, and a further thought followed immediately, “What the hell does it matter? I’m going to die anyway.” A brief idea spun into his head, and danced away again. Should I pray? No, God won’t listen to me, he’ll be saying, “Serves you right, you bastard. You’ve had your chances.”
He was swimming now, deep down in the ocean, and his lungs were bursting. Up above his head he could see a light, and he forced himself towards it, straining with all his power, but his legs and arms did not seem to be moving, and the light was not coming any closer. Water was clogging his mouth and his nose, his lungs were tearing apart, and he was trying to scream, but no sound came. Suddenly, he was free and his body was propelled upwards, his head rising clear of the water.
The sea was gone, and there was a smell of grass in his nostrils, and the gritty taste of earth and blood on his lips and in his mouth. He opened his eyes and could see nothing, just blackness. He moved his head slowly and painfully, and opened his eyes once more. He was laying half in and half out of a muddy ditch, the water brown, and the earth at the water’s edge a deep red. His head ached, and his eyes stung. He moved his body a little more and looked further to his right, and stared in puzzlement at a line of trees, thick and impenetrable. Rolling on to his back was an effort, an effort that sent a wave of pain rippling up his right leg and into his spine and the back of his head. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun shafted down, directly into his eyes, closing them. Gingerly, he felt the various parts of his body, swearing softly as he explored his right leg. He knew that he had moaned, as the action caused blood to bubble from his mouth, but he could hear nothing.
Slowly, his memory returned, the explosion, the crash, and gradually his hearing edged back, too. He could hear the firing now, sharp staccato bursts of gunfire, now near, now further away. He could smell the acrid light blue smoke drifting lazily overhead. Alex crawled a short distance, to the edge of the ditch, and peered over the rim. The Land Rover lay on its side about twenty yards away to his right. It was dreadfully mangled and still smoking. Directly in front of the Land Rover the even more mangled remains of an open backed truck lay, burning in death. The bodies or pieces of bodies of several soldiers also smoked. One body was still jerking and twitching. To his left the remainder of the convoy was stopped at haphazard angles across the road, and the Government soldiers were sprawled behind their vehicles, firing long bursts of gunfire into the jungle, where they were being answered by what seemed to Alex to be longer and heavier bursts. He thought that the road ahead must be blocked, as the FAA preferred to avoid confrontations, if they could.
“Shit”, he said, softly, half under his breath, as if concerned someone might hear him, “We’ve been bloody ambushed.” He inched his way back into the ditch, and rolled painfully onto his back again. It was then that he saw her, the Italian girl, the photographer for someone or other. What was her name? Did it matter? She lay motionless, on her side, her face half turned towards him. She was completely still. He remembered now. She had been in the Land Rover, riding up front with the driver, while he had been in the back with four or five frightened soldiers. He and the girl had not said a word before setting off, and as he had instantly fallen asleep when they departed, there was not a lot said to the soldiers either, even if he had been able to speak Portuguese, or they English. He had considered Spanish, French or German, his other languages, but his hangover was bad and he decided to sleep instead.
“Christ” he muttered, “perhaps she’s dead.”
He crawled, slowly and painfully, towards the girl. His mouth ached, and he discovered that he had bitten his tongue, and his lips were also crushed and welling blood. The girl did not move, but he was too conscious of what was happening on the road to risk raising himself to his knees to make more speed.
He could not see any obvious signs of injury, no blood, no twisted limbs, and on placing his face close to hers, he detected breathing. He checked to see if his water bottle had survived, and was mildly elated to discover that it was still attached to his belt. He struggled to take his handkerchief from the pocket of his fatigues, but managed it, and was mystified to see it was nearly black. It was then that he remembered that he had cleaned the windscreen of the Land Rover at a “pee” stop about 50 kilometres out from Luanda. I hope she doesn’t mind, he thought vacantly, because all the women he had ever known believed that handkerchiefs were for blowing noses, while all the men he had ever known knew they were for any old job you chose. He sprinkled some water on the dirty cloth, and dabbed her face. She did not move. Gently he put the water bottle to her lips, and let a little water trickle into her mouth. She spluttered and attempted to rise. He placed his left hand across her mouth and the index finger of his right hand to his bruised and bleeding lips. She struggled for a moment and opened her eyes, saw him and subsided.
He removed his hand from her mouth, and her eyes opened again.
Alex looked at her. “As far as I can tell we were ambushed, and the FAA and UNITA boys are beating the shit out of each other. Listen to the shooting. I don’t know who’s winning. Are you OK, are you hurt?”
She began moving her arms and legs in little exploratory movements. “I think I am all right, but I need to stand up to make sure.”
He pressed his hands to her shoulders. “No, no, sweetheart, not a good idea at this precise moment. Let’s wait until the cowboys and Indians have finished.”
“I’m frightened.” It was said simply and in a matter of fact way. She looked frightened.
“ You’re not alone, I’m scared shitless.” He smiled, attempting to be reassuring, but he was frightened also.
He inched to the rim and glanced over it. “The reason we are alive is that the mine didn’t get the Land Rover, the truck in front got the full blast, and we got caught following just behind. I don’t think the boys in the truck will play football again.” He slid down beside her and passed over his water bottle, saying a silent thank you to the lads in Solihull who made Land Rovers.
She drank greedily. “What are we going to do?”
He shook his head. “ I don’t think that we have too many options.” He thought to himself, “What the hell is she asking me for, what the fuck do I know?” Instead he tried what he hoped was another reassuring smile and said, “ We keep our heads down, pray a lot, and hope the good guys win.”
“Who are the good guys?”
He shrugged. “God knows.”
“And what happens if the bad guys win?”
“We could try flashing our Press cards at them. I hope you didn’t leave yours at the Inter Continental.”
She ignored him.
He leaned towards her. “Look, I’m sorry, but I have forgotten your name.”
“Francesca, Francesca Paglioni.”
“I’m Alex Millar.” Should he offer his hand?
“I know who you are, we were introduced at the British Embassy on Thursday evening.”
“I’m sorry, was I drunk?”
“Yes, are you normally?”
“Afraid so. Though it doesn’t seem very important just at this moment. Does it?”
She looked at him, essayed a small shrug, and closed her eyes, which somehow seemed to make her childlike and very vulnerable. She was a small, slim, and very dark girl, about thirty, with a short boyish hairstyle. They lay on their sides, facing each other, and hugged the damp red earth. It wasn’t much of a place, but it was the best they had, no, it was the only place they had.
She looked him in the face, and reached out and gently touched his battered mouth. “Is that painful?”
He winced. “It is a bit.”
She too had found a handkerchief from somewhere, a clean one, and began dabbing at his lips. He stopped her. “Thanks, love, but a split lip may be the least of our worries in a minute or two, especially if UNITA win the game going on out there. In any event, I do not think my rugged good looks will be too badly damaged.”
She shrugged, something he had noticed she did a lot, and screwed the handkerchief up in her hand. “Do you not think that you should see what is happening out there? You are a journalist, a reporter, are you not?”
“That’s the rumour, but I would prefer to stay a live journalist rather than a dead one, however successful. I don’t want to win the Pulitzer.” Nevertheless, he raised himself on his elbows, and peered over the ditch.
The shooting had stopped, and the Government soldiers were throwing down their weapons, and raising their hands. Two men on his left started running towards the distant line of trees. They made perhaps twenty yards before a sharp, three or four-second burst of automatic fire hit them, almost cutting one man in half, and slicing off the head of the second. The second man appeared to run on two or three paces, after he had been decapitated, carried by his momentum, before falling forward to the red earth. Again Alex noticed in an almost abstract way, how it all appeared to happen in slow motion
“Sweet suffering Jesus, lads, sweet Jesus.” Alex Millar had been a soldier, and had seen men killed before, but had never witnessed death as an onlooker, only as an active participant, and none of these men was his enemy. “God help us, Francesca, these guys mean business.”
Her large dark eyes were fixed on his face. She was very frightened, he was petrified.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t think we will have very long to wait, I think we have been spotted. I believe we should both stand up very slowly, with our hands as high as they will reach. No sudden movements, and smile. Show them we are friendly.”
She glared at him. “I can’t bloody smile, you English cretin, I can hardly stand up.”
“OK, OK, sorry, my poor and misplaced sense of humour. It’ll be the death of me. And I’m not English.”
He reached into his shirt pocket, and took out his press card, holding it in his right hand as he stood up, both hands in the air. A very large, very black man was coming towards them, dressed in what seemed a mixture of jungle fatigues, and beachwear. The girl was also on her feet, her face a white mask, her hands held high. Alex noticed the short black automatic weapon the soldier was pointing at them, with a very disturbing sense of purpose. No, on second thoughts, he was only pointing it at him. As the man approached, Alex said, in a voice he did not recognise as his own, “We are journalists. I’m British, the lady is Italian.”
The soldier knocked the Press card out of his hand with the firearm, and as Alex started to protest, he was hit in the face by the automatic weapon, knocking him to the ground. This was followed up by several kicks in the ribs. The weapon was pressed to the side of his head. He heard Francesca speaking, and believed it was Portuguese. The soldier replied in the same language.
“Alex, please speak very slowly and carefully, and only when I tell you, this guy is crazy. He wants to know who you work for.”
Alex Millar was freelance, but was not convinced that this concept would impress the crazy one. “Tell him I work for the London Daily Telegraph.” The girl translated, and the big man kicked Alex in the ribs, while continuing to hold the gun to his head, a feat that might have impressed the prostrate man in other circumstances. Clearly he had not been impressed at all by the Daily Telegraph, perhaps he should have told him the Belfast Telegraph.
“He will not believe that, he says you work for the CIA.”
“Francesca, please tell him I am British, and the Americans only have Americans in the CIA. I have my passport in my pocket, and if he will allow me to get up, I will show him.” He did not know if the Americans employed non-Americans in the CIA. He thought they probably did, but it was the best he could come up with considering the automatic which was still pressed very firmly against his head.
She spoke again in Portuguese, and then in English, “OK, get up very slowly, and do not touch anything.”
“Please ask our friend to take that damm thing out of my face.”
Once again there was a brief conversation in Portuguese and the weapon was removed a little way from his head, and Alex got up shakily. He did not believe he had ever been closer to death than in the last few moments. “Francesca, thanks. Please tell him that I need to reach into my shirt pocket for my passport. I will do it very slowly.”
Again she spoke. “OK”, she said. “Go ahead.”
Carefully, and with his eyes fixed on the soldier, Alex took his battered black passport from his pocket, and made to hand it over. The man moved backwards several yards, still with the weapon trained on him. He indicated to Alex to throw the passport on to the ground, at the soldier’s feet. Alex complied, and raised both arms firmly above his head, with what he hoped was a comradely grin fixed on his face. The soldier turned the passport over several times, and flicked through the pages. He then began to pick at the thick black cover, as if suspicious that some object could be concealed there. Alex spoke out of the side of his mouth to Francesca, something which was easy to do, with his face contorted into a grin. “Our lad can’t read, can he?”
“He can’t read, but he has the gun. You can read, and you have no gun. Who’s in charge?”
The soldier looked up, waved the firearm in an arc to menace the pair of them, and screamed in Portuguese. She translated, unnecessarily, “He says you are to shut up.”
Alex grinned a little more inanely, and gently moved his hands, palms outwards, towards the man. “OK, OK.” As an afterthought he added “Obrigado, amigo.” He knew that the first word was Portuguese, but was not sure if the second was only Spanish. The big man threw the passport at Alex, missing by several feet, and indicated he should pick it up. He did so, without allowing his eyes to leave the man’s face. Alex indicated his Press card, and the soldier nodded. He now had all he needed, with the exception of relieving himself, the need of which was becoming critical. The soldier motioned them ahead of him, using the stub barrel of the automatic in Alex’s back to indicate their route of travel. They passed a little group of Government soldiers laying face down in the road, their hands behind their heads, and their trousers pulled down around their ankles.
“What are they going to do to them?” Francesca whispered quietly. “Are they going to rape them?” There was horror in her voice.
“I don’t think so. I think it is to stop them running, or going anywhere in a hurry. Confucius he say, man with trousers round ankles run nowhere.” He seemed to remember that the great Chinese philosopher had said something quite different, but who cares in the middle of the Angolan bush.
They came to a group of three men, gathered around one of the Government trucks, examining papers spread on the bonnet. Their captor spoke rapidly in a language that Alex decided must be a local Angolan dialect. It sounded a bit like Lingala, spoken next door in Zaire. However, as he did not understand that either, it didn’t matter much.
A man of about 35, who appeared to be the most senior, although there were no badges of rank on the shoulders of any of the men, spoke.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes”, they chorused as one.
“Sit down at the side of that truck, and do not move. I will deal with you in a moment. Is there anything you want?”
Chapter Two – Episode 4 Tomorrow