Siembamba, mamma se kindjie,

Siembamba, mamma se kindjie,

Draai sy nek om, gooi hom in die sloot,

Trap op sy kop, dan is hy dood.

Siembamba, Mummy's little child,

Siembamba, Mummy's little child,

Wring his neck, throw him in the ditch,

Step on his head, then he is dead

- Afrikaans nursery rhyme

Chapter 1:

Hey you! Where the fuck are you going? Follow the red arrows! Are you fucking colour blind?”

Johan shrank away from the bellowing military policeman. The station reverberated with the shouting of men in brown uniforms and red armbands. He was completely bewildered.

Finally the trainload of new recruits was manhandled into some semblance of order. Soldiers prodded and shouted at the confused boys. The mass of humanity began to flow toward the station exit. Once outside, cursing soldiers started loading them onto the huge Samil trucks that would take them to SA Infantry Training Battalion in Voortrekkerhoogte, just outside Pretoria.

South African law dictated that all able-bodied males had to perform two years National Service in the military when they turned eighteen. The Apartheid regime was fighting for its life and very few exceptions were allowed. Johan Lubbe turned eighteen two months ago. His father nearly burst with pride at the thought that his only son would now protect the homeland from the communist hordes to the north. Johan's mother prayed that the Lord would keep her baby safe from harm and bring him home in one piece.

Johan was a stocky young man with curly dark blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. His smile stretched from ear to ear. He could not wait for the adventure to begin. He was going to the army. He was going to protect the Homeland against all enemies. He had finally become a MAN.

Johan, together with a couple of his high school class mates, eagerly boarded the troop train on Oudtshoorn Station. Their big adventure had finally started! The train was already filled to capacity with new recruits from all over the Cape Province when they scrambled on board. The boys from Oudtshoorn were bundled into two adjacent compartments. A compartment normally seated six passengers, but on this train ten boys were shoved into every compartment. Most of the recruits did not mind. They were bound by a common purpose. They were heroes!

Being a hero quickly lost its lustre. Five guys packed on a wooden bench, padded with a thin layer of foam and covered with synthetic leather in a nauseating shade of green made for uncomfortable traveling, to say the least. Second class SA Railways seating is hard on the backside and it gets harder the farther one travels. The troop trains' windows were taped up with blackout material and made the packed compartments feel even more claustrophobic than what they already were. The windows were blacked out to prevent the enemy from counting noses, the recruits were told. The terrorists were supposed to be on the border, not here at home, Johan reasoned. The blackout was unnecessary, but definitely added to the sense of adventure.

The sense of adventure evaporated as soon as the reality of cramped seating arrangements and the soaring temperature sunk in. The taped-up windows made it impossible to see anything outside the train and could also not be opened. January is the hottest month of the year in South Africa. Second class railway carriages do not have air conditioning. The compartment soon resembled a sauna. The sweating recruits removed their shirts, but even this did not help much in the sweltering heat.

Military policeman patrolled the corridors. A recruit could only escape the confines of the stiflingly hot compartment to visit the loo. There were only two toilets per carriage and soon long queues started forming. The recruits quickly discovered that queuing for a piss had its advantages. For a short while, they could stretch their legs and chat with friends that were seated in other compartments.

Six fucking hours to Bloemfontein, and then another eight to Pretoria”, complained the red-haired recruit in front of Johan. “Walking would be faster”.

Stop whining”, his black-haired friend said. “They fed us, at least. You know how fucked-up the army is. Some arsehole could have forgotten to pack the rations”.

Johan remembered his packed lunch with a shudder. Six slices of brown bread, covered in nauseating red jam, a bruised apple and an unidentifiable blob of grey stuff, that proved to be processed meat upon closer inspection, was not quite his idea of a nutritious meal. The recruits washed down the unappetising mess with tepid, weak coffee.

I hear that they put blue vitriol in the coffee”, the redhead said.

Blue what?” exclaimed the black-haired recruit.

Copper sulphate pentahydrate”, the redhead replied wisely. “It stops you from popping a boner. The army doesn't want you to abuse yourself. It drains your energy and then you are no use against the terrorists.”

Who the fuck told you this?” asked the other kid. “Jeez Riaan, you will believe any old shit you are told.”

No, it is God's own truth”, the redhead declared. “My uncle Piet is in the police. He says it is the only way they can prevent the troops from dehydrating and getting sunstroke.”

Yeah, right”, the blackhead snorted. “The van Dyk family is so fucking ugly; no self-respecting goose will screw any one of them. That is why they masturbate themselves into dehydration.”

This was fighting talk. The two recruits commented extensively on each others parentage and probable offspring. Very soon the verbal battle turned a bit more serious.

The two friends started scuffling. Johan and the rest of the queue watched the fight with interest. It relieved their boredom. Unfortunately, the fight did not last very long. Two military policemen moved in and nipped the scuffle in the bud with a few well-aimed slaps and some choice cursing. The spectators disappointedly queued for the toilets again.

Johan finally had his turn in the toilet. He doubted that this blue vitriol stuff actually existed. Johan wondered if his friends in the compartment had ever heard of the stuff. Johan leisurely returned to his compartment, savouring the relative freedom of the corridor. All too soon he had to brave the stifling heat of the compartment again.

Have you guys ever heard of blue vitriol?” he asked. Most of the guys had no idea what he was talking about.

Vaatjie van Rooyen, who was nearly as wide as he was tall and who had been one of Johan's two best friends since primary school, was familiar with blue vitriol. Vaatjie explained that only a teaspoonful of the stuff would paralyze a penis for up to a month. This created an instant debate. Nearly all of the recruits felt that this story was a bit far-fetched. Even if blue vitriol was as effective as Vaatjie claimed it was, the army would not be allowed to use the stuff on innocent soldiers. It would be a criminal offense. Vaatjie, being a conspiracy theorist, argued that beating off drains a person of too much energy. The army could not afford to have tired soldiers in the field. Vaatjie also felt that the army would logically turn to underhanded methods, as a normal virile soldier would not submit to compulsory abstinence of his own volition. The debate raged on and on. Vaatjie was on a losing wicket, but doggedly soldiered on. It was finally decided that Vaatjie's argument was just so much bullshit. Dosing a soldier without his consent was immoral, if not downright criminal. Privately, Johan vowed to himself never ever to touch army coffee, just to be on the safe side.

Supper consisted of the same muck as what was served for lunch. The recruits were disgusted. “Eat, or stay hungry. Your choice”, snarled the military policeman who dished out the rations. Jannie Vos, Johan's other best friend, was feeling belligerent. “We would not feed this slop to the pigs on our farm”, he told the scowling MP. Without batting an eyelid, the MP balled his fist and drove it into Jannie's stomach. Jannie turned green and bent double with pain. The MP slapped the back of his head with such force, that Jannie was catapulted off the uncomfortable bench. He landed on the floor with a thud.

Would any other gentleman like to comment on the quality of the food?” the MP asked with quiet malice in his voice. The cowed recruits shook their heads. “Then fucking eat!” shouted the MP as he stormed from the compartment.

Johan and Vaatjie helped the dazed Jannie back into his seat. Nobody said a word. Jannie finally started breathing normally. Vaatjie fed him a bit of the tepid coffee that accompanied the cardboard box containing the recruits' supper. The tension in the compartment dissipated slowly. Not even the ever-hungry Vaatjie felt like eating.

Sleep was nearly impossible. The recruits were packed tightly on the hard benches. Whichever way they turned, they just could not find a comfortable position. “Quit shoving your elbow in my side!” snarled Vaatjie for the third time. He was tightly squashed between Johan and another recruit. Being wider than most, did not help matters at all.

Johan had a brilliant idea. He lay down on the not-too-clean floor. At least he had a little bit more breathing space. This ingenious tactic did not sit well with the other recruits. The guys on Johan's bench could spread out a bit more. The other bench was still as tightly packed with recruits as before. The space between the two benches was not overly generous and Johan filled it completely.

The others quickly discovered that Johan made a very comfortable footstool. Their abusing of Johan’s person nearly led to bloodshed. Johan finally wormed himself back onto the hard bench.

They reached Bloemfontein at about 11 PM. The train lurched and slammed to a stop. Nobody was allowed off the train to stretch their legs. The recruits nearly started a riot. The military police had to use their iron fist on several occasions. Five minutes later, the train pulled away from Bloemfontein station with another lurch. The unhappy recruits tried to sleep once more.

Johan woke up with a bursting bladder. Being squashed against the wall by the corpulent Vaatjie aggravated matters considerably. He tried to worm himself out between Vaatjie and the hard wall amid a stream of curses from the hapless Vaatjie. Johan finally popped out like a cork and struggled to the door.

Even at 7 AM there was a queue for the toilets. Johan entered the toilet moments before having a very embarrassing accident. On his way back to his compartment, he came across the redheaded recruit that told them about the blue vitriol the previous night.

The recruit had flaming red hair and dark green eyes. His face was speckled with freckles. Johan introduced himself. “Hi, I'm Johan Lubbe from Oudtshoorn.”

I'm Riaan van Dyk. We got on at Riversdale.”

So you've been on the train for a bit longer than us. Is your compartment also so overcrowded?”

Yes. They packed us like sardines in there.”

Johan was intrigued by the freckled recruit. There was nothing exceptional about him. Somehow Johan just wanted to get to know him better. The normally garrulous Johan was tongue-tied. After some more inane conversation, Riaan got to the front of the queue for the toilet. “See you later”, Johan said as he returned to his compartment, squirming with embarrassment.

He could not imagine why he was so attracted to the red-headed recruit. And why did he behave so lamely? Johan hoped that none of his friends witnessed the embarrassing episode.

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully. The new recruits got more irritated by the minute. The cramped conditions gradually became unbearable. With no ventilation, the temperature in the compartment soon rose to record levels. The recruits were miles away from the nearest shower. In short, they stank to high heaven. The food was terrible. Nobody had the guts to complain about the food after what happened to Jannie.

The train finally arrived at Pretoria Station. When the doors opened, relieved recruits piled out on the platform.

The troop train was cordoned off completely by soldiers in brown uniforms. The recruits were hurried along to the exit. There they were loaded onto 10 ton Samil trucks for the journey to Voortrekkerhoogte.

This was the recruits' first taste of army discipline. Soldiers bellowed unintelligibly at them. They were pulled along and prodded from behind. Stragglers received sharp cuffs to the head. Scrambling onto the back of the trucks was not as easy as it looked. Quite a few recruits lost their footing on the slippery metal flaps at the back of the trucks, serving as boarding ladders. The hapless recruits that slipped caused bottlenecks in the boarding process and earned themselves the wrath of the brown-clad soldiers, while picking up a few bruises. Curses and threats tainted the air.

Finally the trucks set off in a long convoy. Johan's army adventure had begun in earnest.