From The Lady Who Fought
by Sarah Raal
‘See that you are here at nine o’ clock tomorrow morning,’ were the last words of the Commandant.
When I walked away, contemplating washing the clothes of the filthy Tommies, I was furious. I had to think of a way out of this predicament. Escape seemed the only way of avoiding this business of washing the clothes. Yes, I had to escape from the camp, but how? Even though there wasn’t yet a clear opportunity open to me, I was firmly resolved to teach that women’s Commandant a lesson.
I went to my tent, and came across two of my friends there. I did my very best not to give any indication of my true feelings – I thought it would be unwise to give them too much detail, if I wished to obtain their assistance. Had I done so, they would have been afraid of the punishment they might receive if they helped me to escape. So I spoke to them about the impossibility of camp life, the terrible treatment, and the ghastly food we had to put up with, and in this way I led up to the suggestion that we three should attempt an escape.
I suggested that one of them should go and request a pass, for herself and her two sisters, to fetch wood in the mountains. I would disguise myself, so that I could pass for one of the sisters, for I was not allowed even a step outside the fence.
Well, no sooner said than done.
They went and requested the pass, while I did the rounds – swapping and borrowing – to get hold of a kappie, spectacles, a sack, and an axe. We tried to keep everything very quiet. Nothing must become known – the stakes were too high. I still think that if they had known about the punishment awaiting me at nine o’ clock the next morning, they would never have dared help me. Before we left, we had to try and get together a few pieces of bread, and whatever else could be obtained, and to conceal them carefully.
I cannot describe the anxious moments I experienced when we began walking through the camp, closer and closer to the first guard. It was customary for the girls and women to go and fetch wood, but this time it was different. My heart was beating in my throat. It felt as if the guards must be aware of our plans. Even the manner in which they looked at us, which on other days we would have ignored, now looked suspicious.
The first guard read the pass, and looked us up and down a few times. What a relief when I heard the words: ‘All right, you may go.’
There was a second guard to get past, but he looked less suspicious and, as soon as he saw our pass, he let us go – with a warning not to go anywhere near the ridge, as there were some Boers up there. Poor creature, little did he know that that was precisely what we wanted to hear. We were then so eager to get away that it was difficult to walk on in a composed manner, every now and then making as if we were picking up wood, and acting as if that were our only concern.
No sooner were we over the first rise than we threw away our sacks and axes, and ran towards the ridge where the Boers were supposed to be. By the time we were halfway there, my companions were ready to give up the attempt. We had run as fast as we could, and were desperately tired, but I kept on at them not to give up. For myself, I had only to think of having to report to the Commandant at nine o’ clock the next morning to bolster my determination to carry on.
Eventually we reached the foot of the ridge.
By then we were so exhausted, we fell down like three weary horses trying to regain their breath. We were lying there, resting, when we heard a voice from somewhere up on the ridge: ‘You must flee, the English are coming.’
We were paralysed with fear, but soon realised – with relief – that these were Boers, even though they were wearing khaki. They helped us up and over the ridge, and the rest of the Boers – shooting – forced the English back. Risking life and limb, we fled over ridges and through ditches, until that night we reached the farm Ribboksfontein. Mr and Mrs Van Heerden welcomed us heartily, and could not stop talking about the daring exploit we three girls had accomplished successfully. Miss Van Schalkwyk stayed there, for her parents had not yet been taken captive, and she planned to return to them from there.
I will never again feel as tired as I did the night we escaped from the Springfontein camp. If ever a bed was welcome and sleep overpowering, it was then. When I awoke with a start the next morning, I was a different person.
I was taken with Miss Jacobs, one of the friends who had escaped with me, to my brothers at Touwfontein. Their surprise at seeing us was something to behold. They were shaving when we arrived and, with their faces still covered in shaving soap, they stampeded towards us, kissed us, threw their hats in the air, and shouted: ‘Welcome!’
They interrogated us about everything that had happened, and there seemed to be no end to their questions. Then came the serious debate about what was to be done with us, as the situation was looking none too rosy. Almost all the houses had been razed to the ground, food was scarce, and things were unlikely to go smoothly.
At first, it was thought that the two of us girls should go and stay wherever there was a house still standing, but in the end it was decided that it would be far safer for us to join the commando than remain alone on a farm, as everyone in the area had been captured, and herded off to concentration camps.
Miss Jacobs and I remained together for a while, but then we separated, each of us wanting to be with our brothers.
That is how I came to join Commandant Nieuwoudt, under whom my brothers were serving. General Hertzog joined out commando for a time and, seeing him at first hand, I could only marvel at his courage, his determination, and his unselfish love for his country and his people.