From The Lady Who Fought
by Sarah Raal
After the servant had gone, the Commandant said I must prepare to go with them. They would be leaving early the next morning. I asked them what would become of my belongings.
‘Oh, we’re taking them,’ he said.
‘Yes, but then you must give me a receipt for them.’
He agreed to this and gave me a receipt for £1,090, and they burnt the spider. I was very excited, and thought to myself: ‘Toe maar, Khakis, now you can struggle to get the sheep out of the mountains – I’ve got my receipt’. I hid the receipt in the hem of a large handkerchief. Luckily they knew nothing about the other money I had on me. Soon I was all packed and ready, for in truth there was almost nothing to pack. The furniture didn’t belong to me, and my possessions amounted to just a few things.
They asked me when my brother was likely to come, and I said I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t turned up yet. By dusk there was still no sign of the brother who, of course, was never intended to arrive.
Suddenly the Commandant came into the house, and I could hear from his footsteps that something had gone badly wrong. He entered the living room, absolutely livid, and, with flaming eyes, he sought me out. The moment he saw me, he came right up to me, almost poking my eyes out, so close was the finger he pointed in my face. He spat out the words: ‘You traitor. I’m going to send you to prison with severe punishment.’
I maintained my innocence, and asked him what had happened. He paid no attention, and continued to abuse me terribly. I was a liar, a traitor, a cheat, he was going to put me in prison, and so on. He also wanted to take back the receipt he had given, and said I wouldn’t get a single penny. I could see that sweet talk would get me nowhere now, and I was becoming heated at all the abuse he was heaping on me. So I told him that I had placed no value on the receipt he had given me, anyway, and that I had already burnt it.
I was actually extremely curious to discover what had happened. I called Tryn, and found out from her that my brothers had sent a letter back. How they could have done such a foolish thing, I cannot – to this day – understand. In any event, they said in the letter that they would come that evening and teach the Khakis a lesson. On the servant’s return, the Khakis took my brothers’ letter from him, and that was that. I knew now that my fate was sealed. I could expect only the worst, and prepared myself for Springfontein prison and its rice water.
That same evening we trekked to the neighbouring farm of Vlakfontein. The next day, the Khakis joined battle with the Boer patrol, including my brothers. I could see nothing, but clearly heard the sounds of battle. I sat there, afraid that my brothers might die in the skirmish. They were such a small group, but at least they were sheltered in a good ridge. Late that afternoon, three wounded Khakis were brought back to the convoy. I knew nothing of the outcome of the skirmish, and only later asked an officer about the fighting. He answered bitterly: ‘You ask as if you don’t know. It’s all your hellish doing. You’ll pay for it. We’ve shot all your people dead.’
‘Where did you bury them?’ I asked.
‘Bury them? We left them for the wild animals and the vultures,’ he answered.
On hearing this shocking news, I turned quietly and climbed back into the wagon tent. Dark shadows were already creeping over the plains, and a feeling of loneliness, homesickness and yearning slowly overcame me. If only it would get dark, I could give vent to my feelings in tears. Later that night, I lit my little lamp, simply to sit and contemplate what might lie in store for me. The soldiers repeatedly lifted the canvas and asked why I was not asleep. I sat in silence.
It was a night of distress and fear. Here I was, alone in this huge convoy, and somewhere nearby lay my brothers, possibly dead or badly wounded, and I couldn’t even be near them, to give them some water or attend to their wounds. What would my dear mother think if she knew? And then again, where were she and my dear father? Perhaps also already dead in a camp, where our people were dying like flies – so we heard. And on top of that, my own situation – with the depressing prospect of imprisonment that awaited me. In this fashion I sat and worried the night away, until dawn.
Early the next morning, I heard women’s voices next to the wagon. I peered out to see who it could be, and was almost speechless with surprise. There stood none other than Mrs Metz and Mrs Jacobs, with their children. They had been taken captive the previous day at Touwfontein, another farm in the same district, and that night they had been brought on foot to the convoy. My heart went out to them, they looked so thin and exhausted from the long walk.
The next day they sent us to the station at Jagersfontein, and there – without food or water – we sat in an open truck, baking in the hot sun, and in this fashion we travelled to Springfontein. On arrival there, we were sent straight to the camp. They put me in a tent with Mrs Jacobs. This would not be for long, I thought to myself, as I still had to go to prison; and I expected to be fetched at any moment. A few days went by, with me expecting to be hauled off to prison, but nothing happened. I began to take courage and to think they had forgotten about me. In the meantime, I keenly observed all aspects of camp life. It was too much for me, and I realised that I would never be able to endure it – the wretchedness was indescribable. The death and suffering of people, and the terrible conditions they experienced, would either drive me insane or be the death of me.
Notwithtanding that things were so awful in the camp, there was nevertheless a section of our people who, unconcerned at the plight of their fellow-Afrikaners, continued to live happily and pleasurably. I was astonished to see that Afrikaner girls, not from the camps, but those who lived nearby, rode about with English officers and had fun with them, quite clearly without the slightest concern for what was happening on their doorstep.
A few more days went by in this fashion, and nothing happened to indicate that they intended sending me to prison. I decided to risk a visit to the Commandant. I had heard that my mother was in the Bloemfontein camp, and I hoped to make my way there. I was, however, afraid, for I was already on the blacklist and could not afford to step further out of line. I asked for an interview with the camp Comandant, and was escourted to his office. When I told him my story, he pointed to a letter on his table and said: ‘Oh no, there will be no permission for you. You betrayed us and caused some of our people to be shot. I know all about you. You will stay in this camp, and not once will you step over the perimeter. What is more, you will die here!’
‘That’s what you think,’ I thought to myself. We would see.
He asked me how many brothers I still had on commando. I said four, and he then began abusing the burghers. ‘Those savage Boers, they don’t fight, they just go around plundering, robbing and stealing.’ My blood grew hotter with each further abuse. Why could I not give vent to my feelings?
So I blurted out: ‘No! They are brave men, but what are you? You’re a women’s Commandant. It’s a scandal. There’s neither skill nor honour in being a women’s Commandant.’
This was too much for him. He jumped up, grabbed me by the chest, shook me a few times, and said: ‘Insult me, and you’ll find yourself in prison … you traitor!’
He turned around, suddenly, when someone from behind him grabbed his hand. It was a Mr X, the Commandant’s secretary. I was more than dumbfounded when I recognised him as one of my teachers during my first years at school. This so-called secretary asked the Commandant to keep calm, and to proceed more gently. Whether these words had any effect, I cannot be sure, for my punishment followed immediately.
I could choose between fourteen days in prison on rice water, or fourteen days doing the camp guards’ washing. I thought for a moment.
‘So, what do you say?’ shouted the women’s Commandant.
‘I’ll do the washing,’ I said calmly.
For I had, by then, already begun to make plans for an alternative solution.