BY JO-ANN BEKKER
She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.
When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.
Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.
We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.
Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.
This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.
The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.
We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.
She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:
My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.
She cannot recall the face of this woman.
She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.
She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.
She remembers what she didn’t write down.
Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.
Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.