Angola, 9 June
“What do you think?” the corporal driving the truck asked Sergeant Ku. The patrol was deep inside rebel territory and the men were very nervous. Ku knew Lieutenant Monoko, out front in the jeep, didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know how deep inside rebel territory they were.
They’d traveled for six hours over unpaved roads and trails since leaving the paved main road between the border post at Luau and Luena, the next major town on the road. Sergeant Ku had watched the sun the entire time, troubled about the direction it told him they were traveling.
“I think the lieutenant does not know where we are,” Ku said. He was in the cab of the half-ton diesel truck with the corporal driving. The rest of the patrol—twelve men—was in the back. Ku was an old veteran of the civil war in Angola, having fought the Portuguese at the start, then beside the Cubans many years back. The allies and enemies had changed over the years but never the fighting. Ku’s dark scalp was covered with gray hair and his slight frame was tense, ready for action.
They could see Lieutenant Monoko ahead in the jeep, looking at his map and scratching his head. The fact that the lieutenant’s vehicle was out in front told the sergeant more than he wished to know about his new officer. Only a fool would want to be in the lead to trip whatever mines the UNITA rebels might have planted on the road. Of course, Ku’s sense of self-preservation made him very grateful that in this specific area the lieutenant was ignorant. If Monoko had done as he should have and made the truck lead, the sergeant would not be sitting in this cab—he’d be in the backseat of the jeep with the lieutenant.
Ku climbed out of the truck and walked forward. This was their first chance in several hours to stop, and he indicated for the soldiers to take a break. Some were already urinating off the side of the truck. Ku snapped a salute, startling Monoko. “Sir, may I be of assistance?” The lieutenant was a very large and fat man, used to the easy life of the city. Ku wondered what circumstances had forced him into uniform and out to the bush.
Ku watched with detached amusement at the emotions that played across the broad black plain of his officer’s face. Pride versus the reality of the situation. The amusement disappeared quickly, though, because the look on Monoko’s face also confirmed what Ku had been fearing. They were indeed lost.
“I believe we are near Cangamba,” Monoko said, vaguely stabbing his finger at the map.
Years of working with incompetence allowed Ku to keep his face expressionless. “Sir, we have been heading to the northwest all afternoon. We cannot be close to Cangamba.”
“We have been traveling southwest,” Monoko disagreed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a compass, flipping open the plastic cover proudly.
There was no amusement left at all in Ku. “Sir, we never stopped to take compass bearings. How do—”
“I was checking all along,” Monoko interrupted. “I can read a compass on the move. I do not need to stop.”
Ku held out his hand. Monoko paused, then gave him the compass. “Sir, if you note, the compass now says north is that way”—he pointed to the right side of the road. Ku turned and walked several paces from the jeep. Monoko reluctantly got out of the jeep and followed. “If you would please note, sir, the compass now says north is that way.” Ku pointed to the left.
Monoko blinked. “But how can that be? It is not supposed to do that!”
Ku bit the inside of his mouth to restrain himself. “Sir, the metal of the jeep affects the magnet in the needle. That is why we must stop to get compass readings away from the jeep or navigate off the direction the sun speaks.” Ku pointed up.
Ku felt sick with himself for having allowed the officer to proceed in ignorance for so long. But it was Monoko’s fault also, Ku reminded himself. Not only did the lieutenant not know how to use a compass properly, he had never told Ku what their orders were or where they were headed. Ku had assumed that they were going in the right direction, even if it was in the direction of the enemy. After all, they occasionally did have to go out and fight. Who knew what the idiots in charge in Luanda had thought up? Ku had been hearing rumors for weeks now that something big was getting ready to happen, and he had assumed this strange direction was tied to those rumors.
Monoko looked about at the undulating grasslands that surrounded them. He turned back to his platoon sergeant. “What do we do?”
“Let me see your map, sir.” Ku took the sheet and stared at it. He found the last point where he had positively known where they were, then estimated. They’d been traveling for over five hours since then, mostly north and west. He placed an aged finger on the paper and traced a forty-kilometer circle just south of a town named Saurimo. “We are somewhere here. We must head due west as quickly as possible to get out of rebel territory before nightfall. I know for certain that there are many rebels in Saurimo.”
The last thing Ku wanted was to spend the night in this province with a green officer and a platoon full of new recruits. They were on the edge of Lunda Sul, a diamond-rich area that made up northeast Angola and was completely in rebel hands. There was a government garrison at Cacolo, about one hundred kilometers away. With a little luck and good roads, they might make it before dark.
Monoko pulled himself together. “Yes. We must head west. Tell the men we must be moving.”
Ku yelled out the appropriate orders, then made a difficult personal decision. “Sir, might I join you in your vehicle?”
A half hour later, they turned a corner in the road and the driver hit the brakes. Ku reacted instinctively to the tangle of fallen trees that blocked the road ahead. He rolled out of the backseat and took cover behind the jeep, pointing his weapon ahead, searching for the ambush he expected to explode out of the foliage all around as he screamed for the men in the truck to deploy.
The men reacted slowly, but eventually all were on the ground in the semblance of a perimeter and Lieutenant Monoko was at his side, peering ahead. “What do you think?” the officer whispered.
If there were any rebels about, there was no doubt in Ku’s mind that the patrol’s presence had been detected and whispering was not needed, but he played along. “I do not know, sir.” He peered at the trees. They’d been hacked down and pulled across the road. Beyond he could see some smoke, maybe from cooking fires. There was a small patch of thatched roof visible above the fallen trees. “There is a village there.” It was a logical location for a village: they were in low terrain and a river ran to their left.
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