Sunday, July 27, 2008
It's been a melancholy sort of a day for me - lots of sadness, and lots of memories.
It was sparked by a telephone call in the small hours of this morning. A good friend and brother in arms, whom I'll call Mike (there are reasons to preserve his anonymity), has died. He and I went through Hell together, more than once, and we only survived because each of us saved the others' life on more than one occasion. I'd like to tell you about him.
Mike and I met in the late 1970's. At the time, the growing anti-apartheid unrest in South Africa was getting nasty (the period from 1976 to 1994 was almost a civil war in certain parts of the country). Both he and I were adamantly opposed to apartheid, and were committed to ending the system: but we also recognized that the Communist-inspired terrorists fighting that system were as bad, if not worse, than the racists who'd imposed it. Neither side was worthy of any Christian's full support.
As things developed, each of us, independently, decided that our best contribution, as Christians, would be to help the victims of violence. The Government ruled its Black subjects by force of arms and legalized violence. The terrorists fought the Government by trying to make certain areas ungovernable, and used extreme violence against anyone who wouldn't support them, including murder, torture, rape, robbery, arson and anything else you can think of. The ordinary people were, of course, caught in the middle, unable to escape the violence of both sides.
Gradually a group of believers formed. We were from many different races: several African tribes, White, Indian, Colored (in South African parlance, that means a person of mixed race) and Asian. We had all sorts of different religious backgrounds: the various Christian churches, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist (i.e. African traditional religions). The common "glue" that bound us together was that each individual felt that his or her understanding of God and faith had called them to help the victims of violence. Nothing else mattered. Our differences of race, culture, education, religious perspective, theology and doctrine were completely submerged beneath this common calling.
As a result, those of us involved learned to have a profound respect and admiration - yes, even love - for one another. We didn't care a hoot about the differences. We were united in a common cause, a common purpose. Ever since those days, I've never cared what someone else professes to believe: I've cared only about how he or she actually lives their faith. Actions speak a damn sight louder than words. I have atheist friends whom I regard as far more Christian in their way of life than most believers, because they live the values to which many Christians pay only lip service.
For well over a decade we worked to get the victims of violence out of the nightmare situations in which they found themselves. Sometimes we'd go into the thick of a fight to get the people out. At other times we couldn't do that (it was, for example, illegal for people of one race to be in an area designated for another, particularly during an "emergency", and many of us ended up in police detention at one time or another), and we had to wait for the worst of the violence to pass before we could do our work. By rough count, we assisted, evacuated, fed, sheltered and got medical attention for several thousand people during those years. We didn't bother to keep an exact tally.
It was often extremely dangerous work. Twenty-seven of our group died during the 1980's and early 1990's. Some died during our operations. Others died because they were identified as members, and attacked at home by those who didn't want us (or anyone else) bringing any hope, however faint, to those they sought to rule by terror and fear. Our Black members were particularly vulnerable to this, because they lived in areas that were more often than not terrorist-controlled. I had some of them stay over in my apartment (in a safer area) on more than one occasion, but legally they couldn't live there without being subject to arrest. The apartheid Group Areas Act saw to that: areas were reserved for the members of a particular race group, and those not of that race couldn't live there except as servants, in separate (usually grossly inferior) quarters. Guests in the same building would stick out like a sore thumb. Neighbors would see them, report their presence to the police, and next thing you knew, a police van would be outside with uniformed officers banging on the door. A bribe could take care of things temporarily, but not long-term.
Mike was Black, and more vulnerable than I. He had to move out of his parents' home, because he didn't want them to suffer for his activities. He set up house in another area with a couple of our members, and they helped support one another (not all of them had jobs at the same time, so those who worked would feed and support the others, knowing that their turn to rely on the rest would come around). He spent many short periods at my home, a few days at a time, while we planned our activities and gathered our meager resources for the next emergency.
On one of our operations, Mike saved my life. I was seriously injured. Mike got me out of the danger zone, and dragged and carried me for almost a mile to where our vehicles were waiting. Without him, I'd have died there. I was able to return the favor a year or so later, when he was slashed across the spine by a panga (a machete-like weapon). He couldn't walk, and myself and another colleague got him out of there and took him to a hospital. He eventually made a full recovery.
Those were very dark times. There were periods when it looked as if the whole country was descending into chaos and the darkness of terminal violence. We carried on with our work, trying desperately to help the few we could reach, trying to make a difference. It wasn't much - "a drop in the bucket" just about describes it - but we all felt that we had to do it. Nobody else cared much, it seemed to us. A vast number of alleged believers of all faiths would go to their churches and temples on their holy days, and talk, and pray, and sing about God's love - but they wouldn't go into the violence, where the real need was, and risk themselves. Their faith was something they talked about, rather than did. To make matters worse, many religious leaders (again, of all faiths) became more political activists than believers. Some would use their religious status to promote this or that political group or agenda, and even use their pulpits to threaten those of their faiths who wouldn't subscribe to their particular political philosophies.
Gradually I felt led to a greater commitment of service to what I believed in. In the early 1990's I took up studies for ordained ministry. At this point I had to leave our group's activities, and relocate to another place to continue my studies. I kept in touch with them, and provided financial support where possible. Things continued to be very tough for some time.
I played a part in the organizing of South Africa's first-ever fully democratic elections in 1994, which brought an end to apartheid at last. As they approached, a last paroxysm of violence seemed to grip the country. Bombs were planted, people of different political parties and persuasions targeted . . . it seemed as if free and fair elections would be impossible. International news organizations were sending in their reporters, seeming to us to be vultures hovering over the scene of a massacre, feeding on the violence, gloating over the misery.
Mike, my other friends and I were involved in working with the fledgling Independent Electoral Commission and other community organizations. Three more of us were killed during the run-up to the voting. Mike was shot, and lost his left leg just above the knee as a result. By now he'd married Annie, another of our members, and she nursed him through the crisis. He wouldn't stay in bed. As soon as he'd recovered sufficiently, even before he'd been fitted with an artificial leg, he used a wheelchair and crutches to get out on the streets again, with Annie by his side, to continue their work.
In the days immediately prior to the voting, the violence seemed to climax in an orgy of blood-letting. Dozens were killed. However, thousands - millions - of people were praying hard, and I firmly believe God gave us a miracle in response to their prayers. On the first day of voting (three days were allocated), people who'd been trying to kill each other the day before lined up peacefully in their tens of thousands, waiting to cast their votes. Most had never had the opportunity to do so before. Over the three days, all of us involved in the process were frantically busy, running from polling station to polling station, sorting out administrative and procedural hiccups, checking on security (some hard-line pro-apartheid White organizations had threatened to disrupt the elections), doing all we could to ensure that things went smoothly.
When it was over, and South Africa had its first-ever democratically-elected government, most of us almost collapsed. We felt so drained, so empty . . . the triumph we should have felt just wasn't there. We'd helped, in our own small way, to achieve the end of one of the most evil systems of government of the twentieth century: but twenty-seven of our number weren't there to see it. They'd died before peace and democracy could be attained. They were our best and our brightest, and it still hurts to think of them. Why we survived when they didn't is more than I can fathom. I feel very unworthy beside them, and I honor their memories to this day.
Since then, South Africa has continued to make slow progress - agonizingly slow. I've said all along that it'll take two generations to undo the damage that apartheid left in its wake, economic, social and political. We're now halfway through the first generation, and nothing I've seen has caused me to revise my forecast. There's still a long, long way to go.
I left South Africa and moved to the USA in 1997. I was burned out. I'd buried too many friends, seen too much violence, and desperately needed to make a fresh start in a new place. I thank God that I was eligible to immigrate to the USA. It's truly one of the greatest countries in the world, and it gave me the fresh start I was seeking. I was able to find help to talk through my memories of the bad times, and work through the pain, and begin again.
Mike and Annie weren't so fortunate. They didn't have the economic qualifications and skills that would permit them to emigrate. Mike found work in the private sector, and Annie continued her job as a nurse. However, the tragedy of the post-apartheid society in South Africa struck them. Crime is rampant there: with at least a third of the potential workforce not only unemployed, but unemployable due to poor qualifications, it's a huge social and political problem. Annie was murdered four years ago during an attempt to rob the township clinic where she worked of its drug supplies. I was in hospital myself at the time, and was unable to get back to South Africa to see Mike: but I know our mutual friends over there did all they could.
She was the twenty-eighth of our group to die.
Mike was terribly affected by Annie's death, coming on top of all the bloodshed and violence of the evil years. He and I would talk on the phone often, crying together, remembering our dead. I tried to help him all I could, and I know it was some consolation to him to be able to talk to me: but I wasn't there . . . and my injuries meant that the long airline flight to South Africa was no longer medically possible for me. Also, it's a very expensive trip, and neither he nor I had the spare cash to afford it.
As time passed, Mike fell into the grip of depression. I was able to arrange for him to see a private psychiatrist, who diagnosed his problem and prescribed appropriate medication: but Mike would sometimes get drunk (which didn't mix well with his pills), and at other times would neglect to take his medicines on time or in the right dosage. He was on the slippery slope, and I knew it. Our mutual friends tried desperately to help him, but over time he began to close the door on them - and on me. He was sinking into the "Slough of Despond", blaming himself for not doing more to help those who'd died, even blaming himself for Annie's death.
I last spoke to Mike about three months ago. He called me early one morning, more than a little drunk, crying over Annie, and over our friends who'd died. I spent over two hours on the phone with him, remembering our dead, trying to be a sympathetic ear for him. At the end, he told me, "Peter, man, I can't live like this no more. I gotta break out, one way or the other."
My subsequent calls to him went unanswered. Our mutual friends told me that Mike had left home, and his present whereabouts were unknown.
Felicia called me this morning. Mike's body had been identified in a morgue on the coast. He'd apparently gone for a swim at the beach, late at night, while under the influence of liquor. It's winter in South Africa now, and the weather and water are very cold, so it would have taken a lot of alcohol to get him out there. As far as anyone can guess - there were no witnesses - he'd been pulled under by a strong tidal flow, and had drowned.
I'm not so sure. I think Mike might have decided, in his unbearable pain, that he was going to swim out along the path cast by the moon . . . and see if he could find Annie, and our friends, at the end of it.
Twenty-nine dead, now.
God rest you, Mike. I'm crying for you now, and I know there will be more tears in time to come. Why I'm alive, and you're not, I just don't know. I hope you found Annie waiting for you at the end of the moonpath.
Sleep well, Mike. You've earned it.