"MY LAST DAWN"
by Barry Fowler
This dying hospital will not become our tomb. Those who went down with the Titanic were left to rest in peace. We will not be so lucky. In this slighted building on a hillside, we wait for the end.
It has happened. The revolution is here. Faster than we expected. Three days ago it was as far away as it ever was, but now its over, and from their side, they're just mopping up. Mopping us up.
The hospital shouldn't have been involved. It is a military hospital - the military hospital really - but there were no weapons here, and no fighting soldiers until the stragglers from the various units in Voortrekkerhoogte retreated into the hospital, bringing the fighting and the killing with them.
Maybe it was the height of the building that attracted the retreating soldiers. Maybe it was the bunkers under the hospital, which would be so much more difficult to mortar. Maybe there was no master-plan in the minds of the routed soldiers as they poured into the hospital already overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of casualties which had arrived since the uprising finally happened - three days ago.
They probably don't even call it South Africa any more ... except by mistake. We don't know. We are surrounded, we know that, and cut off from everything else. We don't have any radios to listen to newscasts, and maybe there isn't anyone out there who is interested or able to broadcast news.
Maybe there's a black government in power now, and trying to stop the civil war. Or maybe there's just chaos everywhere else throughout the country - land.
The troops that have occupied this hospital, and who trample over the wounded and dying lying along the corridors, are the 'crack' troops, and they have their officers with them, and these people are now faced with fighting to the last man, and they seem intent on doing just that. There's no talk of surrender. For many of them, death is preferable to life under 'Them'!
Everyone seems to be in some sort of high - in an exciting nightmare. Especially at night, then the lights cut out from time to time, and we, the doctors did what we could for our patients, and ran out of drips and bandages ... and are about to run out of everything else.
We were mortared throughout the night, but the hospital is strong. There are stacks of shattered masonry lying around, but the hospital is still intact. There are soldiers at the windows, ready to shoot at anything out there that there is to shoot at. They can't see the people who are shooting at us, and the mortars are discretely hidden from view.
They ... we weren't prepared for this. We spent all that time supposedly learning how to be soldiers, before being allowed to continue work as what we really were - doctors, but even these infantrymen around us haven't been prepared to try to defend a large building against an overwhelming force, who have us surrounded and cut off - if there's anything left out there to be cut off from.
It is morning now - and the nightmare of the darkness is over. The sun hasn't yet risen, but the sunbeams shining over the horizon show that there isn't going to be a cloud in the sky. It has all the makings of a beautiful spring morning. Not a bad day to die.
There's no shooting at the moment. They aren't shooting at us at the moment and their mortars must be resting. Our soldiers are now only shooting when they see something. The wild excitement of yesterday is over, and everyone is aware that the ammunition that they brought with them isn't going to last forever. Amidst all this carnage, there is a pregnant sense of peace. Its unbelievable.
We all know to keep out of sight, because they have snipers who are ready to shoot the moment we expose our faces to look out.
I risk a glance outside just to see some sky - something other than the moaning wounded and the still corpses which line the corridors, leaving only a single file footpath between them for us to move along. A white shroud of the dust from the destroyed concrete covers everything, and we all look like ghosts.
The cool morning breeze blows into my face as I look out. It is fresh, and it just makes the situation I find myself in so much more like some bizarre fantasy.
Outside I can see the grass, manicured except where some mortar bomb has fallen short and blown a crater out of the lawn and flung clods and sand fan-wise outward.
I can see the silhouettes of the wrecked helicopters that casevaced injured and dying in, and never left. Most of them have been destroyed and some of them are still smoking. There are also the trucks that the infantrymen used to arrive on our doorstep, and most of those have been destroyed as well.
It makes sense. The people who are going to kill us are unsophisticated, but driven on by four decades of hatred. They have as much time as they need to finish us off, and they could see the results as their rockets hit the abandoned helicopters and trucks, and the explosions must have been much more satisfying than the seemingly minor damage that their weapons were causing to the hospital, with its metre-thick concrete walls.
One of my best friends died in front of my eyes. Some shrapnel from one of the explosions slashed the back of his head off. We had been through basics together, and we lived together in the same officers mess. His name was Andrew, and he would probably have gone far in his life. In six months time he would have started as a surgery registrar. But he won't now. Now he's as dead as any of the other people whom I have only seen as corpses. He's just lying there, amongst the other bodies. We don't have a blanket or a sheet or anything to cover him with. All that is being used to keep those who are still alive warm. All that I could do was to pull his shirt up over his face. Now at least I can't see him. There's not much point really. I don't think I will live more than a few hours more than he did. I'm twenty six years old now, and I've been registered as a medical doctor for seventeen months. I'm not going to get any older, or more experienced. I know this, but after the last couple of days, I don't find this frightening or even surprising. In the back of all our nightmares, we knew that it would come to this. No one can ever say it was unexpected. We all hoped that we wouldn't be around when it happened.
Charles, my best friend at medical school, skipped the country two weeks before I started my national service. Ever since then I have felt that I should have done the same. I was intending leaving as soon as I had finished my two years - in six month' s time. Everyone reckons that doctors can still get jobs overseas. Charles is eight months younger than me, and working in London. He'll probably die of old age, or in a motor vehicle accident or something personal like that. I wonder what Charles is doing right now?
I don't really think any more, I just become aware of things, and this awareness becomes fixed in my mind. I know that I am going to die today - maybe tomorrow, but most probably today. I have no control over that. That is inevitable. Maybe I have some tiny bit of control over how I am going to die. This awareness sets itself into an idea. I worked with 'Hospice' for a while as an intern - what was that about dying touching velvet? That will not be for me.
I don't want to die where I am now, and just be one more corpse on the piles covered by the white cement dust. I don't want to die with a rifle in my hands. I don't hate these people who will kill me. I understand them, and I almost had the expectation that this would happen. My people - or the people with my skin colour, but not my language specifically - have been repressing them for forty years; kicking them in the face, and then laughing at the damage they had caused. I don't want to kill any of them. Its not self defence. We're going to die anyway. Why delay the agony?
Maybe I don't want to die touching velvet, but I would like to die in sunlight, and maybe even touching grass. I would like to die alone, outside, with the sun shining down on me. I haven't been in the sun for the last four days. The warmth would be pleasant.
The idea becomes a plan of action in my exhausted brain. I'm going down to the ground floor, and I'm going to walk out of the front door, out of the sunlight, and maybe I'll get to the lawn before a sniper takes me.
The lifts aren't working any more - one of the mortar bombs saw to that. I don't say anything to anyone around me. Either they are too busy - with what I don't know, for we have long since run out of the means of helping people, and we're all going to die anyway. Or else they've just given up - as I have - and are just staring sightlessly in front of them, waiting ...
I start to make my way down the stairs. There are windows at each level, and I skip past these. I would not want to die on this dust covered and corpse-ridden staircase.
A rocket has destroyed part of the stairwell, and I crawl across this area, aware that if I keep low I will be out of sight of any snipers. I hook my arm on a jagged piece of metal which hooks into my flesh, and I wince with pain. Pushing it back, I free my arm, and the pain is harsh. I've been taking stimulants all through last night, while we still thought ... before we realised that our efforts would be futile. The pain is harsh, but it is a long way away.
At last I am down to the ground floor. It is all in a mess, the windows have all been shot out, and rockets have been fired in. Things have burned, and there is the familiar mix of shattered masonry and dead bodies. I am the only thing alive on the bottom floor.
I have been there many times before, at least twice every day I have worked in the hospital, and yet I have difficulty recognising the place. I can hardly see the floors that once shone so freshly. The woodwork is burned, and the walls are discoloured with soot.
I start walking towards the remnants of the main entrance. A few days earlier I would walk sightlessly through this area. I was ... am ... was a Lieutenant, and there were always throngs of ordinary soldiers on the first floor. If they 'saw' me they would have to salute, and I would have to return their salutes. If they didn't 'see' me, and I 'saw' them, then I would have to go over to them and demand that they saluted me. If they didn't 'see' me and I didn't 'see' them, it made life easier all round. It was a game we all played.
I reach the entrance way prepared for anything, but the peace remains. Not a shot has been fired at me. I look out into the brightening day, the great outdoors three meters from where I stand, with blood oozing down my arm. The sun must be crawling up over the horizon now, judging by the light.
I look out at the parking areas, where I parked my car without a thought only days ago. The parking bays are littered with destroyed trucks and other military relics now, with the cars of the staff - which they will never drive again - dotted about in between. Most of them have been destroyed as well. In the open parking bays I can see oil stains left by cars in happier times. Left by the cars of the staff, and by people who had come to visit patients in the hospital, and by medical reps who had plied doctors with cakes as part of the sales campaign for their latest products. Can oil stains be a monument to happier times?
I am not unhappy. I am not happy. I don't feel anything actually. Maybe that's what the stimulants, the forty eight hours without sleep, the loss of one's whole country and way of life, the knowledge that I was going to be dead in a few minutes. Maybe there are things that I would have liked to have done with the rest of the life that I could have expected to live, but there's no point in thinking about that now.
I am safe where I stand now - or at least not in any immediate danger. Out there is sunlight, grass and death. In here is safety of a kind, and the waiting ...
I take a deep breath, which is fresh morning air, with just the slightest hint of burning rubber, and then I walk forward and out of the door - into the sunlight of my final dawn.
Published:1 July 2000.