Who will you be when the bombs fall?


Who will you be when the bombs fall?

The world has become a less predictable place in the last two decades. Your chances of being caught in a traumatic situation are now greater than in 1999. ALBERTUS VAN WYK wonders how he would react in a disaster.


I OFTEN wonder who I would be in a life-threatening catastrophe and the suffering that follows. I'm talking about the kind of situation where you have to set aside your normal routines, where you have to control fight-or-flight instincts, and where the only plan is to survive the next few hours.

I'm talking about an ordeal such as being a Jew in Treblinka concentration camp in 1942, or a Boer woman with a baby in Bethulie concentration camp in 1900, or being trapped in the basement of a church in Mariupol, Ukraine, in April 2022. I'm talking about sitting unemployed in a zinc shack in a township outside Lichtenburg with no electricity or running water while people die around you from Aids-related diseases, cholera and hunger.

Like most middle-class people, I often indulge in self-pity, feeling a bit resentful about my lot in life. I wish I had it better, that I had to work less and had the means to travel and see the world, to take more vacations in enriching places. I frequently wish I could dine in restaurants I can only read about or own the kind of vehicle that could take me through Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, with enough money for fuel.

Even though I often tell myself the world doesn't owe me anything and that people can determine their own fate by making the right choices and pursuing certain goals, I am often disheartened that the business my partner and I started has been hit by a recession, a pandemic and brutal power outages. I occasionally tell myself that if I'd had a bit more luck and better timing, I would now be a small-scale magnate.

I listen to psychologists and life coaches who say you should cut out of your mind the things you have no control over — like the ANC's corruption, crushing load-shedding, the wave of crime engulfing us and the possibility of an anarchic society.

We don’t know what suffering is

It's natural, of course, that we should worry about things we can't control. And one thing that is certain is that every society in the world has been visited again and again by unspeakable suffering and adversity.

Recently, I listened to a podcast by a Canadian doctor and expert in addiction and rehabilitation therapy, Gabor Maté, in which he told the story of how his mother handed him over to a complete stranger in Budapest in 1944 when he was just a few months old. She believed it was their only chance of survival.

The Matés, Jews of Hungarian descent, suffered during the final wave of persecution by Hungarian Nazis, who began massacring on the borders and systematically moving inward. Ultimately, half a million Jews were annihilated in Budapest.

Maté and his mother survived, and they were reunited after a month. But even in his old age — he is 79 — he still experiences a sense of loss and a fear of abandonment.

In a quote specifically referring to the growing dismay over the possibility of Donald Trump being elected president again, Maté says there will always be cruelties: “The world has always been a difficult place where terrible things happened and beautiful things happened at the same time. The world is not worse now because a certain person got elected. It’s just the world declaring some of its nature, or some of its way of being."

I am increasingly aware that I grew up in what was probably the last part of five decades of prosperity that began in the 1950s in America, Europe and parts of Asia. White people in South Africa were part of this upswing. Afrikaners, especially, starting from a low base, made economic and social progress through racial segregation, with the full power of a government behind them.

But it's not difficult to find detailed accounts of extreme suffering. You can simply visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to see how people within a few kilometres of you were subjected to intense political persecution and an inhumane existence.

Or you can read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost about the Belgian atrocities in the Congo. You can read any novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn about Stalin's Siberian labour camps, or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee about the wars in America between colonisers and indigenous peoples. The book describes various acts of genocide.

The first episode of Netflix's documentary series Five Came Back: The Reference Films deeply moved me. The Concentration Camp is a collection of film footage shot by American military journalists when they encountered concentration camps in Europe at the end of World War 2, in some cases only hours after the Nazis had evacuated.

It shows bewildered, emaciated and sickly prisoners of war and interned Jews covered in sores and wounds, stumbling out of barracks. Some, too weak to walk, simply remain lying down.

Words in a book and images on a television screen make you more aware and empathetic but they cannot prepare you for what it's  like to experience an apocalyptic situation. You also don't know how you will react, because through no screen or page can you experience the intense fear and trauma of a direct threat to your life.

It can happen to you at any time

In 2019, our family was camping near the Cederberg over the Easter weekend when we received a call from the only employee of our business, Tyson Kondowe. He told us there had been heavy rain in the district of his Malawian village, Tcharo, on a mountainside overlooking Lake Malawi.

The rain was so severe that a mudslide during the night swept two houses into the lake, with all the people inside. Tyson lost seven family members: his mother, grandmother, sister, his father's brother and sister and her husband, and a niece. Tyson's uncle, Peter, who had been working with us temporarily, was also closely related to all these people.

Although we could sense the weight of the incident and see the subdued suffering, it was impossible to feel what Tyson and Peter were going through. We asked for help on Facebook to assist Peter, Tyson, and their wives, Towera and Fishan, to return home to bury their loved ones and support Tyson's father, who had lost his wife, mother, brother, and sister. The response was overwhelming and they received enough money to pay for their travel and help Tyson's father to start building a new house.

But the misery was not over. It took Tyson's father about a year to build the house. He was putting on the roof when the leaders in his community summoned him to a meeting. There, he was informed that they had decided he had brought an evil curse upon the village, causing the disaster. He had to immediately gather his belongings, leave his house and settle elsewhere.

How far back do you find suffering?

I didn't grow up under down duvets and with daily hot chocolate topped with marshmallows. Not at all. But we had running hot water and electricity, we went to school, and we could go camping in a game reserve or by the sea for holidays. No one close to me died particularly early or suffered from terminal illnesses. The same goes for my parents.

I have to go back three generations to find anything even remotely as devastating as the trauma experienced by Tyson's family. Nevertheless, my story feels mundane in comparison.

In 1922, my great-grandfather, Albertus Hough, and his wife, Maria, packed as many of their belongings as possible into bags and trunks and boarded a train from Bethulie in the southern Free State to Windhoek.

The idea was to resettle on a farm in the east of what was then South West Africa (now Namibia). South West Africa had been a League of Nations mandate of South Africa for seven years, which meant South Africa administered the territory. The government at that time was granting farms to white families who could demonstrate their agricultural skills.

Albertus and Maria couldn't inherit a farm from the family in the Free State because there were too many sons and nephews, but it was also believed to be because their first child was conceived out of wedlock. So, it was off to South West.

Albertus was in his mid-30s, Maria was in her early 20, and their four daughters were six, four and two years old, with the youngest just a few months old. The youngest two were intellectually disabled. The four-year-old was my grandmother, Rina Hough.

In Windhoek, they bought an ox wagon and a team of oxen. From there, they headed to Gobabis, where they were allocated a farm for a trial period. The exact location of the farm is lost information — it could have been 20km from Gobabis or it could have been 200km away.

Upon arriving at the farm, they first found a suitable spot for the ox wagon then began searching for water. Eventually, they found a place to dig a well, supposedly an hour or so's walk from the ox wagon, and Albertus started digging. On a scorching late afternoon, after working hard and sweating all day, the weather suddenly changed and icy rain poured down. He had to walk back to the ox wagon in the wet and cold.

These days, we know that bacteria or viruses cause pneumonia, and not cold weather, but perhaps he had an underlying condition, and the extreme hardship made him sick. He died a few days later in the wagon.

Maria was left alone with four young children in the middle of a desert, 1,700km from any supportive family. The neighbours helped to bury Albertus and she decided to return to Bethulie.

She packed the ox wagon and set off on the road back to Windhoek. There, she sold the wagon and oxen, and they travelled by steamship to Luderitz. From there, she and the children boarded a train to the Free State. As if she hadn't already experienced enough adversity, floods damaged the railway tracks. It took her three months to complete the final leg of the journey.

Back in Bethulie, the young widow had to move into a humble cottage with cow dung floors and start from scratch. She worked as a cashier in the general store and raised the four children in relative poverty.

It was 26 years before the National Party would win the election and introduce apartheid, with affirmative action and job reservations for white Afrikaners. Before that, Maria had to navigate her way through the shockwaves of a global economic depression and a world war.

How far in the future does suffering lie?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democrats were optimistic that the world's problems had been largely solved and that an era of prosperity and peace lay ahead. In South Africa, optimism prevailed for about 15 years.

The world took a darker turn faster than expected. Right-wing nationalist politicians in Europe and the US exploited fears of immigrants. In America, it increasingly seems possible for an unstable right-wing nationalist to be re-elected. The messy, bloody war in Syria, with Russian and US involvement, has no end in sight, and the war in Ukraine once again pits the world's two most bellicose powers against each other, as if the world hasn't had enough of that kind of nonsense.

In South Africa, nearly all optimism has disappeared under a banal, greedy government. A large portion of our population is already living in a daily situation of trauma. People are increasingly falling from the middle class into poverty. The chances of ending up in a true situation of suffering are growing.

People react unpredictably under extreme stress. Some Jews who were prominent figures in their community psychologically folded in concentration camps. Some even started working alongside the Nazis. And some individuals who were previously on the fringes or seemingly insignificant in society emerged as leaders and even heroes.

Perhaps fate will spare me a situation of life-threatening catastrophe and suffering, because I have no idea how I would react.

♦ VWB ♦

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