An oil-painting by a French Artist depicting a caricature of the British Concentration Camps imprisoning South-African women and children during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902
Heidelberg Concentration Camp, South-Africa, 1901
I wiped the sticky sweat from my brow and stretched my arms out behind me before rising from where I was sat on a rock, cleaning the red South-African dirt from my Puttees. The afternoon sun beat down upon me relentlessly, my British Military Uniform already soaked through with my own sweat.
“Why will it never rain in this God-forsaken country?” I demanded of my best friend, Private Charles Rathbone as I stared up at the blue, cloudless sky.
“What was that, Corporal?” Charles asked, absent-minded where he was pumping water from a barren looking water pump to my left and took a drink straight from the faucet.
“I hate this place”, I grumbled. “When will this war end?”
“My thoughts exactly, old chap”, Charles replied, abandoning the pump. “Kitchener said it would be the easiest battle we’d ever fight and we’d be away from England no more than two months-”
I snorted. “And here we sit-” I complained. “Two years later–in the bloody heat with little food and all these stinking Boers-” I sighed and kicked at the dry ground, sending a puff of red dust into the air. “We’re not even out there shooting some–we’re in this camp wasting away right alongside them-”
“Chin up, Matt”, Charles clapped me on the back. “It’s lunch soon-” He walked off towards the makeshifts barracks set up behind the hill. In the midst of the British tents stood a bigger tent that acted as the dining hall.
I paused to stare out over the dismal sight that was the Heidelberg concentration camp in Transvaal. As far as the eye could see stood row upon row of small, off-white tents each crammed with more people that it could accommodate; some sick, some dying, some already dead as I stood watching. The rations of a type of yellow maize the Afrikaners referred to as ‘Kaboe Mielies’ were dealt out raw with a lack of fuel to cook it, lack of water to drink or cook with and even less for washing. Most of them slept on the bare earth with nothing for warmth or in some cases not even garments for decency.
“Rather you than me”, I announced anonymously to the camp of women and children, straightened my helmet and set off for the dining tent.
That night I was scheduled for a night patrol shift of the parameter around the camp; one of the most tedious actions ever performed by any soldier. It was intensely dark and I had only a small kerosene lantern illuminating no more than three feet in front of me. The night was deadly quiet which made it very easy to hear the soft singing coming from inside a nearby tent. On closer inspection, I could hear the Afrikaans folk song, familiar to me after two years in the country. No singing or speaking Afrikaans was allowed but I was impressed by their sheer strength of spirit under the circumstances and chose to pass them by without a word.
I yawned, removed my helmet and ran a hand through my dirty fair hair before replacing it. The next moment, a piercing scream tore through the crisp air and my heart leaped in fear as my legs kicked into action. I ran towards the sudden commotion in the middle of the rows of tents. I found Charles and another young soldier named Henry wrestling with a girl who was hysterically shouting in Afrikaans and scratching at their faces. Over the last two years I had come to understand a little Afrikaans and understood only two words of her shouting.
“Britse Varke!” British Pigs
Henry threw her to the ground and lifted his foot to kick her but I stepped in between the two of them. “Back to your post”, I barked at him and he left immediately without question.
Charles stood gaping at me as I helped her to her feet. She started swinging her fists, furiously yet limply at me and I caught her, easily and held her arms behind her back. She started kicking at my legs and I was breathless with her strength even though she was severely underweight and frail.
“Stop it, silly girl”, I ordered. “I don’t want to hurt you”.
She let out a surprisingly loud roar and launched herself out of my grip and at Charles who immediately aimed his Rifle at her.
“No!” I ordered, strongly. “Put that away–” Around us, people who had come forth from their tents to see what the noise was all about gasped and uttered outraged cries at the sight of the gun. Charles stowed his rifle with a grimace.The girl bravely turned her back on Charles and gazed upon me with hatred in her eyes, appearing to prepare to attack again but she finally fainted into my arms from exhaustion.
“Back to your tents!” I shot at the surrounding hungry faces. They scattered, fearfully back into their tents and I turned my attention to Charles. “What happened to her?”
“She attacked us on sight”, Charles explained, shakily. “I’ve never seen a woman attack a soldier before. She took us completely by surprise-”
“Any idea why she would want to hurt you?”
“They all want to hurt us, don’t they?” Charles replied with a shrug.
I narrowed my eyes at him, suspiciously. “What did you do?”
“If you are trying to imply that we attempted to lay with her against her will, Corporal”, Charles answered, crisply. “you couldn’t be more wrong–I have no intention of touching any of the Boer vermin-!”
“Of course”. I sighed, knowing full well that his reputation told a very different story. “Bring Henry back here!” I commanded him before turning to the closest Boer woman who had her head poked out from the tent. “Where does she sleep?” I demanded of her.
Frowning, she pointed at the tent furthest down the row. I carried the girl towards the tent to find it to my surprise completely empty.
There was nothing in the tent besides an empty bowl and mug; not even something soft to lay her on. I removed my jacket, lay it down in the dirt and placed her gently upon it. She seemed to be wearing what appeared to be a pillowcase. It was difficult to tell her age although her features led me to believe she was around seventeen. I imagined she would be pretty when her skin wasn’t pulled taut over her skeleton from starvation and she had washed. As I pulled my hand from under her head, a clump of her blonde hair came with it and my stomach turned in self-loathing.
I ran from the tent and straight into Henry who was waiting outside. I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. “Did you take advantage of that girl?”
“No!” he called in distress. “Never!”
“Why was she hysterical?” I demanded, shaking him once strongly.
“Her baby brother died this morning”, Henry uttered, quickly. “And her mother the day before, Sir. She has no one left now-”
I released him. “Never dare hit a woman again-”
“Yes, Sir”. He ran into the darkness. I stood breathing, heavily and glanced back towards the girl’s tent one last time before returning to my post. I vowed to never go near the tent again.
The following day I could think of nothing but her. I felt an inexplicable responsibility for her and I knew that she would die like everybody else in the camp if nothing was done about her conditions. While I was having my supper of bread, jam, soup and milk I thought of her eating the meagre maize rations, and that if she had any. Without so much as a second thought, I tucked the meal into my pack and walked over the hill to the concentration tents. I found my way through the darkness to her tent and stood outside it, uncertain of my actions. I teetered on the spot for a moment before pulling the flap aside and stepping into the tent.
I anticipated her screaming so I bent down and gently placed my hand over her mouth. Her blue eyes darted, anxiously from side to side. I had never seen anyone as scared in my life.
“I won’t hurt you”, I told her, softly. When I removed my hand from her mouth, she stared at me in frightened silence. I took the food from my pack and held it out to her.
She stared at it with nervous suspicion for a moment and looked up at my face. “Wat wil jy he?”
“I don’t understand Afrikaans well-” I told her, slowly. “Food-” I shook it at her. “Take it, eat it-” I gestured putting it in my mouth.
She sighed in resignation, took the food and placed it next to her. To my horror, she proceeded to lift the linen makeshift dress she was wearing.
“No”, I said in shock, pulling her clothes back down to cover her. I shook my head at her. “I don’t want that–I just brought you food-”
She continued to stare at me with distaste as she picked up the bread and jam, scoffing it gratefully.
I swallowed, sadly as I watched her and sunk down on the ground in the corner of the tent a few feet from her. Why would she think I wanted to trade food for sex? Is that what the other soldiers have been doing? I felt a wave of red-hot anger pass over me. The girl moved back from me, hastily picking up on my sudden hostility. “I’m sorry”, I said, gently. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I won’t hurt you, I promise”.
She narrowed her eyes, watching my warily as she quickly ate the rest of her food. She understood no English and I couldn’t speak Afrikaans but I felt like there was a lot that I needed to tell her.
“I’m very sorry about your family”, I told her, lowly. She looked at me as I spoke but didn’t respond except for glaring. “I assume your father is fighting on the Boer-side in the war. My name’s Matthew–do you have a name?” She continued to glare at me in silence. “Well I suppose even if you did understand what I was saying, you wouldn’t want to tell me your name. I understand that. I hate this place too. I really want to go home. I haven’t been in England for two years and I’m sick of the suffering. I don’t think anyone knows what the hell we’re doing anymore. As far as I’m concerned nothing is worth killing so many people over especially not a country so far from home that your people are fighting so hard to protect. I guess you grew up on a farm, didn’t you?” I paused for effect rather than expecting an answer from her. “Everyone around here grows up on a farm of some sort–I wonder what kind of farm it would’ve been…” She had finished eating and sat with her legs uncomfortably crossed, watching me with apprehension. “Did you have chickens?” I made the noise of a chicken, hoping it might help her understand followed by an awkward flapping of my arms. She raised her eyebrows at me in confusion and I laughed unable to help myself. “Cows?” I attempted a string of cow noises with no desired effect. “Sheep?”
My sheep made her giggle. “Jy’s van jou kop af”, she said with half a smile.
“Ah hah”, I grinned. “See–you can have fun-” Almost instantly her face became twisted in anger again.
I sighed, disappointed. “Hey”, I said, suddenly. “Why don’t you sing that song the Boers are always singing-” When she gave no reaction, I started to hum the tune for her. As I continued, her mouth dropped in shock.
“Am I doing it wrong?” I asked her, cautiously.
“Waar het jy dit geleer?” She looked utterly bewildered at me.
“I like that song”, I told her completely at a loss to what she asked. “I’ll hum and you can sing the words? I don’t know the words. For all I know you may be singing all sorts of derogatory songs about us-” I laughed.
She frowned at me as I started to hum the song again but that time to my delight she started softly singing the words with me. We sang it three times before I rose, reluctantly. “I have to leave before someone comes looking for me”, I told her. “Could I come see you tomorrow?”
She blinked quietly up at me, looking incredibly vulnerable all of a sudden.
“I will come see you tomorrow”, I told her, confidently. “It was a pleasure to share in your company–uh–meisie” I used the Afrikaans word for girl brokenly but she seemed as surprised as when I hummed their song. “Goodnight”. I prepared to leave the tent when she spoke and turned back to look at her.
“Ek weet jy’s die duiwel maar jy lyk soos ‘n engel”. Her blue eyes glistened with defiance as she delivered the line.
Puzzled, I excited the tent to find an older woman standing just outside probably to call for help if I threatened the girl’s life.
“Good evening, Sir”, the woman said in broken English.
I gasped, excitedly at the sound of English. “Did you hear what she said to me?”
The woman nodded, gravely. “I know you’re the devil but you look like an angel”. Without further conversation, the woman entered the tent next to the girl’s. I started my walk back to the barracks on the other side of the hill, trying to shake the need to cry.