For a recent Journalism assignment, we were sent forth to interview someone who either was involved with the military in some way, or was affected by armed conflict. In our world, that could potentially include anyone. But one man stuck out in my mind.
I remember he had rifles and handguns stowed in a closet safe. I know that he was in the army, and remember old pictures of him smiling with those military friends. I also remember us filling bullet shells with gun powder in the garage of our home in South Africa.
The man I chose was my father. I would like to share his story with you, a story he was destined to start by conscription, but whose ending is shaped by the addition of new characters. The title is a sign off from one of the found letters.
Suerte Hermano - “Luck Brother”
By Daniella Ponticelli
“Talking to someone so that you can sleep? That was weak. That’s how we saw it.” At 51 years old, my father had never spoken to me about his conscripted military service in South Africa – until I asked.
January 1977, Mark Ponticelli began as a soldier in the South African Border War, entwined with the Angolan Civil War, allied with UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) against SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) and their allies, the Soviet Union and Cuba.
“You are scared shitless, you don’t even realize what you’re doing. It’s automatic,” says my father about his duties. Angola was granted independence from Portugal on November 11, 1975, but South Africa continued sending soldiers, including my father, to the border to secure control. “You come back with a sense of bravado that you have survived, but you are very hurt inside.” Now living alone in Ste. Anne, Manitoba, my father began his healing with an unlikely friendship
January 3, 1984, Operation Askari was launched in Cuvelai, Angola. In the aftermath of the battle, my father found letters amidst four dead Cuban men. He brought the letters back to Cape Town, South Africa, and recalls in his memoir: “my father had translated these Cuban letters and I was amazed that this soldier was like me, missing home and family, especially his sweetheart.” The letters were taken away by my grandfather, as any communication with Cuba was prohibited.
After my grandfather died in 2004, my father divided the assets, where he found the hidden letters. For months he thought about writing to the Cuban addresses, and finally sent out five separate envelopes. Each contained the same letter stating who he is, what happened in Cuvelai, and how the Cuban soldier, Jorge Machado Herrera, died.
After two months, the first envelope came back marked as “cancelled address.” Then another arrived, this time with the return address under Jorge Herrera. My father writes that after seeing the envelope, “a sense of happiness overwhelmed me and that same feeling of healing stayed with me for weeks.”
Herrera had escaped the Cuvelai attack, and the letter was the first of many correspondences between the two men, each unravelling their side of the battle. Herrera, who was 17 at the time of his escape from Cuvelai, wrote about the experience: “I ate grass like an animal, which caused me vomiting and desperate malaise. I even put the rifle to my mouth to kill myself, but I had, and have, infinite faith.”
My father and Herrera even discussed the four Cuban men who died in Cuvelai. “One of them was a cook named Half Moon,” says my father. “Somehow the soldier makes it alive and the cook dies. That’s the consequence of war.”
In 2007, my father went to Cuba to meet Herrera, whose family and friends accepted him as their own. “We are bound by conflict, but we have healed each other,” says my father. “We are no longer enemies talking, but brothers.”
My father says his psychiatrist recommended avoiding images of war on television, as it brings back memories. “But remembrance is something I must participate in, lest we forget – this shit will happen again.” He flies a Canadian flag in front of his new home where, on Remembrance Day, he will take a moment of silence to honour his comrades and Herrera, as well as the civilians who died in consequence.