A friend in need is a friend indeed. Except perhaps during wartime. And so it was that I found myself during a particularly violent battle positioned on the Israel-Lebanon border from where Hezbollah militants were firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. It was eerily quiet and no one dared to breathe or move. The only sound was the intermittent booming of cannons and the whistling of rockets as they crashed into the earth around me.
Suddenly, like Satan emerging from the darkness, a small olive-green Hyundai, its open windows rattling to the blaring soundtrack of St Elmo’s Fire, came careering through the smoke to brake just a few metres from me and a group of open-mouthed journalists. Just in case either side hadn’t yet figured out where the reporters were standing, they now had no problem pinpointing our exact location.
Inside were two South Africans grinning voraciously, their baseball caps facing backwards and sticks of biltong being proffered in our direction. They were mightily impressed with themselves for having braved the frontline to find a South African and to wish me luck. Sweet. But if I ever see them again I’ll run a mile.
But that is now… Then I climbed into the back of their vehicle, all windows open because as they insisted, if a Katyusha hits glass it’s more dangerous than if it flies straight through an open car. Not that this means a vehicle is a safe place to be in – far from it. And so every few minutes we were slamming on the brakes, jumping out and running for our lives in opposite directions. It took a while to get beyond a few hundred metres.
One tends to hear Katyushas before seeing them which presents a unique dilemma – if you can hear the whistle it’s pretty darn close and you have just seconds to throw yourself on the ground; if you don’t, well then you could meet your Maker sooner than you’d planned.
I remember one particularly hair-raising miss when I went scampering down the street shouting in Hebrew for a shower instead of a shelter – only later did I understand my mistake as the two words sound very similar.
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The local police insisted on escorting us and took us to visit a community leader who was far more interested in feeding the chickens in his garden than talking with some arbitrary foreigners. As we drove out, the sirens shrilled across the mountainside and the police officers abandoned their truck. I was still stuck inside as the door latch wouldn’t open and found myself with front row seats to a rocket landing 60 metres from me, taking the garden gate and my breath with it.
A while later we stumbled into an outside bomb shelter where people hunkering from the danger were passing the time by making a braai. They were amazed to see us and insisted we stay which presented another quandary because between three-to-five each afternoon, when the sun was at its highest, the Hezbollah fighters would take a break from firing rockets. This was the perfect time to make like Donald and duck. But it was also the perfect time for the meat patties that had now been placed on the hot coals “for the foreigners from Africa” to be turned over. And as typical South Africans we felt we couldn’t be rude and leave.
So we stayed for the braai, some chitchat about how we like our meat cooked … and were nearly incinerated by a rocket when we left.
This is why my father insisted he turned grey. He would phone and each time complain about the crackle in the line. Don’t worry dad, was my standard assurance; it’s only rockets flying overhead. That night, the two South Africans slept in a hotel bath because they felt it would offer them protection and then dead-tired drove off into the sunrise the next morning.