New Namibia Books published in 1998

ISBN 99916 31 69 0

[p. 45] Sunday, 25th September

The morning started as any other, except that two of our men had prominent hangovers. After breakfast the men mooched about taking their time over preparations for the patrol. They were joined by a group of buddies who appeared more excited than usual. Some of the local population were brought forward and through interpreters we learnt that a SWAPO insurgent had been spotted at a kraal approximately one hour's drive from camp. After much animated conversation, the captain decided to change our patrol plans and we set off to investigate. Such reports were apparently common and raised little enthusiasm amongst the police.
Three Casspirs code-named Alpha, Bravo and Charlie set off and I travelled in Alpha, the lead vehicle. We reached the designated kraal and the trackers alighted to look for spoor and question the inhabitants. The interrogation followed a set pattern; individuals were separated from one another, taken out of earshot and questioned simultaneously by different interrogators. The latter then conferred and compared what had been said. Soon there was much excitement for the tracks of eleven men were identified and we were told with great conviction that they carried arms. The tracks were six hours old and as it was now midmorning, the story given by the locals that a group of armed men had passed through at dawn seemed true. We radioed for reinforcements and started the pursuit.
After an hour we had covered four kilometres. It was now midday and fiercely hot. The tracks led to a large circular kraal, perhaps five hundred metres in diameter, with a ramshackle perimeter fence of sticks and twigs. [p.45]
The area was almost completely deserted and the few remaining inhabitants drifted aimlessly. Those questioned denied having seen any armed men, but the tracks led to their front door. This annoyed some of the buddies and a few of the locals were slapped around as a memory inducement. The tracks were still about five hours old and while there was a sense of irritation on the part of the trackers, the oldness of the spoor coupled with the energy sapping heat had blunted any sense of urgency.
At the fence, the tracks divided three ways and the Casspirs followed accordingly. I was standing up in Alpha, astride the seats with my head exposed through the top of the vehicle, when I saw a cloud of smoke rise from Casspir Charlie, perhaps thirty metres away on my left, and a fraction later I heard an enormous bang. A voice yelled 'contact' and pandemonium broke lose. I did not know it at the time, but the initial retort had been the sound of an exploding mortar. We had been caught completely by surprise in an exposed position and our driver immediately proceeded to make matters worse, pulling up alongside the by now stricken Casspir.
Men were abandoning Charlie, failing over one another in their panic. The back doors of our vehicle were opened and they scrambled on board. We already had our full quota and in no time our interior became jammed with yelling, jostling buddies, whose tenuous hold on discipline had instantaneously vanished in their moment of terror.
Casspirs Alpha and Charlie were now stationery, caught between three groups of SWAPO guerillas who proceeded to enfilade our position with missiles, mortars and bullets. There was another large explosion from Casspir Charlie, now no more that five metres away on my left, as her armour was pierced by a missile. Things were happening too quickly and the sense of surprise [46] had been so complete that the captain had not yet taken charge. The driver of our vehicle further compounded the gravity of our situation by not waiting for orders and racing away into the centre of the kraal, where he promptly and inexplicably stopped. By now, some of our men had their rifles through the gun ports and were returning fire. Our light machine gun had also opened up.
I never travelled with a rifle and all I could do was crouch in a corner, trying not to get in the way. Suddenly, I felt the impact of something slamming into my back. My first reaction was to think I had been hit. But the sensation continued, rapidly and unpleasantly. As I still appeared to be very much alive and conscious, I put out an exploratory hand to feel what was happening. The man behind me had his rifle on automatic firing and the empty, ejecting shells were the culprits. My relief was considerable, but I also felt somewhat embarrassed by my initial fear.
Our Casspir was dangerously exposed and a hit from another mortar or missile seemed inevitable. The captain gave the order to abandon the vehicle but our driver, whose coordination appeared to have deserted him completely, stalled the engine and in the process the mechanism that opened the rear doors shut down. To compound matters, our LMG jammed. Marooned thus and taking incoming fire, I thought we were done for. Perhaps no more than a minute had elapsed since the firefight started. I felt strangely detached from the surrounding pandemonium and although fully cognizant of the danger, felt no sense of panic. Rather, I was overcome by a feeling of disbelief.
Disbelief that I was in the middle of an ambush, that people were shooting at us and trying to kill us. Nothing could have prepared me for an experience [47] like this. No amount of imagining what it was like, drawing on images from war films or documentary footage from the World Wars or Vietnam. For the sounds of battle had an intensity that transcended anything a movie theatre or television set could have offered. The noise was overwhelming and communication with someone whose face was inches from mine became impossible. I saw men yelling and screaming and knew they were doing this by the shape of their mouths, their gesticulations and the look in their eyes, but I did not hear a word. Everything was drowned in a cacophony of automatic rifles, machine guns, exploding incoming mortars, shearing metal and howling engines.
It was hard for me to envisage a more chaotic scene than the one that enveloped our vehicle. Caught unawares by well-armed adversaries, what little military discipline our unit had, disappeared. Jostling, pushing, climbing over one another, the men emptied their rifle magazines at no particular target. Commands were not given or could not be heard or were not obeyed.
The man alongside me had run out of ammunition and was desperately searching for a spare magazine. With the porthole window above my head now vacant, I looked out and could see the kraal around me, with a smaller gathering of huts no more than fifty metres away. It was from this area that the most intense rifle fire was coming, but I could see nothing of the attackers as they were afforded cover by a wall surrounding the dwellings.
I knew the greatest danger to us was posed by a Rocket Propelled Grenade and such was my conviction that one would be fired, that I braced myself for the impact. I tried to anticipate the tearing of metal as the missile penetrated the armour and calculated that [48] if it struck the back of the vehicle, I would be spared the shrapnel, for I was sitting in the scat behind the gunner. (I had no way of knowing whether this was correct or not.)
Trapped within our vulnerable fortress, the captain did something very courageous. Forsaking the protection of the armour in order to get an unimpeded view of the battlefield, he stood up on some seats, thereby exposing himself to incoming fire, and emptied his rifle into the inner kraal from where we were taking our heaviest fire. Our machine gun obstinately refused to fire, but our driver had managed to restart the engine. Communication was reestablished between driver and captain and an order given to flatten the inner kraal.
As we broke through the flimsy fence, I saw guerillas lying on the ground at forty-five degrees to one another, firing their AK47 assault rifles. We ran one over. Another equally disturbing sight greeted us as I caught a glimpse of a woman with a baby sitting alongside one of the guerillas. Ammunition must have been stored in the vicinity for a trail of explosions followed us. No sooner had we run through the dwellings than another large explosion rocked one of the huts, setting off a chain reaction that engulfed the entire kraal in flames.
Having destroyed the kraal, our Casspir swung through a ninety-degree turn and the men directed their fire at an area from where mortars were being fired, although no SWAPO fighters were seen. It was then that another grave mistake was made. A Casspir ranged up alongside us, obscuring our view of the battlefield. Sergeant Kleynhans was inside, wounded by some shrapnel and bleeding profusely from his leg. Medical help was requested, the doors of our Casspir were opened and to my amazement, I saw Kleynhans stagger out of his Casspir and collapse on the ground between [49] the two vehicles. Why he had not been evacuated to a place out of the line of fire was incomprehensible. I was instructed to go to his aid and my corporal Steve went with me.
Alighting from our Casspir we crawled over to the stricken man and I saw that he was bleeding from a severed artery in his foot. Some shrapnel had removed the back of his boot and some of his limb in the process. While I attempted to staunch the flow and get a pressure bandage in place, our position came under the most intense fire. We were no more than twenty metres from the burning kraal, the air was dense with smoke and bullets and mortars were again making life hazardous. Precipitously, the two Casspirs took off without the three of us and we were left unarmed and completely exposed to the enemy.
Steve and I were initially stunned at being abandoned. As I lay in the dust and sand of Owamboland, I found myself thinking that death was not supposed to come in this fashion. It was midday and the sun shone brilliantly. I had somehow always associated dying with all sorts of foul weather. It seemed incongruous to confront one's mortality on such a beautiful day. In retrospect, given my circumstances, this was an absurd thought but it came to me nevertheless.
By now Kleynhans had become deeply distressed by his wound. He was crying for help and trying to get to his feet, screaming for a helicopter to evacuate him. He was a large man and having lost control of his emotions, was acting recklessly. Steve and I had a struggle to keep him flat on the ground, for despite his blood loss his level of arousal was such that he remained extremely strong. His behaviour compromised our safety as his antics would surely draw the attention of our SWAPO adversaries. I have no doubt that what saved us in the [50] end was the proximity of the blazing kraal and the dense black smoke rising from it.
As Steve wrestled Kleynhans to the ground and held him there I injected him with a sedative, plunging the needle through his combat fatigues. Under the circumstances it was all I could accomplish. The task completed, the three of us lay flat on our stomachs, trying to avoid detection. I would gladly have burrowed into the earth to make myself less conspicuous, but the ground was dry and rock hard.
Kleynhans's shattered composure soon caused problems anew. Notwithstanding the sedation, he had again started crying and fought our restraining hands, all the while attempting to struggle to his feet. He yelled repeatedly for evacuation, his hands flailing wildly and gesticulating heavenwards, from where presumably he thought a chopper would materialise. By this stage I realised we could not remain in our position much longer. Our presence had been detected by SWAPO's mortar man, and the increasing noise of incoming fire told me he was quickly finding his range.
Thirty metres behind us were some large anthills, typical of those that dotted the Owambo landscape. As these afforded the only possible cover I decided we should make for them. Crawling on our bellies we attempted to drag Kleynhans with us. He was too heavy to move, but soon realised what my plan was. As we inched our way towards the anthills, our plight was noticed by some of our men who had been forced to retreat from the scene of the ambush. A Casspir was sent to our aid and was interposed between us and the enemy, thus giving an opportunity to rapidly extricate Kleynhans. A dozen or so buddies alighted from the vehicle to provide covering fire. This degree of protection enabled Steve and me to grab Kleynhans and start pulling [51] him along. He was infernally heavy and continued to resist while sobbing and screaming for the helicopter.
We had covered perhaps twenty or so metres when there was another big explosion, the force of which threw us to the ground. A mortar had fallen on the site we had recently evacuated, destroying a quantity of medical supplies I had been forced to leave behind. The buddies had been dispersed by the blast and I noticed one with some nasty burns. The anthills were tantalisingly close and the three of us finally made it there, although not before I had shredded the trousers of my combat fatigues on some barbed wire blocking our path. Ensconced behind an anthill I felt an enormous sense of relief, believing the barrier to be impenetrable.
Mortars were still searching us out and the blasts unsettled Kleynhans who persisted in his attempts to stand. By this time, some of our other wounded were making their way to our position and another Casspir was dispatched to screen us from the enemy. Feeling a little safer, I walked around freely for the first time since the ambush began and turned my attention to Kleynhans. He was in a pitiful state and I realized that nothing short of intravenous sedation would quieten him. When I came to put up an intravenous line however, I noticed that my hands were shaking and I had to use my left to steady my right. So much for my self-perceived equanimity.
My task was not made any easier by the paucity of a discernible vein and an excess of adipose tissue. No sooner was the needle in, than a blast from a nearby mortar made us all dive for cover and the needle came with me. I got another line up however, gave the sedation, and finally Kleynhans was quiet. He was loaded onto a Casspir and moved some distance away from the firing, as skirmishing continued around us. I located a bit of shade under a tree, left him there with some men for [52] protection and returned to the anthill, where a small medical station had been set up.
Reinforcements had by now arrived on the scene and looking up I saw an apocalyptic vision. A group of Koevoet Casspirs was charging towards the scene of battle, their gunners standing with torsos exposed above the armour, firing their twin machine guns. As this phalanx descended onto the battlefield, fire leapt from their weapons, darting tongues of yellow and orange. They passed a few metres from my position, and I saw the surprised look on the face of a gunner as he noticed the medical station behind the anthill. The Koevoet were quite fearless in attack, making straight for the enemy, and I was transfixed by the ferocity of their frontal assault. Within minutes of their arrival, the battle was over. The guerillas had apparently disappeared and it took our trackers some time to ascertain that they had dispersed in different directions. It was decided not to pursue them for our unit was too shaken to go looking for another fight.
By now, the captain had joined us and I overheard him contacting the airforce base at Ondangwa, asking for helicopter gunships to pursue the enemy and a helicopter to evacuate some of the wounded. The evacuation was readily agreed to, but the gunships were refused. It was Sunday and we were told the pilots were in church! Amongst the wounded were a number of burn victims, men with nasty lacerations and a buddy with a fractured skull. Miraculously no one on our side had been killed.
Within half an hour a helicopter appeared. A large machine, it approached only after assurances were given that the area had been secured. The helicopter settled for a few seconds, Kleynhans plus a buddy were hastily hoisted on board with their intravenous lines and it then [53] skimmed off rapidly, tilting at an angle as it negotiated the trees. I had been tempted to go with it, as there was no doctor on board, but the men remained fearful of another attack and the captain accordingly asked me to stay with them. The ambush had lasted for twenty-five minutes.
The scene after the battle was one of complete devastation. The inner kraal had been reduced to smouldering, charred ruins. I wandered off alone. Dismembered human remains lay scattered about; a leg in one place, twenty metres away the second leg with testicles attached, but the penis missing. One leg still had a shoe on. I noticed how neatly the laces had been tied, crossing over one another and forming a series of ascending, symmetrical Xs that ended in a well-tied bow. The shoe must have been new for the sole looked surprisingly clean and had retained the tread. It looked as though he hadn't been wearing socks, but I could not be completely sure on that point because as you moved up the leg things started to get a little messy. I stopped to take stock of my finds thus far. Two legs, not complete, with bits missing and one longer than the other, one with a shoe, the other missing the foot altogether. And the genitals, incomplete like you see on some Grecian sculpture. Did all these pieces belong to the same man? Where was his torso? And his head? I widened my search and came upon a large, scorched lump of flesh lying some distance from the shoe. Ragged, singed edges and some blistered skin. Impossible to gauge the anatomy. Buttock? Thigh? More scraps a couple of metres away, but smaller and darker, their texture different from the others. Someone else perhaps? Almost surely, for the muscle was less bulky, in places reduced to shreds. Such had been the heat generated by the explosions that there was no blood on any of the fragments, save the leg with [54] shoe attached. Here, the ground under the limb was stained dark.
I took it all in with an exquisite clarity. I combed the area obsessively searching for more fragments, dues to what had just occurred. But something was wrong. My feelings had become disconnected from my heightened visual perceptions. There was no repugnance and fear had long since departed. In its place was the most wonderful sense of joy, an elation at being alive, that life was indeed beautiful and that all these grisly human parts at my feet were nothing, meaningless, because the important thing was to be alive. It no longer mattered why I was in Namibia. It didn't seem to matter that people, both combatants and probably civilians too, had been killed. To have survived was all that mattered. Standing amidst ail that destruction, for a brief moment in time, it was quite simply a beautiful feeling.
I heard the click of an instamatic camera behind me. A policeman was taking photographs, which was forbidden. No one seemed to mind. More serious business needed attending to, like working out what had happened in the last half an hour. And doing the all important body count. That was how success was measured in the Namibian war. By the SWAPO body count. Which presented a problem, because in my preliminary wanderings, I had seen only bits and pieces, It was a hopeless task, a gruesome puzzle that could not be completed because high-tech dismemberment had rendered the whole infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. Did that include the mother and baby? No one seemed to know.
One of our Casspirs had been crippled by a missile. A small entry site, no bigger than four centimetres in diameter, could be seen from the exterior, but the interior of the vehicle spoke of the true devastation the missile [55] had caused. The metal was blackened and there was blood over the floor, seats, and abandoned equipment. A Koevoet Casspir had also been damaged. In their enthusiasm and excitement for battle they had rushed headlong into the blazing kraal and a number of men had sustained burns.
The local population had fled and the greater kraal was completely deserted, save for our presence. Small search parties were sent to reconnoiter the area and some of them were starting to return with news of our attackers. There had been eleven SWAPO guerrillas at four separate sites. The largest group of six men had hidden behind some dense shrub and part of the outer kraal's fencing and had fired rifles and grenades. There had been a single mortar man who had fired approximately twenty-five mortars. He had left behind his mortar tube when he made his escape. A further two attackers had fired rifles and missiles and together with the mortar man had created the greatest havoc. They left behind large quantities of weapons, including a number of RPGs that were primed to fire, but inexplicably had not been. Seeing these lethal weapons before us our excitement was momentarily quietened and at that moment I knew we all shared the same thought: how lucky we had been in escaping without sustaining fatalities on our side. Two men had also attacked us from the inner kraal. In the final analysis, it seemed that two or possibly three of the guerillas had been killed.
A number of uniforms and personal possessions were found together with the weapon caches. The uniforms had been made in Libya. In a pocket were letters from a girlfriend and her photograph. A young woman, probably seventeen or so years old, smiling out at us, half pretty, with an open, innocent look that you see in school photographs. Had her man been one to get away, or [56] were some of those pieces him? In a detached, clinical way, I thought of death and bereavement and how she would be when she got the news. Better not to know all the details. Especially the bits and pieces ending.
The euphoria would not leave me. It was like that for all the men, relief and exhilaration feeding off us. We chatted animatedly, comparing experiences. One man candidly confessed he had to relieve himself during the battle in order to avoid the embarrassment of becoming incontinent. The elder of the two warrant officers had been overwhelmed by fear. Instead of joining the fray he had plugged his ears with balls of wax, the kind used on firing ranges to block out the noise, and thereafter strapped himself into his seat. How he came to have the wax so readily available was something of a mystery, but I did not have the heart to ask him. He had sat immobile throughout the battle and had to be told when the fighting was over. Only then would he leave the confines of his Casspir.
As I wandered around the destroyed kraal, my senses alive to every sight and sound, I became aware of the drone of a small spotter plane circling above and searching for the enemy. None were sighted within the immediate vicinity and the pilot reported they had fled well away from the scene of battle. No attempt was made to find the local population and the dismembered human remains were not buried, but left lying in the dust of the kraal. I was told by the most senior buddy, who had attained the rank of warrant officer, that the local population would never return to their home now that death had visited them. The entire kraal would have to be rebuilt elsewhere for, according to local beliefs, the area was now possessed by evil spirits.
Looking around at the carnage, my euphoria at surviving gradually left me, to be replaced by despair. A [57] few hours back there had existed on this site a village, with a chief, his subjects and their few animals. Granted it was a barren, desolate area, but they had managed to build their village and support themselves the way most of the Owambo people did. In the space of twenty-five minutes it had all been wiped away. Almost surely, some had been killed and the survivors would have to begin once more. We had emerged with a few wounded and the enemy had been killed or had fled, but what kind of victory was this? Our propaganda told us that we in Namibia were to protect the local population from the dangers of terrorism and a godless society. With a village destroyed, the area smouldering and littered with pieces of human flesh, how was it possible to justify our presence there? The locals believed they had been visited by malign spirits and who was to say they were wrong?
The ride back to camp was a difficult one. The disabled Casspir had to be towed, we laboured dreadfully and our vehicle was not up to the task. The engine overheated every four kilometres or so which meant we had to stop and allow it to cool off. Waiting in the fading light of day, watching the hissing, steaming engine, gave us time to reflect on the ambush and its implications. The men had become jittery and were impatient for the relative safety of base. For them too the excitement of battle and the exhilaration at having survived was wearing off.
We were gradually becoming aware of new, more pertinent thoughts which not only acknowledged how lucky we had been, but also questioned the ease with which we had been ambushed, the deficiencies in our trackers who had led us so astray, the absence of a battle plan to deal with such a contingency, the difficulties in obtaining air cover when it had been badly needed and most disturbingly, how to avoid getting caught in a similar situation. It had also been sobering to see how well armed [58] the insurgents were and to witness their courage in attacking three armoured cars at midday. The ambush revealed the extent to which they controlled the local population, no doubt through a combination of fear and genuine loyalty, and demonstrated their ability to disengage from combat and disappear into a terrain that at first sight did not afford much camouflage.
None of our troops had been killed in the ambush and it was SWAPO who had sustained the losses, but observing the fear starting to set in all around me, I realised that the psychological victory, paradoxically, was theirs. The tables had been turned and we had become the hunted. Caught unawares, we had panicked, our inefficiencies as a fighting force glaringly exposed and our disarray under pressure there for all to see. The enemy may have been left licking their wounds and grieving for fallen comrades, but if they did not know it before the contact, they surely knew it now, that we were vulnerable and error-prone. This must have given them heart.
From my perspective, the situation had fundamentally altered. With my heightened perceptions, the sights, sounds and smells that only yesterday filled me with nostalgia for the Africa of my childhood holidays were now altogether different. Every noise took on a new meaning, each large anthill became the site of another potential ambush, open plains were ominous because we felt exposed, yet dense bush was equally forbidding because we never knew what lay ten metres in front of us. Villages set the heart racing as they triggered memories of battle and the local population were no longer viewed as innocuous for behind the disarming, friendly smile may have been the hand that fired the missile.
The ambush had destroyed our trust and dispelled our naivete. We had become suspicious of everyone and [59] everything. I knew that we were lost, completely, hopelessly lost. We were physically lost in our environment, reliant and childishly dependent on our trackers to take us north or south, to water, back to base. We were morally lost in a conflict of our own making, victims of our propaganda that had for decades been telling us how righteous we were to stand and fight the godless enemy called communism and how grateful the Western nations were to us for providing this bulwark against totalitarianism. Each day we acted out a lie in a futile, destructive mission.
I had risked all during the ambush for a cause I had known to be iniquitous ever since I was old enough to become politically sensitive. In sections of the South African electorate this was a developmental milestone either delayed or never attained. I had put my life on the line for a sergeant who was in every way a thoroughly unpleasant man. A racist, bully, coward, overfed and smugly complacent in a culture that afforded him respect and treated him well. Together with my corporal, in a foolhardy act of bravado, we had braved mortars, missiles, grenades and bullets to save a man who embodied all that was wrong with the system. Why had we not let him stagger around in his cowardice, gesticulating heavenwards and crying for a helicopter to evacuate him to safety?
The answer did not lie in Owamboland. It began a long way back in a chain of events that sucked young white men ever deeper into the mess that was South African society. Each link in the chain brought danger a little closer until inevitably an individual, in this instance sadly myself, but there were others like me, found himself confronting an 'enemy' doing their best to kill him and towards whom he bore no special malice.
The chain could have been broken at many points. Many of my colleagues had emigrated rather than face conscription. Those who remained behind were invariably claimed by the army at some point in their careers, either before entering university or after completing a degree, the latter course usually ensuring the rank of lieutenant for the duration of service. Once conscripted, there were a number of ploys commonly adopted to ensure personal safety; play sick, malinger, get doctors' letters, have yourself classified unfit for border duty and find a cushy job dose to home. If you failed in this attempt, there was still the comforting notion that the border was not really such a bad place, particularly for a doctor. Get a posting in a large camp and safety was virtually guaranteed.
There was however always a risk, albeit small, but enough to generate a little unease in most of my acquaintances doing the tour of duty, that he would be the one to slip through the protective net and find himself in a `real' war. This fate had now befallen me. I had become a statistical outlier, a doctor whose experiences set him apart from colleagues. I was profoundly shaken because I realised that survival in this unit was by no means certain and I still had a month to go before my return to Oshakati.
I was sitting in my room, writing down these thoughts, when the captain called me into the dining area where all the men had gathered. My corporal and I were asked to sit to one side and the captain made a short speech, thanking us in a moving and heartfelt way for our conduct during the ambush and in particular, for the way we had responded to the sergeant's plight. The men echoed his sentiments and it transpired the Captain was putting in an official commendation for our bravery. [61]

@ A Forgotten War
@ No more heroes
@ What happened to the boys on the border?

@ Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 7
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 14
@ Chapter 15
@ Chapter 16
Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 20
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia



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