GOING TO THE BORDER
In 1987 I was a clinical psychologist, in my second year of post qualification practise. I was a member of the permanent force (South African Medical Service - SAMS) and working as the psychologist on the psychiatric consultation team; assessing referrals to the non-psychiatric wards of 1 Military Hospital, (Pretoria) where the admitting doctors believed that there was evidence of psychological or psychiatric problems that needed to be investigated. I was a captain, which, while relatively important in a pure military hierarchy, was the starting point for medical professionals in the permanent force. I had celebrated my 26th birthday in May.
On Tuesday 2nd June 1987, I received a phone call from the secretary of the Department of Psychology telling me to be at a meeting at 07H45 the next morning. The message said that it was to decide which of us were going to the border. I was told to give the same message to my colleague Captain Naas Rademeyer.
I became quite excited at the prospect. I thought it would be an interesting experience, possibly from a journalistic point of view one day. Naas was quite depressed at the idea, and talked about resigning if he was allocated to go. I don't think he was serious about going to those lengths.
The next morning Naas and I reported where we had been told to, at what turned out to be an ordinary psychology department order group. Some of the women asked us what we were there for. They were not yet 'in the know'. After the routine order group was over and we had had coffee, Major Coetzee Badenhorst herded all the male members of the department into the group room, and spelled out the fact that it had been decided that the permanent force members of our department would have to start to do border duty for three month periods. He said that he had protested about this - the staff shortage and the inconvenience - but all to no avail! He said that he had volunteered to go himself, but he had been told that he, as head of department, could not be spared. He told us that the SAMDC ('South African Medical and Dental Council', incorporating the Professional Board for Psychology', the controlling body for psychologists in South Africa) was considering opening a category of 'Military Psychologist', along with 'Neuro-Psychologist'. A tour of border duty would be a fundamental criterion for this registration. Also, once we had done a border duty, we would not be called upon to go again.
Captain Trevor Reynolds was not keen on the idea at all. "What happened to national service psychologists?" he asked. He was told that there were decreasing numbers of male psychologists registering each year, and so less would be available for national service. We talked about this threat to masculine domination of our profession. It was also discussed that the women should also be expected to do a border stint if they wished to be considered equals. It was somewhat ironic that those present in the room were permanent force members, who had chosen to join the military, and yet there was a reluctance to actually do psychological work in an operational environment.
Coetzee then started to try to pin down volunteers for specific time blocks, telling us that the first time block - 1st July to 30th September would be the quietest, and with the best weather. If one wanted `Action!', then one should go in the rainy season; October to March. I told him that I was prepared to go for the first block, before I became really involved in my Doctorate or other plans for the future. I asked first if the dates 1st July to 30th September were realistic. I was told 'Yes, to within a day or two'.
After my volunteering, there was a lull in enthusiasm. Gradually a rota was drawn up. We were then vowed to secrecy, which was a bit late, as I had told everyone the previous day what was in the air.
At that stage we had some idea of what a border duty would involve. There had been an unexpected Rev(`Rev' was slang for a `stand off bombardment', where terrorists would make a rocket or mortar attack on a base.) of Oshakati in mid 1986 - previously they had been a fairly predictable annual events. The unexpected nature of that attack, combined with some dramatic damage to property, and the resulting plummeting of morale of the military community there had led to a fact finding mission being sent up there, which had comprised Commandant Marius Mathey (`Commandant' is a rank now called a `Lieutenant-Colonel'. Officer ranks, in ascending superiority are 2nd Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Commandant, Colonel, Brigadier and then assorted generals. Commandant was the standard basic rank for medical consultants. Commandants Potgieter and Mathey were psychiatrists, head and deputy heads of the Department of Psychiatry, 1 Military Hospital, respectively.), Captain Pieter Griesel and one or two more psychologists. On their return, they had given us a lecture on the situation there, and had shown us photos of captured Surface to Surface Missiles called `Grad-P's, which were about two metres long, (A weapon that SWAPO uses with great effectiveness against populated areas and large installations such as airfields is the 122mm rocket. It was used by the ANC to attack Waterkloof Air Force Base. Also known as the Soviet DKZ-8 anti-building, anti- personnel free-flight missile, the 122mm rocket consists of the following 3 components: a 2.5m. launch tube that weighs approx. 18Kg., a folding tripod mount; and the rocket itself, which is about 1.8m in length, and carries a 45Kg HE warhead. This is a fin stabilised missile with a range of approx. 10,000m. A panoramic sight and fitted quadrant gives this some degree of accuracy. The tripod mount is not indispensable and in most cases an improvised mount is used. Similar use is made of Chinese 107mm H-12 rockets and Russian 140mm rockets. The 18.5Kg 107mm has a range of 8,300m, while the 140mm weighs approx. 28Kg with a maximum range of 10,000m. Both of these rockets are designed to be fired from multiple-tube launchers, but with modification can be fired individually. [Information provided by Cobus Venter) We had seen photos of houses which had been wrecked by direct hits or near misses. In one of the photos, half a house had been razed. This was serious. People could get killed!
The attacks were infrequent, and I don't think white people had been killed so far, but if you happened to be where one of those - or a mortar bomb, for that matter - landed, there wouldn't be much available for a military funeral. At the time, the irony was noted that in these attacks, several black Owambo civilians had been killed. SWAPO had missed their intended enemy and killed some of the people they were supposedly attempting to liberate.
I was aware that people on the border often had great problems with boredom. There they were denied almost all of the recreational facilities available in even the smallest towns in South Africa. I would find it interesting to see what I would do to keep myself busy.
Back at my regular place of work, in the Psychiatric Consultant Team chaired by Wimpie,(Although I am generally happy to name names, I do feel very protective towards `Wimpie' whom I was very fond of. I learned a great deal from him, and he was very kind to me, often beyond the call of duty. The events described in this text do not present him in the best light, so I would prefer to disguise his identity somewhat.) a very obsessive psychiatrist, Wimpie wanted to know what had happened at the meeting. It had been `psychologists only'. I wasn't able to tell him, but I did give him a subtle hint. It wouldn't specifically affect his 'diensgroep' (service team) as I was due to be rotated back to the old hospital at the half year anyway.
Wimpie had done a border duty as a doctor. He dominated the afternoon's panel with a `Grensvegter' attempt at a `father and son'- chat with me. He was only five years older than me, so it wasn't very convincing. He was concerned that I would be unprepared for what I might have to face. "If there was an attack," he contemplated, "You wouldn't know what to do." He was wrong! The first time I heard anything even remotely resembling an unscheduled explosion, I was going to dive into the deepest (pre-located) hole I could find, pull reinforced concrete and steel girders over me, and remain there for five days after the last sound of combat!
He, on behalf of himself and Captain Andries Van Wyk (The ordinary doctor on the team, who had also done a border duty), offered to help to prepare me. He invited me to ask questions. "Can I take my camera?" I asked innocently. I had to ask him something!
"Forget it!" he told me. He went on to say how different the war was up there - surprise surprise! - and how the border experience changes people. "You come back and there are some things you just can't bring yourself to talk about - and the rest you are not allowed to talk about." And yet he would go back - given the opportunity! Why doesn't he?
When he was there, he says, he volunteered to be duty officer a couple of nights a week, and to run the base. He said that all the mail was censored, and that all that one was able to say was about the weather, and that you were missing your family. He gave a romanticised example which sounded like a circular and would be all of six lines long.
"But whatever you do, refuse to walk patrols," Wimpie instructed.
"Do you think they will want me to walk patrols?" I asked with something approaching eagerness.
"I can't tell you," Wimpie said in a way insinuating that he had special knowledge that they would. He was in love with the romance of the concept.
On Friday at the psychology department business meeting, the acting departmental head, Major Elfrieda Palm suddenly announced to the assembled psychologists; "And Barry's going to the border on the 16th. - but you know all about that!" she said to me with a knowing leer. I was surprised.
"I thought I was going on the 1st.," I told her. "But that suits me fine. It gives me an extra two weeks to prepare."
Now she looked puzzled. "The 16th of June," she explained. I felt stunned. I queried the dates. She was sure it was the 16th. Disaster! From the 19th to the 21st. of June, I was due to go on a Cub Camp to the Natal south coast. I had confirmed that I would be going only the day before. It had been planned since the middle of December the previous year. Notice my priorities!
I sat dazed through the academic lecture, after which I rushed over to the secretary of the department of psychology for confirmation of the dates of my border duty. She referred me to Coetzee, who I was sacred of. He was busy, but he came to the door to see what I wanted. He listened, his blue eyes sparkling in his stern face while I nervously asked if it would be possible to delay my departure for just one week, and then he smiled and said 'No!' He said that if there were problems then he would have to approach his boss, Commandant Andries Kleu, on Monday, but Captain Charl de Wet(In Afrikaans the `w' is often pronounced as `v'. The correct pronunciation of Charl's surname is `Da Vet') (whom I had met previously and had disliked!) the permanent psychologist at Oshakati had asked when the next psychologist was due to arrive, and he had been told the 16th. So what they had told Charl de Wet was the deciding factor!?
They were giving me only eleven days notice that I would be going to a different country for three months - a quarter of a year! (National servicemen were often treated very shabbily, and in some cases were only given two days notice of such a posting. I was lucky, and I DID know it!). In South West Africa the banks were different, so it was more complicated than just moving to another town in South Africa. Ironically, it looked as though I would be going up to the border on June 16th. - 'Soweto Day'; the anniversary of the start of the 1976 riots, which was usually marked by violence. All leave had been cancelled over that period the previous year, as `unrest' had been anticipated. I might be safer up on the border than down in South Africa.
Monday 8th June found me suppressing a cold with a variety of different medicines, and wide awake on 'Reactivan' after what I think was a sleepless night. I made notes of what I wanted to have as a will. (Wimpie had said that he had a personal contact with an advocate who was a major in the army, and he would get her to help me compile a will.) I wrote down who I would leave what to, and copyrights and copies of my unpublished novels occupied the biggest single part of the will. It was quite a strange feeling making a will - dividing up all my possessions amongst the people I care about. My will divided my money into twenty shares for various friends - twenty nice little surprises for people. Everything divided up and allocated so neatly and tidily! It will seem a waste not to carry it out!
I contacted psychologist colleagues Trevor Reynolds and Lieutenant John Levendis (the national serviceman psychologist who had been in Oshakati when it was revved twice the previous year.) They told me that Coetzee was not there that day, and that I should work through Andries Kleu, who is 'more amenable if you put pressure on'. They also suggested that I should ask for official permission to take my camera to the border with me. Major `Ollie' Olwagen had taken his camera up with him the pervious year.
I phoned Andries Kleu. I was not as scared of him as I was of Coetzee. He was reasonable as he realised the short notice I had been given. He said that I could negotiate my date of arrival with Charl de Wet myself. He told me to tell the 'Dienskamer' ('duty room') to arrange my flight up to the border. What an opportunity for me to arrange things to suit myself!
There was a lady called Mrs. Barlow who I always dealt with at the Dienskamer at 1 Military Hospital. We had always been very friendly to each other. I told her about my having to go to the border, and light-heartedly said to her that the Monday flight would suit me much better than the Thursday one. She investigated and told me that there was no possibility of me getting on the Thursday flight, and she could only make a definite booking on the Monday flight. To this day, I don't know how hard she tried to arrange to get me on to the flight that I didn't want to be on. Maybe it was true, but I like to think that she turned a blind eye on my behalf!
I booked a phone call to Oshakati which takes hours to come through. It didn't come through that day. I phoned Commandant Marius Mathey to ask about taking my camera, and he advised me to ask for permission from SAMS HQ in Pretoria. If 'Yes', then take it. If 'No', then I should take it anyway, and when up there I should ask for permission to use it. I phoned SAMS intelligence who told me to write a letter, which I did that night.
Dr. Andries van Wyk, my colleague on the psychiatric consultation team, advised me not to believe what Wimpie says, that he's just 'playing the GV'. He (Andries) would tell me what I needed to know.
The next day, I was still waiting for the switchboard to get me a line through to Oshakati, when Commandant Du Toit from Northern Transvaal Medical Command phoned to invite me to speak at an induction course their command was holding for social workers on the 18th. - two days after 'They' want me to have gone. She said that the Brigadier had liked the lecture I had given at the Symposium on Homosexuality (see '1 Mil' ), and he wanted me to be involved in the orientation course. I told her that I would love to, but I would be on the border at the time. It was a pretty water-tight excuse!
I got through to Oshakati and spoke to Charl de Wet, who told me that Captain Martin Broodryk, the psychologist I was to relieve, was not available as he was away somewhere. Martin would not be able to delay his return to South Africa; I would just have to go up earlier so that there would be an overlap. Why was an overlap necessary? Why couldn't he just leave the files up to date on the patients that he wanted me to follow up? Charl suggested that I establish a definite date on which I would be replaced, as the Directorate of Psychology tended to forget that people needed to be relieved. That explained the short notice about the border duty. A person had been there for three months, and they had forgotten that he would have to be replaced? And they get paid to do their job?
On clearing into the SAMS HQ unit, I was to be issued with weapons, probably a rifle and a pistol. I had been advised to try to avoid being issued with a rifle. I might just get away with being given a pistol. I went into the arsenal and tried this on, pointing out that I was a psychologist, and they could see that I was a Captain, and the soldier issuing weapons was almost convinced to let me off with only a pistol. Then he asked how long I was going for. When I told him 'Three months', he told me that the regulations stated that I had to take a rifle as well.
They gave me a 9mm Star pistol and a 5.56 mm R5 light assault rifle. I had never used either weapon before. At that stage, all medics had done basic training with a 7.62mm R1 (FN) rifle - "This is your best friend. This will save your life one day!" Then when you go to the operational area they give you a weapon that you've never seen before.
I was given a form to sign stating that I was proficient in the use of the weapons I'd been given. "I'm not," I pointed out to the soldier who had just given me the rifle and the form.
"Just write in 'not'," he suggested, which I did, and everyone was happy. (I wouldn't have believed this if it hadn't actually seen and heard it myself!) He didn't give me any ammunition. If the plane were to get shot down and any of us were left alive to defend the wreckage, we would have to try to entice the enemy to come close enough for us to be able to club them with the rifles.
I had been issued previously with an identification card which identifies me as being a 'Psychologist Officer' and invokes the Geneva Convention for my protection "For the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in the armed forces in the field of August 12, 1949." Did the fact that I was carrying two impressive weapons make my card invalid? The announcement is make in both English and Afrikaans. Picture the scene; me being one of the survivors of a base that has been overrun, faced by a SWAPO guerrilla intent on bayoneting me, haggling with him about whether he is permitted to do so or not. "See, Comrade, it says here on the card ..."
I got a message saying that Captain Broodryk had returned my call, but they had been unable to find me. I tried to contact him again, and asked the switchboard to put the call through to Wimpie's office in case it should get through during our panel that afternoon.
Wimpie was still trying to be the big 'Grensvegter', and probably convincing himself - no one else! I asked his permission, out of courtesy, to receive the call in his office. This prompted a long-winded lecture from him about how one must realise that SWAPO are monitoring all our telephone calls (as are our own intelligence people to get us into trouble, and to cut off our calls as soon as we start to say anything that might be useful to the enemy .) (Were SWAPO then more sophisticated than the image of a bunch of undisciplined rabble, who occasionally managed to get their act together enough to plant a land mine, or even more seldom to fire a couple of mortar bombs in the general direction of a South African military base, before running away to fight another day? That was the image that I certainly had of them, and the idea that they didn't wear any uniform. How accurate was this impression?) Were SWAPO members listening in to our calls?
Wimpie told me not to refer to any ranks; 'Call everyone "Person" - not even "Doctor"'. He told me not to give the date of the flight because the enemy will know it is coming, and shoot it down . (There are regular flights going up at set times every day, but maybe Wimpie doesn't realise this!) I asked Wimpie if he wouldn't rather receive the call himself, because all that I want to tell Broodryk is that he should come down before I go up.
'No,' says Wimpie. He would just listen - and drive himself frantic! The call came through and the dialogue went very similar to this:
Me: This is person Fowler. I want to speak to person Broodryk.
Me: This is person Fowler. I want to speak to person Broodryk.
Operator: Where is he?
Me: Try the sickbay.
Operator: Is he a Lieutenant?
Me: No, a bit higher.
Operator: Is he a Captain?
Me: Are you supposed to say ranks and things over the phone?
Operator: (confused) Why not?
Then the operator put me through somewhere, and then there was nothing but static on the line. After about five minutes I hung up. "They must have cut you off when the operator mentioned ranks," Wimpie said, probably convincing himself.
Commandant Kleu said that it was important for me to have an interview with him before I left for the border. We made a definite appointment, for which I duly arrived. Maybe he had forgotten, or maybe whatever else he was doing had to be done then. Anyway, he asked me to wait for a while. I settled down in a chair and began to read a book that I had brought along with me. Kleu seemed to be surprised by this. He stood staring at me for a few moments. Then he asked me if I had read his thesis. (Is that something that one is supposed to do? To read your colleague's theses? They are usually terribly boring!)
"I've read bits of it," I lied to him.
He hauled a copy of his thesis out of his bookcase and suggested that I glance through it. It dealt with the treatment (or was it diagnosis?) of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, once known as 'shell shock') in a military context. As I remember, it was based on four case studies.
Probably an hour after we had been scheduled to meet, during which I had seen him apparently wandering around aimlessly holding plans of a building - he's a psychologist, remember! - he arrived for my farewell lecture. The lecture was spontaneous - he asked me to ask him questions! I had been asking people questions non-stop since I was told that I would be going to the border. He couldn't really tell me anything new - not having been to the border himself for the last couple of years. So I ended up asking him questions to which I knew the answers, to give him the opportunity to tell me things.
While I was in the SAMS HQ building where Commandant Kleu was based, I dropped in to the SAMS intelligence section, to whom I had addressed my as yet unanswered request for permission to take my camera to the border. I had a spare copy of the letter with me in case my letter had been lost - I'd been in the military for about eighteen months at this stage, so I knew what to expect.
I eventually tracked down a young PF SAMS intelligence Lieutenant who seemed to be responsible for dealing with such matters. What I remember most of him was his hands - the ends of his fingers were slightly deformed, so that they ended in circles, like the fingers of a gecko. He had processed my request. His reply was 'in the post' and it would tell me that my application had been refused, because there had just been an 'incident' (unspecified). He told me that I would be able to purchase slides of wildlife when I was `up there' - thank you very much! True, I had stated `wildlife photography' as the reason I wanted to take my camera, even though I have very little interest in animals. I wasn't sure what I wanted to take photos of - new friends possibly, and army things that didn't contravene the all embracing 'security measures.' (When I was actually on the border I had no difficulty in getting permission, and I fetched my camera on my first casevac escort trip down to 1 Military Hospital.)
I did attend the Cub Camp, which I enjoyed very much. I was old friends with the Leaders, and knew the older boys. One of my closest friends who had run a Scout Troop with me for about two years, Chris Rippon, also came along. One of the most delightful Cubs, John Gordon, knowing that I was going up to the border asked me if I told stories to the soldiers. Teasing him, I said that I always told fairy stories to the troops during bombardments, to raise their morale. Chris was amused at this, and did a dramatization of bayoneting an enemy soldier, uttering; "This one's for Snow White!"(I quote this story of my last weekend before going up to the border, amused at the contrast between this and the equivalent scenes from Michael Cimino's `The Deerhunter'. (1978)) When finishing off my film to hand it in for processing, I found that I had not had a film in my camera all camp, so the photos that I had looked forward to seeing never would materialise. This was a big disappointment.
I left my car and my computer with my parents in Pietermaritzburg. I also spent some time with my friend Debbie and told her that if anything happened to me, she would inherit my car. This prompted her to immediately grab my throat and start strangling motions! That was how I spend my last weekend in South Africa, before going up to the border, and to who knows what?
I caught a bus back to Pretoria on Sunday evening. I packed what I thought I would need on the border, and set my alarm clock for 5.30 a.m. to be up and completely ready when the duty driver arrived to collect me and take me to Waterkloof Air Force Base, from where my flight would leave.
THE JOURNEY TO OSHAKATI (22/06/1987)
My closest friend in Pretoria, Captain Fred Short, invited me around for a last cup of tea before I left. For some strange reason he seemed to habitually rise at about 5 a.m., at which time he would smoke his pipe and read classic English novels. He had a particular fondness for Charles Dickens. Fred and I were central members of a very close clique who referred to itself as the PPC ('Post Prandial Club') at the SAMS Officers' Club, where we lived. The other members, all national servicemen, had finished their national service and 'Klaared out' only days before my departure. Fred and I were the only ones remaining - both having joined the permanent force. (Also see '1 Mil' [In press])
The duty driver collected me and a Medics Lieutenant, a Health Inspector, who was returning to the border after his two weeks leave. We arrived at Waterkloof well before 7 a.m. when we were supposed to report, to be placed on the 9 am flight.
The flight that I arrived for was full (So much for booking!), but we were assured that there would be another flight at 11H00. We had been told not to be accompanied by any family or friends to see us off, but when we got there, we couldn't move for all the mothers and fathers and pre-school children running around.
Air Force pilots walked around wearing blue flight jackets onto which their pilots wings are sewn. Some also wore various cloth badges, with designs like 'Snoopy' stating 'Pilots Course '81', and various air-shows in which they had flown. I thought this was rather like the campfire blankets of Cub Scouts?
I waited, content to be bored, rather than rummage through my 'balsak' (Duffel bag) to try and find something to read. I had the amusing dilemma of not being sure whether I should hold my rifle with the barrel pointing to the ceiling or at the floor - not that it would make any difference seeing as how I had no ammunition, but there might be some rules or regulations about such things. I looked around to see what other people were doing, but there wasn't another rifle in sight. I must have appeared the most armed person there. I paid no attention to my weapons, creating the impression that I was completely oblivious to them - an old hand! - but inside me somewhere there was a little kid with two new toys to play with.
I found another medics Captain, or rather he found me; a middle aged roly-poly jovial chap who also seemed to be going to the border. We started talking, and he told me that he was something like an architect. He was also on his way up to Oshakati, as there were some details he had to finalise about a new military base hospital that was soon to be built there. It was pleasant to have someone to chat to, but I was dismayed at the prospect that the SADF was planning to build new buildings on the border, when I had heard rumours the previous year that Namibian Independence was on the cards.
Around about 11, we who were waiting for the flight to Ondangwa (where we would actually land) were told to move from the general waiting room to the transit room. At this stage, all our luggage had to go through X- ray machines. Picture the scene: Fowler with an R5 automatic rifle over his shoulder, a 9 mm pistol on his belt. And they check for concealed weapons?
After a further wait, we were summoned and walked out onto the runway to a SAFAIR (Civilian section of the Air Force) C-130 Hercules aircraft, and filed aboard. The interior was what I had expected from the Vietnam and Entebbe movies. There was a net partition running down the centre of the aircraft, on each side of which two rows of netting seats faced each other. The interior was dark except for light shining in through the small port holes. We filled up places in the order that we had boarded the aircraft, and strapped ourselves in. Our luggage was strapped into a big pile at the back.
There was a further wait, and then the engines were started up and tested. Finally, the aircraft lurched into motion and lumbered along to the runway from which it would take off. Everything quivered. We halted at the start of the runway. The engines were revved up to their fastest, and the aircraft lurched forward, and trundled along gathering speed. I had a small view of grass and distant buildings whizzing past in the distance. Then the aircraft lifted up and we were airborne. Next stop; the border!
I was very excited by now, but determined not to appear to be so. There were also thoughts; "Would I be killed?" "Would the aircraft be shot down?" Such thoughts heightened the excitement rather than dampening it.
There weren't many people on the aircraft. Once we were at cruising altitude, several people moved around to open areas, and stretched out on the hammock-like seats to go to sleep. Others slouched back and read novels. Some listened to 'walkman's. Would they be able to hear much above the noise of the engines?
Several people wore civilian clothes, and there were some families. Someone near me was holding what could only have been a hamster cage, but there were smaller boxes inside so one could not see if the hamster was actually present. A Colonel was holding a golf club - was he gradually taking up a full set? Would the 6 iron be the next to go up?
I could now see other armed people. In the aircraft, everyone is supposed to sit with rifles pointed upwards, not at other passengers, but very soon most people seem to have relaxed this, and most rifles either ended up pointing at the head of the person holding it, or at the head of the person sitting next to him.
This was very disappointing after the idea I had had from all the war movies I had seen where you had rows of soldiers, sitting upright, shoulder to shoulder, rifles clasped firmly in front on them. Nearby, someone started to snore. There was an infantry captain, presumably a camper, as he seemed to be in his forties, who had with him a rifle the like of which I had not seen before; not an R1 which I had used, or the now familiar R4 and R5. [I found out later that it was 7.62mm G3].
There was no upholstery in the aircraft, and one could read stencilled signs saying 'Weight for this section; do not exceed 30 000'. Every now and again a flight engineer wandered down and shone a torch into various holes in the fuselage, around places marked 'Manual override of wing flaps' and 'Manual override of undercarriage'.
We were on a direct flight from Waterkloof, and after about four hours we were descending towards Ondangwa. Nearby me sat the Health Inspector with whom I had travelled to Waterkloof that morning. He told me we would soon be spiralling down in a steep descent, to make the aircraft a more difficult target for missiles to hit. There was a strange feeling of weightlessness during the rapid descent. He suggested that I stand as we did this, which I did, but it was quite unpleasant. Something astronauts practice!
Then the aircraft straightened out, and through a nearby porthole, I could see the ground, and a landscape which was to become very familiar to me over the next couple of months. Everything was a dusty light brown. There were trees scattered around but they looked more dead than alive. There were little clusters of huts dotted around. Then there were buildings - and then the aircraft bounced down on the runway, and the engines were revved up again, presumably in some way slowing the aircraft down.
We slowed down and then taxied over to the corrugated iron shed which was the main building of the airport. As we approached the building we passed a row of jet fighter aircraft, each separated from the next by walls of earth - presumably if one caught fire or exploded, the earth walls were to stop the other fighters from being damaged. There were camouflage nets over the fighter's bays.
A co-pilot appeared at the front of the hold, and with a megaphone, told us to remove our headgear. (Normally one was not allowed to be anywhere out of doors without wearing one's beret!) The Health Inspector sitting next to me turned to me and said; "Welcome to Ondangwa!". "No-one else will say it," he told me.
Then the co-pilot with the megaphone contradicted him by saying; "Welcome to Ondangwa!"
The door at the front of the hold was open, and we started to file out into the glaring bright sunlight. The sight that greeted me was exactly what I had expected. Everything looked dry and flat, and the buildings were makeshift. A couple of Allouette helicopter gun-ships sat on the runway at a discrete distance.
The chaser helicopter came in to land, but I was unaware of it. Each time before an aircraft landed, one of the chaser helicopters would be airborne, flying around the perimeter of the Ondangwa Air Force Base, ready to quell any perceived attack on an incoming or departing aircraft. I was not aware that any such attack had ever been made on an aircraft. Maybe this is why?
I collected my luggage, and teamed up with the Medics Captain/Architect who was heading for Oshakati. I said goodbye to the Health Inspector who was waiting at Ondangwa for a flight to take him through to Eenhana, a battalion base to the East of Oshakati.
There was no one at the airport to meet us, so we wandered over to the Ondangwa Military Base Hospital, which stood nearby under a double layer of mortar nets. This MBH specialised in surgery for traumatic wounds, usually combat related, whereas the sickbay at Oshakati dealt more with the more routine aches and pains of internal medicine. The MBH was strategically located, so that the injured could easily be transported to the surgery from helicopters, and where necessary, they could be put on aircraft to be flown to 1 Military Hospital for a more specialised level of care.
Ondangwa was mainly an Air Force Base, with an airport that could accommodate relatively large aircraft. There was a small village of garrison families, but there were few amenities, and the children had to be bussed through to school in Oshakati.
At the MBH we met a medics Sergeant who seemed to be on duty. He might have been expecting us, but again no special arrangements had been made. Just outside the medics ops. room, the Sergeant's five year old daughter was wandering around licking an ice cream - shades of Vietnam. Sitting in the medical ops. room, I noticed that on the wall map, the SWA/Angolan border was at about waist height, with southern Angola stretching up to the ceiling.
I had been on the ground for less than half an hour when the first casualty was brought in. It was an old Owambo (Local tribe) man who had been sitting on the back of a bakkie (pickup) which had detonated a land-mine. He was the sole survivor, and was blown thirty meters through the air and landed in a tree.
A Rinkhals Mine Resistant Ambulance was assigned to take him through to the local civilian hospital in Oshakati, and it would also take one of the professional black soldiers who had a broken leg there as well. He was not keen on this idea. Apparently there are many SWAPO sympathisers amongst the hospital staff, who accuse the security force members of 'murdering their brothers'.
A driver was found, and the Architect and I loaded our kit into the back of the Rinkhals. The architect had been to Oshakati before, so he suggested I ride up in front with the driver, so that I would get the best view of this country in which I would be spending the next three months.
I was aware of the thick steel body of the vehicle, and how high we were off the ground. The road from Ondangwa Air Force Base to Oshakati and then on the Ruacana on the Namibia/Angola border, was tarred - very thick tar, I was told later, to make it difficult to mine. Parts of the main road between Oshakati and Ondangwa were marked with aircraft symbols pained white on the tarred road. I presume this was a section of the road that could be used as a landing strip in an emergency?
Along the road-sides, settlements were dotted around; shanties that one would expect in a third world country. Most of the houses and cars looked dilapidated, and there was litter everywhere. Cattle and sheep wandered around freely, and drifted on to the roads.
Besides the road were 'shonas'; open pools from which animals drank, and the local inhabitants drank and washed, and in which mosquitoes multiplied and went forth. The landscape was very flat, with sparse palm trees dotted around, but because one could see so far along the flat land, there always seemed to be a forest on the horizon. The ground was sandy and stoneless. The sky was invariably clear and blue. Because of the flat horizon, there was a great deal of glare, and people wore sunglasses to prevent them from getting headaches.
The Owambo people all seemed to be tall and sleek. Few of them paid any notice to our vehicle. I looked down at them from the cabin of the Rinkhals, with my rifle propped up between my knees. What role were we playing? German forces occupying France in 1940?
We could see the radio aerial tower in the distance long before we reached the town of Oshakati. Oshakati was the administrative capital of Owamboland, the homeland of the Owambo people; and as such it was the biggest town in the region. The SADF HQ for the sector was also situated at Oshakati.
Approaching the Oshakati military compound, we first passed through the Owambo areas of the town, before making our way to the military controlled white compound. Shops and homes were dotted around in a loose association, and there were no marked boundaries between properties, nor any evidence of roads other than the one on which we traveled.
The information that I was later given about the Owambo people states that to them, owning a shop is a status symbol.(During my border duty in 1987, I, like most of my compatriots had a minimal interest in the local indigenous people. We referred to them as `PB's - pronounced in English, but the abbreviation for 'Plaaslike bevolking', Afrikaans for 'local population'. If we thought of them at all, I think it would have been to regard them with suspicion, as probably being sympathetic to the enemy, against whom we were defending them. They were, at best, neutral to us as an occupying force, except for some people who might be considered collaborators. We would be searched if we entered any of the supermarkets - even some of the western-style or owned ones. The Owambos seemed to take a great deal of pride in their clothing; it was said that 'The Owambos wear their money, while the Boers eat theirs.) Many `set up shop'. Making a profit is a secondary consideration. The shops were usually painted in bright primary colours, and given bizarre names; 'Okoto Love Station Number One' (I later found Okoto Love Stations numbers Two and Three!), The 'Sorry Supermarket', etc. The only double story building in Oshakati was the 'California Hotel'. There was also the ‘Pelican', which was pointed out as being the brothel.
We arrived at the entrance to the white compound, and passed through a checkpoint. The vehicles had to stop over a pit, from which some unfortunate soldier checked the underside of vehicles to see that no limpet mines had been attached while the vehicle had been outside of the restricted area. It would have been adding insult to injury to ask him to; "Please check the oil and water!"
Then we drove through the white compound, between houses of a more familiar design. There were no tarred roads, and the roads, much traveled by heavy military vehicles, were rutted and furrowed. Every couple of weeks, a grader would scrape them level again. I had expected that 'on the border' everything would be sandbagged, and that there would be lookout towers, with sandbags every couple of metres. But at first impression, it looked like an ordinary little village. There were a few tall gun towers, but these did not dominate the skyline. Most of the houses had bomb shelters, and these were all sandbagged. It was at the outer bases that I found the sandbags and bunkers I had expected.
We drove through to the AG Complex, where the Medical Section for the Sector was based; the OC, the ops. room, the dentists, the psychologists, the health inspectors, the administrators, and the RSM. Our building was part of a greater complex that comprised a Dutch Reformed Church, and an army printing works. The AG Complex was located in the residential area of the white compound.
It was now after closing time, so the building was almost deserted. Walking into it, boots squeaking on the bare cement, rifle over my shoulder, I passed a battered structure of an elephant, three metres high, and made from chicken wire and papier-mâché. It was there to be repaired, and it waited about a metre from the door of the Officer Commanding's (OC) office, unattended from the time that I arrived until the time that I left Sector 10. It is probably still there!
One of the administrative staff was waiting for me to arrive, to help me to 'klaar in' (Check in). The first document that I signed was an undertaking not to commit atrocities against the Owambo people. Maybe there is a problem somewhere? I was also given a little information pamphlet about Owamboland; its geography, and the culture and customs of the local people.
I was given a new 'body number'. This number was only valid for my present border duty - my existing unique 'Force Number' was apparently not sufficient identification. I was told to write this clearly on the inside of my web-belt. A later arrival wrote it on the outside of his, thereby defacing the belt. 'Why on the inside?' he asked when I suggested that he had done it wrong. 'They'll use it to identify you if your body is burned,' I told him. 'If its on the inside there's more chance of it being readable.' I think he went slightly green at that stage, but I don't remember the incident very clearly. My belt was adorned with my blood-group at the 'buckle' - a 'B' above a '+'-sign; `B positive'. Quite a good blood-group for a psychologist!
Then it was back aboard the Rinkhals (or some other transport) and I was driven to the Military Headquarters. We drove through another guarded military gate, and stopped at the Protea Officers' Mess. In the mess, I met up with national service doctors David Dix and Conrad Smith, from whom I had accepted referrals previously when I had been the psychologist on the Wimpie's Psychiatric Consultation Team. They were familiar faces amongst a sea of strangers. They shared a room, so there was no possibility of me moving in with one of them. No accommodation had been arranged for me, in spite of it having been so urgent that I arrive. No one seemed to know where Martin Broodryk had lived, but most people thought he had moved into Charl de Wet's house.
I spent my first night in Oshakati in one of the empty beds in the 'transit' room; where everything was dilapidated. Any good beds had been sneaked into individual bedrooms, so the beds in the transit room were those no-one else wanted. I opened the cupboard - the hinge had been broken, so 'closed' just meant that the door lent against the front of the shelves. It was unlockable. There was all sorts of junk already in the cupboard; including handfuls of rounds of live ammunition. I filled up all my rifle magazines.
Before my second night, one of the familiar doctors introduced me to Enrico Van Dijk, a dentist who had a spare bed in his room. Enrico, an Afrikaans speaking national service Lieutenant accepted me, a permanent force English-speaking psychologist Captain moving in with him. I don't think he had any choice. I shared the room with him for the duration of my stay, and we became reasonably good friends. We didn't have any arguments the entire time I was there, which I think was quite an achievement, considering our cramped living conditions.
While unpacking, I wrapped my rifle up in a black plastic bin liner, thinking that this would keep the pervasive dust out of it. Enrico advised against this, saying he knew of someone who had done this, and whose rifle had rusted. He suggested wrapping it in a towel, which I did.
I ate my first supper at Oshakati with the medics Captain/Architect with whom I had travelled up from Pretoria. The dining room was decorated with some alpine scenes, and with portraits of various Boer generals of the Boer war. My companion, who had kept up a barrage of witticisms all day, made some remark about the familiar faces, then pointed to one and said "I believe he's retired now."
Early on, young Intelligence (Public Relations) Lieutenant Miles Haworth showed me the photos he had taken when he and a couple of the other matriculant(`Matric' or `Standard 10' is the final year of schooling in South Africa. Most eligible males reported for national service straight after school, and so would have been aged between eighteen and twenty. Those electing to study before reporting for national service were granted deferment providing they did satisfactorily in their studies (like passing exams!). National servicemen who reported with qualifications of use to the SADF were likely to be placed on accelerated officers training courses, and this was particularly the case with the Medical Service. Qualified medical professionals would do a two month officers' course after basic training, whereas those without such qualifications would do a nine month `blood sweat and tears' Junior Leaders' course to become officers or NCOs. With the Medical Service having a high proportion of professionals, there was some snobbishness, and at Klipdrift, where the medics did basic training and officers' course, school leavers were referred to as `Kabouters', Afrikaans for goblins or elves.) officers had climbed the Oshakati communications tower. They had taken photos at various heights, looking out over the Owamboland countryside. I certainly would not attempt that climb myself!
I had been told before arriving on the border there were 'fire-plans'; that the machine gun towers protecting the compound fired out at specific targets at specific times at night, to serve as a deterrent to possible attackers. I heard this take place on my first and subsequent nights; the sound of heavy machine gun fire, and immediately realised what it was.
On my first Thursday, I had visited a nearby base that had been mortared the night before. I returned from my visit quite excited, the possibility of our being revved more vivid in my mind than usual. I was sitting reading in one of the doctor's offices in the sickbay at about 10 p.m. when I heard a fairly loud explosion somewhere outside. A patient passing in the corridor outside stopped, and we looked at each other, waiting and listening.
Then came two more explosions, equally loud. "This is it!" I told myself, thinking very clearly, aware that my heart was racing. Already! We were being revved! In my first week! There was a string feeling of excitement and strange sense of relief that I wasn't going to miss it. We were being revved!
There was still no siren! I had been told that the siren usually blared out by the third explosion. I started to stride briskly towards the bomb shelter - I wasn't actually going to run!
I passed two Ops. Medics attending to a patient, standing at the reception desk. They did not react to the explosions. Slowing down, I asked them if the noises were part of the fire-plan. They told me 'yes' and that I 'needn't worry'! They smiled to themselves. It was probably a `rite of passage' for newcomers to misinterpret the mortars being fired out regularly on Thursday nights.
From then on, I grew to accept that on Thursday nights, the 'fire-plan' included mortars being fired from the pits on the far side of the Protea Officers' Mess. I had arrived in Oshakati!
LAYOUT OF THE SECTOR HEADQUARTERS
1. Protea Officers' Mess
2. Swimming pool
3. Bomb shelter
4. Volleyball court
5. Post office
7. Military police & cells
8. Parking area
9. Main Road
10. To `Driehoek'
11. To the AG Complex
12. Sector HQ building
13. Sector HQ Ops. Room
14. To the library
15. To the sector stores
16. To the POW camp
17. Officers' Bar
18. Officers' Dining room
20. NCOs' dining room
21. To the NCOs' & troops mess
22. To SAWI (army supermarket)
23. Gate guarded by SAKK
24. To Sector 10 Signals Unit
Published: 1 July 2000.