THE PROTEA OFFICERS' MESS
The Protea Officers' Quarters ('Quaters' the sign on the door said!) was a long prefabricated bungalow, containing many small two-bedded rooms. The Protea is South Africa's national flower. There was probably the width of a bed between the beds, and probably the width of another bed between the foot of each bed and the cupboard. There was a corridor wide enough for two people to walk side by side along the length of the building, with bedrooms opening off on each side. There were larger rooms at each end; one was a lounge with a television set, and the other was a bedroom for transient visitors. In the middle of the building were the showers, washbasins and toilets. There were three showers, only one of which was fitted with a nozzle to break the jet of water up into a comfortable spray. The hot water was limited, and would often run out.
Behind the Protea Mess was the Oshakati Military Sickbay, where the doctors worked, and where the wards were located. Free military medical services were offered to all the white population of Oshakati, regardless of whether they had any military connections. Similarly, all the whites lived within the compound.
Between the mess and the sickbay was the bomb shelter; a large corrugated iron arch, packed from the outside with plastic sandbags. It would not survive a direct hit, but it might protect us from flying debris and shrapnel. It was about twenty metres away from my bed!
To the right of the mess was the alarm siren, which sounded at half past five each day to demonstrate that it was working, and this got on one's nerves almost immediately.
Then there was a sandy parking lot, and further to the right was the Officers' Dining Hall and the - always important! - Officers' Bar! Drinks prices were cheap with it being an army affair, and seemed to cost the same as in South African army bars. The dress code for the Officers' Dining Hall was that one had to wear a button up shirt, and trousers with which you can wear a belt. I was very surprised that denim jeans, with which one could wear a belt, were acceptable. They were not acceptable at the SAMS Club in Voortrekkerhoogte.
In front of the mess, there was a carefully tended lawn, in the middle of which was a half completed swimming pool which the officers were building for themselves.
Opposite the Protea Officers' Mess, separated by our garden, a ventilation brick wall, the road, and a parking lot, was the Sector 10 HQ building, a rabbit warren of a prefab, part of which merged into the Sector 10 Ops. Room which was thoroughly fortified, and believed to be able to withstand a direct hit from a 'Grad-P' surface to surface missile, although those inside would be likely to suffer burst eardrums - and possibly shock! This Ops. Room was the target for which SWAPO guerrillas aimed when they bombarded Oshakati, but they had not managed to hit it yet. They had however, come pretty close, and on at least two occasions, the Protea Officers' Mess had been damaged by shrapnel. The mess couldn't have been more than a hundred metres away from the Ops. Room, and was right in the line of fire used by the guerrillas when they launched their attacks. If SWAPO guerrillas overshot the Ops. HQ, they stood a chance of hitting either the Officers' Quarters or the Sickbay, either of which would be a feather in their caps.
As one entered the Sector HQ building through the front door, one walked into a wood-panelled room, and opposite one a broken AK47 rifle had framed and mounted on the wall. It looked as though it had been shot in half. Many of my fellow residents of the Protea Mess worked in the rabbit warren, and the paymasters office was situated there.
The South African Medical Service (SAMS) is a separate branch of the SADF, along with the Army, Air Force and Navy; but this was forgotten on the border. We lived with the Army Officers, while the Air Force Officers - always more civilised - had their own mess closer to their base. The Protea Officers' Mess was intended to be the national service officers' mess, and permanent force people were only likely to stay there for a night or two, if 'better' accommodation could not be arranged for them.
I was the only PF officer staying in the Protea Officers' Mess, and as a Captain, also the senior officer. The infantry, and other army Lieutenants - many aged around twenty - were very aware of this and they would do things like snapping to attention and saluting me in the corridor, and even in our communal shower! (It would be nice to think that they were taking the Mickey!) Without wishing to undermine the military disciplined they had been trained in, I understood that this could be relaxed as we shared living quarters. I kept asking them to call me 'Barry'.
The walls between our rooms were so thin you could hear your neighbour breathe. Separated by half an inch of prefabricated wall from my bed was a room shared by two engineers who were national service Lieutenants. One of them had a bad day, and when it had finished, he lay on his bed, and started a tirade against PFs in general. I was lying on my bed, relaxing, inches away, and hearing every word, I egged him on. He knew who I was, of course, and I remember an amusing set of comments following. I can't remember them, unfortunately.
We slept under mosquito nets, made of dark material, and suspended from the ceiling with hooks over each bed. These gathered great amounts of dust, and many had holes in them, which previous users had tried to sew closed with varying degrees of success. Fortunately for me, I have never been much troubled by mosquitoes!
There was a television set in the lounge of the Protea Officers' Quarters, which was more than we had had in Voortrekkerhoogte when I had left there. With our great distance from the established towns to the South, we could not receive direct broadcasts of SWABC (South West Africa Broadcasting Corporation) Television, but there was a local television transmitter, on which SWABC programmes would be broadcast, from tapes which had been sent up the previous day. Similarly, South African News was delayed by a day. We had some good programmes, "Miami Vice" in English - this had only been broadcast in Afrikaans in South Africa, and "Hill Street Blues". The local broadcasts were somewhat erratic, and the schedule seemed to be rather variable, and it was possible to miss programmes that one had looked forward to watching. There were a couple of video rental stores in Oshakati, and some of the Officers would club together and hire a VCR machine and a couple of videos - it was in this way that I first saw 'Highlander' (1986) with Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery. There was a pay phone in the Protea Mess.
The Protea officers had set about building their own swimming pool in the lawn area in front of the building, and spent many mosquito buzzing evenings digging the hole. I arrived at the stage when they were plastering it, and was invited to attend its opening party. There was some friction during its construction about some people not pulling their weight, but I suppose this was inevitable. (I wonder who is enjoying the fruits of their labour now, now that the SADF has withdrawn from the area completely. The United Nations peace keeping forces, or SWAPO?)
ENRICO AND I
I was impressed at the high quality of the people I encountered on the border. Living in close proximity with my fellow officers in the Officers' Quarters, I found that very intense friendships developed. Once I had settled in, and made friends, I would have stayed in Protea, rather than share a caravan with another permanent force officer, if such an option had been available. It wasn't! It might have been possible for me to have insisted on having a room to myself, but that would probably have caused over-crowding in one of the other rooms, for which I would have been resented. There was a surprisingly good atmosphere amongst the officers in the mess. This was a highlight of my border duty.
I shared my small room - his originally - with a depressive Afrikaans dentist, Enrico, for the three month period, and we never exchanged one angry word during that time. Enrico was about six foot tall, and with the same thick set build as I have. He was more energetic than I was, and had laboured hard on building the swimming pool. He would play volleyball (Apparently the SADF national sport!) most afternoons. He actually broke his leg, when he landed wrongly during one game. He hobbled around for weeks in a plaster cast, and was granted special permission to wear nutria army issue shorts.
Enrico tended to socialise mostly with the other two dentists, and with the dental assistants, but I always felt welcome to go along with his clique when I felt like it. Enrico was a science fiction enthusiast, and had a pile of English language Sci-Fi books on his bedside table. One that I remember most vividly was 'The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat'. He also had Sci-Fi fantasy posters on the walls of our room.
I never heard him speak a word of English. He had strong Dutch connections, and if I remember right, at least one of his grandparents was actually Dutch. I spoke to him in Afrikaans only, out of courtesy. At this stage in my life I was probably speaking more Afrikaans than English.
Every now and again, Enrico would get frustrated and depressed, and would talk out his frustrations to me, usually prefixing this with some comment about me being a psychologist. One day, I was on a high after receiving a letter from Debbie, of `inheriting my car' fame. Enrico enjoyed my mood, and I did not want to disappoint him by telling him that we were 'just good friends'.
There was a story that Enrico had woken up during one of the revs, and had run around the building searching for one of his friends for a while, only to eventually find that friend sitting deathly quiet in a row of other officers cowering against the walls in the bomb shelter.
There were standing orders pasted on the wall just inside the door, which 'suggested' a disciplined day starting around five thirty. This was ignored.
In my first ten days on the border (27/06/87), our door was pushed open at 7 am, about ten minutes before we usually arose. The light was switched one. We both sat up to peer through the mosquito netting to see a Commandant peering in at us. "Its seven o'clock," he said. "Standing orders say you have to be up at 5.30. This will not happen again." Then we heard him burst into the room next door, until other people heard him coming, and sprang out of bed. We were unfortunate in living in the room closest to the front door, and thus the immediate first call for any inspection.
The Commandant was right! It didn't happen again! He didn't do anything as ridiculous as holding another surprise inspection while I was there!
Get up at 5.30 to do what? Most of us had more time on our hands than we knew what to do with anyway. It was great to be fighting to preserve western democracy. Pity we didn't have any! After this Enrico wrote 'PF Kaptein' in big letters above my name on the door, in the hope that, like lambs' blood, this would cause the inspecting officer pass over us in future.
There was another inspection some weeks later, held after brunch on a Saturday morning. We were told that we didn't have to stand beside our beds or anything like that. We left our rooms looking smart, and we buggered off. The inspecting officer was a kindly elderly gentleman of a Commandant, to whom I had spoken at meal-times. He seemed to be quite embarrassed at the whole affair.
There was an Owambo woman, Rosey, who was employed around the mess for some purpose. She would do washing and ironing for those too lazy to do it themselves. There was very little for the people to do, yet they would still rather pay someone else to do their washing and ironing for them. She seemed to charge R6 whether you wanted her to wash one garment, or a month's worth. She was apparently the bread winner for a family of about 10 dependants. (I wonder how she will fare now that the SADF have withdrawn from Namibia?)
The Officers' Mess had a beagle, known as 'Beagle', or variations, which had become something of a mascot. It had been owned by some residents of Oshakati, who had moved away, and had been unable to take him with them. They had left him in the 'generalised' care of the Officers' Club. The dog apparently had a good pedigree. One day, the dog crapped on the Brigadier's carpet, and the Brigadier ordered it to be put down. Captain Lemmer, considered to be a bastard by the people who worked under him, arrived at the AG Complex, and asked us if any of us would be able to put the dog to sleep medically. Otherwise he would take it out and shoot it. (I recall Enrico being very upset about this.)
With not much to do - and as part of being South African and growing up - different cliques from the mess would go out to meals and parties, and get drunk and come back noisily in the early hours, often disturbing those who had already gone to sleep. There were some reprisals against this sort of behaviour, with a group coming in late, and deliberately making a noise to 'get even' with the people who had woken them the previous night.
Over weekends, and especially when the swimming pool was usable, there would often be barbecues. Lots of food and lots of beer - at cheep army prices, with little to do and lots of twenty year olds with no responsibilities. During a game, some of the Lieutenants were chasing each other through the building. One caught his arm on a door handle during the chase, and opened his arm up through several layers of flesh. He was rushed over to the nearby sickbay, in a state of shock. There remained traces of fat and tissue from his arm on the door handle for several days.
There were parades first thing on Tuesdays and Fridays mornings, with a big parade on the last Friday of each month. Some moron would set up the Public Address system outside the Sector HQ building, and test it ad nauseam; "Testing testing, one two three four ..." for about five minutes. Occasionally he would make war noises of explosions and jets. He succeeded in antagonising all the officers in the mess who were dressing for the parade.
A militant brand of Christianity is preached here. On 28/07/87, at the parade, the troops were urged to do whatever they 'said, felt and did' in 'Jesus' name'. That night, four of the local population were killed when they blundered through a temporary base late at night, on their way home. The story was related in military slang; 'Four PBs got killed walking through a TB.' (PB = 'Plaaslike bevolking' = Local population. TB = temporary base)
The food at the Protea Officers' Mess varied in standard, but was not great. My first supper consisted of boerewors (Traditional Afrikaans sausage), which was okay, and my second supper consisted of a chunk of cold polony.
There was a `complaints & comments' book, but a doctor warned me not to write anything negative in it. A medical person once wrote that the meal would have been better if the pork chops had not been included. (A comment which I believe was not included was that the chops were disgusting). The offender was called in by the Commandant in charge of the mess, and threatened with being put on ration packs for fifteen days if he ever did anything like that again.
Following the cold polony supper, at which the troops were given the same, but less, three medics were brought on orders by the Commandant for complaining that there was too little food. They were put on 'rat' packs for fifteen days.
The meals were fair on some occasions, when barrels of ice cream were opened, and we could help ourselves to as much as we wanted, and return for seconds, thirds, fourths ... The worst meal was when one was given a slab of cold greasy polony and a choice of baked beans or crystallised potato salad. The two salads had been poured out onto a plastic body bag, which had been stretched out over a table. Was it Napoleon who said an army marches on its stomach?
On special occasions, functions would be held in the dining hall and the junior officers were requested/ordered to go for their meals in the NCO's mess - slumming it! It was there that we noticed Air Force privates eating, while the only army or medics personnel allowed in there were full ('two line') corporals and up. The Air Force was always a law unto itself, but here they were breaking the conventions of the army, whose building and mess hall it was.
We had a 'rat pack' (Ration Pack) day once a month when they closed down the kitchen completely. On these days we are issued with rat packs which had expired. Once this coincided with the Okatope (Base) 'July Handicap' - (a motor rally using 'Buffel' armoured personnel carriers), so giving us rations could have been to encourage us to attend that function. [More below.]
Several officers exploded their tins of curried fish at 01H00 on Sunday morning, possibly to 'get back' at the doctors whom they might have felt had woken them when returning from a party a day or two previously. Cans explode eventually when you leave them still sealed on a fire. This is not a prudent activity in a town expecting to be bombarded at any time, but no-one came to investigate. (Or did Basil grab his rifle to go and investigate?)
WE LIVE IN A WAR ZONE!
Every evening there was a 'Fire Plan'. Some of the gunners used to fire in rhythms - their `call- sign' almost! Imagine the scenario: "Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight Sector 10 is proud to present a performance of Johan Strauss's 'The Blue Danube' with Sergeant Frikkie van der Merwe on heavy machine-gun, and Corporal `Lappies' Van Tonder and his quartet on 81 mm mortars."
Night times in Oshakati were characterised by the drone of a light aircraft which circled around all night, to be used as a spotter if there was a bombardment.
Following one of the stand off attacks, when the attackers had taken flight, the follow up troops examined their position. They had been shooting from the limit of effective range of our machine gun towers, and yet a machine-gun bullet had hit one of the attackers right between the eyes. It must have been a fluke, but it would certainly have been bad for the morale of the attackers.
Something that I found interesting was the 'doom' that accompanied a mortar or rocket. One moment it was being fired, the next it was up in the air, in a curve that would bring it back down to earth. At this stage, those whom it was destined to land on were doomed, even though they might be in perfect health at that instant. Where the bomb would land was determined, and all that might save those who happened to be where it would land was the remote possibility of the bomb failing to explode. I suppose the same could be said of shooting someone with a rifle, but then there is a direct line of fire. The arc described by a rocket or mortar bomb would make its point of contact much less obvious.
MY EXPERIENCE ANTICIPATING A REV
We had alerts in Oshakati when Military Intelligence (that eternal contradiction in terms) warned of a strong possibility of us being attacked that night. At an order group we are told that we will be bombarded between that night and the full moon. We brush up on the emergency plan. We know what to do once we have identified that we are being revved. We take cover in the bomb shelter. When we decide its safe to come out, we report to the sickbay, from where (together with the dentists) I will be taken to the school, to set up a first aid post for the less seriously injured patients. I would be the senior officer, as well as the least medically useful person there. That's the drill, but in the meantime we go to sleep.
The most likely time for a rev is between 2 and 3 a.m. You think it through; You think; `If we get revved at 2 am and have to rush to sit in the bomb shelter, it will be cold. Should I start wearing clothes in bed?' One assumes that when the bombs are falling, one will not feel inclined to pull on a bush jacket, so much of one's attention will be focused on getting to the bomb shelter. At the school, I should wear `rank', but there will be time to pull on my shirt after the 'All Clear' - so I don't have to start going to bed in my uniform!
We are expecting a rev any night now. And every night we don't have one leads to the increased likelihood for one the next night. One feels excited. One wonders if all one's affairs are in order. What of the things I have done since I wrote my will? How would I revise it if I were to die tonight? I'm glad I've written so many letters since I arrived here. Will this be the last thing that I will ever write? ....
"Where does the first one land?" is a question one asks oneself when one is in an area where bombardments are possible and anticipated. Once the first one has landed, one knows the drill, and goes hastily to the bomb shelters. But that's after the first one has landed. The first bomb will be unexpected. It could land anywhere, and anyone killed in the first blast would have no idea of what had hit them.
If you are asleep, and not injured, you will be woken by the first blast. Maybe you'll remember what it was, or maybe you'll wait for the second explosion before scurrying off to the shelter. They say that the siren usually goes off after the third explosion - providing that the power cable hadn't been severed.
Where would I be when the first rocket fell? Most likely asleep, if it was at 2 a.m. But if it was early. Polishing my boots? Cleaning my teeth? Taking a shower? It was interesting to observe what I thought about.
One lies there in bed, half convinced that the bombs are going to start falling then. Almost hoping for it - one is so aware of the possibility. Lets get it over with! The waiting gets to one! I would lie awake listening, wondering what an incoming rocket would sound like. Would I hear any sound of the bomb hurtling through the air before it explodes. (I didn't realise that one would probably hear the sound of the rocket leaving the pipe!) Would it whistle as it comes in? I heard that sound several times that night - until a split second later I realised that the sound was just my room mate moving in his sleep.
I had the idea of taking my tape recorder up to the border, and leaving it to run during the time of the morning when we were most likely to be revved. It would have made interesting listening if I had recorded a rev. I wonder whether the army had something like that, to record how many missiles rained down, and what the timing of the salvo was?
If a mortar bomb or rocket were to land in or just outside our room, Enrico and I would both be blown to bits. Some of the meat that had been us would be found, and buried - probably with full military honours. It might happen that parts of me would be buried with him, or parts of him cremated as me? If we had thought about this, it would surely have induced a great sense of intimacy between us.
THE POSTAL SERVICE
There are two postal deliveries each week; Tuesdays and Fridays. Outgoing post was collected on those two mornings. There were often delays with the post. Sometimes the post would only be distributed the day after it arrived. Sometimes the plane would not arrive, or else it would arrive but the post was not on board. It was okay for us at Oshakati, with the sector's postal sorting office right next to the sickbay, but there were people at the outer lying bases who would have to wait up to a week to get their post after it had been sorted at Oshakati.
The postal system was not always efficient. I wrote a letter to friends at 1 Military Hospital shortly after I arrived, and it took six weeks to reach them. We did not have to put stamps on letters that we sent home to South Africa from the border. For letters bound for overseas, stamps could be bought at the army post office.
All letters had to be censored by a qualified officer before entered into the military postal system. This was not a problem for me, as I had two qualified officers as friends who told me they would stamp my letters as censored, and that I should give them to them sealed. I appreciated this, and did not abuse it. Once past the censors, it was considered more effective to get a friend flying down to South Africa to put stamps on the envelope and to post it in South Africa..
Major Kevin Holmes, though a friend, was not one of the trusting people who would stamp my letters without reading them. I think it was from him that several stories emerged which justified why letters had to be censored. Apparently one soldier's letter to his mother told stories of him having been involved in numerous hand-to-hand battles with SWAPO guerrillas, and that he had killed eighteen so far that month. I think the soldier in question occupied some minor administrative post.
I didn't envy Kevin. He probably had to spend hours every week reading through nineteen year old boy to girlfriend drivel, looking for any important information like troop strengths and other security sensitive information. I didn't apply for a censor number.
Someone was apparently in serious trouble for just posting a letter in the ordinary Oshakati Post Office, rather than submit it through the regular army channels. I was told that there was a soldier on guard outside the civilian post office to prevent soldiers from circumventing the military post system. It seemed ironic that such attention was paid to letters, when there was a pay phone in the Protea Officers' Mess, used on occasions by troops, and such telephone conversations could not be effectively censored
Letters from home were great for morale.
On the border I experienced a strange feeling of being 'abandoned' by South Africa. Suddenly, being geographically in SWA we found ourselves faced with a working week a day and a half longer than we had worked in South Africa. I was told that our working day is 7.30 to 5.30, with brunch between 10 and 11. We are also expected to work Saturdays between 7.30 and 12. This was not something they had told us back in the 'States.' And the Air Force, who eat in the same mess that we do, work South African hours. Not that there's much work for us to do. Yesterday the two patients that I saw were young children, with whom I did play therapy. And this is border duty?
South African Forces serving in SWA do not get SWA public (bank) holidays because they are South Africans, and they do not get South African public holidays because they are not in South Africa. In 1986 the Brigadier of Sector 10 announced that 'The Day of the Vow' would be business as usual, except for a chaplain's period which would be held between 10 and 11 am. The chaplain preached about the importance to war efforts of keeping promises made to God. Suddenly, the public holiday started at 11 am.
Politicians in South Africa get a higher `removal allowance' for moving between Pretoria and Cape Town each year, than we got for supposedly being in danger of our lives while defending our country in a war situation?
I knew of Koevoet by reputation before my arrival in the sector. Their `proper' name was the South West Africa Police Counter Insurgency Unit (SWAPOL-TIN), which we were instructed to refer to them as, but everyone referred to them by their nickname, which they preferred. `Koevoet' means `crowbar' in Afrikaans. They did most of the hunting down and killing of SWAPO guerrillas, and were notorious for torturing and killing prisoners. Although tending to have white South African police officer leadership, they were predominantly Owambo, from the same local tribe as most of the SWAPO insurgents. They were effectively hunting down their relatives for the South African security forces. For reasons outlined below, they were resented and hated by many in the South African military. They'll probably be hunted down as mercilessly when/if South Africa ever pulls out of South West Africa.
Koevoet are apparently paid R 2000 for each guerrilla `head' they bring in (it now only qualifies if they bring in a guerrilla weapon as well). Medic Sam reports one way that Koevoet use to kill captured SWAPO guerrillas after they had interrogated them; They would tie the prisoner to the front of their Casspirs and go bundu bashing. Koevoet seldom buried the bodies of the insurgents they killed.(My views on Koevoet are based on having been in the South African military. I am quite happy to condemn them. A more sympathetic view of the unit is portrayed by Jim Hooper (1990) in Beneath the Visiting Moon, also published as Koevoet. As a professional psychologist, I feel the need to suggest a theory about Koevoet here. Cawthra (1986) talks of Koevoet's notoriety for atrocities, and also mentions that some of its staff were former members of SWAPO (p. 124). The psychological theory of Cognitive Dissonance suggests that people alter their attitudes to suit their behaviour, and vice versa. `Turned Terrs' would be more likely to be violent to their former comrades, as a form of self justification, than one would expect their present comrades to be. The Zimbardo (1969, 1975) studies also have some relevance to this theoretical interlude.)
Owambo troops get paid R 800 per month from the time that they sign on. This, in a country where the average income is R 200. South African national service doctors get about the same. Owambo troops can go on AWOL for two weeks and little if any disciplinary action is taken against them.
At an order group I heard of an element of SAKK coloured troops who were expecting to be rotated back to South Africa, but their rotation was delayed for some reason. Dissatisfied with this, they announced that they were `on strike', and that they would shoot any whites unwise enough to venture near them. The situation was defused without the use of force.
A coloured patient I was evaluating had a code after his force number that I had not heard before. I asked him what it meant, and he said that he was a South West African national serviceman. I had forgotten that non-whites in South West Africa are occasionally obligated to do national service. Apart from 'Koevoet' and 'SWAPOL' (Police) and 101 and 201 BN, the security forces here are overwhelmingly South African. The patient in question had an alcohol problem.
SECURITY AND DISCIPLINE
Entering the Military HQ compound, one would pass through the gates which always seemed to be manned by SAKK troops. More than any others, these men seemed to have perfected a military salute with such swagger that if there was ever to be an Olympic saluting team, it would have been a travesty if they were not included.
A Law Officer told a story of a couple of the local Owambo's who came across a cache of mortars and mortar bombs. They decided to hand them in to the security forces. They drove in to Oshakati and reported their find to the appropriate military authorities. The authorities said, 'Thank you very much. We'll follow you and go and pick them up."
"That's not necessary", the PBs told them. "We brought them with us." And, sure enough, in the boot of the car that had passed through the security checks at the gate, was a load of mortar pipes and bombs.
I was amazed at the number of tourists that seemed forever to be visiting Oshakati, which made it bizarre that we were supposedly fighting a war there. I was never aware of any announcements as to who these people were. Although, amongst ourselves, we were always interested in unusual people, no one would think of asking them who they were.
I believe that a team of military social workers went up to the border for a brief tour to give them some idea of what conditions were like. I think Lt. Michelle Eatwell, an honourary member of the Post Prandial Club (See `1 Mil' [In press]) attended this. They stayed one night in Oshakati, in the guest quarters at the 'Driehoek' leisure complex. On that night there was a rev. They had been warned about the fire-plans, which they thought it was, and they only found out afterwards that there had been possible danger. That happened to them on their only night, and I waited in vain for three months to have the same experience. There's just no justice!
Public Relations Officer Lieutenant Miles Haworth reported having hosted a group of American Military Tourists. 'How do SWAPO move their trucks?' the visitors wanted to know. 'Surely you would be able to see them in this landscape?'
"I had to explain to him that it wasn't that kind of war," Miles reported.
Miles also had to escort some beauty queen around Oshakati. He made some comment as an aside, on which was quoted and mentioned in the 'Sunday Times' as having said, "She is just like a sister to me," or some such. He was very embarrassed, but we teased him mercilessly anyway.
In the Officers' Club bar, on the border one night, a tall good looking man of about my age entered, and in heavily accented Afrikaans, asked Charl de Wet something about some or other tour. I wondered if he was German, but decided that he was American. Give him good points for speaking Afrikaans! I spoke a few words to him, and he left telling me that the biggest problem that we had was the mosquitoes. I hoped we got revved that night just for his benefit. Mosquitoes indeed!
In the dining hall, one evening I saw a man whom I recognised as a television documentary/news producer sitting chatting to some unfamiliar officers. It think it was Pat Rogers. On another evening there was a 'dude' speaking with an American accent, who wore what looked like US Army desert fatigue trousers - I would have loved a pair! - with non-military shoes and shirt. His shirt might even have been of Hawaiian design. Who was he? He could have been anyone. (It was later suggested to me that he might have been a correspondent for 'Soldier of Fortune' or some such magazine, but that was only a suggestion!)
Most notable was one day when our mess was invaded by a group of about thirty Afrikaans student types, male and female - long-haired and scruffy, with trendy clothes, wearing thongs - the antithesis of the uniformed military personnel whom they outnumbered. I seem to remember us taking the Mickey amongst ourselves out of the most outrageously dressed, and gloating about 'wait till the army gets him' in reference to a particularly obnoxious looking male. I believe that they were a choir of some college or university send up to entertain the troops. Bah humbug!
One night, in the Officers' Bar, I bumped into Captain Quintin Coetzee, a Medical Service 'odd job man' whom I had met at the SAMS Club in Voortrekkerhoogte the previous year. I remembered him to be an excellent raconteur, and he more than proved his reputation that evening. He had done all sorts of interesting things, from organising survival courses for Air Force Pilots, to kulling an epidemic of cats on one of South Africa's South Atlantic islands. He had explored the parts of South America that Papillon had made famous. We could have sat and listened to him for hours - and we did just that! I would love to get the copyright to write his biography.
There was a very obscure reason for him making a visit to the border at this time. He was accompanying a group of medical specialists who were giving a series of lectures to the doctors and ops. medics about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Quintin mentioned that from the next national service intake on, procedures for the eventuality of a nuclear attack would be part of the syllabus for all SADF basic training.
Why was this? Had 'THEY' got wind of something that they didn't want to tell us about?(It was only in 1991, while reading Fred Bridgland's 'The War For Africa' (1990) that I read that on 22 September 1987, an effort was made to use gas against South African forces in Angola. This would be at about the time of the above anecdote, and I might have misunderstood. The lectures/training might have been concerned with Nuclear-Biological-Chemical problems. What I encountered might have been a refresher course for the doctors in Sector 10, in case they were moved to Angola to deal with an effective use of gas and other non-conventional weapons, or had such injured soldiers casevaced down to them. (Bridgland, 1990, p. 62, 67))
DIFFERENT UNITS IN OSHAKATI
10 PANTSER (10 ARMOR)
10 Pantser was the detachment of 'Panhard' or 'Eland' armoured cars operating in Sector 10 at this time. Its home unit was 1 Special Services Battalion (1SSB), Bloemfontein. Although it would have been correct to refer to it in English as `10 Armour Unit', we were all in the habit of referring to it as `ten pantser'. It was based in a camp which I visualise as being to the North West of the white compound of Oshakati, but not part of the Sector HQ compound. It was surrounded by the familiar bulldozed soil walls. About all that could be seen of the 10 Pantser camp from the road was the steel hall building, which seemed to be a feature of all camps of this size, and there was one central to Eenhana as well. Most of the troops seemed to be accommodated in tents. There were some brick buildings, which included the chaplain's work space and coffee bar. The senior officers had prefabricated offices, in which I attended a few Unit Welfare Committee meetings. I spent some time in the 10 Pantser ops. room, which seemed to be a cubic room, fortified on the outside with sandbags. I seem to remember some light hearted chat with the national service lieutenants on duty while I was there, but I cannot remember any details.
The military personnel would have come from 1 SSB or 2 SSB in South Africa, but they also had a small contingent of infantry. These changed while I was there, from 2 SAI (Walvis Bay) to 7 SAI (Phalaborwa). These infantry soldiers also had duties around Oshakati, like manning the check points at the gates.
25 FIELD ENGINEERS REGIMENT
This unit was also located somewhere in the white compound of Oshakati, and not within the Sector HQ compound. I think that this would have been towards the South East of the AG Complex, and fairly near to the Koevoet Base. Charl and I attended an evening meeting in their officers' mess hall once, where we gave a brief talk on the inevitable 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder'. I have the impression of wooden panelling, a low ceiling, and a fair number of older looking junior officers, possibly graduates, who seemed to listen attentively but critically to what we had to say.
This attitude might have been fully justified, as I remember directly contradicting something that Charl said. Charl was talking of the role of the psychologist in debriefing people who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he characterised the psychologist saying to the patient; 'There, there. Its not so bad!'. Then I spoke up, saying that we would want to help the person to explore their emotional conflict with a view to resolving them. (What Charl had said would surely inhibit the further exploration of feelings? I think that he had been distracted, and forgotten what he was saying.)
10 SIGNALS UNIT
There was also a signals unit, which I would say was somewhere near the South West corner of the white compound, behind the Driehoek recreational complex. I visited their camp once during the day, and was interested to see the little paths that had been arranged between the different tents. Plants and bushes had been planted and watered, presumably to try and make a garden effect in what would otherwise be a fairly arid and barren landscape.
The Sector 10 HQ unit seemed to have a metal hall of their own, and I remember early on being instructed to go and give a brief talk to the soldiers. I gather that there was some compulsory assembly each Saturday morning. I spoke on PTSD, and spoke in Afrikaans the whole time, quite enjoying having the ability to do so.
GENERAL ASPECTS OF THE MILITARY PRESENCE
Duty drivers discussed the dangers of sharing a road with Owambo drivers, who would take their chances with army vehicles other than Casspirs or Rinkhalses. They have insurance, and so many of them demand the right of way over military vehicles. And military personnel are charged with the task of trying to win over the `hearts and minds' of the Owambo people.
There also seemed to be rivalry between the different elements of the security forces regarding the roads. I heard stories of different units overtaking and forcing each others' vehicles off the road. This seemed to happen most often between Koevoet and the Army.
It was rumoured that permanent force members would take their families to see the bodies of dead terrorists, which were apparently displayed on Sundays. Such visits were believed to have been part of the Sunday ritual, after Sunday Dinner. I report the rumour, but have no idea whether there was any truth to it or not.
The flag of Sector 10 comprised the Rastafarian colours (Red, Yellow and Green) in broad bands, with a little cactus design in the middle band. I wonder if anyone else noticed this?
It was mid-Winter when I arrived, and it was chilly in the mornings and at night. This was surprising as we were only 40 km South of Angola. We wore bush jackets and jerseys to work in the mornings.
Owamboland was characterised as being flat, sandy and without stones. There were occasional palm trees. There was a great deal of dust in the air, and cars were fitted with air filters the size of large (1 kg) coffee tins. The countryside was reminiscent of the Australian outback; occasional trees, much white sand, (on the ground and in the air), and grass survived best in incubators.
The military complex was down wind of the town's sewage works. You could tell just that by breathing. I seem to remember the smell of sewage in the air all the time. Which side had the town planner been working for? (Again, shades of Vietnam!)
There was a public swimming pool in the white compound, but this had been drained for the Winter when I first arrived. It was filled with water as the days grew hotter as summer approached.
Coca Cola was bottled somewhere in Oshakati. Was this a sign of civilisation?
There seem to only be two shops within the military complex, SAWI (The SADF Institute supermarket), and what is known as 'Die Blou Winkel' (The Blue Shop). The latter was out of bounds to all national servicemen, and it did not matter that they may be Lieutenants and doctors. It was unbelievable how national servicemen were made to feel like second class citizens, even the officers! The SAWI shop frequently ran out of envelopes, writing paper, etc. and was not well organised. Shortly after my arrival, I regretted that I had not brought any clothes hangers with me. Dirk Cloete kindly took me to one of the Owambo supermarkets to buy some as SAWI didn't have any. I advised my successor to bring plenty of envelopes, writing paper and clothes hangers with him.
I went to have a haircut at the military barber at the sector HQ. I chose a quiet time - very quiet. I was so unexpected that I found the barber and the owner stooped over a dog which the barber had been clipping. I wanted assurances that he was at least going to sterilise his equipment before touching my hair.
I had developed bronchitis just before going to the border. I had no exercise while I was up there because of the marvellous excuse that 'there was too much dust in the air'. I seemed to be sick all the time up there, suffering from blocked sinuses and headaches, many symptoms of `Hay-fever'. Several others also reported problems with headaches and sinus problems, which might be due to climatic conditions or to the dust in the air. If I remember correctly, a pharmacist arrived, but had asthma or some other respiratory problem, and had to be sent back to South Africa again as he could not function in such a dusty environment.
I felt 'out of sight, out of mind' from the psychology and psychiatry department that I had worked in for the eighteen months before my border trip, and to which I would return. I have to admit being just as guilty of neglecting others who went to the border before me, but I think people on the border particularly appreciate letters from friends and colleagues back in South Africa.
I did receive a letter from members of the Department of Clinical Psychology, a rather impersonal one, in which no one wanted to write anything which would be read by everyone who would later add something to the letter. In retrospect, that was a good effort from them, so a belated `Thanks!'
A slap in the face was discovering that Major Elfrieda Palm, who had been acting head of Clinical Psychology when I had left 1 Mil, and who was again acting head when I returned (though for different reasons) actually visited Oshakati while I was there - something to do with her sports shooting club - yet she made no effort to get in touch with me. I would not have had much to say to her, but I would have been touched if she had asked me to join her party for drinks.
As a permanent force captain, I was paid R15 per day as `danger pay', over and above my regular monthly salary which was paid straight into my bank account in South Africa. This `danger pay' was collectable fortnightly in cash; R 210 every two weeks, and was much more than enough for me to live on. My weekly expenses, at a push, might have come to R 50, which would include at least two dinner parties.
SHOOTING WITH THE INFANTRY
On Saturday 27/06/87, before I had been on the border for a full week, I went to a special weapons training exercise organised by Captain Ackerman (of 2 South African Infantry Battalion seconded to 10 Pantser). I had met him at a social function organised for a group of visiting pseudo-psychologists from MPI (Military Psychological Institute [more below!]). I asked him if he knew of anything interesting I could see ("While I'm here I want to see everything and do everything!"). He invited me along to Saturday's exercise.
They arrived to fetch me from the mess with a Casspir full of soldiers. They were later than I had expected, so I had made my own way to their base at 10 Pantser. We set off, and had some difficulty finding the actual firing range. (Imaginary scenario - two Sergeant Majors have booked the same shooting range for the same day, and decide to settle the matter by having a fist fight in front of the assembled troops.) The range was littered with car wrecks, which were fairly ideal as targets.
Ackerman lectured the soldiers on the use of their RPGs (Rifle Propelled Grenades), a revision lecture, I gathered, as he considered the whole exercise to be `re-training'. He was not happy with their standard of skill when he had 'inherited' them. He warned that they should be careful, as he would have little sympathy for anyone who dislocated fingers through carelessness. I had actually fired an RPG back in 1981; it had been from an R1 7.62mm rifle and at that time my concern had been to fire it without injuring myself rather than in seriously hoping to hit the target. Now I was using a 5.56mm R4 rifle (Ackerman's), and it was far less anxiety provoking. Ackerman announced that I would fire my rifle grenade at targets of my choosing (!), and where mine landed, this became the target for the infantry troops to aim at. This was either very kind and insightful of him, or a coincidence that suited me. I was able to participate without totally humiliating myself, and my unit.
We fired RPGs (I fired 3) and 60mm mortars (I fired 2). This was done under his careful supervision, and he gave me a strange glance when I poorly estimated the distance to an identified target. Ackerman looked like a young Anthony Hopkins. I was really impressed with him as an infantry soldier - confident, 'with' his men without being over familiar. He was interesting to talk to. He had suggested that I should bring my own rifle and webbing (with which I had not been issued) so that the two of us could get some shooting practise. I deliberately 'forgot' to take my rifle, so as to avoid humiliating myself in particular and the Medics in general by showing minimal proficiency with a rifle, under the watchful eye of the infantry.
Ackerman wanted a soldier who had a metre-long stride to measure distances. The tallest soldier was identified; the medium machine gunner. He was about 6 foot 6 inches tall, looked a little like my friend Spike Clark, and seemed to be something of a character in the company. He was told to stride the distance to a certain piece of wreckage, and he set off. Ackerman called him back and said something about his stride, after which he set off again with a most uncomfortable looking gate.
I overheard one of the soldiers comment; 'He may be able to stride a metre, but he can't count.' The guy comes back. Ackerman jokingly tells him that he went to the wrong wreck. Everyone chuckles. He says that the distance is 170 m.
'That means that he counted all his fingers 17 times', his anonymous critic suggested.
The Casspir is sent out to circumnavigate the whole range, and it disappears. We wait for it. Its task is to persuade PBs not to enter the area while we are shooting in it. At last it is sighted in the distance.
Comment 1: Maybe its a rhinoceros.
Comment 2: A hasty rhinoceros
Comment 3: Being chased by PBs.
While firing, two PB vehicles drive past us, into our field of vision. They are signalled to stop until everything we have shot up comes down again. Then they are signalled to move on. "Men," says Ackerman. "The vehicle in front is target 7 and the back one is target 8."
Ackerman told me of the conflict that existed between the army and Koevoet. He told me that he issued half-broomsticks to his troops with instructions to put Koevoet in hospital if there are ever any clashes.
I seemed to be a source of interest to the soldiers, and I doubt they had been told who I was. During the tidy up after the shooting - the identification and destruction of unexploded rounds - two young national servicemen offered me a 20 mm cartridge they had found as a souvenir. They were just being friendly. I turned it down, I hope politely, as such souvenir hunting is illegal. They must have thought I was a jerk!
I looked more boyish than many of them, who must have all been five years younger than me, and my nutria combat working dress was obviously brand new; still crisp and shiny. One asked me if I was a Dominee. (Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.)
It was a very interesting day out, and my medics colleagues were interested to hear about what I had been up to when I was returned to the mess.
Published: 1 July 2000.
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