"As part of the psychology service, Sector 10, the psychologists made staff visits to several of the outer bases, as well as to the local units. The purpose of this exercise was to make the Officers Commanding aware of the psychological service that was available, so that they could make optimal use of the service that was offered. During such visits, patients were also assessed, and recommendations made. I found these staff visits to be interesting and, on occasions, fun. The outer-lying bases that I visited went out of their way to offer me their hospitality."
- extract from the report of my border duty
Charl asked me to write a pamphlet describing the variety of psychology services which we offered within the Sector, and I presented it to him in the original English for him to read and comment on, intending to then translate the document into Afrikaans for distribution. Although the Defence Force is supposed to be bilingual, Afrikaans is the dominant language, and I thought that it would be more effective to distribute it in Afrikaans. Charl did not agree. He thought we should leave it in English. I was somewhat dubious, but I had it typed, photocopied, and distributed.
Within the next few weeks I accompanied Charl on his regular visits to the OCs of local units, at which, as part of a general public relations campaign, he distributed the descriptions of our services. We visited 53 Battalion and Charl warned me that the OC was not interested in using psychological services, preferring to deal with `psychological' problems with `Kaffir-sielkunde' (`Bush' psychology) which usually involved treating problems as disciplinary offences.
I followed Charl into the Commandant's office, saluting as I entered, and then stood smartly `at ease' in the background. I let Charl do the talking. Charl got around to handing the OC the list of services, which the OC glanced at briefly. "Hoekom skryf jy dit in die vyand se taal?" he asked. (`Why do you write this in the language of the enemy?')
The man did not know I was English speaking, but if he had, it might have made no difference. I didn't say anything to Charl about this, and he didn't raise the subject with me. He was a cocky person, and an Afrikaner through and through, and I automatically spoke Afrikaans to him. He had been fair to distribute the list in English, and it wouldn't have been fair to embarrass him further.
A DOCTOR AT THE MERCY OF THE INFANTRY
Charl had a family friend who was a doctor stationed for a three month tour of duty with (I think) 101 Battalion, and he was having a rough time. He was not allowed to stay in the ordinary officers' mess, but was given a tent on the far side of the base, about as far as he could be placed from the sickbay. Although he was responsible for the sickbay, the Battalion OC maintained that the building belonged to the Battalion, and the doctor was not allowed to keep a key to his own sickbay. I was there when this situation was revealed, but I was so incredulous at his treatment, that I can't remember the exact details.
VISITS TO OUTER LYING BASES
There was a sense of danger associated with visiting outer lying bases, as it was these against which most of the attacks were launched. Before leaving to go to any of these bases, I would look around my room, with a passing thought that I might not be coming back. It wasn't a real threat, but it was something to be borne in mind.
(Hooper (1990) gives the following descriptions of Eenhana; `A company-sized permanent base occupied by 53 Battalion, an SAAF helicopter detachment, and a Koevoet communications centre.' (p. 258) `... fire-support base' - `[Koevoet] Teams used it for rebunkering, occasionally overnighting there.' (p. 137) `... I ran ... along the path that lead over the berm, across a short bridge spanning a drainage ditch, and onto the hot tarmac .... A camouflage-painted C-47 transport, engines running, held its position inside the sandbagged revetment ...' (p. 157) Al. J. Venter (1994) in `The Chopper Boys' has the best photo I have seen published of Eenhana on p. 189.)
From the 24th to the 26th of August 1987 I paid a staff visit to Eenhana, the Headquarters of 54 Battalion. It was eight kilometres south of the Angolan border. Getting there involved getting myself down to the airport at Ondangwa, and catching a Dakota on a `rum run' supply flight.
Flying at `tree-top height' in a Dakota you see trees fifty feet below you through the windows all around you. They are all dried, bare branched and dusty. The trees are scattered so that you can see the ground between them stretching far away to the horizon. It would be interesting to hike through for a while.
The base at Eenhana is an oasis of civilisation, army style, in the middle of no-where. We circled around it before landing, and we could see little bits of the runway and the base through the portholes. As the plane circled, the view from each window changed constantly.
We touched down, following that bizarre moment where if you are watching through the cockpit window, you see this tiny tarred runway stretching out in front of you, and you wonder if it is possible to drop this large aircraft the difference between the height we are flying at onto the runway without killing us all.
We touched down, and ran past the base complex, slowing down until we reached the end of the runway, when we turned around and taxied back to the reception area at the actual base. There was a reception party of sorts to meet the plane; a truck to collect supplies of fresh bread, post and the like. One of the men off-loading the plane's cargo was someone I had recently seen as a patient. Some of the supplies had been badly packed, and at least one of the large plastic trays laden with loaves of bread had had something heavy packed on top of it, so that the bread loaves had been partially crushed. Someone in authority was berating some junior for this, and the junior was trying to explain that this was not his doing. Major Els, the 2IC of the base, was there to meet me. I walked up to him smartly and saluted, trying to avoid the impression of `slack medics'. He acknowledged this without doing anything so formal as returning my salute. He welcomed me to Eenhana.
Behind him was a mine resistant bakkie, out of the passenger window of which protruded the head of a huge wolf-like German Shepherd dog - Major Els's pet. He told the dog to get out of the cabin, which it did. I tossed my bag of clothes into the back with it, and climbed in. Major Els drove me into the base, a distance of about five hundred metres. We passed an ornamental looking bridge made out wooden poles which spanned a ditch. The bridge gave a `Chinese garden' appearance to the approach to the Eenhana base.
Eenhana base was smaller than a rugby field, and surrounded by sand banks pushed up by bulldozers.(Hooper (1990) uses the term `Berm' to refer to the bulldozed sand walls around bases.) It nestled about a third of the way down the tarred runway. There were a couple of Alouette helicopters and a few light aircraft based here, in a little banked-in compound adjacent to the runway.
The camp was laid out like a coastal leisure resort. There was a tarred road around which the different sections had their own sub-camps; mortarists, SAKK, transport, assault pioneers, etc. Near the centre was a large metal barn-like hall, which I presume was the NCOs' and other ranks' dining hall, though it probably had general purpose uses as well. The mortar pits were surrounded by swimming pool style walls, and trees and gardens were well cared for. I was surprised at how many trees had been cultivated in the base. Some were large, and offered shade and shelter near the guest quarters.
Els showed me to my quarters, which were the guest accommodation, a prefabricated building luxuriously fitted, considering where I was. There were beds, with sheets and blankets, bedside tables, easy chairs and a coffee table. This was much more comfortable than the quarters I had left behind in Oshakati! I would share the senior officers' washroom.
Lieutenant Philip Christiansen was waiting for me. He was a fly spy doing a three month duty at Eenhana. He was English speaking, and looking forward to have a conversation with another English speaking officer. (Almost; "Thank God. Another White man!") Philip monopolised my time from that moment on.
My duties while at Eenhana, were fairly vague, consisting mainly of `waiving the psychology flag'. I would meet the OC, a Commandant, the chaplain and, of course, the doctor. I would attend the order groups. I might address the troops and invite anyone who felt the need to approach me during the time that I was there. The rest of my time was pretty much my own - that was until I met Philip!
Philip suggested I change out of my uniform into civvies, which was the order of the day for those not on duty. I had not expected this, and I had not brought any clothes other than my nutria uniforms. I would just have to bake in my browns. Philip showed me around the base. The bar was out of bounds to the officers, who were supposed to be building their own, although they have run out of building materials, and were waiting for more. The officers were allowed to buy drinks to take out of the NCOs' bar, but not to drink them there.
He took me along to the sickbay, where I met the doctor, a national serviceman within days of finishing his three month tour of duty. He was having a celebration that night, for which someone whom he had `looked after' (a `slow' man, the butt of many people's jokes) had donated a chicken, and they were going to have `pooitjiekos', a traditional Afrikaner way of cooking a stew in a cast iron pot on three legs, then in fashion. He invited me to join in, but didn't seem to be very comfortable with me. Maybe he was intimidated at me being a permanent force member, or a Captain. I don't know. This made no difference to Philip; I was English, and that was all that mattered to him.
There was a church-sponsored coffee bar, at which magazines, religious books, and a wide range of games were available. Philip dragged me over to it, and we played some skill games, flicking coasters into pockets, and Philip thrashed me continuously. He had probably had plenty of time to practice!
As an operational battalion headquarters, the base had just about everything it needed to be a self sustaining community, personnel wise. There was the sickbay with a doctor and two or more ops. medics, and a chaplain, but this was standard issue at all bases. There was an infantry company, SAKK, a mortar squad, catering staff, engineers, assault pioneers (mine sweepers; `sappers') and tiffies (mechanics). There was also an Air Force element, who had their own little enclave in the base - pilots and maintenance crews - but they kept themselves to themselves, ate on their own, and attended no parades, chaplain's periods or order groups.
The ops. room was next to the chaplain's coffee room, and sandbagged in. Inside was everything you need in an ops. room, radio, clipboards of lists up on the walls, maps, and an aerial photo of the base - I would love to have had a copy of that! Near to this was the `monkey tower', a mast with a crows nest to be used for observation purposes. One of the ops. Lieutenants had only one arm. I imagine that this would be good grounds for exemption from national service. Maybe he had had to fight for his right to `do his bit' for his country?
There was a road link with Ondangwa, and the road was more than 100 km long, and every inch had to be swept for mines in front of the fortnightly convoy. Heavy things were brought in by convoy, water had to be brought in by tanker, fuel, food, ammunition, uniforms, spares and so on. Assault Pioneers clear mines along the road in front of the convoy, and Koevoet would just drive past them, pushing up clouds of dust into their faces. Koevoet's attitude is; `If they hit a mine, they hit a mine! Too bad!' Still, this must be rather demoralising for the Assault Pioneers who carefully and time-consumingly sweep every inch of the road. Would they get some satisfaction if a Koevoet vehicle did hit a mine?
I was advised to attend the evening parade - `There may be trouble if you don't'. It would happen that I was the senior officer present, which was fine until it fell on me to give the command; "Officers, Fall Out." I didn't know when to give that order. I was just about to, when the infantry officer standing behind me sensed my uncertainty, and shouted the command himself. The officers snapped to attention, made a right turn and marched three paces before dispersing.
I diplomatically attended the `chaplain's period'. The chaplain was a young tubby Dutch Reformed lad, who was perfectly friendly to me. In the room with me were about sixty soldiers, with their rifles stacked against the walls next to them. The chaplain chose to speak of the evils of premarital sex. I thought he could have chosen a topic more appropriate to the situation.
It got worse! He called upon me as a psychologist to back up an outrageous statement he had just made, something about a link between premarital sex and developing mental disorders, which I had to mumble my way out of.
Night fell slowly. There were magnificent sunsets over the jagged horizons of the leafless trees. I drifted over to join the doctor's `pooitjiekos', trying to be sociable to them, as they were to me. Philip badgered me to go and listen to Susan Vega tapes which he was very `into'. He demanded that I enjoy them as well. "There's a song here which is right up your street," he told me, and played me `Solitude Standing', explaining that it was about child abuse.
We drifted back to the fire, beers in hand. Suddenly there was an explosion at some distance outside the base. I tensed, the adrenaline rushing through my bloodstream. It was too far away to be our own fire-plan. "THIS IS IT!!!" Would I hear the whine of the incoming bomb? Where would the bomb burst? Such thoughts flashed through my mind in a split second. Where was the nearest shelter?
There were no explosions near us, and no-one that I was sitting with looked worried. There were a couple more explosions, and some muffled medium machine-gun fire.
"Its only Koevoet," I was told. "They shoot whatever they like, whenever they like, to keep themselves amused." This, the supposed illustrious Koevoet, wasting the South African tax payers money. Bastards!
But, am I unfair? I was also told by one of the officers there that the Commandant had organised a display of military fireworks to entertain his wife when she visited him at the base once. Most of the senior officers and NCO's had their wives and families in Oshakati. A doctor's wife visited him by special permission, and the OC dismissed out of hand a request to show her some fireworks.
Conversation turned to Koevoet for a while. They seemed no more popular here than they were in Oshakati, amongst the real army - who had to stand back and let Koevoet do their work. I was told that the OC of Eenhana would not allow Koevoet into the base. I don't know whether this was official policy, or the Commandant's own preference.
Philip told me that they always knew when there was going to be a rev, because the local population would always be tipped off, and they would move out of the area. This seemed to be a basic, but effective form of intelligence gathering. There was a minute settlement of Owambos a couple of hundred yards from the base.
The doctor's party died out eventually, and I returned to my quarters. Philip came with me, and I invited him in. We chatted for a while longer, but I had other things I wanted to do, notes to write up, and a book to read. He commented about how nice my accommodation was, and spoke of how much he would like to sleep there (there were three beds) but I did not invite him - the senior officers might not be impressed if I had done so. Eventually I excused myself and went to bed.
I attended the parade first thing next morning. At this, the intelligence officer read items of news to the assembled troops, most of them Cape Coloureds. The news items consisted of developments in the Iraq/Iran conflict, and fluctuations in the gold price. It seemed irrelevant. We were eight kilometres South of Angola!
Sitting in the order group, I noticed a drawing decorating the chaplain's file. He couldn't have drawn it himself, and he either hadn't looked at it closely, or else he was very naive, for the file that he carried around with him was decorated with two palm trees, the fronds of which were unmistakably the leaves of a cannabis plant.
I met the OC, who was very friendly in a military distant sort of way. Charl had briefed me that he was very pleasant and hospitable. He was a weight-lifter, and had set up his own weights room in the base. Philip said he `pushed mega-weights.'
In the transport section of the camp, near the workshops, the Buffels were lined up in the parking area. They bore names including; `Rough Rider', `Copy Cat' and `Muff Dive III'.
Philip hung around with me, and we talked liberal politics in hushed tones. In the early evening we were exploring one of the bunkers that looked out over the cleared area which surrounded the base, and kept the trees at bay - a `kill zone', offering lethal fire at any enemy stupid enough to venture into it. But it wasn't that kind of war ... We were in the bunker when we saw a large SAKK soldier walking up carrying a medium machine gun, with belts of ammunition hung over his neck and dangling down his chest.
One troepie did contact me, in my capacity of being a psychologist making his rounds. He had read some self-help type book on `Die Depressie' (`The Depression') which he believed he had, and for which he believed that he required treatment. It was one of those situations where he started with a list of symptoms, which as he read them he started to feel that they applied to him. He certainly wasn't clinically depressed, maybe bored, and I had to tell him that he was okay, which he wasn't very happy about.
There was something that I liked very much about Eenhana, something which might have faded if I spent any greater length of time there. It was relevant, business-like, I supposed. It looked geared for an attack - as, of course, it had been. I had been treated as an important guest.
LEGENDS CONCERNING EENHANA
A story I heard at Eenhana was that at some stage it was intended to drop some paratroopers in at Eenhana, but the paratroopers reported to their aircraft without their parachutes. These had all been locked away, and they couldn't find the person who had the key.
Lieutenant Jacques Blignout, Law Officer, tells a story of a camper called up to do a camp at Eenhana who was a signaller, but who was now doing a Political Science master's degree on Karl Marx. At the time, SA intelligence forces were monitoring the movements of a military convoy in Southern Angola. Its movements were confusing, as it seemed to keep changing direction, and wandering around aimlessly. The explanation eventually arrived at was that the signaller was getting on to the Angolan radio communications network, and was playfully giving them instructions in Russian, some of which were being followed.
Philip Christiansen got himself into trouble later on. He drew attention to himself by clumsily trying to arrange for some letters to reach South Africa without being censored. In one letter which was intercepted, he had apparently broken every rule of security and common sense. Apparently he told a friend in his letter that he was going to `rip the army off' and take a second fourteen day pass.
He was on his way back to South Africa when he was called for an interview with the OC of Sector 10 Medical Section, Commandant Potgieter who confronted him with this and other information. While he was being `interviewed', a pig-like military police Corporal went snuffling through his kit, and during this search some ECC (End Conscription Campaign) literature was discovered.(Philip's version of this story appears in Barry Fowler (Ed.). (1995) `Pro Patria', pp. 145-6.)
Philip was naive rather than dangerous, and the OC was lenient when he ate humble pie at my recommendation. And he got his fourteen days - was it his second? The pig policeman interested me. I had almost done an intellectual assessment on him two months previously, with a view to boarding him out of the SADF.
THE LAST VISITOR TO ELUNDU (7-8/09/1987)
Since late the previous week I had been house sitting for Charl de Wet while he was in Cape Town presenting his paper on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to the conference of the South African Psychology Association (PASA).
At about 5 a.m. on the Monday morning I faced the fact that I wasn't going to get any sleep that night. An over-active brain had kept me awake going over plans for my future, and evaluating things I had done in the past. I could not clear my mind of such thoughts to get any sleep. I knew that an uncomfortable day lay ahead of me; hot eyes, nagging irritability, and retarded mental agility. I was glad that I did not have many appointments booked, as I now had time to arrange follow up appointments, now that I was about up to date with my administrative work. I would probably be able to live out the day quietly without demanding too much from myself and suffering the consequences.
A hindrance was finding in daylight that my two favourite short sleeve `step out' shirts had been in the same wash load in which I had washed a black shirt, and now they were a strangely military looking grey colour. I would have to buy myself two new medic step out shirts, and you can't buy them on the border. At work I warned most of the lads that I was going to be a bear with a sore head all day, so `Please keep your distance.'
The Commandant arrived, and summoned me to his office. "I've been trying to get hold of you over the weekend," he told me. "Maybe I didn't try hard enough."
"Elundu was revved on Friday night, and there were eight casevacs," he continued. "Nkongo was revved last night, but all the bombs fell short of the base, so I don't think it was all that serious. I want you to contact Major Els of 54 Battalion at Eenhana (where I had been on a staff visit two weeks previously, and on whose son I had contributed to the feedback Charl gave the parents a week back - so I am familiar with Major Derek Els) and ask if he wants you to go out and talk to the people at Elundu, or wherever they are now."
Elundu was a base that was going to be evacuated and demolished, a process which seemed to have been going on for a long time. Apparently the evacuation was in its last throes. The base had been established seven years previously. Isolated, it was accessible only by thirty kilometres of mineable dust road, and all its water had to be transported through to it. After seven years, the army decided to close the base down and redeploy the men and equipment amongst the other bases which composed 54 Battalion.
Right! So now I have to get hold of Major Els, and this keeps me busy for the next hour and a half. We can't get through on the ordinary telephone, and we assume that the line has been cut, which is not unlikely, so we try to get them on the long range radio. I don't know how to operate one, so I got one of the ops. lieutenants, Lt. Niewoudt, to try to make contact for me. She was also unable to make contact with Eenhana, but she and another woman from the AG Complex were going through to the Sector HQ, where she would be able to get a message through on the ops. radio network.
She departed, and I settled down to wallow in self-pity and to take SWAPO's activities personally. I now faced very demanding work on a day that I would have preferred to have slept through. Lieutenant Niewoudt reported back to me that Major Els said that it was vital that I go through. So now at least I knew.
So I went through to brunch with the other chaps and had a big meal because I didn't know when I would eat again, or where I would be when I ate again. I spoke to the Log. Ops. Lieutenant, Andrew Launder, who told me that I had to be at Ondangwa for 11 a.m. at the latest to get on the Dakota making the `rum run' out to Eenhana. I had about ten minutes to pack. We drove through by ambulance, stopping at Charl's house so I could dash in and get my toilet kit. What I took was the uniform I was wearing, my sleeping bag, sunglasses, and a book to read. I was travelling light!
I arrived at Ondangwa Air Force Base at about 11H00, to be told that there was no hurry as the last leg of the `rum run' which will take me out would probably only depart at about 3 p.m. (I'll kill Andrew Launder!) Ten minutes to pack to be on time to wait four hours - the old `hurry up and wait!'
While I waited, I strolled over to the Ondangwa Military Base Hospital to go and persuade one of the doctors to prescribe me some `Reactivan' for me to use to keep awake if I found a formidable workload waiting for me at Elundu. I got some without a problem, and then visited one of the casualties who had been casevaced out immediately after the rev. He was the only one on the ward; the other casualties had been sent on to 1 Mil, except for another who was presently being operated on. I spoke to the soldier for a while, but he didn't seem to be suffering too much from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I drifted back to the airport buildings where I took a reactivan capsule, and settled down to read.
Around me the lounge filled up with passengers destined to fly down to South Africa. Many were going on pass, and there seemed to be good morale. I continued to read. I became aware of someone hobbling along on crutches, and I looked up to find my usual room mate, Enrico, bearing down on me. He had damaged his leg playing volleyball, and had it in a cast. He had just that day heard that his mother was in hospital following a heart attack (not her first), and he was going down on compassionate leave. He did not seem to be too upset about this and we chatted for a while. Then we ran out of things to say, and sat there staring into space. I did not feel able to continue reading with him there, so I sat staring into space instead.
Enrico's plane arrived, and everyone due to fly on it got ready to leave. Outside, the aircrew tested the engines, and eventually walked into the building, and there was an announcement that the flight to South Africa would be delayed. Enrico became fatalistic, saying that everything happened in threes; he had damaged his leg, his mother had had a heart attack, and now he was waiting for a flight which wasn't going to happen. Half an hour after my scheduled departure, I was called by name over the intercom, and asked to report to reception, where a clerk escorted me out to where the Dakota was waiting on the runway.
I saw one of the medics I had met at Eenhana, a blond Aryan with the surname `Black'. There was also a squad of fresh `sappers' going out on the `rum run'. The Dakota took off, and we flew along at treetop height for about twenty minutes to Eenhana. I spent the entire time looking out of the windows, watching the sparse but dark looking trees hurtle by underneath us. Black, next to me, spent the whole flight with his head on his arms on his knees, looking as though he was trying to sleep. The new sappers looked bright and keen, and joked with each other. Although I still enjoy all the experiences of flying etc., I think I would probably have appreciated it all much more if I could have done all this when I was seven years old.
We touched down at Eenhana, and the wheels braced as they suddenly moved from stationary to a hundred kilometres per hour, and the plane hopped. I climbed down to find a familiar ground crew waiting, and a little while later, Major Els had again arrived in his mine resistant bakkie, with his huge dog on the back. He greeted me as an old friend. Just before we drove to the ops. room, I met Philip Christiansen, who had taken it upon himself to keep me occupied during my previous visit. He wandered up and said that he was surprised that I had not been to the sickbay to look them up. Me, a PF Captain? No, I must wait where I am expected to be. Besides, I had only just arrived.
I went through to the ops. room where I was given a cooldrink, and I wandered around for about ten minutes, before getting into a conversation with an infantry captain who I had heard unpleasant things about, but had not met before. He was pleasant enough to me. His girlfriend was on her way to becoming a clinical psychologist, and we talked about this for a while, and then we talked about a problem person that he wanted me to evaluate on my return the next day; and then we talked about the drug problem in the army.
Then a Sapper Lieutenant Andrew Watson arrived and told me that the convoy out to Elundu was ready to depart. He fixed me up with a place in the cab of a water truck, so that I would not get too dusty. The convoy had a `Buffel' APC at each end, and a couple of trucks in between. I took off my maroon medics beret, and put on my bush hat, which made me look about twelve years old.
We set off on the thirty kilometre journey to Elundu. The road had been swept for mines earlier in the day, and was considered to be `clean' for the day. I had a `coloured' driver. His cloth name badge said `Sampson'. There were signs and notices on the inside of the cab urging passengers to strap themselves in, and to be alert and watchful - `for your own safety'. The straps looked as though they had never been used. They were still in the manufacturers' clear plastic. There's something macho about flouting safety regulations!(Also see Norman Dixon (1988) On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, p. 141.)
I looked suspiciously at the sand road we were travelling along. Who was to say that a SWAPO insurgent couldn't whip back and plant a mine after the road had been swept? I waited for the bang! The driver had his door open because it was hot. Although being about twice his size, I secretly tried to hide behind him, so he would stop any bullets coming in.
We arrived at Elundu, where there wasn't much to be seen. The surrounding sand walls were still there, and inside the enclosure were a couple of trees and a water tower. As we went inside, I saw that there were three army tents still standing, but very little else. The base had been in the last stages of being demolished when the rev had occurred the previous Friday. The base was being flattened - maybe SWAPO wanted to take all the credit for this? All the buildings had been demolished, including the bathrooms, although they were still needed. All the troops' tents had been taken back to Eenhana because there had been `room on a truck' going through. It had been felt that they should send as much through with it as possible. Now the troops slept in small clusters, sometimes in little shanty shelters they had made from debris from the buildings which had been demolished. Everyone had been living on rat packs for the past ten days. The place looked like a squatter camp. But amidst all this, the base's aviary was still standing, with its doves and ducks still looking well fed and watered. The aviary seemed to have been the base's pride and joy. The birds would be transferred to the main aviary at Eenhana.
Many of the troops, especially the Cape Coloured Corps (SAKK) had spent as long as two years at the base, which had become their home. They were reluctant to demolish it. Discipline was reputed to be slack. I reported to the OC of the base, a `coloured' Infantry Lieutenant, who `strekked'. (`Braced' - demonstration of respect when you are not wearing uniform.) Embarrassing!
At Elundu, white troops served under a black (coloured) officer. This, in the `Apartheid Army?' The Lieutenant OC was apparently not popular with his superiors, possibly because of his colour.
I met the medical officer, Dr. Fraser Perry, who had been at Elundu for exactly a week when the rev had occurred. Baptism by fire! I spent most of my time at Elundu in his company in his tent, which doubled as the sickbay. It had been damaged in the rev, and was sprinkled with holes through which I contemplated the stars when I lay in bed that night. He also showed me a jagged hole in the head of his bed through which a fifty cent piece could be pushed.
The rev had taken place between 8 and 9 p.m. He had been lying on his bed reading, with his head under the fluorescent light, and his feet up near the headrest. He had heard the commotion, and everyone in the base had been firing out in all directions. He flung himself to the floor, and leopard crawled to some shelter at the partly demolished bathroom, where he rested and assessed the situation, before he leopard crawled on to the outer walls. He remembered the OC shouting `Walle toe, manne! Walle toe!' ("To the walls, men! To the walls!")
Then the rev was over, and it was time to see who had been injured, and to call in a Puma helicopter to take the casualties through to Ondangwa. After the rev, order was rapidly restored, and within ten minutes, some of the soldiers were back to braaiing their dinners - so they say!
Fraser told me about something that was bothering him was a `sport' that some of the soldiers were indulging in. The area was very dry, and all of Elundu's water had to be trucked in. Local livestock often came into the camp to drink water, only to be chased away by the soldiers. Its all very well to chase the cattle away, but the sport had developed into chasing and catching goats, which can't run very fast, swinging them around by their tails, and then hurling them over the surrounding walls. The goats often broke legs on landing, and the soldiers might have felt slightly guilty about this, and would appease their consciences by bringing the goat in to the doctor to be fixed up. "What do I know about animals?" Fraser asked plaintively. He complained to the OC, who promised to outlaw this cruelty to animals.
There was an evening parade, apparently more formal than usual, at which I spoke to the troops, acknowledging that most of them were veterans of several revs. I listed the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and invited anyone who wished to speak to me to approach me later that evening. Morale was high, and no-one did.
I wandered around and watched the sun set. Then I drifted back to Fraser's tent and read. A bed, mattress and pillow had been provided for me, while others were sleeping under the stars. I believe that the OC had put this, his own bed, at my disposal. Many thanks!
Then a casualty was brought in. He looked as though he had lost the last knuckle of one of his fingers. He had been loading the very heavy concrete slabs from the helicopter landing pad, and one had dropped on his finger. Fraser reconstructed the finger and I assisted. The flesh had been smashed loose from the bone, but it improved with stitches. Fraser suggested it would look normal in a week or two, though maybe a bit like the end of a tinned Vienna sausage.
After this drama we retired to bed. The generator was switched off, and the lights went out. We spoke in the darkness for a while, about the political situation, and about Koevoet. Fraser quoted a story told to him by the OC; that they were hot on the trail of SWAPO forces retreating far into Angola, when suddenly they found Koevoet blocking their path, and Koevoet forced them, at gun point, to turn back.(An incident of this kind is referred to in Hooper (1990), p. 64-65.) Koevoet does most of the killing of the enemy. National servicemen seem to be used mostly to man bases which SWAPO rev, or to walk patrols, but as soon as there is a contact, Koevoet muscles in and takes over. As Fraser says; "A national serviceman stands almost no chance of shooting a terr!" Why then is so much time and money spent on training them to do so?
Then Fraser told me not to worry about the pitter patter of little feet; `Its only mice.' I told him that I don't mind mice. I had pet mice as a school boy. He says that the only drawback is that they attract snakes. He went on to tell me about all the deadly poisonous snakes that had been caught around the base. Maybe then I got nervous.
I asked what to do if we were revved. He told me that it was already too late to get revved that night. Revs only take place before 10 p.m., to give the guerrillas a chance to get away, unlike at Oshakati.
We lay in next morning until about quarter to eight, after which we dressed and talked until I was summoned that the convoy was ready to take me back to Eenhana. I thanked the OC for having me, and complimented him on the morale of his troops, and I wished him well. He `strekked' me again before shaking hands with me.
I rode as a passenger in a truck taking the barbed wire defences back to Eenhana. There were buffels ahead and behind us. The sappers were still busy sweeping the road, and we soon caught up with them. I am in a mine resistant vehicle with three centimetre thick armoured plate glass in front. No one is strapped in in spite of the warning signs. The doors don't close properly. The driver keeps his armoured door wide open, so anyone could shoot straight into the cab. I asked him why he had his door open and he told me that otherwise it gets hot. It is already hot.
We drove along at a snail's pace, or stopped with engines running. The fuel bills for each convoy must be astronomical! There are two crews of sappers who take it in turns to sweep the road, and who swap over at regular intervals. The sappers sweep the right side of the road. The one nearest the middle of the road is furthest forward, the next walks to his right, one pace behind, and the others complete this pattern to the side of the road. They walk along at a stroll with the mine detectors straight out in front of them, about twenty centimetres above the ground. A SAKK infantry escort walks along on the left side of the road, which has not been swept for mines. Civilian cars and bakkies thunder past on the left side of the road - undamaged - and send clouds of dust over the mine sweepers.
The soldiers on the border are casual. They sit up on the Buffels they are supposed to sit inside, strapped into their seats. They sit on platforms level with the top, totally unprotected from anyone who might want to take a pot shot at them. They wear uniform; sleeves rolled up loosely, shirts unbuttoned and hanging loosely, some without hats. This is where the war is - a "man's world"!
They are nibbling at their rat packs, and littering the bags along the roadsides. We pass settlements, and soldiers toss things that they don't want from their rat packs to the children, who sometimes beg.
We had taken three hours to cover the first twenty kilometres, but I was enjoying the experience - very interesting that I, a clinical psychologist, found myself being driven along in an army convoy in a very remote part of the world.
The convoy stopped again, and the SAKK Sergeant who was administratively in charge of the convoy came to me and said that I had to be at Eenhana by half past twelve to meet the aeroplane that was taking me back. The convoy wouldn't be there in time, so he transferred me to one of the Buffels, and told the driver to race ahead, but to keep to the level area to the side of the road, and not to drive on the road. (The level area to the side of the road is never searched for mines, but must often be used on such occasions as the present. What a place to put a mine. I wait for the bang!)
The Buffel is occupied by SAKK, who are not inhibited by my presence, and who continue to laugh and joke among themselves. Again, they are supposed to travel sitting down and strapped in, but most of them are standing up, looking out over the sides. The clear level area to the side of the road ends, so we veer back on to the road which the mine sweepers will sweep, but have not swept yet. We roar along the road. I wait for the bang!
I was well aware of the fear of a land mine exploding under us. I remember the sensation of wanting to make my `self' as small as possible, withdrawing into the protective flesh and bone which might be damaged and ripped into by shrapnel and debris, but my `self' might escape unscathed. Was I actually imagining my soul?
What is the point of sweeping the road if this can be ignored when one is in a hurry? The last couple of hundred metres between us and the entrance to Eenhana was the worst. If we were going to hit a mine on this journey, this was the only place left where it could happen. I felt as though I was swimming underwater, craving for breath, but determined to wait to reach the far wall before I could surface and breathe again.
I arrived back at Eenhana, and reported to Major Els. We chatted for about half an hour before the light aircraft, a six seater `Kudu', was ready to fly us back to Ondangwa. Major Els asked me about the mental state of the doctor at Elundu. He said that the doctor had been described as almost hysterical immediately after the rev. I wondered whether this was just army vs. medics antagonism - `The medics can't handle the heavy stuff. They're not tough and hard like the Army'. I liked Major Els, and I doubt that he would have such attitudes. I assured him that the doctor appeared to be fine, and did not show any unexpected anxiety. I was fairly sure of this, having spoken to him for hours the previous night.
Major Els told me that he had contacted the medics at Oshakati and asked them to have me collected. He also had to get back to Oshakati, but he couldn't organise any army transport, so he decided to commandeer a lift with the medics sent to fetch me.
The pilot strolled out to the aircraft on the runway. He was so English that he could have been Biggles. He wore a `Why be normal?' button upside down on his flight overalls. We took off and flew at tree top height to Ondangwa, which took us fifteen minutes. I enjoyed it.
There was no medics transport awaiting us, but there was a Samel 100 truck to collect the Major. I confirmed that no medics transport had been sent, and then rode back to Oshakati on the back of the Samel 100. It was a hot day, and the metal body work of the truck was painful to the touch. I sat on the large spare wheel all the way back to Oshakati. Thank God I had my sunglasses with me!
My investigations ("Where the hell where you bastards when I needed you?") later suggested that the medics driver had been forbidden to go through to Ondangwa. He was sorry that he had been unable to collect me. Was Kevin Holmes, who had the ultimate power to authorise or forbid his staff to drive through to Ondangwa, playing a practical joke on me?
Published: 1 July 2000.
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