CASEVACS AND CIVILIANS
ESCORTING 'CASEVACS' DOWN TO SOUTH AFRICA
'CASEVAC' - Term used for 'casualty evacuation'. Patients who could not be treated on the border were flown down to a military hospital in South Africa. 'Medevac' - was the transportation of the bodies of soldiers killed in the operational area.
Patients with problems that were too severe for us to deal with or treat at Sector 10 were sent down for treatment in the 'States', with 1 Military Hospital being the usual port of call. Medical patients had to be accompanied by doctors to attend to their medical needs, and it usually fell on one of the doctors stationed at either Oshakati or Ondangwa to accompany medical patients down. This usually resulted in that doctor having a couple of days holiday in the 'States', waiting for a return flight, supposedly as part of their official duty, and such 'casevac' duties were jealously shared by the eligible doctors.
Patients with psychiatric or psychological problems had to be accompanied, the Air Force insisted, so that there was someone there to `control' them if they `went berserk' on the aeroplane. This simplistic view of mental disorders was not something that the psychologists were in a great hurry to disillusion them of, as we enjoyed the couple of days holiday in `the States' while on the 'official duties' of accompanying a casevac.
By virtue of being the only service of its kind on the border, the psychology service staff were "Big fish in little pool", and able to make effective decisions bearing greater responsibility than I was used to from 1 Military Hospital. When I made a decision that a patient's psychological problems were too severe for us to be able to handle there, and that he should be referred to a psychiatry department, my judgement was accepted as the final word on the matter by my superiors, and he would be flown down to 1 Mil with an escort. The cost of each ticket down to South Africa is about R 500. So with return fares for patient and escort, each time I decided that a patient should be sent down, it cost the Defence Force about R 2 000. This power gave me a sense of importance. At 1 Mil, all decisions regarding patient management have to be taken by the psychiatrists, so this was quite a novelty.
MY FIRST CASEVAC
The first patient I accompanied was not my own, but the wife of some senior officer or NCO who was suffering from an anxiety/depression condition, complicated by the fact that she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. I had only been on the border for a month at that stage, and didn't have any particular reason to want to go down then, but Charl wanted her escorted, so I took her.
She was worried that we thought she was so bad that she needed to be escorted, but we explained that it was a chance for me to have a holiday, which reassured her slightly. I knew very little about her. I kept close to her, while trying not to be intrusive. When we arrived at the airport at Ondangwa, she found some friends who were going down on the same flight, and she scurried over to join them. That suited me. I could keep an eye on her from a distance, and she seemed much happier.
While we waited (23/07/1987) a rumour went around the waiting room that the 'Flossie' was still waiting at Grootfontein because it had a flat tire. How long would it take to change the tire on a 'Flossie'? Do they carry spare tyres?
Some hours later the aircraft arrived. We boarded it, and flew to Grootfontein, where we waited for an hour or so, before boarding a SAFAIR Boeing 707 to fly to Waterkloof Air Force Base, the main AFB in Pretoria, which was used for such flights.
At Grootfontein, I met Dr. David Swingler, a friend who had worked with me in the Psychiatry Department for the best part of the previous year. He was accompanying three medical patients from Grootfontein down to 1 Mil. This was strange - Grootfontein was an hour's flying time south of the operational area - 'where the war was'.
We arrived at Waterkloof Air Force Base at 7 p.m., and I took over with my role of escort again, fetching my patient's baggage, and arranging for transport to take us to 1 Mil. An ambulance arrived to fetch us, though none of the patients was severely injured enough to warrant the use of an ambulance. If we had had seriously injured patients with us, one hopes that an ambulance would have been waiting for us, rather than that one of the accompanying officers would have to phone when we arrived, and ask to be collected!
I waited around the hospital for two more hours while waiting for the psychiatry doctor on call to arrive, and to tell him about my patient, and to arrange food for all the patients. (Dave was better organised than me, and he had had more notice of this trip. He was on another plane heading to Cape Town, his home town, before I had left the hospital.)
The doctor on call was a new national serviceman who had only been with the department for a couple of weeks, and I had never seen him before. He admitted the woman I had escorted down on to the female psychiatric ward that I had once worked on - a month previously! I wished her well and said I would visit her again before I left. Then I bullied up some transport to take me back to the SAMS Officers' Club. Again, I had to wait a while for a duty driver to be made available to take me home.
By the time I arrived at the SAMS Officers' Club, there were no cooks around to feed me, but I found a bowl of samosas left over from a cocktail party in the bar, so I feasted on these. (I had only had a light brunch at 10 a.m., and it had been a long day.) I only had the uniform that I flew down in.
Although I had only been away for a month, it felt as though I had been away a lot longer. We were a month deeper into Winter than when I had left, and the gardens looked stark and bare. Most of my closest friends had left the mess within a day or two of my departure to the border, when their two year initial stage of national service ended. Fred remained, but he was away somewhere for that weekend. I contacted his brother and sister in law, who were good friends to me, and who wined and dined me one evening.
That night I slept better than I'd slept for the past month. In my own room, on my own (army) bed, and none of the tension we had on the border; no "Will we get revved tonight?"
I seem to remember having a head cold at this time, having a persistent dull headache, coughing up phlegm, and feeling my body flavoured with cough tonic, possibly Benelyn.
On Friday I went to visit friends at 1 Mil. Although I had only been away for a month, there were many changes. The head of the department, Commandant Anton Potgieter, had resigned and was serving his three months notice. His successor had not been appointed, but it could be no one other than the deputy head, Commandant Marius Mathey, whom I was very fond of. I also met some new national service doctors who replaced those who finished in June. I made a special point of looking in on the patient whom I had escorted down.
As an unusual coincidence, I found that the New 1 Mil was having a practise evacuation of the hospital. 'Injured' people, including both genuine patients and staff, had to be 'evacuated'. The matron on the ward I was visiting, well known to me, stuck a label saying 'catatonic schizophrenic' on my forehead. I acted that part throughout the evacuation, adding in paranoid elements because being a pure catatonic was very boring. The other 'patients' and I had fun hamming up our psychopathology while being evacuated. The evacuation took a long time - too long! But we had a lot of fun, and during the course of this, I met up with most of the people I had wanted to visit.
It was a bizarre way to spend a couple of hours back in civilisation, after having been on the border for a month.
Another surprise was meeting up with two of the medics I know from Oshakati - separately. One of them had completed his tour of duty, and I bumped into him when I reported at headquarters to arrange my flight back up to Oshakati on Monday.
On Saturday evening I went into Pretoria with a friend, Jonathan Buys, to see 'The Fourth Protocol', and I saw some soldiers approaching us as we went window shopping. Soldiers are not an uncommon sight in Pretoria, but these had their rifles with them, and wore their army rucksacks, which was not as usual. Suddenly I recognised one of them at the same time he recognised me, and we chatted. He had come down to South Africa to fetch some vehicle that he would be driving back up to Oshakati. The journey would take him four days, and he was going up in a convoy. I hadn't expected to meet anyone from Oshakati, and yet I had met two.
MY SECOND CASEVAC
Only two weeks (06/08/1987) after my return from taking down my first casevac, there was a depressed patient whom I believed needed to be further evaluated and treated in a psychiatric ward which we could not provide in the operational area. He had a major depression as well as a long psychiatric history, and I don't think he should ever have been sent to the border in the first place.
I went down with him, and for the first time on a SAFAIR flight, there were no delays. We took a Hercules down to Grootfontein (1 hour), where we waited 2 hours. (Why?) I genuinely liked the patient that I was accompanying. He was rather like a little boy for whom life had suddenly become too demanding and complicated. 'A waif and stray' as my mentor at University might have described him.(Hi, Ralph!)
He had been stationed at one of the remote bases, where his gradual mental deterioration had gone undetected because everyone was under strain waiting for the next attack. He had a strange way of taking - reducing what he wanted to say down to the minimum resulting in what sounded like baby talk. 'Captain want drink?' he asked me. I had asked him about this during the clinical interview, and he said it was to 'save time'. A symptom of depression is reduced energy, but this was the first time that I had come across this manifestation of energy conservation.
I stood him to a cooldrink and a hamburger. I probably earned about eight times more than he did. Although my rank prevented me from having much of a conversation with him, I felt a strong bond of camaraderie with him. He was someone whom I was protecting, for whom I was responsible. I felt like a benevolent big brother to him.
He had been on anti-depressant medication for about a week, and he was starting to get a bit better. I hoped he didn't improve too much too soon, or 1 Mil might refuse to admit him. They might accuse me of having used him as an excuse for a long weekend in the 'States', which was not the case.
At Grootfontein there was an Air Force Commandant, who acts as a circus ring master, and makes all the announcements through a loud hailer. It gives him something to do. He is a short, fat man, who wears ridiculously large army issue shorts. We boarded the 707 to fly to Waterkloof. Four stretcher casevacs were loaded on board at Grootfontein; black troops who had been in an army truck crash. The seats along one set of windows had been folded flat, and the patients lay on stretchers over them, with drips flowing into them. They were wrapped in light green foam-like material, and they were strapped in.(I remember an irrational feeling of resentment towards these casualties having been injured when they weren't even in the war zone.) They were going to hospital, while elsewhere on the same plane a family of children were going on holiday.
The flight crew played music on the intercom as we taxied out, but this was switched off as we took off and while we were airborne, and switched on again as we taxied up to the terminal at Waterkloof. SAFAIR always seem to get the most English of air-hostesses, with the worst Afrikaans accent, to read the announcements about what to do in the event of sudden depressurization.
Approaching Waterkloof Air Force Base we flew past 1 Military Hospital, and looking out of the window one could see the various features of Voortrekkerhoogte, including the SAMS Officers' Club, which had been a happy home to me for the year and a half before the start of my border duty.
At Waterkloof, we waited for all normal patients to disembark, after which we carried the stretcher cases down to the ambulances waiting on the runway - like the title scenes of 'M*A*S*H'. We stowed the patients in the ambulance, and then went to fetch our luggage. My patient's sleeping bag was missing - I'd put it on the aircraft - it was my responsibility. Airport officials were disinterested and told me to report it stolen. (I took a couple of hours to report this the next day, which involved arranging transport back to Waterkloof.)
We rode to 1 Mil in the back of an ambulance, with the injured soldiers stowed in racks in their stretchers. I waited at casualty with my patient. I had arranged for 1 Mil to be contacted concerning our arrival, but it still took an hour for the doctor on call to arrive. As had happened previously, he was someone from the most recent intake; part of the department in which I had worked, but he did not know me, and I did not know him. Was I jealous, and feeling left out?
Eventually it was decided to admit my patient to Ward 24, the big old ward over at the Old Hospital. We arrived there at about 8 p.m., him carrying his rifle and chest webbing filled with loaded magazines for his rifle. We were both fresh from the border, wearing our 'browns'. Our boots squeaked on the concrete passageways. We had had a long day.
We walked into Ward 24, which seemed like a dormitory on the first night of a youth camp; lots of people, none of whom looked psychiatrically ill, sitting around chatting in groups. Someone was playing a guitar, and several radio cassette players blared. 'Moffies' (a derogatory term for histrionic homosexuals) were wandering around 'flapping' (mincing) and 'gilling'. (I can't think of any English equivalent - possible the 'screaming' of 'screaming queens'!) I felt I owed my depressed patient an apology for bringing him to this place, where he was supposed to get better. I'm sorry, Emil!
Major Kevin Holmes had asked me to do a chore while I was down at 1 Mil. He wanted me to fetch an orthopaedic army boot from a workshop deep within the bowels of the hospital, and to take it back to Oshakati, which I did.
I bumped into that boot again a couple of times while I was on the border. The last time was when I took it out to the person waiting for it, at Eenhana if I remember correctly. I suppose I was getting used to it by then. Maybe it had become something of a 'security blanket' (transitional object) to me. I would have picked up more flack if I'd toured the outer lying bases with a Teddy Bear. Sometimes I miss that boot!
I spent a large part of the next day at 1 Mil, seeking out a few friends, and doing some administrative work, but I kept bumping into people whom I knew. I had written letters to the three wards I had had most to do with, and no-one had written back to me in six weeks. I had been just as guilty myself when friends of mine had headed up to the border - one person goes away, but your ordinary life continues.
People would see me, and recall that they had seen me two weeks earlier when I had previously escorted a casevac down, and many felt moved to comment; "What are you doing down here again?" or "You seem to be spending more time down here than you do up there." They were probably just trying to be friendly, and to be more creative than to say 'Welcome back', but the effect it has makes you want to tell them to 'fuck off'! They strike you as fickle; when they see you, they suddenly care and take an interest, asking 'How is the border?' and wanting to get their own little angle. (I had probably done exactly the same thing to other people myself before this, my first border duty!) But it gets annoying, and I don't want to go down again until the end of my border duty.
On the day of my return to the Protea Officers' Mess in Oshakati, Lieutenant Jacques Blignout walked into my room. "Hello Barry," he said "Welcome back!" No-one had said that at 1 Mil!
"I now have an intolerance for people who ask understandable but very general questions like 'What's it like on the border?' I have the feeling that everyone wants you to admit to them that you were scared, or that you must confirm their theories about the border experience; "You must have got bored!" I am especially intolerant of people who showed no interest in me while I was on the border, or who came up with the 'You're spending more of your time here than on the border' comments, and seem to be trying to make amends by showing a taken interest now."
- extract from the report of my border duty
CIVILIANS IN OSHAKATI
In the white compound of Oshakati, piles of sand were dropped off in the streets for the home-owners to fill sandbags with, to fortify their houses or bomb shelters. Children had great fun ramping their BMX bikes over these sand mounds.
Oshakati actually had a carnival, with all the women who weren't obese dressed up as drum majorettes, and lifting their five, six and seven year old kids up onto the floats. Comments from the dentists; `Its not as good as Tuks's (University of Pretoria) Rag, but its better than Potch's (Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education)'.
The police flew in a load of women to socialise with, at a function following the carnival, and their party was put out of bounds to SADF personnel. Some Army and Medics gate-crashed, and there was a fight, and recriminations. The police looked after their people, but the army national servicemen were ignored, or watched with hostility by their superiors.. (Also see Heller, 1961, p. 92)
HAVING BEEN REVVED
Before 1986, Oshakati had been subjected to one Stand Off Bombardment each year. [Also see `Chapter 1'] It was an annual event, almost expected, and once it had happened, everyone relaxed until they expected the next one the next rainy season. The rainy season was the busiest for SWAPO guerrillas, who relied on the rain to hide their tracks - Koevoet apparently had excellent trackers.
A mythology had sprung up around the 'annual rev', which included a couple of things happening in sequence; full moon, and that Western Province Rugby Team would win some important Rugby match, and there were a couple of other 'events' which were seen to be part of the pattern, which would lead up to the annual rev.
Suddenly, in 1986, the anticipated annual rev was followed about a month later by another completely unexpected one. In this one, the damage to houses was far more severe than had been the case in any of the previous revs. I saw photos of houses which had been badly damaged.
Apparently the emergency services had been hampered by the behaviour of the civilians in the compound. Once they had ascertained that there had been no damage to their own homes, they had got into their cars and drove around looking at the damaged houses, and in so doing caused congestion, which prevented ambulances and fire engines getting to those houses which had been worst hit.
This was not the worst; people would actually get out of their cars and go into damaged houses and look around, paying no attention whatsoever to the privacy of the people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. One man, surveying the ruins of his house, found a group of complete strangers nosing around in the rubble of what had been his lounge. Merely sightseers!
The extent of the damage to the property was greater than had been inflicted by previous revs, and insurance claims were contested by the insurance companies, who maintained that the damage had been caused by an act of war (fair comment!), which was an exclusion clause somewhere in the small print in the contracts. Many people found that they were uninsured, right at the time they had needed it most.
The second unexpected rev had a devastating effect on the morale of the white community in the town, and many mothers and some fathers demanded to be returned to South Africa immediately. A special team of a psychiatrist (my friend Commandant Marius Mathey), and several of my psychologist colleagues, including Pieter Griesel, were sent up to Oshakati to investigate the psychological implications of what had happened, and to make recommendations. I read the report, but I can't remember much of significance from it. I wish I'd made a photocopy of it at the time, but that would probably have been illegal.
Two anecdotes told by Pieter Griesel following the double revs of Oshakati in 1986:
A story told by a school going child, from whose house a 'Grad-P' surface to surface missile removed three bedrooms down to the underlying concrete slab; At school next day he reported that, 'Yes, he had done his homework, and he had left it in his suitcase in his bedroom, but when he went to fetch it in the morning, his bedroom wasn't there anymore.'
A four year old boy was 'talking big' after his family's house was hit by an enemy mortar bomb during a bombardment; "I have killed twenty six terrorists myself, and I'm not sure, but I have the feeling that there are only four of them left."
After a bombardment, many people would phone their relatives in South Africa to reassure them that they were all right, although the news of the bombardment would not yet have been announced. Imagine the scene: Husband to wife: "You mean your sister phoned us at 3 o'clock in the morning just to tell us that she is all right?"
One evening, at about 8 o'clock, the siren suddenly went off. There were no sounds of explosions or gunfire, so most people ignored it. It was too early to be a rev. No explanation was given for it, and no one seemed concerned. The story came out eventually that some group had been given a guided tour of the Sector HQ ops. room, and someone had shown them where the switch was for the siren, and had accidentally pushed it. It was bad that there was no explanation for the false alarm - nor an apology. I wonder how many children wet themselves just for the false alarm.
Child:Mommy, I don't want to live in this town anymore. People try to kill me.
Mother:Don't be silly. What would happen if everyone felt that way?
Child:Then I would be a fool to feel differently. (Apologies to Joseph Heller!)
THE ESSAY AND ART COMPETITION
While staying in Oshakati, I realised that the town, being subjected to one or two bombardments a year, was a unique community for children to grow up in, and I wanted to undertake some form of research project to investigate the effects of growing up in such a community on the children of Oshakati.
After some thought, I decided to organise an essay and drawing competition open to the children of the Oshakati Secondary School (5 to 14 year olds). I asked them to depict or describe 'Life in Oshakati'. Charl co-operated with me in this project, and we shared the cost of the prize money. We invited the COMOPS (Communications Operations) department to halve the costs with us, in exchange for a psychological report, but they did not answer our letter. We organised the competition through the school, which provided the best structure through which we could communicate with the children. I arranged to fetch a pile of A3 sized papers from the army print shop in Oshakati. I think that my request and visit was the most interesting thing that had happened to those very bored troops all day. One of the Intelligence Lieutenants offered to design a certificate on the computer that he used in his work, and I was happy to take him up on this.
I wanted to make the competition fun and rewarding for the children to participate in - hence the fairly large cash prizes, but the school botched that up for me. Unfortunately, at least one of the teachers made entry to the competition so compulsory that children will be sent to the office (to be caned!) if they did not have their essays handed in a week before our final closing date. I didn't like the coercive element which was added to something that should have been fun. Several kids reported to me that this made them feel resentful, and led them to put less effort into their entries than they might otherwise have done.
I also intended to have an exhibition of the drawings and essays so that the people of Oshakati could come and see what had been handed in before I removed the drawings and essays from the community. The school botched this up for me as well. They told the pupils that what they wrote would be confidential (something I had not specified) and told us that because of this we would not be able to have the exhibition.
Apparently one of the teachers read some of the essays to the class anyway - but we were hamstrung! We arranged for the Officer Commanding Sector 10 to hand over the prizes. Charl said that he would be willing to do so, as he was concerned about the community, most of whom were his military subordinates. The Brigadier arrived for the prize giving, and handed over the prizes and shook the hands of the winners at a ceremony which we had added on to the school assembly.
The competition was in part a public relations exercise for the psychology department -"See what nice people we are. We promote mental health. We are not just concerned with mad people." At the end of the prize giving, where we had handed out two hundred and fifty rand from our own pockets, the principal concluded the prize giving ceremony by telling his pupils; "If you manage to express your opinions and discuss your feelings, then you'll never have to go and see those two men. They're psychologists." (Well, thanks a lot!)
It was quite an expensive exercise, and I'm not sure how successful it was. Eventually from the competition, we ended up with about fifty drawings and about fifty essays on the subject of 'My Life In Oshakati'.(After my return to South Africa, I wrote up an article using the material I had collected. I submitted copies to the Department of Military Intelligence asking for security clearance to try to get the article published. I eventually submitted it to some South African military publication while I was stationed at 5 SAI, which attracted a phone call from someone from the editorial board, who expressed interest. At the end of our conversation the person commented that she expected that they might be able to `make something good' out of the material submitted. I found this mildly irritating, as I considered that it had been pretty good when I had submitted it. Nothing came of it, nor did I have any success in my more recent efforts to get the article published in Britain.)
THE LECTURE ON HOMOSEXUALITY
A woman from the women's society of the local Dutch Reformed Church contacted Charl and asked if either of us could stand in for a guest speaker who had not been able to attend, and give a lecture on any subject of our choice at their next meeting, a day or two hence. I had given lectures to various units on homosexuality in the months before coming to the border, so when Charl asked, I volunteered to give them a lecture on the subject. The lady was happy with my choice of subject, and thanked me in anticipation.
A doctor friend from one of the outer bases, Andrew, who happened to be gay, was in Oshakati on the evening on which I was due to give the lecture, and he invited himself along. He said that he wanted to see me squirm saying things that we (psychiatry & psychology) don't believe, taking a moralistic stance to play to our audience. The lady organiser came to fetch us from Protea Officers' Quarters in a clapped out old landrover.
During the lecture I followed the usual conservative line. The lecture went down well, apart from some language errors in my entirely Afrikaans lecture. The women were very interested, and not as condemnatory as I would have expected them to be. At question time and discussion at the end, Andrew put a question to the audience; "How would they deal with it if one of their children announced to them that he or she was gay?" Responses varied, but no one felt the need to say that they would reject their child outright. Quite a promising response from a conservative Afrikaans community. Andrew was not surprised. He reminded me afterwards that they were all mothers, and who loved and were concerned about their children.
After the lecture I received much positive feedback, and I was given a date at which they would like me to give another lecture; either on the same subject, or on any other subject I chose. They must have been pleased to have a tame psychologist 'on tap' to give them lectures at their women's society meetings. They were all very pleasant people, and appreciative of my efforts.
The women who worked in the AG Complex and the sickbay all expressed interest in the lectures, before and after, but not one of them bothered to come to the lectures themselves.
MY SECOND LECTURE
I gave a lecture on Sexual Abuse of Children to the women's society of the Dutch Reformed Church. My slot took two and a half hours including the discussion, but most of the thirty or so people seemed to be awake at the end. Posters had been placed around the town advertising the talk, and I felt famous.
At the end of the talk I was thanked, and given a gift. I opened it when I got home. After my last talk to them they had given me a letter opener with a Oshakati badge. This time they had given me a brass object to be hung on a wall. It depicted an American-style cowboy on a bucking bronco. In the middle of the bucking bronco was a minute badge depicting 'Oshakati, Owamboland, Namibia, South West Africa.' Between the hooves of the Bronco was a dial thermometer imposed over a bunch of alpine flowers.
This was not really an appropriate gift for a twenty six year old clinical psychologist with the rank of Captain. It would have been better for a seven year old. Is it the thought that counts? Maybe its an 'old maid' trophy, and if I was an Oshakati Rotarian, I would then, in turn, give it to the next speaker who came to speak to our club. (Almost 10 years later it is on my kitchen wall.)
MY VISIT TO WINDHOEK
A flight was being organised to go to Windhoek, the capital city of South West Africa, to take local kids down to a nomadic orthodontist. The OC said that the plane had been chartered, and anyone wanting to go as well should apply. I asked Charl if he would 'hold the fort' and he said 'fine' so I asked the Commandant if I could go - "If this request meets with your approval."
"What is your reason for wanting to go to Windhoek?" he asked me.
"No reason," I told him, willing to back down. (Discretion is the better part of valour, especially in the Army.)
"You must have a reason," he told me - promptingly.
I took the plunge! "I've never been to Windhoek, and I would like to see it if I get the chance," I told him.
"Sounds good to me," he said the equivalent of, and added my name to the passenger list.
We flew down to Windhoek in an army DC3 Dakota, flying at 'tree top height' until we were over the Etosha pan. (I saw no animals unfortunately).
The time table of my visit to Windhoek, most of the time spent with senior officers, was two hours flying time, one and a half hours waiting for transport at the airport, half an hour in Windhoek, half an hour visiting a leather artist (sounds kinky!) to commission a leather cover for the unit Bible, a three hour wait at South West Africa Medical Command, a half hour drive back to the airport, a two hour flight back to Ondangwa, and then a half hour car drive back to Oshakati, to arrive back after supper had finished. The life of the children here must be unique, flying to the dentist in a military museum piece. A sociologist's dream!
The delay on our arrival was because there are two airports at Windhoek, and we had radioed forward asking to be collected from the airport at which we would land - at the airport at which we had always landed. The driver went off to go and fetch us from the other airport.
There wasn't much to be said about the artist who drew or engraved on leather using a soldering iron. He was talented in a chocolate box realism, but I didn't care for the medium, but while we were there, I 'Oohed' and 'Aahed' like the rest of our party.
In the car on the way in to the city, I noticed that my door was not closed properly, so I opened it and shut it properly. Commandant Potgieter was driving, and this sound made him jump.
"Whoops!" I said. "I suppose this means that I will have to walk back home now?"
The Dakota pilot, a Major who had come with us, chuckled. He was a very friendly chap. I spent half an hour with him drinking coffee in Windhoek while we waited for Commandant Potgieter to finish various business. During this time I was not able to work out whether he was English or Afrikaans speaking. He didn't seem to have much of a life! He seemed to spend about two weeks flying 'operationally' in Namibia, and two weeks recovering, doing local duties in South Africa. I'm not quite sure of the time scale.
Then we went to the Headquarters of the Medical Section of South West Africa Command, to wait while the children finished having their orthodontic treatment. Most of the others of our party had things to do; I was introduced to the head fly spy of the Command, who was a Commandant Hoorn. Their set up seemed to be very similar to the fly spy set-up in Oshakati; a senior fly spy with nothing to do but stare at his assistant staring back at him all day. Despite my attempts, conversation did not flow. I started to ask all sorts of questions, some of which I knew the answers to, some of which were of no interest to me, just to try to avoid the silent staring at each other routine.
At last I got the fly spy Commandant hooked into telling a long story. Something had prompted me to ask about the Navy - that was how desperate I was! (Remember, we were in the middle of a desert!) The Commandant leaned back in his chair contentedly, and described the Navy as "'n ander klomp mense" ("A different crowd of people"). He thought that this was such a remarkable insight that he had shared with me, that he repeated it.
Then he started on a long winded story - which was better than the silence, but only just - about how for some reason he had telephoned someone in the Navy base. He had made contact with a Navy Captain, whom he thought did not treat him with the respect due to someone of his rank. He was about to comment on this, when he remembered that a Navy Captain is not the equivalent rank of an Army Captain. The Navy Captain in fact out-ranked him, so he was the one who should have been showing respect. (A Navy Captain is the equivalent of an Army Colonel.)(confirmed!)
I had been asked to fetch a file from the psychology section at the SWA Command. I had met the head psychologist, Captain Mike Carney previously. (I am sure that I had contact with him before when he had referred a patient down to 1 Military Hospital with a presenting problem of 'homosexuality'. I phoned him to ask; 'What do you want us to do with him?' Carney replied, "Can't you see he's gay?" Homosexuality is not considered to be a mental health problem. I don't think either of us was satisfied by that first encounter.)
There was a specific file which Charl had asked me to get from him, on a patient who had been seen there before being returned to Sector 10. Carney made an obviously half-hearted attempt to locate the file, which was unsuccessful. "I'll sent it to you," he said. If he did, it did not arrive in the time that I was there.
The flight back from Windhoek seemed to last a long time. I wandered up to the cockpit for a while and watched the pilots, which was interesting for about twenty minutes. The Commandant was reading a Windhoek newspaper that he had bought. SWAPO was not actually `a banned organisation' at that time, although the SADF was quite clear that PLAN, their armed wing, were the enemy and to be shot on sight if capture were to prove difficult. The Commandant read an account of some rally, either a SWAPO rally, or one that was SWAPO in all but name. He moved over to protest to me about the hypocrisy of how an enemy that we were in an army to defend our country against could be allowed to campaign so openly.
On the return flight, I remember contemplating the aircraft that we were flying in. My father, having been a pilot in the Second World War had spoken affectionately of the DC3 Dakota, although I do not know that he ever flew one. It was old but it was still going strong. I contemplated at the wonder of how it could be repaired. If some part went wrong, it could be replaced, almost indefinitely. For a while I felt that machines were superior to humans, until I remembered the human ability to generally self-repair, and the dirtiness of engines which burn fossil-based fuel. The flight was that boring!
Barclays Bank, of which there were two branches in Oshakati, claimed to have no connection whatsoever with Barclays Bank (South Africa), suddenly named 'First National Bank' when Barclays officially disinvested from South Africa. You could not access your South African accounts there, and had to open special SWA-Namibian accounts, though the currency, the Rand, was exactly the same.
Rather than keep large sums of cash in my room at the mess, I opened a savings account with the Barclays Bank of Namibia. I used this occasionally over the three months that I was there. When I came to close it at the time of my departure, I was told that my savings have been in for too little time to have gained any interest, and there was a R 10 charge for closing my account. This seemed outrageous! Bank robbery, but `by' them rather than `of' them. I was sure that there had been no mention of this in the small print, but I was in too much of a hurry to be able to take this further.
In February 1988, a couple of months after my border duty finished, a bomb went off in the main branch, killing 28 people.(See Norval (1989) Death in the Desert , pp. 106.) I wasn't surprised at the death toll. I had been in the building once or twice, when it had been jammed full of people. Any explosion in there could not fail to kill and injure many people. Following the bomb blast, Chris Ball, the manager of South Africa's First National Bank, which I had been assured had nothing to do with Namibia's Barclays Bank, flew up to take charge of the situation. Busted!
My friend from 1 Mil, Dr. Clive Wills, was based at Ombalantu for about two thirds of the time that I was in Owamboland. He would come in to Oshakati as often as he could, which was a maximum of once a week. During his visits, he and I would go and visit a friend of his, Warwick, who was an Air Force Private stationed at the small airfield in Oshakati. We wore civilian clothing on such visits. I noticed that the SAAF Privates enjoyed good living conditions, about on a par with those we had in the Protea Officers' Mess, and certainly better than those enjoyed by our medics NCOs and troops. They had a prefabricated building for about six of them, and judging by the mess, they were never inspected. The Jewish Air Force lad, the only other Jew that Basil had found in Oshakati, lived in the same hut as Warwick.
Once, while in an Air Force Combi, awaiting a lift back to Oshakati, I spoke to a couple of young female SAAF radar operators who seemed to be quite content being at Ondangwa. I was surprised at the time, but on reflection, the Air Force looked after - or forgot to abuse - its personnel. Ondangwa had a small community, with a fairly high proportion of young pilots, and there was always a contingent of Parabats stationed there. Maybe you didn't need to be a particularly attractive girl to get a great deal of male attention in Ondangwa.
Canvas boots were available, and were preferred by many of the local infantry units. They made sense because they were cooler that the leather of the standard issue, and with the sandy ground, they offered more than enough protection. The SAMS personnel were not allowed to wear them because Commandant Potgieter didn't like them.
Published: 1 July 2000.
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