LJ was a clinical psychologist when he did National Service from July 1987 to June 1989. He did basics and officers' course at Witrand, and was involved in the sharp end of Operation Modular, after Christmas 1987. He did a border duty in Sector 10 (Owamboland) in 1988, and he spent the balance at 2 Military Hospital.
ANTICIPATING NATIONAL SERVICE
I come from an Afrikaans background. While I was at high school, military service was not seen as something negative, it was something that all the `men' did, an initiation into adulthood. It was something you did for your country. I remember clearly at school how people dying for their country were seen as heroes. At high school, I admired people who were willing to make such a sacrifice, but I wasn't willing to die for my country.
I left school, and went to university, always knowing that military service lay ahead. It was an obstacle that I would have to overcome to be `accepted.' Some of my friends did National Service before they went to university.
During my studies, particularly in my honours year, I came across humanistic and phenomenological philosophies. I was not political, but I started to question whether one could serve one's country best by staying alive or by dying. The idea that it might be one's duty to die for one's country left me completely. When we sang `Die Stem' (The National Anthem), I would sing along, but I would leave out the words; `Ons sal lewe, Ons sal sterwe' (`At Thy will to live or perish...'). I was not prepared to die for my country. I enjoyed singing the song because it identified us as being part of a group, but my thinking changed quite drastically.
My father, also a people-orientated person, had a significant effect on my development. He has been in the civil service all his life but always has been a great supporter of Smuts' political directions and in principle opposed to violence. I remember being confused by mixed messages from him regarding politics and military service during my teens.
I matured and developed as a person through my training in clinical psychology; through my Honours and Masters degrees and my internship. I became more negative about wasting time in the army.
I was also in a very stable relationship and was opposed to anything interfering with this relationship, this further affected my attitude towards military service.
Early in 1987, by then my wife and I went overseas for six months. This was a further eye-opener. I became more apprehensive about wasting two years of my life and objected to Military Service being imposed upon me. I started thinking that, maybe I should have done it immediately after school. I suppose I would have had a different attitude then, maybe more willing and eager.
REPORTING FOR INDUCTION
I reported for National Service in August 1987 after our European holiday. I decided to go in as a `roofie' (Recruit). I didn't take my car up to the camp. I thought that, if I was going to do it, I would have the whole experience, so I joined in the process which the military organised. I joined all the people standing in lines getting loaded onto Samils (Military truck) and being driven to the trains. I got onto the train at Youngsfield, with all the seventeen and eighteen year olds. I was twenty-six years old, married and with more life experienced than the people around me in the compartment.
All the eighteen-year-olds were talking non-stop. They were very anxious at what was going to happen and what lay ahead. I felt the same, but suppose better in controlling my fears.
The train left Cape Town and about three o'clock the next morning some camper woke everybody and said; `Okay, now it is time to stand in a queue because it's time for breakfast.'
I was forced to shave off my moustache by a camper who was probably only doing a two or three week camp. This may have been his way of getting rid of his frustration and aggression at being called up or maybe he really enjoyed that power. This was the first of many frustrating experiences in the two years that followed.
When we arrived at Potchefstroom there was a big issue about whether the psychologists were `medical professionals' or not. (It seems that this had still not been resolved since André's experiences back in early 1985, see Chapter Three.) Doctors were defined as professionals, but others not. It was humiliating that people could think that way. They treated us all the same, like children. Eventually this problem was sorted out, and basic training was completed together with doctors, dentists and veterinary surgeons.
Before basics started, I had been aware that it was the army's intention to take away one's identity. I experienced this very intensely when they shaved our heads. It wasn't a haircut, it was a shave, leaving only very short `stoppels' (Bristles). We wore brown overalls all the time with only limited use of anything not military.
The group just before us had been the first intake in what had been the ex-psychiatric hospital, Witrand, so we weren't in Klipdrift. We were told that the first intake to Witrand did the cleaning up and it was now ready for occupation, it eventually turned out to be a good venue as we were away from other groups in training. I did not fear the basic training; my fear was reserved for when I went into war.
Basic training itself wasn't intense. We had a corporal who was about eighteen or nineteen years old. He tried to cling to his power and I took most things in my stride. At times I had very intense negative emotions, like when I had this eighteen-year old standing in front of me saying `Jy het vandag weer nie geskeer nie, snotkop!' (`You haven't shaved again today, snot-head!'). I felt a lot of aggression at that moment, but I think I understood the dynamics behind the behaviour of the corporal.
My wife had a back problem and I was worried about what was happening at home. I found this difficult to cope with and then the pull towards home was stronger than my aversion to the military.
I was amazed at how much antagonism I saw between some of the professional people. Although 40 percent of the people in my platoon were married and all aged around twenty-six, I was shocked by the language and lack of concern for other people and it was clear that every one was for himself.
Possibly, away from the restraining influence of wives and families, people's aggression and intolerance soon grew worse. I think the people were cut down to the bare bone. Inhibitions were dropped and difficulties and frustrations or unavoidable situations caused people to just let rip to get rid of their emotions. I was surprised at how cynical some of the doctors were about their profession.
During the initial phase of basics, 99 percent of the people were negative and I can only remember one person who was positive about what lay ahead.
During the second week of basic training, one of the guys in my platoon who was a very good sportsman, went on a sport pass. When he returned, he brought beers along and everybody in the bungalow sat on the floor in a circle drinking beer. One person was sent to call the corporal and he was offered a beer. He blushed, said; `Shit!', turned around and walked out. No alcohol was allowed in the camp during that stage of the training.
It was amusing to see these professional people now all `troepies'. There was a veterinary surgeon from Ermelo or Standerton in the Eastern Transvaal, who spoke Fanakolo or Zulu fluently. He was ultra-conservative and he always approached activities very seriously. During marching, while others where joking he would stand up straight, head high, and he would lift his legs high and stamp his heel hard into the ground, always very `paraat'. I thought he was fanatical about the tasks ahead.
Next to him marching would be a chemist from Durban, who gave the impression of being a druggie who didn't know his left from his right. I was amused at the discrepancy between the two of them; one was very motivated and the other had the attitude; `I couldn't give a shit!'
I felt negative the day when I had to go onto the shooting range for the first time. Being against any form of violence, to such a extent that even fishing and hunting bothered me I found this first contact with live ammunition very disturbing. I didn't like rifles, not even lectures on how it worked. It was amazing how little many of us knew about warfare towards the end of training. I enjoyed the physical exercise and enjoyed getting fit.
The theoretical part of the three months basic was a farce! An example of this was when we were supposed to study in our bungalows for an upcoming exam. What happened was that thirty professionals would all have an afternoon nap while the corporal, who was supposed to ensure studying took place, would be sitting on the stoep (porch or verandah), being the watchdog and making sure that nobody saw that we were asleep. This was a good indication of how things also went throughout the officers' course.
There was a huge discrepancy between the morning and afternoon sessions; in the mornings it was shouting and screaming because the officer in command would come down on the RSM, he then would call in the next rank and criticise and so forth and the chain reaction followed. Then the corporal who had been watching you sleeping the previous day would be all upset and military rules would then be obeyed till the afternoon when he would be back watching while you slept. It was a total farce!
THE OFFICERS' COURSE
During the officers' course the farce became worse. Alcohol was now more freely available and people would continuously get drunk, sometimes four nights a week. It amazed me that people who were supposed to be `the cream of the crop' could behave in that manner.
One weekend during the officers' course we were not allowed out. One guy had a girlfriend in Jo'burg and he brought her in, and she stayed in the bungalow with us for the whole weekend. We had a room for all our civilian clothes which was cleared and mattresses put in it, and that is where they spent the whole weekend.
A pharmaceutical company sponsored an evening function and the sergeant major was caught stealing some of the beer. I expected better from a person in that position.
We had a big party on our last night at Witrand. The platoon had a big braai (Barbecue). They couldn't find any grids, so they just took the front gates of the camp out of the pillars and these were used as grids. This was an indication of the lack of respect that the people showed for that whole system.
The system was a mockery, there was no way they could address and influence more than 200 professionals. There was no `leadership by example'. They relied on threats. They would threaten to take away your night off, or your weekend pass or your sport pass. They were total incompetent in dealing with professional people. This caused a lot of antagonism between `us' and `them'; `us' being the trainees.
I think training would have been better if they had taken a different approach. Forget the threats. They should have confronted us with the reality of what we would have to face. I am sure that most of the people would have had a different attitude if they had explained the importance why you should know how to work your R5 (The light assault rifle issued to members of the SAMS on operational duty.) or know the ins and outs of a Rinkhals (An armoured military ambulance for use in combat situations) etc. They should have explained; `These are the things you need to know. In two months time you may find yourself in charge of an armoured ambulance in a war situation.'
Many had the idea that because of certain factors they would possibly not be in a position that they needed to know all this military information, between all the professionals I thought a type of `ignorance' or denial existed. I still cannot really understand this, maybe it was their way of rejecting a broader political system. I remember many people being very much against the political system, I ask questions but did not receive any answers that made sense. The reasons for being in Angola, given by some military leaders, were not acceptable.
2 MILITARY HOSPITAL
Towards the end of the officers' course, everybody wanted particular postings, usually as close to home as possible. Many of us didn't get the postings that we wanted. I was one of those who didn't get the place I wanted. I was allocated to 1 Military Hospital, Pretoria. Of course I had wanted to go to 2 Military Hospital and manipulated my way through to get to 2 Mil. I arranged for the head of the psychology department at 2 Mil to request that I be posted there. Logic or reason wasn't understood. I used the typical selfish tricks that seventeen-year-olds tried, and I did it because that was the only way.
I started at 2 Mil in November 1987 and functioned as a respected colleague and started doing day to day clinical work. We provided a psychology service for National Servicemen and Permanent Force members and treated conditions over the whole psychiatric spectrum. We had academic meetings every Tuesday morning. You saw your six or seven patients a day, and at 3.30 I left for my private practice. This was nice and I enjoyed the experience.
After five or six weeks at 2 Military Hospital, we heard that one of the psychologists from our department had to go to the border. Of course, the most recent arrival was sent. I think there was an element of the permanent force members ganging up against the new lad, so I had to go. On the 15th December 1987 I heard that I was going to the border, and on the 17th I was on my way. I had just over twenty-four hours to prepare myself to go to war.
ON THE WAY TO THE BORDER
I was told that I would go to Rundu where I would get further instructions and information on the deployment of psychologists. There was another psychologist going up with me, Captain Elmer Groenewald. I met him at the airport and we flew to Pretoria together. It was nice having a permanent force member with me with `the right attitude', meaning willing to do the job, but with no thoughts of any heroics.
We flew up to Pretoria where we were given all the equipment including an R5 and pistol. I remember we were given many items, including mosquito nets on a circular wire frame that fits over your boshoed (Bush hat, equivalent of the American `Boonie Hat') to protect your face and neck from mosquitoes.
I was then quite aware that there was a war going on, and that I would again be confronted with live ammunition. In Pretoria, somebody who had just returned from the front told us about the war. At that stage the South African army was in the process of attacking Cuito Cuanavale. We were again told that we would be given more information when we reached Rundu. When we reached Rundu the nightmare started.
At Rundu I met a Doctor R-., PhD! He had been at 1 Mil and joined the Permanent Force. Apparently he did his Masters and doctorate in one year. (I saw him in about 1990, he was a psychologist of the Transvaal rugby team.) As part of his introduction, Doctor R-. said; `Okay boys, we've got this job to do up there. We want to attack the enemy through psychological warfare!' He told us what the psychological warfare was all about. The idea was that they would mount a very powerful sound system on to a Rinkhals, to broadcast the sounds of moving tanks and vehicles through the forest. They would drive this vehicle through an area from which the attack would not be launched, and fool the enemy into defending against an attack from that direction. When the real attack was launched from a different direction, they would be able to make the killing.
We said; `Yes, and how will it function?' He said; `Well, we're waiting for this big sound system from Pretoria. It must be very good and well planned. We've worked out everything. We've worked on it for three months.' I thought; `Well, clinical psychologist, you look eager! You should surely have this all well planned. I hope things will work out.' Being there, you want to try and do your best.
We had four days before we were supposed to fly in to join the surgical team that functioned just behind the front line. During this time, we were given the task of scanning letters that soldiers from the front sent home to their families. Our task was to scratch out anything referring to the geography, for example Angola. At that stage the South African Defence Force officially was not in Angola and I somehow had a problem doing this because I was forced to intrude into people's privacy, and they had no control over this. I found it degrading to be `forced into' a job like that. I suppose I could have protested but one did learn about the attitude of the troops.
What I did enjoy while we waited for the day of flying to the front were the excursions Elmer organized to villages close to Rundu. I liked to look at the art and crafts of the local blacks. People would be busy with military activities and we were enjoying the local people, sitting selling some of their craft work.
We were briefed on active involvement in `Psychological Debriefing Procedures';
This was fairly fancy material being presented by quite ignorant bastards. They were sitting in the bureaucracy of being white-skinned and in control of a group of people whom they could manipulate. I felt anger as I became aware of an attitude which made it clear that some people were making decisions about military warfare without actually going into the situations themselves. I questioned what looked more and more like a total farce to me.
We were supposed to fly up into Angola on the 24th of December, the day before Christmas. We were still waiting for the sound system. Then Doctor R-. said; `I'll go to Pretoria and fetch it myself. You go to the front, I'll get the equipment and I'll join you up there.' We agreed as we thought it was important for our future as he was big buddies with the head of psychological services in the Defence Force, Brigadier O-.
JOURNEY INTO ANGOLA
I joined one of two so-called `Surgical Teams'. The guy in control of the surgical team was a professional soldier, a Recce medical doctor. The surgeon working with him was sixty years old and very much a Rambo type of chap. He saw it all as a Voortrekker (Afrikaans youth organisation, the equivalent of Boy Scouts.) outing. The Recce had been in the bush constantly for about eight years. He saw the psychologist as a `spaar piel (a `spare prick'), and also said so. I was definitely not happy as it was clear that my `own people' were going to make an already difficult situation even more difficult.
We eventually got ready and boarded the Puma on the 24th December, the surgeon, the two Recce medical doctors, two or three medics (national service men trained as nurses) an anaesthetist and me. The Puma was loaded with medical supplies and equipment to be dropped with the fighting group which was preparing for the big attack on Quito.
We were ready to go into war with our R5s and ammunition ready for active use. For the first time in my life I really experienced `cold sweat'. The engines were switched on and the rotor blades were rotating, one could feel some movement of the Puma but it did not leave the ground. This went on for about five minutes and then the engines were switched off again. We were told to unload and unpack and that we would not be going into Angola that day. `We'll try again tomorrow' was the only explanation. `Tomorrow' meant Christmas Day.
Early on Christmas morning we went to the airstrip just to hear of another problem and the flight was again delayed. We spent the rest of the day at base and we were invited to join a Christmas Service, and even received a gift. Thinking back, it was a very nice gesture. It was impossible not to think of what was ahead of one and Christmas day went by staying ready for the action on the front. The waiting, preparing, getting in and out of the Puma when the flights were delayed caused us tremendous stress.
Eventually, we left on the 26th December. The aircraft apparently couldn't just take off because of the heaviness of the cargo. It first had to gather enough speed before it could then lift off and we were on our way!
There was another puma, with the other surgical team on boarded, flying with us. We were flying very low and in formation when we were over Angola and the anxiety was clear on many faces.
We were sitting on a grid through which you could see the ground. It did not have a solid floor. Nothing felt safe. After eight minutes in flight the helicopters turned round and went back to Rundu. The number of people who were in the Puma did not match the flight list back in Rundu. After the tremendous agony that we were put through, we were now turning back again.
FINALLY GOING IN
I remember the night we went in very clearly. Groenewald was in the other helicopter and he was going in another direction with the other surgical team.
I clearly remember the flight of about two hours, which more felt like two weeks. After the two hours we suddenly saw a light shine for a very short time. I assumed it must have been the signal for landing area. There were four little flames burning as we went down and the Puma was put down neatly. As we went down, the Puma shone a very strong light down on to the ground.
When the Pumas landed, its stay was as brief as possible and then it would take off again. The drill was that when you got out, you would run in a direction for about fifteen to twenty metres and then throw yourself down, and roll further, I suppose another two metres. I did this as though my life depended on it!
It was pitch black. I saw vehicles moving in the light. At first it was the light of marker flares on the ground. I remember hearing very loud noises and the apprehension of being in a war as a `spare prick'. I was not sure what was going to happen in this warfare. I didn't know where I was going. I was in a war. `Would I be a foot soldier? What would my job be?' I wondered what awaited us. I was supposed to impress these people with `psychological warfare'. I had one overriding thought and that was to make sure that I survived.
ARRIVAL AT THE FRONT
We were dropped off and the Puma took off again. People joined the teams they had to fit into. Medics came looking for their colleagues and went into a military tent. There was antagonism as nobody knew of the psychologist coming. Nobody was informed of my functioning with the surgical team. I wondered about the credentials of Doctor R-., my colleague who said he had spent three months preparing for this.
That first night it started raining. No place had been arranged for me to sleep and I managed to organise a stretcher that was used in contact to casevac people. I had a poncho with me and that night I slept with my clothes on, my balsak (Duffel bag or army kitbag, bolster-shaped) on top of me and the poncho over it all. I had my R5 rifle on top of the bag with the ammunition in, the safety catch on, and my finger on the trigger. That was the way I slept that night. No, I didn't sleep. I was lying down worrying. I was listening to hear the enemy, because I didn't know a thing about the stage of the attack on Cuito. It was raining, so I couldn't even use the bit of knowledge that I had of finding direction by using the stars.
The next day, I met a medical doctor in charge of a Rinkhals and who studied with my wife. I remembered him from two months previously when he did his basic training and officers course with me. Now he was in charge of a Rinkhals field ambulance in a war situation. He said `Well, you can stay in the Rinkhals with us. There are four sleeping bunks and you can come with us.' So I had a place to sleep on the second night. This guy has been through exactly the same training as I had done, and now we were in a war and he was in charge of a military vehicle. He had to work with military equipment, many things that till today I still know very little about.
DIARY EXTRACT: 27/12/87 I'm sitting in a Rinkhals with the doctor that took me in. I am terribly disorientated. I feel quite guilty about having lied to my wife about what was happening. I spoke to her on Christmas day after our second abortive attempt to leave Rundu for the war front. When I spoke to her on the telephone I found it very difficult to control my emotions, so I was very cold and clinical - I just stuck to; `I hope you are having a good day. Happy Christmas.' I believe that I made the right decision not to tell her about going into active war. Why should I have worried her? Although one knew that could have been our last contact.
DIARY EXTRACT: `No food last night. Only coffee this morning.'
I wrote here; `I wish Doctor R. was here! I expected this would happen.' I would wrote; `The scenery is beautiful'
I was confronted by this Bosvegter (`Bush Fighter', see `GV' below.), GV (Initials for `Grensvegter', the Afrikaans word meaning `Border Fighter', which is usually used sarcastically with a suggestion that the person is `Gung Ho!'or being a `Rambo'.) Recce again about my function. I found it extremely difficult to convince him about my role as psychologist, he just did not accept my explanation as we were told and instructed by Doctor R-.
ESTABLISHING A ROLE FOR THE PSYCHOLOGIST
I started going to some of the other Rinkhalses to introduce myself. I admitted that I didn't know what was going to happen. I started speaking to groups of people doing camps with the tanks, informing them what we're going to do and that the equipment for the psychological warfare was on its way. I was "selling the product" and also spoke to people in charge of the groups.
The Recce in charge of the surgical team continued to confront me till one day when I told everybody involved that I would leave and report the situation. After this, the atmosphere changed and I was left to do my own thing.
The conditions of the soldiers and where I had to see them made active therapeutic input on the front impossible. Injections of benzodiazepine, and casevac (Casualty Evacuate to one of the military hospitals in South Africa. `Medivac' referred to the retrieval of the bodies of those killed.) was a standard procedure. I think my longest intervention lasted about half an hour. It took time to get to see someone individually and it was also very dangerous for me. I would have to take my rifle and leave the `safety' of my own foxhole and go to where the patient would be. We would be sitting under a tree discussing his distress when you would hear; `Victor Victor' (Phonetic alphabet initials for the Afrikaans term for `Enemy Aircraft', here referring to Russian supplied Mig jet fighters.), he would get into his foxhole. I was a `Prime Target, ' as there I would sit with no protection if the camp was hit by missiles. I saw people under these conditions. I think telling soldiers it's normal to be afraid! Just having someone outside of their work group to talk to did some good. I think this made an impression on a few. But most had an attitude of; `I just want to get the hell out of this!'
I saw a tank commander, who was a close friend of one of the other tank commanders; they had been together since school, and they had done their basic training and tank course together in Bloemfontein. They were doing bundu-bashing, he in front, and his friend was in command of the second tank that followed. The patient's tank knocked down a tree which fell on the tank that followed crushing his friend in the turret and killed him.
I saw very few Post Traumatic Stress Disorders but many acute anxiety disorders. I usually suggested intravenous benzodiazepine and casevac for the latter group.
IN PERSONAL DANGER
We spent about a week hearing; `Victor Victor' many hours a day as the `enemy' had air supremacy. I remember waking up at four o'clock one morning and hearing Russian fighter aircraft flying over, looking for us. On some days we spent four to five hours in our foxholes being bombarded.
The closest I came to death was when a water-tanker about a hundred metres away from my foxhole was hit. One of the UNITA people was killed. The ground shook and some sand fell onto me. I never looked up. People afterwards would discuss; `Did you see when they started diving down ...? Did you hear ...?' I heard a lot of things, but I never saw anything. I just went `deeper and deeper' into my foxhole when we were attacked. I was never up to any heroics, not even looking at what was supposed to have been spectacular sights when we were attacked by Migs.
I later also established a role for myself as the person who did the camouflage. When we stopped with the massive Kwêvoëls, I took the commo netting and I `re-planted' trees, in an attempt to assure that we were well camouflaged. My second function after reaching a new camp was to dig the best foxhole possible before the Migs arrived. I dug really good ones; narrow at the top and deep, nothing shallow, and nothing big.
I wore the same clothes for ten days. I didn't even change my socks. I remember the luxury of having five litres of water for a shower after this time.
DIARY EXTRACT: `This morning I rode with the tanks.' Part of the preparation for the psychological warfare was to go bundu bashing with the tanks and then to record the sounds on tape, to play over the music system when going into attack. That was a nice little `Voortrekker' outing. At one stage we were running between the tanks making recordings. Can you believe this?
I had canvassed for `Psychological Warfare'. Eventually the sound system arrived at the front without Doctor R-., the `brain' behind it all. He had gone down to Pretoria to fetch it, or maybe to have a good weekend at home or to ingratiate himself with his superiors. The crude Afrikaans word is `gat lek' (Arse creep). Other psychologists used this expression to describe him as well. We felt anger as we were waiting in what was definitely not a friendly environment. The idea had been that we needed a sound system that was loud and that sounded as realistic as possible. It turned out to be nothing more sophisticated than a music centre connected to a military public address system. It was a complete disaster. They had sent us a heap of junk!
After all that I had been through, including trying to explain and to prepare soldiers and leaders for the psychological warfare, this was the final straw. I felt unable to deal with what by this time was a circus from a psychologist point of view. We were told; `You're not fucking dealing with Mickey Mouse stuff here. This is war!'
What could I say? What was supposed to be a very big part of our input on the front ended in disaster. (Brigland (1990, p. 260) mentions the `Ground Shout' teams broadcasting messages around the New Year suggesting that FAPLA troops should retreat because all was lost, the firing of G5 shells which exploded dispersing propaganda leaflets which might have been wasted on illiterate FAPLA soldiers. He also mentions `several psychological warfare teams' making fake artillery pieces out of tree trunks to fool the enemy and other actions to suggest that the attack would come from a different direction than the direction from which the real attack was planned. LJ does not appear to have any knowledge of all this.)
I remember the night when we actually attacked close to Quito quite clearly. There had been a lot of stories that our Mirages had shot down three or four Migs. I didn't know whether this was true. I think they were trying to motivate the troops just before the attack.
On the night that we actually went in, the tanks and the G5s (155 mm Artillery cannons) were far behind us. The attack started, and the sky light up. It was amazing! It was a clear night, and the MRLs (Multiple Rocket Launchers) fired and for long distances you could see the trails of the shells. I sat in the Rinkhals in a cold sweat feeling; `The war is here. We are busy with war. When will we be under direct fire?' It was quite mind boggling.
The Mirages bombarded Quito, and the combat groups went in to attack. I functioned with the surgical team, about four kilometres behind the war zone. I saw UNITA casualties being dragged in. There was one example where members of UNITA had been in slit trenches in front of our armour, and our armour had gone over their trenches, and some of the slit trenches collapsed. They pulled some of them out by their feet. Some were half-dead. I was the person who did the camouflaging making sure we would be prepared when the enemy would retaliate the next morning. I also helped with unpacking of medical equipment and medicine.
Then the anaesthetist developed an acute anxiety condition and I started giving him benzodiazepines injections. He was later casevaced after an apparent suicide attempt. The two of us knew that it wasn't a suicide attempt. He confided this to me on the day when he was casevaced. Although he had been a colleague of theirs, the rest of the surgical team showed no camaraderie. They had little interest in or compassion for him. Their attitude was; `He is not functioning. We need someone who does function. Get him out of here.'
We functioned there for many weeks in that war situation; attacking, living in foxholes, camouflage, etc. Many things that happened there were totally unacceptable. `Condition Green' (Minimal Danger) would mean I could walk from group to group, seeing people who were stressed. We would have a chat, and I would point out the acceptability and normality of their human frailties; `It's okay to feel scared. It's okay to feel shit-scared. It's okay to feel hated, it's okay.'
BEING LET DOWN BY OUR OWN SIDE
I was walking with one soldier, and I was saying `There is a reason for this although maybe we don't understand it. Sometimes I don't understand, but ...' I was trying to motivate him although I found logical reasoning around this war difficult to find. I had been telling this guy that he was going to get through this. `He was doing this for his country, and that the people in charge did care.' Just then a Kwêvoël arrived with a load of new supplies. Everybody would wait for the Kwêvoëls with new supply because it would bring a few cooldrinks, beers and fresh vegetables. Half of its load were fresh oranges, but we could see that they clearly were not fresh anymore, it was green in colour and would be inedible. Here I was trying to do my job, and then we got all that inedible food. `Is this our reward for what we are going through?' I thought; `Who is fighting who?'
DECIDING TO LEAVE
Then I decided that I was going to leave. I thought that I might be able to help a very small number of people but it was best for the majority of the conditions I saw to be casevaced. I also arranged with Captain Groenewald that we would make contact after a certain period of time. One day he arrived when the two fighting groups came together, and we decided we were going to get out.
At that stage a lot of people were being casevaced due to dehydration. They suspected there was something wrong with the food, some sort of food poisoning. There were some malaria cases and a few people with minor accidents.
We tried to get onto a Puma to get out. They just stopped us and said `No ways, you cannot go. There are priorities.' That happened on the first and second nights. On the third night they told us again we could not go. Sometimes it wasn't so much a matter of casevacs going out, it was `buddies first'. It was not what you knew, but who you knew. We didn't have the contacts we needed to get organised to go out.
We decided to go on one of the supply Kwevoels driving to Mavinga, in the South Eastern part Angola the next morning. It would take about fourteen hours to drive those two hundred and seventy kilometres from where we were. The national service driver had already been driving on that route for eight months by that stage. He would drive down, get new rations and drive back to the front again. He would make this journey two or three times a week. He would drive for fourteen hours, stay a maximum of twenty-four hours, and then he'd drive back, off load, and then drive back again. He had been promised that he would only have to do this for three months. After three months, nobody was available to relieve him. He was just left to get on with this job. When complained, they said; `You have another three months to go'. He eventually ended up doing this job for nine months. While he was driving, he had no radio contact with anybody. When he got into the Kwêvoël, he was on his own and also had to cross a lot of shonas, which raised a lot of dust. There may have been two Kwêvoëls in a convoy and at least once a week they were bombarded by Migs. All they could do when they became aware of the danger was to get off the road and just drive in a zigzag through bush and hope that the attackers would not return. He did that for nine months when we met him and he had one month to go before being relieved. I wouldn't even try to describe the mental state that those supply drivers were in after eight months. I don't know who they would have considered to be their enemy; FAPLA and the Cubans, or their own commanders. They were emotionally `killed' by the people in control of them. He was also not sure if he would be relieved after the nine months had passed.
Anyway, we sat on that Kwevoel for fourteen hours. He was driving at about seventy or eighty kilometres per hour across the shonas. Our job was to watch the horizon for possible enemy aircraft. The driver would have his foot to the floor and was dashing for the bush. Driving this route also meant driving very slowly around trees over some of its roots, through a river bed, etc. for fourteen long hours. Eventually we arrived at Mavinga, where they would get their new rations.
FLYING OUT FROM MAVINGA AND RETURNING TO RUNDU
As we arrived, we saw lights of a plane on the short airstrip. We wanted to get that plane back to Rundu. It seemed to be at one end of the landing strip and looked as though it was about to take off. We ran to the controller asking whether it would be possible to get on, he spoke to the pilot, but by that time the plane had started moving on its way to take off. The controller just shouted: `Run that way!' Then lights went on to indicate the runway, and the plane continued moving. We ran behind the plane, the plane was moving forward with that very high engine sound of getting power to have a quick take off. The plane was going forward, and they lowered the ramp at the back about a metre or so. We jumped on and the hatch started closing again, two minutes later we were high above Angola. Fortunately for us there wasn't any cargo on boarded as they just off-loaded whatever they had brought in as supplies.
Later that evening we were back at our base. Our main goal now was to `kill the enemy'; Captain R-. After fourteen hours on the back of the Kwêvoël we were covered with dirt. People may have thought we were well camouflaged. We walked straight into R-'s room. He was lying down under his mosquito net in his PT shorts. He was reading, and enjoying a beer or some refreshing cold drink. When he saw us, he swore. Then he offered us a beer. He had no explanation for why we had been left in the lurch up there.
The next day, we were confronted with; `Who gave you the right to just leave the war?' This was mostly from the officer commanding the Rundu sick bay, but "R" was also involved. I don't remember the detail, but by that time we couldn't give a shit about this anymore.
Then R-. organised a military vehicle that stayed at our disposal for the rest of our time at Rundu. We spent evenings on the Okavango River at the Okavango Hotel discussing our traumatic experiences, enjoying Windhoek Lagers and braaivleis. Our flight out, back to Pretoria was organised by Doctor R-. but we left with "unfinished business" which we never worked through.
SECTOR 10 (OWAMBOLAND)
My second border trip was very different. I was there for two months, and I did a lot of `Ontlonting' (Debriefing), working with National Servicemen and Permanent Force members.
There was a clinical psychologist, Captain Charl De Wet, who was stationed there permanently. His wife was a medical doctor. Charl was very nice. He took us out and invited us for supper. I found him to be quite open-minded. He went to quite a bit of trouble to accommodate me. There was a bit of the Permanent Force mentality in some of his actions, but after five years in the Permanent Force ...? (I met Charl De Wet later when I think he was at 1 Mil. He told me he had lowered the SAMS flag for the last time, when everything was packed up, and everybody was ready to go. He lowered it, and then civilisation left Oshakati.)
I worked in the hospital as well as Charl's office (with air-conditioning) while he was on a trip to the Caprivi.
Regarding living quarters; I shared an air-conditioned caravan with an Intelligence officer. One of the other people in the caravan was a `drain surgeon' (Health Inspector). We always had meat for barbecues because they had their ways of getting meat ...
We just had a lovely time. We went out to the `International'; the restaurant there which is very well-known for its German foods. After work we would read, play volleyball, swim, and other social activities.
A Permanent Force social worker organised a military vehicle, and we spent a long weekend on a farm with some of his family near the Etosha Park (Probably the biggest and most famous game reserve in South West Africa - Namibia). We had three wonderful days there, and later also went into the Etosha Park for a long weekend.
The bad side of this experience was that I was away from my wife. I wanted to get on with my life and I wasn't into the Army at all. I am a pacifist and I would enjoy seeing patients with problems, but that was all. I was not actively hostile towards the military, but by five o'clock, I would leave any military activities, go to our caravan and just read a book, or play volleyball. I still wasn't interested in any military matters.
It became apparent to me that; `It's not what you know, but who you know!' I do not suggest that this only occurs in the military but my experience in Oshakati confirmed the complexity of this type of network in operation. I had advantages myself as I drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle most of the time, which certainly would not have been the case if I did not know the `right' people.
There were also many examples of how things dramatically went wrong with this reality. I remember having to evaluate a fifteen year old teenager after he was caught selling military items to the locals. The amount of things he `scored' (His terminology for stealing!) was mind boggling and included two way radios, pistols, R5's, etc. With assessment it became clear that `scoring' was nothing new in his home as it was a term he often heard, especially from his father who was working in a supply department and often involved `scored' himself. It seemed that he would supply some of his mates with the articles he was in charge of, and in turn, they would supply him with meat or whatever they had access to.
I met some good people on this border stint. It was quite different from the one in Angola. I find it difficult to compare the two `border' experiences. I think I saw this somehow as a last holiday because life after the Army was waiting and hard work ahead.
BACK TO 2 MILITARY HOSPITAL
I worked hard at 2 Military Hospital. I worked with people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and did some bereavement therapy working with soldiers who had lost limbs, fingers etc. I remember doing good work with an English medical doctor who had lost part of his leg in a landmine incident. I enjoyed this work, and I was quite eager to do it.
Of course, we had the whole range of malingerers and even transvestites who had to be assessed before reporting for military service, which was quite interesting. I felt good about my contribution and the experience I got through the military at 2 Military Hospital.
I had a busy part-time private practice while I was doing the last bit of my service. Christo knew a GP in Alexander Bay, who worked for a mining company and was looking for somebody to do psychology clinics once a month in their mining village.
Very soon after the request, once a month, at eleven o'clock on Friday morning, I would leave early and catch a Cape Air plane at DF Malan and I would fly up to Alexander Bay. I would land at two o'clock and see many patients over two days. This experience was memorable and a positive aspect of my military experience.
I `klaared out' in June 1989. At that time the official talks about the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia had just started. There was a time where the End Conscription Campaign were putting the case that National Servicemen shouldn't be reporting for National Service. I got the idea that already the vigour of trying to ensure all white youngsters do Military Service was getting less and less intense.
Published: 1 July 2000.