SOUTH AFRICAN DOCTOR'S BORDER DUTY (1984-85)
When I reported for national service, I had no particular interest in the military. At that stage you had to do two years in the army. It wasn't voluntarily, so you might as well make the best of the situation. You could do one of two things; you could either go and sit in the sick-bay at some training camp in the middle of nowhere or stay at Klipdrift. That wasn't the type of thing I wanted to do. You could also try and opt for one of military hospitals, but to get into one of the hospitals you were obviously competing with X-number of others applying for the same post of which X-number also had contacts etc., which diminished your chances.
Some people went into the army with a very negative attitude. In Klipdrift you had guys in the platoon who didn't pull their weight, and guys who did pull their weight. Obviously there was friction when you were being punished for others who were not willing to pull their weight. I was with a group of guys who had a fairly positive attitude, even in basic training. In the spare afternoons, we used to do our own training to make sure that our fitness was at a level better than what they expected of us, therefore the basic training wasn't hard.
Of the guys at Klipdrift, some were very lucky and got good jobs at 1 Mil or 2 Mil and had very cushy times in the army, and others had very boring times. Some people came out still having a very negative attitude.
I did ordinary medics basics initially at Klipdrift, and then they called for volunteers and had the selection and then you went up to Pretoria. Some guys volunteered to go straight to Reaction Force, where they learned additional skills. You had to be able to set up a field hospital, field tents and run a unit. This would be somewhere close to the front line, as a first station prior to the patients being casevaced down to Oshakati or Ondangwa etc. These people could be on 24 hour standby. You could be called up to do whatever duty was required.
One of the good aspects of this was that the doctors were farmed out to areas in the country that didn't have any medical personnel. You could be sent out where there was need as now with the recent cholera outbreak in South Africa, the military personnel were called in to look after the people. All the conscienscious objectors were used in the same way.
A friend of mine who trained with me was a conscienscious objector, and he spent four of five years in the middle of Natal somewhere at a mission hospital. For him it was fine, but I think it was perhaps a waste of his medical career to some extent. Obviously it was good for the people he was serving.
At the end of the passing out parade in Pretoria, the RSM went around handing out envelopes, and mine contained orders to go up to the border with six hours notice. When we arrived there, no-one was expecting us. We spent two weeks there during which we sat through many boring lectures about coin ops; about how guerrilla wars are never won by the government. They taught us what Chairman Mao had to say on the subject, and we soon felt; `We might as well leave now!'
On the way back we spent a couple of days in Oshakati at `Driehoek', bunkered in a bar. The rest of the unit that I was with initially went back to South Africa. I was left up there because they needed somebody to take over from this guy at Ukuludi. We were told that we would be collected by Koevoet, and I remember sitting in the sun on the stones outside the sick bay waiting to be collected.UKULUDI BASE
The TIN tended to garrison the base, with Koevoet coming in and going out. They occupied that particular area and they ran the regular patrols. Ombalantu was the nearest big military base. We had about 5 or 6 Casspirs in the unit compound, and a maximum of about forty or fifty personnel. This varied depending who was out and who was back in, and whether Koevoet were or weren't staying. The highest ranking officer that we ever had there was a major - it was mostly captains or majors.
The base was surrounded by a sand wall, with a zig-zag entrance, a cleared area around the outside with barbed wire on the perimeter, with marked stakes out at the different distances. We had bunkers in the sand walls at the corners, two mortar emplacements and various machine gun posts.
There was a building that had been there some time before, which had running water in it. There was a central tower with a lookout post. We had designated people who were responsible for operating the mortars, who had been specially trained. The units weren't quite as well organised as in the military where you have various teams, like the LMG team and the mortar team. Sometimes it was a bit of hit and miss; the guys would drop a mortar or put it down an inch, but it varied.
The police also went through a degree of acclimatisation and training when they got there. When I first arrived, and for the first three months at the camp, there was another doctor, who is now a GP in Knysna. There was also a medic corporal, whom we referred to as `Kopkaart' because he was involved in issuing identification cards to the local Owambos. The police unit also had one or two guys who were designated as being medics, who would come and help, but after three months it was just me.
DAILY ROUTINE AT UKULUDI
There was an early morning parade at about 5.30 or 6 am, attended by the officers and the rest of the guys. Prayers were said, the flag was raised, and then the daily program was read out by the Officer Commanding. Certain groups were designated for jobs around the camp; maintenance on vehicles and guns and things like that and others went on routine patrols. I issued malaria drugs etc. straight off to the people who had to take them in front of you. Then I did a morning sickbay. We had breakfast after the first early morning patrol had gone out and come back again.
I used to go up and run a morning clinic at the civilian hospital, hold a ward round, and then do any operations that were necessary. I came back at lunch time, and relaxed for a while and I would have a swim in the pool we had dug. Then the afternoon patrol went out. Morning and afternoon patrols involved three or four Casspirs. The TIN units did this. After this, the guys either lazed around the tents or did further maintenance, rebuilding the walls, checking the guns. Once or twice a week there was a firing range session to develop accuracy etc. I had an afternoon clinic session. You saw all the patients, and any emergencies that came in, and performed any deliveries that were required. At night there were occasional fire plans, at varying times, and not every night. Occasionally we visited other camps or joined other groups on certain patrols. Sometimes we were notified that there were terrorists in the area, where they had picked up tracks and joined the chase. That was the basic routine.
THE CIVILIAN HOSPITAL
As part of the Army's `Hearts and Minds' campaign, they built a number of civilian hospital for the Owambos. One of these civilian hospitals was 400 metres away from Ukuludi base. When I arrived there, the civilian hospital was just a bunch of huts, with one brick building which we used as a maternity unit. Then the new hospital was built. It was a very nice hospital and it ran very well. I did quite a few things there. We had about four wards including an obstetric ward. We had an out-patient clinic, we had a girl to do X-rays, we had a theatre in which we used to do our own operations there using intravenous infusion. You did whatever you could there. We did deliveries, dissections and amputations. We got some of our equipment through the Owambo Health Service, and what we couldn't get through them, I used to order for the camp itself and get it through the police or through the army. Occasionally I would go down to Oshakati and visit the main hospital there under pretence of seeing something and uplift some of their equipment and take it with us, which kept the hospital going. The hospital was separate from the base. The hospital was basically for the local population, and I treated anybody there.
There was a rule that nobody except myself could be armed within the hospital premises. You could come into the hospital at any time, day or night, provided that you left your weapons outside. If there was an emergency at the hospital and I was at the base, the nurse would come to the outskirts of the camp, and call to one of the guards. They would come and call me, and I would go up through the bush to the hospital and I would treat whoever was there.
We tried to separate the two; the military personnel were treated in the base and the local population were treated in the hospital. They didn't meet and clash, and that was quite a good way of organising things. There was also the understanding that although the hospital was essentially designed for the local population and not for the military or the police or Koevoet, I could use the hospital facilities for the military if the need arose, like if there was an emergency. I would treat all present in the area. It did happen once or twice, and I treated the four or five casualties there and we evacuated them out immediately by chopper.
My work at the civilian hospital probably did as much for the hearts and minds campaign as any other psychological or political warfare that was being waged. During my time there I probably did as much good for the local people as my conscienscious objector friend was doing at his little mission hospital in South Africa. I would look after the local chieftain and his wives, and in return occasionally a goat or local beer would be delivered to the base camp as a token gesture which was quite nice. The goat would get barbecued. Occasionally the chieftain would take us for a ride in his Mercedes, and we would go shooting duck or something, whatever we could find. He only dealt with the local TIN unit. He didn't deal with Koevoet at all. I had a good relationship with many of the local people.
I got married after the army and the local people sent some little straw mats and clay pots and things down for the wedding, which was very nice. It just showed you the incongruity of the situation; in the middle of this war, and between different protagonists, there was often an understanding between the different people.
We were controlled from Pretoria. The TIN units didn't have direct control over us although we were based in a TIN unit. We didn't have any other commanders trying to influence what we did. We did whatever we wanted to, and we used to go running; we used to organise cross country runs with people from Nesi and Sandi and we would run from one base camp to another. We used to go and have barbecues out in the bush. We would take a goat and go and have a spit-braai.
It was a good way of life because nobody was actually worried about anything. You lived for the day. You didn't have to worry about the war because you were in it. It was there around you the whole time - every night and every day there was something going on. You didn't worry about yesterday or tomorrow. You were so far removed from South Africa and everybody back at home that it was as though they didn't exist. You were removed from that. It was total escapism. You looked after the base camp, the camp itself, and occasionally I went out with them on patrols and ambushes and things like that - as a doctor. I certainly enjoyed the freedom I had up there.
I didn't have a lot to do with the army. I was left alone because of the unit I came from initially and subsequently because I was posted to the TIN unit and with Koevoet. I never lived in a military camp on the border. We were either operational - doing something - and then I joined the other units, not the regular army units. The only contact with the army was when we first arrived and we stayed in Oshakati for a night or two, and once or twice when we came down to visit Oshakati, or visit people at Ondangwa - guys who were at the base camp or at the airport there. I was pleased about this because none of those units were particularly pleasant.
The first time they were revved, the mortar bombs flew over the base, which was good because it gave them a warning. A mortar bomb went through the roof of the civvy surgery operating theatre. Colin commented to one of the Koevoet guys about taking cover, as the guy was about to head out in hot pursuit. The guy pointed out that it made more sense to give chase than to stay in the base which was the target of the attack, and at which bombs were still being lobbed. The couple of times that the base was revved, a few guys headed to the bunkers and others went to fire the mortars. Most of the guys were doing their best to get out of the camp to go and find the terrorists. They weren't worried about the mortars coming in. They were all into their Casspirs, and out of the front gate with their guns ready. I was the only one hiding in the bunker. There was supposed to be a procedure, and occasionally we had exercises where the bunkers were manned and alarms were raised. People had to head for the bunkers and for cover, and to the headquarters where a plan was then instituted and contact was made with neighbouring bases etc. and the helicopters were brought in to spot the terrorists. Mostly it would end up with the guys seeing who could get at the terrorists first - `over the walls'- type thing.
Not being part of the structure within that base, I didn't get particularly involved. Also being the medic there, when I was in the base camp, I didn't take notice of what their orders were, and I didn't necessarily participate. We did our own thing and they did their own thing. Obviously you were no good if you got injured, therefore you didn't participate. Basically we kept out of the way until things were over, and then you picked up the pieces afterwards. We had a plan about what we would do; how we would manage mass casualties, and we used to practise it amongst ourselves. We knew what to do, where to go, and we had the sick bay laid out so we could change it from just a normal sick bay to having a number of casualties between the two tents. All the necessary equipment was easily available for resuscitation. That was when I was in the base camp. Essentially you were there to provide the medical support to the unit and you needed to be in piece to be able to do it afterwards. I think it was quite important for the people themselves to know you would be there, and the same on patrols or when you went with other units and you were North of the border. If your section was running well; if you had all the equipment and you were looking after them well and you were available, and they knew you were there, it did a lot for the morale of the team you were with.
On a couple of occasions when people did get injured and you did treat them quickly and get them out of there, they were appreciative of it. The unit runs very well because they are not hesitant wondering if something goes wrong, will we be left here to die? I sort of knew when an attack on the base was likely, but I didn't specifically enquire. We knew when there was increased activity in the area. I think that was about as accurate as it ever got. We never really had any prior notice that something was going to happen. The only times that we did, and people were on stand-by, nothing happened. It was more random and sporadic. We would have `Tonight's going to be the night!' and everybody would be out on ambush. We would sit and play cards and nothing happened. Intelligence gathering might have been going on without my knowing about it, because when I was in the base camp I didn't take much interest.
My attendance at order groups was largely voluntarily. I was told to be prepared when there was a possibility of activity. Some of the TIN units up there were terribly keen. They tended to get very over-excited about the goings on without much ever happening so I didn't take much notice. Things were ready all the time anyway.
I used to read. If there wasn't anything going on at the hospital, we used to go on a patrol with the guys, or we used to visit a neighbouring camp, or we would go for a run in the afternoon. I used to go running with a guy I knew, we could swim in the swimming pool, have a braai outside somewhere. There was a guy who had been in the Rhodesian Air Force who used to fly helicopters for the Owambo Health Service, and he used to pop in and visit, and we used to go in his helicopter and head down to the coast or to Etosha and have a day out there. That was quite good. Occasionally we had visiting groups coming out, particularly one of the engineering groups, or the groups sweeping for mines who were national servicemen, mostly from Natal. They stylised themselves on `The A-Team', and they dressed the part; they were completely out of order as far as uniform was concerned. They were having a complete ball; they had soccer posts on their vehicles for football. In the afternoon they had a soccer game on the road they had been sweeping, or they would just lie on their lilos and catch a tan. They were a really crazy unit. They stopped over for a day or two and had a party most of the time. A chaplain visited occasionally. Most people tended to be out on patrol when he visited. There was good volunteering that day. Once a week a convoy would go down to Oshakati to fetch provisions, and would return with fresh meat so that we could have a braai. Occasionally we would visit one or two of the military camps depending on what we were doing, if we were looking for something or laying an ambush or following up a lead.
PROBLEMS WITHIN THE BASE
There was a problem with alcohol for a start. Morale could become depressed or hyperactive on one side, or being completely blasé on the other. Some people became uncontrollable, with abnormal responses to discipline and to orders. There were some problems with a lack of self esteem to some extent as well, with hygiene and attitude all going out of the window. Trigger-happiness was another problem. Often every day activity was very boring, very mundane, patrol after patrol, and you see nothing and hear nothing. Then suddenly there would be some activity; you're on a spoor or something. Something goes on and everybody is hyped up and off you go. It comes to nothing and everybody comes back. It was punctuated by slight episodes and when something does happen, its as though the string has been drawn too tight for too long and things snap. Guys start having hallucinations and dreaming bad dreams and things like that. I suppose we saw the whole spectrum. We saw some people who were not shell-shocked but started to show signs of depression, agitation, irrational behaviour, that sort of thing. They would get sent back quite quickly for respite care. One of my friends certainly went off the deep end at one stage, and I haven't heard from him since. I don't know where he's gone to.
Occasionally I went with a patrol because I was asked to by the Koevoet unit, or because there was going to be a skirmish or they expected trouble. I would go voluntarily because on the patrols we used to visit various kraals and settlements, and I used to take my medical bag with me and I would see some of the locals and talk to them and see what was going on in the different kraals. That was my contribution to the `hearts and minds' campaign - just keeping in touch with the locals. Some of them could not get to the local hospital; it was too far to walk and there was no transport. There was never any hostility towards me. I never used Koevoet uniform. I always used the army uniform and the locals immediately recognised the difference. Further North there were occasional problems, especially when the patrol hit a land mine near a kraal, and the guys got upset that they hadn't been told or warned.
SWAPO AND PLAN
The proficiency of the different SWAPO units that we encountered varied. The quality and the amount of training they received prior to being sent in was variable. Occasionally you got some very inexperienced groups coming through that were captured easily. Sometimes there were one or two very experienced guys within a group, and occasionally one or two very experienced units that came in and were quite effective. It did vary tremendously.
I think initially they were very badly trained and out-gunned and out-thought, but towards the end, some units were quite effective. It also varied with how much support they received from the local population. With it being guerrilla warfare they didn't have to be terribly effective. Ambushes and laying of mines and trip wires and booby traps could disrupt operations and cause injury without direct contact. Direct contacts never lasted long. They were all short skirmishes, and then they disappeared again.
There were quite a few anti-personnel mines in my time. They did have the anti-vehicle mines which were arbitrarily placed on roads and sometimes paths, sometimes placed in certain areas in a crescent, and on a number of occasions our vehicles hit mines, mostly without great damage to the vehicle, and only minor aches and pains and a bit of back-ache to the occupants. Very seldom was anybody injured. Once a mine disabled a Koevoet vehicle, which was in the middle of an ambush. It didn't last long. We had one or two casualties but nothing terribly much.
There were a number of bad injuries from anti-personnel mines on foot patrols, which were being used more and more towards the end when I was there. Their use also varied from area to area. You've got to be very specific about anti-personnel mines. It is easier to predict where vehicles will be driven than where foot patrols will go. It was only really where the bush grew thicker up north and across the border that I encountered more injuries to anti-personnel mines.
KOEVOET AND THE ARMY
Koevoet and the army didn't get on very well because Koevoet was a different kind of unit. It was largely run by a mixed group of either locals and ex-police. They were paid according to their success rate. They operated in teams with their Casspirs, and all the armaments were modified on their Casspir; is was no longer the standard army issue.
The Koevoet guys would go on one motorised excursion of three or four weeks, and they used to drive along following up on leads. Occasionally the trackers used to get out and run along next to the vehicle. They returned to base periodically. I suppose they were being fed information from regular military sources. They were getting information and being sent out to particular areas. It was often `hit and miss'; patrols would speak to people, and possibly pick up tracks.
The regular army units, like 301 BN, were to some extent protected by Koevoet. They were occupying a presence, and a deterrent to any major advancement, but having been revved they were using the Koevoet who were obviously a bit more experienced at follow-up. The army were allowing Koevoet to take the brunt of things, and of course the Koevoet was trying to get in on the act because it was financially beneficial. Obviously if military units were attacked or were ambushed, they followed their attackers.
The military used much more air power than Koevoet did. I heard the Koevoet guys didn't like the army at all because they thought they were ineffectual and playing a game. They thought they were the big professionals and vice versa; the army thought the Koevoet were just thugs. Koevoet were also different from the TIN unit who didn't actually get on too well with them either. They were ex-police more than anything else. Certainly their attitude was very different. They didn't get on at that stage either.
There was good camaraderie within the Koevoet units. Most outside people had a very negative attitude towards the guys, but one or two of the units I had were basically a good bunch of people - `good' relative to the situation. Obviously we were in a war situation. They were fairly effective as a fighting force. The unit was mixed; you had some guys from varying backgrounds; both Afrikaans and English and local Owambos and guys from other units who had joined. It was a bit of a miss match of people collected together operating as a fighting unit. Discipline was variable, but effective within what they did.
My contact with them was reasonably positive. I didn't have any negative experiences with them.
Koevoet had a problem with gathering of information because they had developed such a negative response from the local population because of their methods. They would be negative and threatening rather than anything positive. The local population were getting the brunt of it from both sides. There were a number of cases that I knew of where Koevoet guys had been former PLAN members. They had been `turned' for one reason or another, and by the use of varying methods. This was part of the effectiveness of the Koevoet group. The SWAPO units coming in had their political advisors with them all the time, and the `turned' ex-Swapo members of Koevoet had been trained politically and therefore knew how their minds operated, and were very effectively used that way. Koevoet used local people to a large extent, and they used good trackers.
Some of the guys working either with the Koevoet unit or the TIN units were locals. On one occasion we were tracking someone, and the guy said `I've lost the track.' It was quite clear that he hadn't lost the track. We spoke to him afterwards and he said he thought it was his family and he wasn't going to be tracking them. One guy was going on leave, and I asked him where he was going. He was going up into Angola, and I asked him what he was going up into Angola for and he said that his family lived up across the border. There was a great deal of that because the Owambo people are spread across the border. There was quite a lot of that going on, which was interesting.
I was in Owamboland for about six or seven months. I saw bits of both seasons. The change was quite dramatic from the terrible dry season where it looks like desert, to the rainy season where everything grows in profusion and you have water two inches deep stretching for kilometre after kilometre. There was an increase in the number of contacts that occurred in the wet season, when people infiltrating down from the North after they had been trained. It was obviously designed according to the weather. It was always opportune for them to survive in that area in the wet season.
GOING BACK TO `THE STATES'
Once I had done my time up at Ukuludi, we had difficulty getting back because nobody wanted to know. Nobody knew that we were there, and nobody cared, so it took us quite a while to organise to get back.
BACK AT 1 MIL
It was an adjustment to start off with, being back at 1 Mil because one minute you were up in Ondangwa, and then you climbed in the aircraft. They fly you back, and you land in Pretoria. All of a sudden you are back in the real world. You are doing a normal job again, especially in medicine at 1 Mil. You go from being out in the remote base to walking in the general hospital. You had to re-socialise yourself back to a normal way of life; the way you responded to people was slightly different. It was quite difficult at first. It was very boring. You were edgy the whole time.
After the initial period back at 1 Mil, we had an absolute ball. Apart from one or two excursions to the townships in the middle of the night, the rest of my stay in the army was pretty uneventful. I had a good time at 1 Mil. Apart from being in uniform and the saluting, there was no particular military hierarchy. You did your job, and the early morning parades on top of the hill were a once-a-week inconvenience. I had a very good working relationship with the other guys in the unit, especially the Brigadier and Commandant I used to play golf every Wednesday afternoon; I played golf for the Medical Service and we had parties quite often.
1 Mil was part of the Pretoria medical training circuit, so it helped towards your professional career. I think that the people who went to sickbays for two years were the ones who got the worst end of the stick, but that was their choice to some extent; their lack of planning. I lived in Johannesburg and I used to stay at home. A group of us used to drive through in the morning, go to work, and come home in the afternoons. One of the generals refused to come in to the clinic, so Colin would have to go and attend to him in his office. At that time Colin was a second Lieutenant.
On the border, a soldier was accidentally shot by his own rifle grenade which struck at such close range that it had not managed to arm itself, and it became embedded in his shoulder. A helicopter was called in to casevac him out, but the pilot saw the tail fin sticking out of his chest, and refused to allow him to be loaded into the helicopter, so they had to drive him to the Ondangwa hospital on the back of a bakkie. There, a volunteer surgeon and a volunteer anaesthetist removed it in a sandbagged enclosure outside of the hospital. After this, the patient was sent down to 1 Mil where he became Colin's patient. Colin had the X-rays for a while, which showed the clear outlines of the rifle grenade amongst the damaged bones and flesh of his shoulder.
I hadn't thought about most of these things since they happened. You lived with the time; it was part of your life. You went through it, you did it, and then the day came when you klaared out, and you went on with your life. You never thought about it or looked back. You very seldom met your bush buddies, or the people you were involved with in the different units. You very seldom saw or heard from them again, although at the time you were big buddies; you lived and would have died for each other. Once you were back in the real world, you were divorced from all that. It was like living two different lives. One day you were this and the next day you were that, and that was it. Nobody talked about it or thought about it. I suppose some people didn't want to talk about it, and there are some things that you blot out - that you don't want to remember. You only remember the good side of things. That's human nature, I suppose.
Published 1 July 2000.
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