Behind the border battle

When "Comrade Danger", a Swapo commander in southern Angola, ordered his men into Namibia on the night of April 1, he told them to find members of Untag, hand over their weapons, and subject themselves to United Nations supervision in "assembly point". He gave no order to engage "enemy" forces – even if they came across them. This is the version of events given by 30-year-old Johannes Kutumba, one of the first two guerrillas of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan) to be captured in the current fighting in Owambolanti.

Kutumba, a Plan reconnaissance platoon commander, was presented by security forces to a group of reporters in Oshakati. Swapo disputes the claim that its men crossed the Angola/Namibia "cutline", but confirms their intention: to set up base in their homeland. They were going home to savour the peace and, one assumes, the admiration of black Namibian civilians. For South African and South West African commanders in Owamboland that same night, the guerrillas who intent. It was "a deed of war", in the words of SADF colonel Japie Dreyer. The UN faced, according to Windhoek representative Cedric Thornberry, "a development that simply amaze~ everyone. I don't know of a ingle person who countenanced such a thing at all."

The UN therefore had to respond – almost immediately – to a crisis of epic proportions. The notorious units of Koevoet were already engaging unprecedented numbers of guerrillas in firefights across a 300km stretch of northern Namibia. Then the gates were opened to allow SADF troops out of their bases, and they joined the fight. The UN action clearly indicates that the world body believed, at the way not have foreseen the ferocity with which the troops would go about their business. The guerrillas, according to Kutumba and the second captured Plan fighter, 22-year-old Phillipus Mateus, were shocked to see Koevoe Casspirs bearing down on them. And "Pottie" Potgieter of Swapo's counterinsurgency unit, seeing events through the window of his armoured vehicle, says he was also taken by surprise. "We were patrolling when we spotted the tracks of between 40 and 50 men," he says, and followed them as a matter of routine.

When they caught up with the guerrillas, the Koevoet men claim they came under fire, and the hell that continues now, almost a week later, broke loose. It will never be known with certainty who fired the first shots in the engagement near Ruacana. It hard matters, as what followed was theological result of two heavily armed groups coming face-to-face. The South African response to the situation is perfectly predictable, in Pretoria's terms. With the unusual advantage of a substantial body of world opinion sympathetic to their outrage, the troopies got on with the bloody job. The clashes have brought the independence plan right to the brink of collapse.

But there is no one in Namibia- certainly not Untag– who can yet pronounce definitively on what was going through the Swapo leaders' minds when they made their move. Certainly, there were electoral advantages to be had by placing "freedom fighters" inside Namibia, if this was a calculated strategic risk. But the dangers of placing the independence process in jeopardy – a process which would almost certainly return Swapo to power by next year – were obvious. In this scenario, it is possible that Plan commanders overestimated the Untag presence in Owamboland, and underestimated Swapo.

It is also possible that Swapo tacticians decided, as it seems they have never signed a formal undertaking to stay above Angola's 16th parallel that the ambiguities of Swapo's position would result in deliberations and compromises – not carnage. But as the international reaction has shown, it was certainly a cast-iron perception that Swapo fighters should not be armed and in Namibia. In the event of Swapo not being proved to have broken a formal agreement, it seems inescapable that at the very least the organisation will be found guilty of acting in bad faith. Whatever the complex prognosis of the leaders, however, it is the unsuspecting fighters on the run in Owamboland who are paying the price. In the gruesome pile of captured, bloodstained "booty" which was shown off in Oshakati, was a small, dog-eared notebook. On its opening page, in a childish scrawl, was "The Song of Namibia", a praise-poem for the efforts of the liberation forces. There was an aide-memoire, also and written: "Remember to teach the, people to sing this."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
Guest Author

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