Mystery of the ‘clean’ head-wounds

A number of journalists have reported seeing oddly "undamaged" corpses of Swapo guerrillas exhibiting simple, clean head wounds in contrast to the grotesque dismemberment of many of the dead. In the absence of medical examinations of the bodies of already exhumed People's Liberation Army of Namibia fighters, this has led to accusations that South West Africa Police “effectively executed" some combatants after they had surrendered. It has been suggested this method of killing could have been the reason that so many dead guerrillas were hastily buried in mass graves in the war zone.

In separate allegations, residents of the Omungwelme area in northern Owamboland say six corpses identified by Swapol as Swapo terrorists" – and therefore included in the overall “body-count” – were in fact well known local villagers, whom they identified individually. The allegations of serious misconduct by security forces in the bush war are emanating from sources as diverse as a conservative British newspaper, a Washington lobby group up and, of course, Owamboland civilians. If substantiated, they will cast a dramatically different light on the actions of the security forces since the fighting began on the first day of the implementation of United Nations Resolution 435. South African officials have issued hot denials – dismissing the claims as a transparent bid by Swapo to restore its political reputation- but an international furore has nevertheless erupted around the persistent reports.

Simon O'Dwyer-Russell, a senior journalist from the London Sunday Telegraph, said what he saw in the back yard of Oshakati's mortuary was profoundly disturbing: " … None of the bodies (he viewed the corpses of 18 guerrillas in the second week of April) showed the familiar signs of mutilation by heavy machine-gun bullets of the type used by the South African-led security forces. "Most had apparently been shot in the face at close range with small calibre weapons. Several other journalists report similar impressions, and there are now intensive international efforts to have the bodies of all dead Swapo fighters exhumed and subjected to proper forensic tests.

Prominent Windhoek advocate David Smuts, who has been responsible for bringing many Swapo applications to court in Namibia, supports these calls. "No-one has concrete evidence (of the alleged "executions")," he told the Weekly Mail yesterday, “but it is a matter of the gravest concern in Namibia. Smuts said besides the "execution" claims, Windhoek's Legal Assistance Centre and the Human Rights Centre in Ongwediva had received a flood of detailed reports of harassment and assault of civilians by security forces in Owamboland. An urgent application for a restraining order against the security forces was being considered, he said. However, Smuts and his colleagues were first investigating the terms of reference of the permanent commission established this week by Administrator-General Louis Pienaar.

The commission, which is to be headed by respected Windhoek advocate Brian O'Linn, will be charged with investigating all forms of intimidation and misconduct  – from whatever quarter – in the run-up to November’s scheduled independence elections. A short video documentary produced this week by the independent US-based television group South Africa Now claimed that as many as 24 Plan fighters "allegedly killed in battle with (security) forces had actually been shot at close range execution style”.


According to the makers of the documentary, Sunday Telegraph photographer Judah Passow offered this graphic recollection of what he saw in Owamboland: "They had all been shot through the head with small-calibre rounds. The security forces use weapons up to 20-millimetre round will cut a body in half, or just shear a limb off a body. "There were no wounds corresponding to anything like that in the stack of bodies that we saw in Oshakati. In fact, all of the dead had been shot clean through the head, at what we could only deduce was point-blank or close range – effectively executed.” O'Dwyer-Russell reported that he had spoken to a black member of the notorious Koevoet counter-insurgency unit, and asked him whether the guerrillas had been killed after surrendering. "What does it matter?" the tracker replied. ''They are Swapo, and they are dead. That's all that matters.” 

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Shaun Johnson
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