The elusive truth about Namibia's mass graves
Last week’s discovery of mass graves in Namibia proves once again that truth often is the first casualty of war.
In the conflict between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan), both sides were accomplished in propaganda by 1989.
This was the year of the “nine-day war” between Plan and the SADF.
The discovery at Eenhana and elsewhere of graves apparently containing the bones of Plan fighters killed around April 1989 have revived untested allegations and rumour current at the time.
It has been said the SADF “lured” Plan over the border for one last blood-letting and that some Plan combatants were “shot, execution-style”.
Cuba, South Africa and Angola agreed at Brazzaville on December 13 1988 to a total Cuban military withdrawal from Angola.
A later agreement, signed in New York by South Africa and Cuba, among others, set April 1 1989 as the implementation date of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435, which set out the path to Namibian independence.
Although neither the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) nor its military wing (Plan) were parties to the agreement, President Sam Nujoma had reportedly given the UN a written undertaking to cease all hostilities from April 1.
Resolution 435 was then already 11 years old, having been adopted in 1978.
Under the scheme, South African-appointed administrator general Louis Pienaar would on that day, a Saturday, begin the territory’s transition to independence, with UN special representative Martti Ahtisaari supervising.
Indian General Prem Chand would begin performing his duties as head of the UN Transition Assistance Group (Untag).
South African troops would be confined to base and the South West African Territory Force, the SADF’s Namibian auxiliary, would be disarmed and demobilised. The South West African Police would patrol the border armed with personal weapons only.
April 1 was also the first day since 1977 that border security was a police, not an SADF, function.
Untag not full-strength
Not long after the event, author Willem Steenkamp wrote that it was obvious by March that Untag would still be well below its authorised strength of 4 650 on April 1.
But given the peace prevailing on the frontier, “that seemed no reason for concern”.
Untag was only about 1 000 strong on the day.
In February, said Steenkamp, information from a deserter from Plan’s “Red Square” battalion, based at Peu Peu in southern Angola, indicated the Namibians were moving closer to the border, rather than away from it.
The month also saw accusations and counter-accusations between South Africa and Angola over violations of the agreement, many related to reported obstructionism, and the activities of Unita rebels.
Author Peter Stiff says the regional South West African Police commissioner for northern Namibia, Major General Hans Dreyer, decided on March 31 that machine guns and other arms would be taken from the mountings on Casspir armoured vehicles at midnight, but would remain stored aboard until the Sunday, when they would be locked in armouries.
The South West African Police chief, Lieutenant General Dolf Gouws, concurred with Dreyer’s decision. Gouws had previously commanded the notorious “Koevoet” counter-insurgency unit.
Stiff writes that Untag police chief Major General Steven Fanning was informed of this.
On March 31, there was also a prisoner exchange at Ruacana, on the Cunene River, where South Africa’s minister of foreign affairs at the time, Pik Botha, delivered a 27th protest note about Plan movements in the area north of the frontier, and Untag’s second-in-command, Kenyan Brigadier Daniel Opande, was briefed in Windhoek on some specifics regarding at least one group.
In Angola, between 1 000 heavily armed insurgents (Steenkamp) and 1 768 (Stiff) were set to cross the border that night or the next day.
Stiff, who interviewed at least two captured guerrillas, says they had been told by their commanders to return to Namibia.
Both said they were told to go back to be monitored in bases by Untag.
On the morning of April 1, patrolling police saw tracks crossing the border, and were told by residents of large numbers of armed men passing during the night.
Many of them were former Koevoet operatives in ex-Koevoet vehicles.
Stiff and Steenkamp say there were four large crossings on a front of 300km, with the insurgents carrying assault rifles, machine guns, mines, mortars, anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.
Police followed the tracks and fighting erupted.
By the next day, Steenkamp counts 130 insurgents and 10 South West African Police officers dead and several Casspirs destroyed.
He adds that Untag members flown to the fighting zone “confirmed that the fighting had been sparked by a Plan incursion”.
Ahtisaari then held talks with Pienaar, “after which both agreed to the recall of certain units from their bases to back up the police. This decision was confirmed by the [UN] secretary general.”
Steenkamp added that Ahtisaari was later “severely criticised” for this action.
He reported Nujoma flatly denied there had been an incursion and said it was a South African provocation and that South Africa had ambushed Swapo supporters.
Another Swapo statement said the insurgents had “fired only in self-defence after being hunted down and attacked”.
Nujoma then said he had instructed Plan cadres in Namibia on March 29 to regroup and await being confined to base by Untag “in accordance with Resolution 435”.
But Untag officials, Steenkamp said, pointed out the resolution made no provision for this.
Steenkamp and Stiff speculated the reason for the incursion was that Swapo—which went on to win every election since independence handsomely—was not sure of its electoral support and, believing the SADF, the South West African Territory Force and South West African Police muzzled by Untag, was hoping to seize power.
End to fighting
On Saturday April 8, Nujoma called a halt to the fighting, ordering all Plan troops inside Namibia to “stop fighting, regroup and report to the People’s Republic of Angola within 72 hours”.
He added that Untag would escort them from Namibia with their arms.
By the next day, Stiff reckoned 312 Plan fighters had been killed and 40 captured.
Twenty police officers and five soldiers had died and 100 were wounded or injured.
Neither Stiff nor Steenkamp wrote much about the fate of the dead.
Steenkamp’s book shows a grave being dug by the South West African Police, but does not elaborate. An Untag officer appears to be standing by.
Stiff’s shows corpses on display with weapons, or tied to South West African Police Casspirs, but no more.
A third Border War author, Al J Venter, in a letter to The Star on November 15 2005, wrote from Scotland that he had asked where Plan bodies were taken.
“Ostensibly, I was told, they were returned for fingerprinting to try to link individuals with ‘crimes’ committed by Swapo groups who had successfully infiltrated northern Namibia.
“When I asked once what happened to the bodies afterwards, I was told that they were buried in mass graves, and Eenhana was mentioned as a place where there were several.”
Heavy fighting indeed took place in the Eenhana area in the nine-day war, as Stiff later called it. The SADF’s 54 Battalion was based there until the end of the conflict.
The unit took part in numerous cross-border raids and continuously patrolled its allocated area of Ovambo for signs of Plan.
The 1989 death toll may be even higher, as the battlefield was generally not immediately or thoroughly policed.
Later sweeps found insurgents who had died nearby of their wounds and showed signs that Plan had also cleared contact zones and buried its dead.
Local residents also quickly interred unclaimed bodies.
It is likely that some of the dead are still to be found.
The Namibian newspaper’s reporter in the north of the country, Oswald Shivute, said memorials have been erected for some of the dead.
Another reporter said as far as she knew, the only dead exhumed were some whom had allegedly been shot through the back of the head, an allegation first aired on United States television on April 20 1989.
Stiff referred to the incident, saying he had viewed the bodies in question at the Oshakati morgue, as had other journalists, and had seen nothing untoward.
The reports resulted in the bodies being exhumed and post-mortems conducted.
No evidence was found that they had been “killed execution-style”.—Sapa