THE Cassinga massacre may be one of the most important days on the Namibian calendar, but nothing at its Angolan site matches the yearly political hype.
The graves are about 50 to 100 metres from the road, a two-track that cuts through the settlement. The jungle with tall elephant grass and thick bushes serves as a reminder that hardly anyone gets to them.
The last time anything official was undertaken there was 32 years ago when the Swapo youth league built a concrete cast over the mass graves and painted: “Cassinga Massacre, 4th May 1978. We shall always remember them. SYL CC 1983.”
Cracks and weed sprouting through those cement blocks atop the graves appear testimony that memory is fading even among the Swapo stalwarts who often chant “their blood waters our freedom”.
“They promised to put up a monument, build a school and bring water to the settlement but it has been many years since that promise,” says chief of Cassinga settlement Juciano Intya during a tour of a group of Namibians on 4 May this year.
Intya says two delegations of Namibians (among them two ambassadors at different stages of their postings to Angola) have been to Cassinga since independence. He cannot remember when exactly these delegations visited, but the last time was perhaps 10 years ago.
“They always promise but nothing happens,” says Intya. It is easy to miss the legendary settlement of Cassinga, which is about 300km north of Namibia's Oshikango border with Angola. The two-track road dissecting Cassinga was once the equivalent of Namibia's B1 route, a major link via Jamba and Huambo to Luanda.
Both Swapo (primarily the People's Liberation Army of Namibia) and its arch-enemy apartheid South Africa revere Cassinga. The 1978 Battle of Cassinga claimed more than 600 lives, the most in a single attack, and was arguably the turning point in Namibia's war of liberation.
For Swapo, Cassinga provided a renewed impetus, having laid bare the brutality of the apartheid regime as the liberation movement told the world that enemy soldiers targeted mostly children and unarmed women.
For colonial South Africa, the message was that Swapo was annihilated.
Talks intensified for the independence of the country. Confidence of the regime was so high it pushed through bogus elections with its puppet organisations sensing an opportunity to get into power. With Swapo boycotting the elections, the efforts passed as mere propaganda.
The famous UN Security Council Resolution 435 paving the road for Namibia's negotiated settlement was agreed to later that year - although it took more than 10 years to come to fruition.
Intya and Antonio Vicente, an Angolan survivor of Cassinga now 72 years old, said since Swapo abandoned the settlement after the attacks in 1978 fearing both South Africa and Unita, the links with Namibia are all but broken.
Instead, South Africa's former soldiers (who Vicente cursorily referred to as the white men) were the ones who visit Cassinga most. Their recent visit was four or five years ago when one came with his entire family (including a grandchild), according to Vicente.
Bearing testimony of the last visit of the apartheid soldiers who brought Swapo's military wing to its knees (the top military commander of Plan, Dimo Hamaambo, barely escaped, crossing a nearby river into the village) is a wooden cross hoisted on a tree by the roadside.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. 2010,” reads the writing with signatures accompanying the plaque on the cross.
The South Africans lost four men - three killed and one missing in action - 12 were wounded in the battle of Cassinga.
The Namibian tour group consisting of Evat Kandongo, Jerry Elago, Manni Goldbeck, David Keendjele, Hannu Shipena, Eliphas Hawala, Hans Appelmann, Naso Soares (tour guide) and the author of this article could hardly contain their shock, anger and even embarrassment.
After all, Cassinga Day is a big deal back home. The government has spent hundreds of millions of Namibian dollars eulogising Swapo heroes through museums and monuments. They regularly vow not to forget the Cassinga massacre.
Evidence at the site where apartheid soldiers struck two times in quick succession suggests a forgotten epic of Namibian history.
Kandongo, himself a product of Swapo's exile experience though not Cassinga, says he was not only angry but stunned by the hypocrisy of what he sees during the commemorations of Cassinga.
“My blood still boils when I see the pictures,” says Kandongo of the area that still has not been cleared of military explosives since Swapo abandoned it 37 years ago. “That's why we couldn't visit the 'magazine' room.”
The contrast with the Afrikaner Dorsland Trekkers who went from South Africa through Namibia in 1874 and settled at Humpata, a place outside Lubango, is poignant. In 2003 Afrikaners from Namibia and South Africa erected an obelisk at the graveside of their kith and kin who died there. Angolans in the area say they see regular pilgrimages of the Dorsland Trekkers' offspring.
But Swapo and the Namibian government have not forgotten their Angolan exile roots completely. In 2009, then foreign affairs minister Marco Hausiku unveiled the “Namibian liberation heroes and heroines cemetery” at Lubango. Here the graves, including of civilians who died of natural causes, are clearly marked.
The farming area outside the southern Angolan town of Lubango became the headquarters of Swapo exiles after Cassinga. It was in the same area where Swapo gained notoriety for the “Dungeons of Lubango” where torture, extrajudicial detention and deaths of its people suspected as spies were rampant.
The 72-year-old Antonio Vicente still remembers the trauma of the Cassinga massacre. He helped to bury bodies and limbs. Vicente says they did not even have time to dig graves. Most bodies were dumped into the greasy workshop dugout where vehicles and guns were cleaned and serviced.
The oil-filled dugout remains the main tomb. Another similar grave covered with concrete has sagged with the passing of time.
But, Juciano Intya, the Cassinga chief, pleaded amid an air of despondency that our tour group deliver a message to the Namibian authorities in order to make something of the place where too much of the blood of Namibians and Angolans has drained into the soil. “Let them come and make this place respectful, please.”
By Tileni Mongudhi: The Namibian
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