We Will Never Forget Cassinga: Survivors

10 May 2016 17:00pm

By George Hendricks
CASSINGA, 10 MAY (NAMPA) – Shedding tears of immense sadness they sing revolutionary songs while laying wreaths on two mass graves of their fellow Namibians who died during the massacre on this site some 38 years ago.
Many were as young as 13 years when the South African Defence Force (SADF) attacked the refugee transition camp for Namibians in southern Angola on 04 May 1978.
The group of mourners, about 217 of them, travelled here a few days ago in a convoy from Namibia to commemorate Cassinga Day; a national day in Namibia in honour of about 1 000 people who perished that day under a hail of bullets and bombs.
This is their first visit to the site after the attack on the Cassinga refugee camp at Cassinga village in southern Angola, situated some 250 kilometres north of the Namibia-Angola border.
Pauline Enkono was 19 years old when she arrived at the camp on 30 April 1978 from the ‘Vietnam’ military base at Tchetequela village, about 25 kilometres from the Namibia-Angola border. She spent only three nights at the refugee camp before it was attacked.
“I was busy preparing to go to a parade when I saw an aeroplane coming from the north. Suddenly, I saw another plane dropping objects from the sky,” she told Nampa on the sidelines of the commemoration last Wednesday.
Standing beside one of the mass graves, Enkono said the whole experience was new to her, as she knew very little about military planes and what they can do.
“Looking up at the plane dropping objects, I asked myself if it is normal to see such planes here at the camp, and yet I could hear people shouting, “Take cover! Take cover!”
The objects dropped from the plane turned out to be bombs, and still she could not understand what was happening until someone pulled her down to the ground.
“As I was lying there, I saw fragments of the bombs flying all over the place and one of them fell on my leg. Fortunately, it did not harm me,” she recounted.
Other Namibian refugees were shouting more instructions but because she was new to the camp, she had no idea what they were saying.
“I did not know the directions or whatever they were shouting so I just followed a group of people and ran as fast as I could. As I ran, I came across a girl who was hurt. She was on the ground and I tried to help her until I heard another plane, so I continued running to a garage.”
There was a lot of confusion and nothing made sense.
“I saw people entering a burning bus and as confused as I was, I thought that maybe if I also enter the bus somebody would drive us to safety, but at the same time I was shouting at the people not to enter the bus. I mean, why would you enter a burning bus?”
Enkono then saw the same people exit the bus.
“Eventually I ran towards a maize field to take cover, where I met a man who had a bazooka (rocket launcher). At the time, I did not know what it was but the man explained to me it was a gun that I can use to protect myself from the enemy.”
The man told Enkono how to use the rocket launcher but it was too complex for her to grasp.
“I wanted to take the bazooka anyway, but it was too heavy for me to operate.”
Enkono continued her run, following a group of people that led her into a trench.
“It was a long, zigzagging communication trench and I felt safe there as I recognised some of the PLAN soldiers who were busy firing at the South African paratroopers approaching the trench.”
The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) was the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) founded by Namibia’s first president Sam Nujoma to spearhead the country’s liberation struggle with support from numerous countries including surrounding African states.
Enkono and the group in the trench knew they were not safe for as long as the SADF helicopters hovered above the trench firing at them.
“Many people were shot; some shot dead, others injured. Some were just running, among them a girl who ran over me carrying her intestines in her hands.”
Shocked at what she saw, Enkono tried her best to stay calm but later realised that she and the girl were the only ones alive in the trench.
The SADF helicopter continued firing at them and Enkono realised that running would be the best or she could soon be dead too.
She got up and ran as fast as she could, still trying her best to make sense of what was happening and came across another group running towards the refugee camp’s centre for children and pensioners.
“As I was running, I saw SADF paratroopers approaching and shooting at us. Comrades fell in front of me as the bullets penetrated their flesh, so I changed direction and ran back into the maize field for cover. Then, I suddenly passed out.”
Enkono remained in the maize field until Cuban forces arrived and forced the SADF paratroopers to retreat.
After the attack, the bodies of children, women and men were collected and buried in two mass graves near the camp.
Other bodies scattered far from the camp were only located days after both mass graves were covered.
The horrendous smell of decaying human flesh led the search party to the bodies.
Speaking to Nampa at the same grave, Hailonga Haulyondjaba, who was a 38-year-old PLAN captain at the time, shared his memory of arriving at Cassinga after the attack.
“It was 06h00 on 04 May 1978 and while I was busy stocking ammunition for the North-Eastern Front and the Northern Front, I heard the sound of helicopters. I counted 25 of them.”
These fronts were battle zones, and he was at a small camp in the middle of the two zones.
Haulyondjaba thought the helicopters he saw were part of the Western Contact Group sent from Namibia to Angola to negotiate the settlement of independence in Namibia.
The Western Contact Group (WCG) comprised France, United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada and Germany that launched a mission in 1977 to end South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia.
“I was not worried because there was no communication that day until midnight. But when I turned on my radio, I heard the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporting that Cassinga and Tchetequela were attacked by SA forces, killing many people. I didn’t sleep well that night. My unit and I woke up and went to the headquarters of the Northern Front.”
There the Northern Front commander instructed Haulyondjaba and his unit to continue to Cassinga.
Upon arrival at Cassinga on 05 May 1978, they found several bodies scattered all over the camp.
He spent two nights there and during that time could not eat well, particularly meat.
“I could not eat any cooked food because the smell was unbearable. Corpses were scattered everywhere, torn to pieces.
“A staff officer recorded and identified each body that was later buried in the mass graves. He took me around, showing me where some PLAN member bodies were found, including that of Cassinga refugee camp commander, Jonas Haiduwa.”
Haulyondjaba said he was at the camp when the first pit was filled with bodies and covered with sand.
“I left for my station while the second pit was still open because we were told not to cover it up with sand, as some journalists were on their way to film and document the post massacre refugee camp.”
The two mass graves were renovated twice in 1980 and 1988 by Swapo and with help from the Angolan government.
The two governments have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to erect shrines at Cassinga and Tchetequela.
Erection of the monuments will commence this year at Cassinga and at Tchetequela in 2017.