Excerpt from Koevoet Copyright © Jim Hooper 2011 all rights reserved.
HARBINGER OF WAR
South West Africa/Namibia
It's raining. For days now, the skies to the north have been grey and threatening, the grey moving a little farther south each day. And last night the first of it finally arrived, rain heralded by sudden wind and the distant drums of muted thunder. Tonight again, harder: glistening, thrashing trees caught in the blue-white – fst! – of lightning, the sudden crack! shaking the air, the rumbling aftermath drowned by the roaring downpour.
There's been frustration, tenseness here, waiting for the real rains, the harbinger of war. And now they've come, carrying with them the sounds of destruction.
After six weeks on ops the days had begun to take on sameness, one blurring into another. You awoke under the wet bivi before dawn to unzip the clammy sleeping bag and dress by feel, swearing silently if you'd forgotten to draw socks and canvas boots well inside the cover and found them soaked with the night's rain. You crawled out, brushing sand from your hands and stumbling over tent pegs in the dark. Goddammit, as you tripped over something else you didn't remember being there and barked a shin, leaning down to rub it. Regaining your balance, you stood, imprisoned by the black vegetation that spread outward to a hidden horizon. Overhead, millions of stars in the Milky Way draped the sky. A pulsing glow lit the inside of a towering cloud just above the trees, too far away to hear even a faint deep rumble.
Here and there inside the perimeter others were beginning to move. A brief, racking cough broke the thick silence. Orange glows flickered as fuel tablets were lit, and piles of damp twigs grudgingly took fire. You sleepily took in the familiar scene, yawning and forgetting that only weeks before it would have been beyond imagining. This was your world now – closer to the bone than anything you'd ever encountered. Somewhere out there in the dark were people who had crossed from Angola to kill. Koevoet had one task: stop them. Would it happen today? Impossible to predict.
Going down on one knee, you reached under the edge of the poncho, patting the sand in search of the roll, then stood and tried to remember the layout of the new camp from the afternoon before. Making your way through the wet bush outside the perimeter, you bumped into one of the senior Ovambos returning.
“Goeiemôre, meneer,” he says quietly. Good morning, sir.
“’Môre, Tati.” Morning, uncle.
By the time you returned, more men were moving around the camp. Water was drawn from the spigot at the back of a Casspir and the encrusted kettle balanced atop a struggling fire. There was the squeak of a tin provision box opening and the hollow clatter of enamelled mugs before the top squeaked shut again. Sleepy sighs were the extent of the conversation as you untied the make-shift tent from its two trees and rolled up the sleeping bag, shoving it all into a diesel-stained duffel bag. As the sky lightened imperceptibly, the armoured cars slowly took form around the camp, bulking silently like scarred war horses patiently awaiting battle. You looked for the Blesbok, found it, then carried the duffel bag to the supply vehicle and heaved it into the back.
Someone set the stained collection of chipped mugs in the sand. A piece of cardboard torn from a ration pack was wrapped around the handle of the kettle and the mugs filled with scalding coffee. They were passed from hand to hand and slowly sipped as sleep drained from exhausted bodies. A toe was pushed into the formless lump of someone still in his sleeping bag. There was another persistent jab, and a tired voice growled a muffled oath. The cocoon stirred. The stubbled and dirt-streaked face of a twenty-one-year-old emerged to the quiet laughter of the coffee drinkers. A filthy arm worked its way out of the bag and took an offered cup, drawing it unsteadily toward sun-blistered lips.
Toit, the group leader stepped away and climbed into his Casspir. Switching on the radios, he sipped his coffee and keyed the microphone.
'Zulu Two, Zulu Two, Zulu Quebec.'
'Zulu Quebec, Zulu Two. Morning, Toit. How's it?'
Zulu Two, the ops room at Eenhana, was advised in which direction we'd be moving and in return passed on the latest intelligence about insurgent activity. As Toit jotted down the information, fires were scattered and killed while bedding and stores were thrown into the back of the Blesbok. Guns were checked and sprayed with lubricant, ammunition belts examined. Finally, a loose parade was formed. Bush hats were removed at a barked command and heads lowered as the senior black warrant officer led the group in prayer. On the back of a T-shirt worn by one of the most devout black constables, chin tucked down in close communion with his Maker, were the words Kill Them All.
Another crisp command and hats were returned to heads, the parade formation dissolving as men moved to their cars. The sun had almost reached the tops of the trees when the group leader's car belched dark smoke and bucked forward. Another day had begun.
Less than five miles away, other young men had also awakened. Of the seven, only two had undertaken previous infiltrations. Both were skilled anti-trackers, as evidenced by the fact they were still alive. The others, in their teens and early twenties, were fresh from the Cuban training camps in Angola. Their group of forty had been at the Angolan army base at Namakunde for the last two weeks, waiting for the rains to begin.
The group had received its orders and set out the day before, separating into smaller units of five to ten men each before reaching the border. As they split off from the others, the two veterans began badgering the unblooded boys about using the anti-tracking techniques they'd been taught. Better and safer not to leave spoor the racist South Africans and their black lackeys might see, than have to anti-track to escape. Further, they must never again approach any kraals other than those already known to the two older men. For the youngsters, the warnings from the veterans did little to quell their excitement. Why should they be concerned? Hadn't their Cuban instructors told them that the South African soldiers and their few Ovambo puppets were no match for them? Not even the Ovambo traitors and white racists of Koevoet stood a chance against them.
The scolding two had received for taking a goat was accepted with good humour. What had they done wrong? As soon as the farmer had realized who they were, he had made no attempt to stop them. As an oppressed Namibian, surely he must support their fight against the Boers. It was for him and others like him that the struggle went on. No, he would not inform on them, they confidently told the two older men.
The ashes of last night's fire were carefully scattered. The men stripped the last bits of cold undercooked meat from the blackened remains and tossed the bones into the bush. Wiping hands on damp trousers, they buckled on their uncomfortable web gear. The leader waved his men forward, and the group began making its way through the wet undergrowth. The stiffness they felt from sleeping on the wet ground would soon be worked out as they continued their infiltration deeper into Namibia.
I had deployed two days before with combat groups Zulu Quebec and Zulu Uniform. Sergeant Stephanus du Toit, Zulu Quebec's group leader, came across at first meeting as quietly self assured. Six foot, blond and muscular, his outward calm was deceptive. Under the surface, this twenty-five-year-old was an unpredictable and dangerous man with a hair-trigger temper and lightning-fast fists. Toit's opposite number in Zulu Uniform was Warrant Officer Attie Hattingh. Short, dark-haired and well-built, his masculine good looks were complemented by a quick intellect and infectious laugh. Attie's younger brother Adriaan commanded one of Zulu Uniform's four Casspirs. Though quieter than his older brother, Adriaan was otherwise almost a carbon copy of Attie. In a private moment, Attie confided how much he hated sending Adriaan sweeping ahead to pick up tracks during a chase, knowing that his brother would invariably be a first target for the desperate insurgents. When I pressed him about it, Attie paused for a moment to look across the camp at Adriaan. 'We both understand the risks,' he said quietly. 'This is where we belong.'
The day had started like all the others, stopping at one kraal after another, questioning the Ovambo farmers about the presence of Swapo insurgents, back into the Casspirs and on to the next. Everyone knew that with the beginning of the rains small units of heavily armed insurgents were crossing the border. Digging them out was the hard part.
Figure 2 Author at Ovambo kraal
The two combat groups separated to begin the tedious process of questioning the locals and scanning the ground for spoor. Zulu Quebec stopped at the third isolated kraal of the morning. The trackers walked to the log palisade and shouted for the head of the family. When he appeared, the conversation became animated, the farmer gesturing angrily from inside the enclosure. One of the trackers shouted to Toit. Two insurgents had come the night before and taken a goat without paying or permission. The farmer wasn't sure which way they had gone, but he thought that way, towards the east, pointing and snapping his fingers.
We were climbing back into the Casspir when Attie's voice crackled over the radio. His trackers had found seven spoor less than a mile east of us. The tracks were not more than two or three hours old. The change in everyone was immediate, an electric energy sparking through the group. Minutes later we rendezvoused with Zulu Uniform. The trackers jumped off the cars with their stubby assault rifles, paused to chamber rounds, then ran to join those already on the trail. The hunt had started.
Two hours later, the footprints were down to five, but these five, the trackers said confidently, didn't know their anti-tracking techniques. Even on difficult terrain, we followed the trail at a fast walk, Casspirs flanking us.
Figure 3 Toit and trackers of Zulu Quebec flanked by Casspirs of Zulu Uniform.
Zulu Uniform disappeared into the bush. Within minutes they had picked up the trail a few hundred metres ahead. We scrambled into the cars and raced to the position Attie had marked with a smoke grenade, leaping out to take the trail again while Zulu Uniform fanned out and leapfrogged forward again. Voorsny, they called it.
Reports from other Koevoet groups began coming in over the radios. 'Zulu November has at least ten spoor south of us,' Toit said as we kept pace with the trackers. 'They think they're about an hour behind them. Zulu Poppa has four more east of Nkongo!'
There was another radio call from Attie; again billowing smoke marked the location of fresher spoor. The trackers, excited and sweating, dived back into the Casspirs, and again we accelerated, crashing through the bush to where the smoke lingered. We were closing faster and faster. By now the insurgents could surely hear the growls of diesel engines growing louder. Their tracks had turned north toward the border and Angola. But for the pursuers the 100-metre-wide strip between the two countries was irrelevant. The insurgents had crossed the cutline to kill; their flight back into Angola would ensure neither escape nor sanctuary.
Then it was a running spoor, the trackers sprinting through the thick bush, slowing only when they lost the tracks for a moment, milling, then taking off again at a dead run. Somewhere ahead, the insurgents were running flat out and desperately.
Toit ordered me into his car. Knowing we were behind them, chances were good the insurgents would start setting POM-Z antipersonnel mines along the trail. The squat, pineapple-sectioned mines seldom killed, but the shrapnel could inflict terrible wounds. In a fast-moving chase like this, an exploding “pom-zed” invariably slowed the trackers as they began looking cautiously for trip wires. Neither Toit nor any of his men could trust my experience in spotting one.
Climbing into the car, I heard “casevac” on the radio. “Zulu November's just had a contact,” Toit shouted at me from the ground. “They took out seven terrs, but one of their cars was hit with an RPG. They've got six wounded and at least one dead. They're scrambling the Pumas!”
I dropped into a seat and quickly checked the cameras. One had only a dozen shots left. I rewound it and loaded a fresh roll, swearing as the film tail kept slipping out with each jarring bump and sway of the car. I finally threaded it, shook out the debris and snapped the back closed as we hit the border, roaring across the cleared strip into Angola. Toit immediately advised Zulu Two by radio that we had gone 'external' and put the Alouette gunships on standby.
When the Casspirs and running policemen started going over their own tracks it was clear we had to be right on top of the insurgents. But they had bomb-shelled, each taking off in a separate direction and circling, hoping their spoor would be lost in the torn up bush and sand behind the cars. Toit, sweating heavily through a layer of grime, swung into the Casspir and dropped into the hatch behind the .50 calibre Browning.
“They're here!” he yelled, quickly checking the gun and pulling the locking pin from the mount. “They're right here!” Cutting along the edge of a kraal complex, we heard a deep explosion off to the side.
“What was that?” I shouted.
A chill went through me. People had to be hurt; people I knew.
The radio crackled. “Jack says he's got five wounded from the pom-zed!” Toit shouted. “He's scrambling the choppers to casevac them out! We can't get gunships till they're finished!”
From somewhere ahead of us I heard a sudden burst of machine gun fire. Over the radio came the inevitable, “Contact! Contact!” and the driver automatically turned toward the firing. Toit drew his pistol, eased the slide back to check a round was chambered and reholstered it. With the opening shots, the trackers on the ground had pulled back or taken cover. Now it was up to the cars.
I suddenly wondered what the insurgents were carrying. Anti-amour rifle grenades? RPG-7s or the new RPG-75s? Who had been killed in the other contact? How badly wounded were the others? Is this the day it happens to you? Another explosion of gunfire broke out to our left front, and we swung toward it, Toit gripping the spade handles of the Browning, eyes darting back and forth. The two trackers still with us were down inside now, the muzzles of their assault rifles jammed through the gunports.
Figure 5 Air filled with dust and gunsmoke as Zulu quebec and Zulu Uniform hit contact.
The radio was screeching, crackling, “Contact! Contact!” I stood at the back of the Casspir, eyes trying to penetrate the bush, ears assailed by engine, guns and radios, nose absorbing dust and cordite. Two cars appeared, disappeared, in and out of bush and shadow forty metres to our left, angling toward us. Heavy firing again, the shadows ahead filled with the blue-grey haze of gun smoke. Tracers blazed through the trees, cutting split-second, red-orange streaks through the haze to disappear abruptly or ricochet into the air. Toit was firing, aiming to the right of the two converging cars, the heavy Browning chopping down bush and raising exploding geysers of sand.
Where are they? I can't see them!
Camera poised, others swinging around my neck in the shaking, swaying Casspir, I held tight while dodging branches that scraped over the top of the car. I jumped to the left just in time to avoid one, only to be hit by another that caught me solidly across the side of the head, knocking my glasses askew and numbing my ear. I quickly resettled them and saw the two cars had swung further toward us, firing, firing, dust from the impact of the bullets ahead adding to the thickening haze.
There was a sudden, bass-like explosion and one of the cars stumbled twenty metres away, hit with something, then swerved and shuddered to a stop. The firing reached another crescendo, overwhelming even the sounds of racing engines and screeching radios. Toit dropped inside and I followed suit, ducking below the protective amour as bullets ricocheted off the side of the Casspir. Then he was up again and firing into the gloom of shadows, gun smoke and dust.
There! I saw one running and diving to disappear into a thicket. We drove directly at the spot, Toit screaming at the driver, “Right! Right!” then “Stop! Stop! Don't run over him! Fuck, man, stop!”
We braked to a shuddering halt alongside the thicket, dust rolling over us from behind. Toit went over the side and I dove through the rear doors, hitting the ground hard, boots tangling in broken saplings to send me sprawling full length into the sand. Scrambling to my feet, I turned to follow, then saw the insurgent roll over, trying to cock his SKS assault rifle. Bent low, Toit ran at him, pistol held forward, everything happening in slow motion: one running, the other jerking at the rifle in his hands; one sprinting slowly through the bush; the other looking up, then down, struggling to draw back the bolt on the rifle; the pistol in the hand coming up, only feet away ...
Move! For fuck sake, move!
A shot, the muzzle jumping; another shot, and then a third. The weapon slipped from fingers that slowly opened. Then Toit, eyes bulging and lips drawn back from dirt-blackened teeth, was standing over him, the pistol at his side.
Attie and Adriaan came running from their cars, both wide-eyed and stoked to their fingertips on adrenaline. The last explosion I’d heard was a rifle grenade hitting a wheel on Attie’s car; Adriaan's windscreen and gun shield were starred and dented from AK-47 fire.
“There are more over there that we took out!” Attie pointed, talking in quick bursts. “One of them hit us with a heatstrim! Shit! I didn't see them until just before we were hit!”
From the bush around us the trackers began to emerge. A medic supported a black warrant officer, his back lacerated by a dozen or more pieces of shrapnel from another anti-armour rifle grenade. Toit radioed for a chopper and sent the cars to clear a landing zone by knocking the bush down.
As soon as the helicopter appeared Toit and Attie carried the man to it, settled him next to the pilot and waved him off.
Rifle grenades and RPG warheads were piled together. Toit kneaded a handful of Soviet plastic explosive found on one of the bodies, laid it across the pile, then crimped a detonator onto a five-minute fuse with his teeth. Pushing it into the oily explosive, he lit the fuse and we trotted to the idling cars. We were a few hundred metres away when it went off, the explosion muffled by the dense bush.
I imagined the debris settling over the bodies lying where they had fallen, wondering what dreams and futures had been abruptly ended for the sake of this backward and little-known land. Of what or whom were their last thoughts? Would anyone cry for them? Would anyone even care?
Another day finished as we rumbled back across the border.