Wednesday 12 May 2021
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4 May 1978: A date which will live in infamy

History of Namibia’s Cassinga Day

The Cassinga Massacre was part of the Operation Reindeer which was launched to settle border disputes against South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) of Namibia whose headquarters were in the border of Namibia (South West Africa) and Angola’s southern province, Cassigna. SWAPO is a political party that was organized to carry out Namibia’s movement to independence from South Africa. It took place on May 4, 1978. The air-borne raid killed 600 people, more or less. It was first of South African Army major military assault to paralize SWAPO’s headquarters.


Where were you when the world stopped turning that May Day, 1978?

By Paul Ipumbu

It’s was a rather chilly morning as winter was setting in. Good rainfall in these parts of the world are followed by chilly winters. And that year was blessed with excellent rainfall. After our medical lesson session that lasted a few hours that morning, there was nothing more to do until lunch time.  I went to sit down on an unfinished hut roof structure that was on the ground a few meters from our humble sleeping quarters, which were an open space at the stem of a huge “omutaku” (mountain mahogany) tree. This mountain mahogany tree was, since we had arrived here three weeks previously, our temporary house and bedroom in the transit camp codenamed “Vietnam “, in the vicinity of Chetequera settlement in the Ombandja district of the Cunene Province, in the People’s Republic of Angola. The place was teeming with new civilian arrivals fleeing from Namibia, having sneaked over the border with Angola, some thirty-five to forty-five kilometres south of our location. A few dozen trained and armed PLAN guerrillas were present too. These were responsible for the camp administration, logistics, etc. as well as security. I sat there for I don’t recall how long, soaking up the warmth of the early winter sun as it fondly caressed my skin while I was reading through my medical lesson notes of that day. The air was heavy with something ominous, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was, so I pushed that off my mind and devoted my full attention to reading my medical lessons. I was determined to excel at these preliminary studies and become a good medical officer there could possibly be.

Our group was destined to take up medical studies abroad (the first group that would have gone to medical studies in Cuba) to qualify as medical doctors and come back to assist with the treatment of our compatriots in the refugee camps as well as the treatment of war casualties at the war front.  After an hour or so of reading and taking notes, I decided to take a small break. Without moving and inch, I leaned back against the woodwork of the hut and closed my eyes. My mind drifted and this premonition I had been having intermitently over the last two months or so, revisited me. I had been having visions (or nightmares?) of watching myself being shot and killed and seeing hundreds of images of myself dead, while living at a strange place, sleeping under a huge tree in the bush. Somehow, inexplicably, although I had seen myself dead in these visions I had also survived, like I had been resurrected, unscathed.
Providence was surely telling me something, but I guess there is no running away from one’s fate, there is no reconstruction of one’s destiny. I opened my eyes with a jerk and pricked my ears, much like a startled brush rabbit. But, once again to my surprise and relief, the skies were still blue above me and the birds were still singing in the trees and I was still unscathed. It felt like a Phoenix, having just risen from the ashes. Only I had no idea that a cataclismic event that would dramatically alter the course of my life was about to happen within an hour or so.

By then the time was approaching lunch time. Although I felt pretty hungry, I wasn’t really looking forward to enjoying the meal as our camp food, made of some smelly yellow maize meal porridge and salty (very salty by that) dried fish boiled in water, was not really appetizing. But to survive, especially under those circumstances of being a refugee, a man had to eat.  Luckily I’m one of those who eat to live and not live to eat. So whatever was presented to me, I ate to survive. There was no doubt in my mind that the comparatively luxurious student life at Oshigambo High School was gone forever, and a new life of a refugee and a freedom fighter had just begun. We were mentally prepared for this type if thing when we left our beloved school (and country) on Monday, April 10, 1978.

Just as the hour was striking 13H00, all hell broke loose.
There was pandemonium in the camp as bombs started falling from the skies coming from the southerly direction. These were followed by the boom of jet engines as the Impala jets of the South African Airforce (SAAF) flew low over the camp, having dropped their ordinance of death and destruction on us.  This scenario repeated itself over and over again as the Impalas continued strafing the camp for what appeared to be an hour or so. The wristwatch I was wearing came to a standstill at 13h15 that day. The effects of those bombing runs were devastating, especially on the hundreds of unarmed newly arrived refugees running around looking for cover.  From a distance to the east of the camp one could hear the heavy clatter of automatic fire of an anti-aircracft machine gun as the few camp defenders tried in vain to stave off or shoot down those Impalas. Automatic fire from AK assault rifles were also directed at those planes. The second wave of the bombing runs found me hiding behind my omutaku tree.  A few meters from me I could see the PLAN regional commander, “ Nakada” running with his pistol in his hand and directing civilians to take cover in the open defensive trenches of the camp as the bombing was raging on.
“Indeni momatrencha = run into the trenches”, he repeatedly shouted as he shot his Makarov pistol into the air as if he was trying to bring down the marauding Impala jets with it. In the distance armoured Rattel fighting vehicles and Buffel personnel carriers could be heard and seen firing into the camp and at fleeing refugees as they approached the camp in battle formation from the northerly direction.  I realized we were caught in a pincer movement between the bombing runs from the south and the ground troops from the north.

Seeing this, I jumped from behind the protection of my “omutaku” tree and darted straight for the nearest open trench.  At least I would not be hit by the incoming rounds of fire, so I thought. Everywhere I looked were maimed, twisted dead bodies; people ripped and being ripped apart by the falling explosive ordinance. This was a massacre unfolding right infront of my eyes. I could not say this was my idea of war then, as the overwhelming majority of the fatalities all around me were non-combatants, many of whom were in “Vietnam” only a few hours, days or weeks.  They knew nothing about war as they were neither trained nor armed. My idea of war was that armed combatants fought each other – either into a stalemate or until one side capitulated in defeat; and not one powerful well-equipped and well-trained army indiscriminately dropping lethal explosive ordinance from the sky on mainly unarmed and unsuspecting civilians in a transit facility.
Just as I was diving headfirst into the crowded open trench, a sharp pain shot through my right leg as the boom of an Impala jet passed over the canopy of the trees or whatever was left of them. My right foot partially went numb instantly and heavy bleeding ensued.  Shrapnel from the falling bombs had shredded my rightcalf muscles, torn off one of the tendons at the knee. I ran my hand through my shredded leg, feeling my oozing hot blood draining from my body. I realized I was about to bleed to death in that trench.

I quickly put the little knowledge I had about first aid to good use. I un-buckled and pulled out my leather belt from my waist, wound it around my upper leg (thigh) and pulled it tight as hard as I could and tied a knot. The bleeding although not entirely stopped, was significantly reduced. That seems to have saved my life. The firing and shooting on the ground had been going on non-stop for what seemed indefinitely. The advancing SADF formations from the north had reached the trenches inside the camp by then.  Some have alighted from their armored personnell carriers and were shooting point blank, execution style, at the unarmed people in the open trenches. A friend and classmate of mine, Epafras “Kop” Elago, was in line to be shot when the SADF commander at the sight finally called a cessation of fire. While the Impalas were gone, the bombing runs and point blank shootings had stopped, the Alouettes gunship continued hovering and circling overhead, shooting at whatever moved on the ground that they could not identify as friendly forces, long after the shooting in the camp had stopped. Although I was heavily wounded and unable to run and was facing being captured alive by the enemy, I felt neither pain nor fear. I guess the heightened adrenaline levels in my body had taken care of that.

I was deeply shocked too, I guess. Come what my I thought to myself, I will have to face it. There was no escape, just the stark realities of death and destruction stared squarely at me. And so were the prospects of being tortured and humiliated. Something in me died that day: innocence, naivety and the fear of death! Things would never be the same again.  Having seen so much gruesome death in a matter of minutes for the first time in my life, it felt like I had been to the depth of hell and back. Nothing really mattered anymore. There I was, trapped in that God-forsaken open trench, heavily wounded, bleeding and immobilized, with hundreds of mangled dead bodies of my compatriots all around me. My mind went numb. My premonition had come to pass.  Yes, I was dead yet ALIVE! Just as I had seen over and over again in those vision dreams. I lived to tell the story, though. Only Providence knows how and why I survived. I guess it fits in somewhere into His greater scheme of things. If that massive piece of shrapnel had hit me in the back or chest I would have died. After the fighting completely stopped, the captured survivors, many of them wounded, were bundled out of the trenches while being viciously gun-butted and poked with primed bayonets.
We were then paraded at an open space west of the camp for the benefit of the press brought in by chopper by the SADF. Some minor medical treatment of the wounded took place here after which we were forced unto open SAMIL trucks to be taken back to Namibia as “terrorist prisoners” the next day.  The bodies of those that succumbed to their wounds overnight were simply and unceremoniously thrown off the moving trucks. Even dead “terrorists” received no dignified treatment from the “security forces”.

The following day at noon we arrived at Outapi. Prisoners of War (PoW) or rather “terrorist prisoners” (TPs) as our “hosts” preferred to call us. Again we were paraded to the press and visiting ‘dignitaries’, puppets from the local government set-up. In their eyes we were intriguing ornaments of joy, ridicule and contempt all in one.  This was so acutely palpable. By then I had lost so much blood that I passed out. When I came by I was in the air being airlifted to the SADF Ondangwa Airforce base.

With this piece I wish to pay tribute the following school- and classmates of mine who died in the SADF “Operation Reindeer” attack on “Vietnam”:

1. Tylvas Shikongo (classmate);

2. Paulus Iipinge (classmate);

3. Andreas Mbepo Shiimbi (schoolmate);

4. Maria Ashipala? from Oshigambo area (schoolmate);

5. Petrus Shiimi (schoolmate) *died at Cassinga same day;

6. “Girl” from Uukwaluudhi (schoolmate);

7. Any schoolmates I have forgotten.

And those classmates and schoolmates who survived the attack but got captured with me:

1. Zee Negongo (classmate) *passed on in 1986;

2. Abraham Nandjembo (classmate);

3. Epafras “Kop” Elago (classmate);

4. Gabriel Uahengo (schoolmate);

5. Ignatius Kamati Mutilitha (schoolmate);

6. Ella Kamanya (schoolmate);

And those who went into exile with me, survived the attack and evaded capture:

1. Paulo Shipoke (schoolmate);

2. Saru Angula (schoolmate);

3. Leonard Shitemba Amupolo (classmate);

4. Andre Hashiyana (classmate);

5. Julius Jairo Enkali (classmate);

6. Josiah “Kangoya” Dumeni (schoolmate);

7. Paulus Mandala Nakale (schoolmate);

8. Efraim “Iipongo” Shikongo (schoolmate);

9. Any others I have forgotten.

Upon the 39th Anniversary of the aftermath of “Operation Reindeer”, let’s re-dedicate ourselves as a free nation and people to the achievement of the ideals of the liberation struggle, for which so much blood was shed and so many lives lost.


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