A painful pilgrimage
29 April 2016 | History
They are on their way to the historic Cassinga settlement situated in the southern Huila province of Angola about 200 kilometres north of the Namibian border.
This is the first time in 26 years that Namibians have organised themselves to go and commemorate Cassinga Day at Cassinga.
According to the chairperson of the organising committee, Ignatius Mwanyekange, the trip to Cassinga and Vietnam is being funded by the participants themselves.
The plan is to overnight at Ondjiva and then visit the former Vietnam base on 1 May, return to Ondjiva and depart to Cuvelai on 2 May in order to reach Cassinga on 3 May. The commemorative event will then take place on 4 May at Cassinga.
Hundreds of Namibians were massacred on 4 May 1978, when South African troops launched early morning air raids and airborne and ground attacks on Cassinga and Vietnam.
The Swapo version presents Cassinga as a transit and refugee camp with a limited camp defence contingent, but the South Africans insisted that it was the operational headquarters of PLAN.
Among those killed at Cassinga and Vietnam was deputy PLAN commander Jonas Haiduwa and western front commander Tashiya Nakada.
Cassinga survivor Martin Heita, who left for Angola at the age of 17, still vividly recalls what exactly happened on that tragic day.
“The commanders instructed us to run to the river and the bushes. We ran and ran. I remember how a lady in front was running when her head was just blown off and a woman with severed legs crawled with a baby on her back. We tried to help some of our comrades, but the soldiers kept coming and shooting. We had to run, there was nothing we could do,” said Heita.
Remembering the days before the attack, Heita said there was nothing that alerted them that an attack was coming. It was a Thursday morning when they gathered for the morning parade.
Heita said he saw some “strange things” coming towards them, after which a commander shouted for everyone to take cover. He remembers how the gas barrels were first dropped from the sky, to weaken them.
“They knew we were on the parade that particular time,” he says. He says the gas barrels were followed by barrel bombs.
“We knew then that we were under attack. There was many screams, legs were off, and I heard a voice saying ‘stand up and run’,” he says.
Troops arrived in helicopters shooting at those who running. “I saw people dying; people were just getting shot and falling as they were running.”
He was in a small group when they arrived at the river close to the Cassinga camp, still weak by the gas, they couldn’t run anymore. He later saw a baby girl in the bush, which he picked up and took with. “By then the attack was in full swing. It was just chaos,” he says as he recalls that day. His small group moved further out of danger, sleeping in the bushes that night and only returning to the camp the next day. “People ran and never came back, some maybe after three or two weeks. The next morning we picked up the bodies,” he says.
Heita says he couldn’t find his best friend at the camp, which was his greatest motivation for helping to pick up his body. “I found his body. My best friend was killed at Cassinga. I can’t remember his name anymore. All these years after Cassinga, I can’t remember his name,” he says.
Asked about life in the camp after Cassinga, he said they were very bitter and were crying and singing. “But we were determined to continue the struggle. There was total sorrow, but we were told by the senior commander that everyone has now graduated from civilians, we now know the meaning of war,” he says. “Our determination was to free our country from apartheid regime.”
At the forefront
Former commander Elisha Haulyondjaba who was at the front when Cassinga was attacked said he was hurriedly delegated by front commanders Matias Mbulunganga and Zulu Nandenga to travel to Cassinga and find out what happened.
He departed on 5 May but his seven-man party only arrived at Cassinga a day later after they were delayed by a UNITA ambush and had to change direction.
“We found the place in a terrible state. Many people were dead. We found badly mutilated bodies of babies, children, women and men of all ages,” he said.
He said upon their arrival, a unit from the Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre was already busy collecting bodies from the surrounding bushes.
Haulyondjaba is not happy that those who planned and or executed the massacre were never prosecuted.
Darius Shikongo Mbolondondo, who was Cassinga camp manager when it was attacked, said in an earlier interview with Namibian Sun that the magnitude of the attack suggested that the massacre was well planned and was executed with clinical precision.
He said refugees were regularly informed about what to do in the case of an enemy attack.
However, recent arrivals did not know what “take cover” meant and they panicked as soon as the first bomb was dropped.
PLACIDO HILUKILWA/GORDON JOSEPH