The horror of war

2013-03-31 10:00

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Family members tell stories of some of the slain SA soldiers

A young man’s body, destroyed by bullets.

His family, distraught, identified their son by looking at his feet.

A young father who phoned home just hours before he died in battle, asking that his wife tell their eight-month-old daughter that he loves her.

A devout rifleman who carried a bible into battle and loved to sing gospel.

An older brother whose sisters and cousins cannot think of him without weeping.

On Thursday, their stories converged as the families of 13 SA National Defence Force soldiers killed in Bangui in the Central African Republic gathered at Pretoria’s Waterkloof Air Force Base.

First, each family – escorted by a grief counsellor – walked into a hangar at the base to identify the soldiers’ remains.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula embraces relatives of soldiers who died in battle in the Central African Republic. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Then they were seated for a formal military handover called a “receival”, during which the flag-draped coffins of their sons, husbands, brothers and cousins were marched to waiting hearses.

A military band played drums, a sombre send-off for the fallen.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula addressed the mourners, then spent time with each family, embracing them and talking about their loss.

After the ceremony, some families left immediately or refused to speak to the media.

Others remembered the men they had lost.

Kelebogile Bojane, whose husband Motsamai was killed, said he had always promised to return home one day.

He had been in the Central African Republic since January and would not talk about the experience over the phone.

He promised to tell her everything in person.

“He used to call me whenever he had time – in the morning, during the day and evenings. He would call to say, ‘How is the baby?’” Bojane said, referring to the couple’s eight-month-old daughter.

She last heard from him just hours before he died.

All he said was to tell their daughter “hello” and that he loves her.

“It is painful. I’m taking it slowly and accepting it, and it hurts,” she said.

The bodies of South African soldiers are loaded into hearses at Pretoria’s Waterkloof Air Force Base on Thursday. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Elliot Moncho said the last time he spoke to his cousin, rifleman Karabo Edwin Matsheka, two weeks ago, the soldier hinted that things were getting tense in the Central African Republic.

Moncho, who gave the deeply religious Matsheka a bible when he announced his deployment, said: “He called once and said that they were not fine where they were because the situation was tense.

“But he also said it was his choice to become a soldier and had a duty towards the country.”

Moncho last saw Matsheka, who hails from Mafikeng in North West, in December last year when the “shy and reserved” gospel lover came to introduce his three-year-old son, Lowethu, to the family.

Before the service on Thursday, Vusumzi Joseph Ngaleka’s family in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, was still battling to cope with the loss.

His cousin Anitha said Ngaleka “really loved his family”.

He had been living in Bloemfontein since 2007 but visited home often.

Ngaleka visited Cape Town with his wife and three-year-old daughter over Christmas.

“We really had a wonderful time with his family. He came for a week, then left after Christmas. He was very quiet, always smiling,” Anitha said.

“This is a very painful moment to me. Always when I see his picture on the news I burst into tears – sometimes I wish someone would say this is a lie.”

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