‘Missing in action’: Locals hid paratrooper in church for four days

2013-03-28 00:00

FOUR days hidden in a small church on the outskirts of Bangui while rebels, rowdy and armed to the teeth, were patrolling the streets outside.

This is the extraordinary story of Lance Corporal Makwenkwe Tats (49), a seasoned paratrooper of 1 Parachute Battalion in Tempe in Bloemfontein, who became separated from his comrades during an ambush on Friday.

For four days Tats was officially the soldier “missing in action” after 13 of his comrades lost their lives in the battle for Bangui. About 46 were wounded, 27 of them seriously.

Tats, who is from Thaba ‘Nchu, was part of a reconnaissance squad who went to scout the threatening advance of the rebels about 10 km from the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Friday.

They were not prepared for a fierce gun battle, but were armed when they were caught in an ambush by the rebels.

Defence force chief General Solly Shoke said this week that the ambush stretched for about a kilometre. The South Africans fought for their lives and repulsed the rebels, but Tats was missing.

The skirmish continued until dark, and according to the defence force the situation was “chaotic”.

It was thought that Tats became separated from his comrades and ran out of ammunition.

Defence force spokesperson Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga said the exact details of what had happened are not yet known, but subsequent events spoke volumes of the local population’s attitude towards the South Africans.

“The local population took compassion on Tats, because they realised he was in trouble. But because the situation was so dangerous, with armed rebels everywhere, the only place they could hide him was in the little church building,” Mabanga said yesterday.

And that is where Tats hid for four days while his comrades searched everywhere for him. A team of specialists flown in from Pretoria even tried to determine whether a charred body found at the scene of the ambush was that of Tats.

But even before the test results were known, Tats phoned from the CAR on Tuesday morning and spoke to a good friend of his in 1 Parachute Battalion.

His voice was shaky. He just wanted to say he is safe.

The locals had brought him a cellphone so that he could call his people, but he didn’t have any of the CAR numbers with him. He could remember only the number of his friend, who then informed his unit in Bangui. They in turn dialled to the cellphone Tats was using.

On Tuesday morning Tats was fetched from the church and brought back to the airport in Bangui, where most of his comrades had taken refuge with a French parachute contingent.

Mabanga said Tats was uninjured but was suffering from severe shock.

He and his comrades who engaged in battle with the rebels on Saturday and Sunday would receive trauma counselling on their return before rejoining their families.

Mabanga said Tats’s return has made an enormous difference to the state of mind of the exhausted squad members, who had been struggling to come to terms with the deaths of their 13 friends.

The defence force had a special word of thanks for the little group of Bangui residents for their presence of mind to conceal Tats in the one place that would most probably be the safest.

“It gives one hope,” Mabanga said yesterday.

INFORMATION by South African soldiers who were flown back from the Central African Republic yesterday speaks of bravery and despair in equal measure.

A source close to the action told Beeld yesterday that 15 South African soldiers were working at SA National Defence Force headquarters in Bangui on Friday when the rebels attacked the base.

Soldiers of the Central African Republic army deployed to protect the administrative and logistical unit fled, leaving the 15 South Africans — mainly admin and logistics personnel — defenceless.

They dared not take out their weapons “because then we were dead”, one told a friend last night.

The rebels held the South Africans hostage for about five hours while they looted the stores and made off with loads of weapons, ammunition, clothes, food and even the five brand-new Toyota Prado 4x4 vehicles used by the unit. The weapons include pistols and semi-automatic attack rifles.

The rebels also looted the South African soldiers’ personal belongings, taking money and cell phones.

“We have nothing left of our own goods and I cannot describe to you how bad we feel.”

While the headquarters were being overrun, the rest of the South African soldiers were some 30 km away, helping the paratroopers who had been trapped in an ambush. These reinforcements were also ambushed and trapped.

Three of the soldiers who were wounded in the later ambush are in a critical condition in 1 Military Hospital in Thaba Tshwane. One of them may lose a leg.

Meanwhile, Beeld has learned that South African aircraft and medical personnel have since this weekend established a temporary base at Entebbe airport with the blessing of the Ugandan government.

Two Hercules C-130 cargo planes flew to this base on Sunday with medical personnel and supplies to help evacuate the wounded South African soldiers. Since then several loads of supplies have been flown from the Bloemspruit air force base and reportedly also from Waterkloof in Pretoria.

Military experts said the supplies were required because French paratroopers controlled Bangui airport and South African planes would initially not be allowed to land there.

Since then the wounded and dead have been flown to South Africa. Entebbe is being used because of its central location and the good relations between Uganda and South Africa. — Media24.

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