Family of SA paratrooper relieved that his remains are coming home after 40 years

2018-04-14 13:20
PHOTO: Supplied

PHOTO: Supplied

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For four decades she hadn't known where her husband was.

When her daughter, Eugenie, said she didn't have a daddy, Rachel Human (now 67) had to choose her words carefully. The only thing she could tell the little girl was that she did have a daddy, but that he'd died. She didn't know how, where or even when.

The only thing she knew was what a colleague of her paratrooper husband, Andries, had told her on the phone that day in May 1978. Skillie [Afrikaans for tortoise], as his loved ones called him, was gone. They'd all parachuted from a plane at Cassinga, about 150km into Angola across the Namibian border.

It was the last time they'd seen Skillie.

Her husband went missing on their fourth wedding anniversary. And now, just before what would've been their 44th anniversary, Skillie's former colleagues are bringing his remains home to South Africa.

Because against all odds, Skillie's grave has been found after 40 years on the banks of the Culonga River. All thanks to an old man who'd told a tourist that he'd buried a South African soldier with a parachute in that exact spot all those years ago.

'I still miss him every day'

"I'm very happy that Skillie's coming home, though I realise it's not really him – it's just his bones," Rachel tells us on the phone from her home in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Rachel has never talked to the media about her husband. She and Eugenie had been living a quiet life in Port Elizabeth with their memories of Skillie.

"I'm a little sceptical as to whether it really is the place where he was buried and whether it's really Skillie's bones.

"I hope that it is, so that I can find closure after 40 years. I could never move on. It's 40 years later and I still miss him every day."

Eugenie was only eight months old when her dad went missing. It happened exactly 13 days after 29-year-old Skillie left to fight in the Bush War in southern Angola.

His unit had been ordered to attack the mining town of Cassinga.

Altogether 366 paratroopers parachuted from a Lockheed C-130 that day. At the time his colleagues suspected Skillie landed in a river near a South African army base with his parachute on top of him, but this was never confirmed.

Three more South African soldiers died that day but Skillie's body was the only one that couldn't be found.

Grief

At the time Rachel was visiting her sister in Port Elizabeth. You can hear the grief in her voice when she talks about the call she got that day. It wasn't her husband to congratulate her on their wedding anniversary, or to talk to their little baby girl – it was one of her husband's colleagues to tell her he was gone.

"He only said that Skillie went missing and that they couldn't find him," Rachel says.

"People from the army fetched me at my home and told me I couldn't stay home alone. They dropped me off with strangers and told me I had to stay with them. They were having a party when I arrived.

"I had our eight-month-old baby girl with me and sat staring out the bedroom window all night."

Two years after his disappearance the SA Defence Force had Skillie declared dead and a memorial service was held.

"I couldn't really grieve. It was a kind of delayed grief because he was gone and we didn't have a body," Rachel says.

"There were always these unconfirmed rumours about what may have happened to him or where he might be. But I just couldn't believe any of it. I had to train myself not to take in all that information and get my hopes up every time, just to be disappointed when it turned out not to be true."

Colleague 'never really stopped looking'

Then one day in July last year, Rachel got another call. This time it was Mike McWilliams of the Parabat Veterans Organisation (PVO).

"Mike told me there was a strong possibility they'd found the place where Skillie had been buried," Rachel says. "I was very emotional. I couldn't believe it immediately. It only sunk in later that it was actually fantastic news that they'd finally found Skillie.

"He asked my permission to fetch Skillie's remains and I immediately said yes."

Mike, who'd been a gunner in the army, had served alongside Skillie. He'd jumped from the plane with Skillie and the others that day.

Mike and others from the PVO started searching for their comrade's remains about 18 months ago.

"Actually, I never really stopped looking for him and I had an idea of more or less which area he landed in," Mike says.

"After a recent battlefield tour a Scottish tourist spoke to an Angolan man from the area who told him that he'd buried a South African soldier in a shallow grave there in 1978. We managed to get GPS co-ordinates and that's how everything fell into place."

Mike's plan is to travel to Angola in May, the same month Skillie went missing 40 years ago, to fetch his bones. Rachel won't be travelling along because it's too far and the terrain is quite rough.

Permission

The hardest part of the process so far has been getting the Angolan government's permission to retrieve and move the bones. Likewise, permission was also needed from both the South African and Namibian governments to transport human remains and bring it across borders.

Rachel never remarried after Skillie's disappearance. She raised her child, who resembles her dad, as a single mom.

Though Eugenie (now 41) never knew her father, she's relieved his remains have been found. She lives in Australia now.

Rachel's biggest wish is to have a proper memorial service – at the war memorial at Pretoria's Voortrekker Monument, where the names of all the men who'd died in the Bush War are engraved on a wall.

At least then she'll know where her Skillie is, and the questions can finally stop.

"The Lord answered my prayers in His own time. All I can say, is bring Skillie home."

Read more on:    sandf  |  port elizabeth  |  military  |  good news

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