Swapo Captive: Tortured to admit we were Boer spies

Swapo Captive by Oiva Angula, published by Penguin Random House.
Swapo Captive by Oiva Angula, published by Penguin Random House.

In late 1979 I was sent to THTC to work as a political instructor. I was happy with my new assignment. As an instructor, I conducted political education among the recruits to instil loyalty to the ideal of freedom and to provide them with a coherent sense of purpose.

I spent time with recruits cheering them up with talks about the inevitability of our victory over the occupying forces – we needed those words as much as we needed guns to boost morale. The fourteenth anniversary of the start of the armed liberation struggle – on 26 August 1980 – was approaching. The anniversary held a lot of significance and we started preparing ourselves to commemorate the event. Our plan was to hold a series of pre-event discussions with the trainees, starting in July, to deepen their understanding of the political and military reality of the struggle for liberation.

Nothing personal mattered then, but only the political, military and psychological preparation of the trainee combatants. Preparing them for tough battles against the forces of colonial occupation was a task of the utmost priority for us instructors.

On a day in July 1980, just a few weeks before the anniversary celebrations, the sky turned to a lovely orange glow as the sun set. Angolan warplanes were roaring in the sky; otherwise the camp was deathly quiet. I went to rest after another busy day of conducting political work among the trainees. I knew that somewhere other people would be settling down in front of a television, but in the bush there was no such luxury. A few minutes after fellow instructor Titus Kapofi and I had gone to sleep, there was a sudden bang on the door. I was instantly awake. Another night patrol, I thought. I stood up to open the door.

'Commissars, you are needed by the camp commander at the office,' said the messenger. It was about 9 p.m. Kapofi and I put on our boots, grabbed our guns and set off for the office.

We were the first to arrive, soon joined by Gerson Gurirab, Hans Pieters, Daniel Xoagub and Kakune Kandjavera. For an hour we sat there chatting, wondering about the next brief we would receive from the camp commander. It was winter and the moon hung in the eastern sky, round and glowing. We had no sense that something ominous was about to happen.

The commander, Erastus 'Mamba' Imene, arrived, greeted us and went into his office. We remained outside until the arrival of Lawrence Alufea Sampofu, one of the camp's security officers. Lawrence ordered us to stand at attention. 'You will be going on a party mission,' he said.

'Where to?' we wanted to know.

Lawrence gritted his teeth. 'Soldiers never ask questions. You just have to carry out the order.'

All of us were eager to know the details of the mission. Lawrence promised to brief us later. We were then told to hand in our guns, ammunition, belts and knives at the office and ordered to follow the security officer in single file in a northerly direction. After walking some way, we halted. Suddenly, a gang of SWAPO security agents emerged from the bush, all pointing their AK-47s at us. I was mystified. They did not explain their actions and we were told to march on. After another 300 metres, Lawrence shouted: 'Let them get in there!' The agents led us to an area dotted with underground pits, known as omalambo. All six of us were lowered into a pit by means of a wooden stick, which was then taken away.

The pit was five metres deep and five by six metres across, its mouth covered with wooden logs and sand. A small opening above was then closed with a heavy metal shutter, reinforced with stones. It was very dark. We had no blankets, but it was stiflingly warm inside the pit. All of us kept silent. I felt a distressing sensation that we were being buried alive. I was terrified by this unforeseen predicament.

I tried to sleep, but the throbbing inside my head rose to a crescendo and I swayed like a ship in a storm. In my life I had had great, memorable travels, but this was an unexpected detour, a frightening journey to a frightening destination, where a dramatic precipice drops sheer from the road. I felt like I did as a small boy in Uncle Nuuyuni's car as it skidded in the loose gravel and swerved out of control.

The next morning, Kakune was the first to awake. He sat in one corner, his gaze fixed at the closed mouth of the pit. The temperature in the pit had risen to tropical heights and we were sweating like hell.

'Why did they throw us in this pit? Why are they being so stupid as to treat fellow comrades like dirt?' Kakune asked, staring at Gerson.

'I think they are training us for tough times ahead,' said Gerson with a boyish grin.

Kakune rejected the suggestion indignantly. 'What training? This is not the way to train comrades.'

'They probably want to scare us,' said Hans, who had remained calm.

'I do not approve of what these guys are trying to do,' put in Daniel, disgruntled. 'I do not like it.'

Titus sat in the far corner of the pit, looking annoyed and showing signs of uneasiness. 'I do not feel happy any more,' he said.

I quickly entered the conversation. 'Let us wait and see. They will probably tell us today why we are here.'

Lawrence arrived a few hours later. He was terse and hostile when he opened the pit. 'Hans, come out!' he barked. 'Fast, fast!'

'What is up, comrade Lawrence?' Gerson prodded him.

'You do not know?' Lawrence growled, fixing us with a gaze.

'That is right, I do not know.'

'Well, you should better start thinking about it. You should better think hard,' he said.

Numbness came over me as I realised that something had gone wrong. I tried to think hard as Lawrence had said, but I was flustered.

For two days we were given no water or food, and the nagging pangs of hunger and thirst mingled with frustration made those days long and desperate. When food was finally lowered into the pit on the afternoon of our third day of imprisonment, we were like starving dogs, falling on the porridge and maggot-infested beans. It took only a few minutes for us to shovel it in.

A week passed and we did not see Hans. We became increasingly worried and desperate. The guards remained tight-lipped when we tried to find out where he was. Meanwhile, we spent day and night in the pit. They did not allow us to go out, so we had to urinate and defecate in the pit. Our unexplained caging and bewildering isolation from the rest of the comrades became more unendurable with each passing day. It felt as though we were fated to melt in this furnace, the sizzling blood creeping reluctantly through our starving bodies. We all suffered insomnia.

Three weeks later, Hans was brought back to the pit. His face was bleak and he had fresh weals on his legs and back – signs of torture.

'There is shit,' he said.

'What shit?' asked Gerson.

'Ndlovu says we are all Boer spies,' said Hans.

Ludwig Ndlovu had been appointed as a trainee political instructor after finishing his basic military training in 1980. Just a month before, we had taken him to the camp clinic after he had shown signs of mental instability and irrationality.

'They were torturing me to admit that I am a Boer spy,' Hans continued. 'They have a list of about forty-six alleged spies.'

It was only then that we realised that we were in real trouble.

* This extract was taken from Swapo Captive, A Comrade’s Experience of Betrayal and Torture written by Oiva Angula and published by Penguin Random House.

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