Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Place for Triumphalism

As I took this photograph, I wondered who died here.  On the road from Cuito Cuanavale to Menongue there were many such wrecks.  Someone, somewhere, is likely to know the story behind each one.  A story likely to include fear and death and grief.

I tried to be respectful of these places. Particularly as I was part of an invading army all those years ago.  Someone's son or brother or husband died here. 

I was reminded of the need to tread lightly when I was showing some slides to an audience which included former liberation movement soldiers.  Afterwards one man told me that he had lost a close family member during an ambush on this road.  He was in an APC like the one in this picture.  This could have been the very vehicle in which he died.  The man said the photograph had upset him, raising feelings of grief and perhaps the trauma of his own war experiences.

For those of us who have returned to the war-places of our youth, it is good to remember that this is no place for triumphant poses next to the burned out wrecks of 'enemy' vehicles.  Instead, these should be places for deep, human reflection.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

War and Moral Injury: Beyond the Concept of PTSD

When I first read Jonathan Shay's idea of Moral Injury, a lightbulb went on.  This is what had been missing for me.  The clinical 'disorder' :  PTSD, didn't really fit for me.  But 'moral injury' described this feeling of being troubled by the past.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Finding Peace on the Road of Death

In full flight.  On the road out of Cuito Cuanavale.  Starting the 190km journey to Menongue on what some called 'The Road of Death'.

Monday, October 20, 2014

An interview and some footage from Angola

A previous link to this video was removed.  Hopefully this one will stay intact!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mortar Firegroup Rescues 32 Battalion element

 Some stories didn't make the book.  I had enough material to contextualise my bicycle ride.  Here's a story that was left out.

The battle group has laagered in some hilly terrain.  Again it amazes me how a big formation of armoured vehicles seems to melt away into the bush.  Once the camouflage nets are pulled over the Ratels it becomes difficult to see them and often I have walked close to a platoon’s position without noticing their vehicles until I was quite close.  Our Ratel 81s  are lined up twenty metres apart and facing in the same direction in case we have to come into defensive action but this seems unlikely.  The corporal tells us to relax.  I stand for a while looking out at the hills.  Rounded and lush with thick,  green -forested slopes they offer us some protection from the enemy.  Perhaps it is the novelty of seeing hills after so much time spent in the relatively flat and densely wooded bush that gives me this good feeling.  Maybe it is because it may be more difficult for the MiGs to find us here.  The rainy season has started and there are clouds hanging low over this high ground and for some reason it reminds me of a scene from a Vietnam War movie.  I saw Platoon last year.  I went with my friend Steve while we were home on rare long pass.  We were about to be sent to the Border.   My Dad came with us and wanted to know our thoughts, now that we were soldiers.  But I couldn’t relate to these celluloid soldiers and I had no experience of war.

I don’t muse on this for long.  This war that I’m in is so far removed from war in the movies that I don’t even try to find a connection.  Instead I walk over to my number three’s seat and dig out today’s open rat-pack from the storage bin in the door.  I want to have a snack:  a dog biscuit and cheesy.  Before I can bite a hole in the cheesy there’s a shout from the corporal’s vehicle:  “Kom by jou wapens!”  But the other men have wandered off to catch up with friends in the other platoons.  “Morris, Andersen!  Fetch the other manne, we’re coming into action!”  He gives no explanation and the urgency of his order is enough to get me running in the direction some of the missing crews walked in.  There’re not far away and soon we are all running over the uneven ground and back to our vehicles.

The four crews quickly align mortar barrels and bearing and elevation is put on the sites and there’s no need for me to remove charges because we are firing just within our four and a half kilometre range.  I don’t have time to dwell on the nature of the danger, though the thought flashes through my mind that maybe our laager is being advanced upon.  Our bombs are quickly in the air and they must be on target because there are no corrections and we’re told to keep launching those bombs as fast as we can.  Then it’s over.  As suddenly as we came into action we’ve been stood down.

There was no warning.  The target was so far away that I heard no shots or engine sounds.  For a while the action is a mystery.  Later, at a briefing, we find out that an element of 32 Battalion had been surprised by some FAPLA tanks.  They wanted support from heavy artillery but the G5s were engaged in bombarding a more important target.  An 81mm mortar is useless against a tank but we were the only support available so we were brought into action.  The FAPLA force was on top of the 32 element so our bombs were landing amongst our own troops but the situation was so desperate that their commander insisted that we continue the bombardment.  The FAPLA soldiers were so surprised by the sudden deluge of our high explosives that they stopped advancing long enough for the 32 Battalion soldiers to make good their escape.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Artu and Lourenso: Did you survive the war?

The two boys couldn’t have been much older than 17.  Perhaps they were younger.  Their uniforms were shiny-black in places where sweat had mixed with dirt.  Our uniforms were dirty too, with fear -soaked dust.
They patrolled around our defensive laager.
Some of the guys examined the AK47s the two UNITA men carried and found them to be rusting.  The rains had started and there was no oil for their rifles.  Our guys took out their cleaning kits and scrubbed off the rust and polished the barrels and oiled those AKs. 
We laughed with them and shared food from our rat-packs.  I took a photograph of our scruffy, dirty little band.  Just boys deep in the bush and out of our depth.  Frightened.
Artu and Lorenzo, did you survive the war?