Thursday, January 26, 2012

Into the War without a Barrel - A lesson in kit maintenance

With my trip to Angola only a month and a half away I’m in the process of evaluating my bike and my kit.  I thought I’d share this memory of taking a defective, yet very essential, piece of kit into Angola with me in 1987.

I crossed the border into Angola knowing that the barrel of my rifle was bent.  It had been that way for months.  I think it had been slammed in the heavy door of the Ratel, probably during the confusion of a night exercise.  I first found out when we were on a shooting-range near Tsumeb when I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t even hitting the target.  There were literally no holes in it!  I was normally a good shot.  Then I noticed the dust kicking up way to the left.

I should have taken the rifle to the tiffies but didn’t because I feared the consequences.  I could have been charged with negligence or something.   So I rolled into a war-zone with a rifle that was as good as useless.  Dangerous even.  I was part of a mortar team so my rifle spent most of its time clipped into the holder next to my seat in the Ratel.  I didn’t care.

Weeks later, when all hell was breaking loose around me, machine-gun rounds crackling overhead, tanks blasting away at our armoured squadron and exploding mortar and artillery rounds beating the wind from my lungs, I wished my barrel was straight.  The order had been given to pull back for a regroup.  But one of our vehicles had crash-landed into a deep FAPLA bunker and needed to be towed out.  Suddenly the rifleman Ratels were flying past us and we were the front line.  Fully expecting the FAPLA infantry to come bursting through the bush, I cocked my rifle, bent barrel and all.  Every fibre, every nerve ending, every part of my being was screaming at me to get the hell out of there.  But our buddies were stuck in the bunker. 

The incoming fire was intense so getting out from behind the relative safety of our armour plating to attach a tow-bar was a terrifying prospect.  Instead, our driver Gary, rammed our vehicle into the back of the other Ratel with enough force to push it out of the hole.  Then, kicking sprays of Angolan sand into the air he u-turned 18 tons of armour, flattening trees in the process, and raced, engine screaming, after the rest of our battle group.

We regrouped and went back into the attack.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interview with BBC World Service

My radio interview with Matthew Bannister of the BBC's World Service is available on podcast.  Click on the link below.  Download the Outlook programme and click on the edition of the 17th of Jan. It headlines a Burmese Girl Band, but I'm the middle of three interviews.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Newsflash: Returning to Angola with Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans

Following last year's disappointments I’m very excited to be going back to Angola with a group including ex-Umkhonto weSizwe  (ANC’s former military wing)  soldiers.  I’ve been invited to join an expedition that will be driving from Johannesburg to Cuito Cuanavale to attend the opening of a war museum.
I feel very honoured to have been asked by ex-MK commander Patrick Ricketts to join this group.  This opportunity fits well with my aim of adding to the dialogue in South Africa about the effects of conscription and the legacies of the apartheid wars and what we can do as a society to heal the wounds from past conflicts.

I have found it fascinating talking to Patrick about his experiences in MK and I hope that being with this group will enable me to meet other ex-combatants from PLAN (SWAPO’s military wing), Cuba and, of course, Angola.

Joining this group simplifies my entry into Angola and will enable me to see parts of Southern Angola that would be inaccessible to me on the bicycle.
From Cuito Cuanavale I will cycle back to the Namibian border as originally planned.
We leave sometime in the middle of March.