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?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Back to Angola reviewed in The Witness by Anthony Stidolph

An excerpt from the review:


"There are fine passages describing his travels. The crazy driving along rough, potholed roads, the still-threatening minefields, the rusting monuments to the war, the occasional feelings of isolation and loneliness in a country where few speak English —all these should be wonderfully recognisable to readers, whether they have made a similar journey or not.  

Morris seems to have encountered nothing but friendliness and kindness, even from the war veterans he once fought against, on his 1 500-kilometre journey. Indeed, the only really sour note he hit is when he crossed back over the border and found himself being lectured by a recalcitrant old white in a bar.
Full of action and adrenalin, anger and compassion, philosophy and humour, Back to Angola is an honest and affecting account of one man’s search for resolution and meaning."

To read the full review click here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review of Back to Angola

Here is a snippet from the review of Back to Angola by Jenny de Klerk.  It appeared in the Johannesburg newspaper the Saturday Star (3 May 2014).  It is available online on the Artslink website.

Click here for the full review:

"As he cycles, Paul muses, recollecting those days in the bush, telling vivid stories of his time in basics, his training, his mates, life on the front line, the terror of the battle on the Lomba River. These are interspersed with his roadtrip experiences, the places, the people, the isolation of being alone with only a few words of Portuguese, battling to share and be understood.

This is a personal account, honest, intelligent, thoughtful and extremely well written. Paul, a psychotherapist by training, brings insight and context to his journey, reflecting on childhood, the moulding of society, expectations of manhood, trauma and the consequences of war."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Voices of Africa website features an extract from Back to Angola

The Mail and Guardian's Voices of Africa website features an extract from Back to Angola today.  Click on the link to read a little about the hospitality I received deep in the Angolan bush. Here's a taster:

"As I move further into the floodplain, I come to the first of several river crossings. A series of channels cut the road. If I were on an unloaded bike I would simply ride across, but I don’t want to risk a soaking, especially because of my camera equipment. A more critical consideration is that a fall could result in injury. I get off the bike and take off my shoes and socks. The water is cold and clear and I can see what I’m placing my bare feet on as I wheel the bike across. On the other side I lay the bike down and put my shoes and socks back on. I repeat the process again at the next crossing.
The road to Cuchi. (Pic: Paul Morris)
The road to Cuchi. (Pic: Paul Morris)
There’s a man walking next to the road as I put on my shoes after a third crossing. As we talk I realise how weak I am. I struggle to form words and can’t seem to think straight. I’m in worse shape than I thought I was. I sit for a while on the side of the road, feeling frustrated at my slow progress. Hauling myself to my feet, I walk over to a little ford and kneel next to the river to splash my face. I feel like lying in that cold water and letting it wash away whatever poison is debilitating me.
The sun is lowering in the west. I’ve long resigned myself to the fact that I won’t make Cuchi. I’ve been pushing myself, but I can’t go on like this for much longer. It looks like I’m going to be spending the night in the bush. I start riding again and as I crawl along the broken gravel I scan the bush for a potential campsite. I haven’t seen many landmine signs on this road, but the lack of red-and-white warning signs doesn’t mean that there aren’t mines."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dogfights and Dreams - A Mirage pilot's story


 This story first appeared in the Aviation News Journal May/June 2014 (Canada)
(Also posted on Wandering. Not lost.)

The first time I heard Arthur Piercy’s story was in 1987 when I was a 20 year old infantry conscript deep in the Angolan bush.  I was part of a force involved in South Africa’s last big invasion of Angola.  We’d watched the aging aircraft of our air force singe the tree-tops as they roared overhead before “toss-bombing” the Angolan brigades we were about to attack.  At other times we would watch the Angolan MiG 23s as they circled high above the forests searching for our positions.  We knew that the Mirage F1, the SAAF’s main fighter aircraft, was no match for the more advanced Soviet MiG 23.

Under the cover of the trees and camouflage nets our commander told the assembled platoons that one of our Mirages had been shot down and the pilot had been badly injured during a crash-landing.

25 years later I met the pilot in a coffee shop in a mall near South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria.  I had stumbled across him again on the internet just before I was about to embark on a journey back to the battlefields of Angola  to deal with some of my own history.  Arthur was unwittingly part of that history and in a way, I was part of his.  So I contacted him and arranged a meeting.

We sat opposite each other in a mall, sipping coffee and exchanging war stories as modern South Africa went about its shopping around us, two war veterans from another time and a forgotten war. 

I’ve heard many war stories, and I’m no stranger to the intensity and fear of the battlefield, yet as Arthur relates the story of the dogfight that put him in a wheelchair, I find myself breaking out in goose-bumps.  It’s clear that as he tells me about engaging with the MiG23 at 1600 kilometres per hour, that he is reliving every second of the fight.  The adrenaline surge as he turns his Mirage around to face the Mig that has just screamed through the centre of his formation.  Flipping his weapon’s safety switch to “cannons” and then the moment when the MiG fires the heat-seeking missile.  “There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What’s more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.”   He’s been trained to fly directly at the missile.  It causes difficulties for the missile’s tracking system.  He needs every ounce of his willpower to keep his aircraft on a head on course with the thing that is trying to kill him.  But he manages.  “I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear.”  There’s a faint explosion behind him and the aircraft shudders slightly.

The way Arthur describes the dogfight I almost feel as though I’m in the cockpit with him;  it’s a mixture of excitement and sour old adrenaline, like a bad taste in my mouth, from my own memories of battle.  I’m with him heading for the ground at full throttle, I’m with him as he wrestles the aircraft out of the dive and levels off just above the tree-tops l and races towards home-base in Runde, so low that he hopes he isn’t creating a dust cloud for the MiGs to follow. 

He goes on to explain the calculations he has to make about fuel consumption to enable him to nurse his stricken Mirage back to the Rundu air base. He is losing fuel due to the damage caused by the missile.  Once out of danger from the enemy he climbs to an altitude that will extend his aircraft’s range.  In the end he makes it back but with a terrible problem.  The tail of the Mirage is damaged.   The drag-chute, which will slow him down on landing, has been blown away by the exploding missile.  Without the chute the F1 overshoots the runway and eventually comes to a halt after crashing through the perimeter fence.  Unfortunately the ejector seat malfunctions, spitting Arthur out of the cockpit and onto the ground where he lies, still attached to the seat. 

He’s badly injured and the fire-fighters rush to help him but he tells them to attend to the burning airplane.  The flames behind the air intake are dangerously close to the hundred rounds of cannon ammunition.  Arthur doesn’t want to be shot by his own aircraft.  He wakes up ten days later in hospital.  He will never walk again.

The second time I meet Arthur is at the South African Air Force museum near Pretoria.    The museum coffee shop looks out at the apron on which stand a selection of geriatric airplanes.  Among them is an old Impala trainer and an Avro Shackleton maritime search and rescue aircraft used by the South African Air Force from 1957 until 1984.  

I’m meeting Arthur to find out more about his Dreamwings project and, more specifically, to see the specially adapted airplane he is building.  To regain his private pilot’s licence he has to demonstrate that he can get behind the controls without assistance.  When we drive over to the hangar to see his airplane I notice that it takes some effort, although he’s well practiced, for him to transfer from his wheelchair to the car seat which is at a similar height.  How difficult will it be, I wonder, for him to get into an aircraft?  The car is specially adapted so that all the controls are operated by hand and the aircraft will be similarly easy for him to operate.

 When I see the aircraft, I realise why he has chosen the four-seater Seawind amphibian.  The half-finished ‘plane is squeezed into the hanger between old military spotter planes, a transport helicopter and even a more modern Rooivalk attack helicopter.  With its high-level wing and the engine mounted on the tail-fin, the Seawind is low to the ground and, as he is building it from a kit, he has modified it with a special door in the side of the cockpit to facilitate easy entry.  It seems perfect.  Equally important is the fact that the aircraft has a range of over 900 nautical miles, a good long range which will be essential if Arthur is to fly it around the world.  The fact that he can land it on water adds an element of versatility

Remarkable as it may seem for a quadriplegic to be restarting his flying career again, what is more remarkable is that Arthur intends to fly the Seawind around the world on a mission to promote peace.  And at the risk of sounding like one of those awful shopping channel advertisements:  there’s more.  Through a third party, Arthur has managed to get in touch with the Cuban pilot who shot him down.  His hope is for the pilot, Major Rivas, to fly a leg of the journey with him: a reconciliation of former enemies.  Having recently met several former liberation fighters who were active on the same battlefields as me, I understand how such a meeting can help an ex-combatant to put the past to rest.  I can tell by the turn our conversation takes that he is itching to discuss the ins and outs of aerial combat with the man who pulled the trigger on that telegraph pole!

As with so many dreams, Arthur needs to raise funds to pay for completing his aircraft and to embark on his around the world flight.   This amounts to a substantial sum of money and will, in all likelihood, require the assistance of a large corporate sponsor.  Until then, his Dreamwings project will remain just that, a dream. 

For more information or to contribute to the funding of Project Dreamwings, visit Arthur’s website:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Writer Rachelle Greeff reviews Back to Angola in Rapport

"Jy sou tereg kan vra of die Suid-Afrikaanse boekebedryf nie oorversadig is aan oorlogboeke nie. Ja, maar wanneer hulle van dié kaliber is, nee. Die prismatiese aard van Back to Angola stel ’n nuwe standaard. Dis reisverhaal én oorlogvertelling. Net so vlot wissel dit tussen op die fiets en in die Ratel. Die militêre aspek lê grensloos langs introspeksie en nabetragting. In ’n mate verklaar dit ook iets van die padwoede, huisgeweld, onverdraagsaamheid, dwelm- en drankmisbruik waarvan ons elke dag hoor – of voel"

Read the full review here: