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Koevoet men gather at 'all for nothing' party

Published Sep 25, 2000

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By Henriette Geldenhuys

To kill people has never been nice. And to get killed is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. But the worst of all is to come back home and to be told that it was all for nothing. That is definitely the biggest betrayal there can be.

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So says former Koevoet (crowbar) member Herman Grobler.

He was one of about 180 former members who attended the Koevoet millennium reunion held at a holiday resort near Paarl at the weekend.

Having a few stiff drinks at the bar with his former fellow soldiers, he spoke of the intense anger of the ex-Koevoet members towards the apartheid-era National Party politicians who sent them to war against Swapo in Namibia. The NP politicians believed that Swapo, like the ANC, were terrorists representing a communist threat.

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Koevoet, a police counter- insurgency unit established to back up the South African Defence Force in Namibia, built up a reputation as one of the most vicious, effective fighting machines in the world.

Figures written on the back of bottles of red wine - named "Koevoet" and especially made to celebrate the reunion - show the number of Swapo soldiers killed by the group (3 681) and the number of Koevoet members killed by Swapo (153).

Koevoet's killing ratio was 1:25; for each Koevoet soldier that was killed, 25 Swapo members were killed.

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Although Koevoet members believed they had won the war, their enemy, Swapo, swept to power in Namibia in 1989.

"They told us we were fighting the swart gevaar (black danger) and communism. But now, Swapo and the ANC have the most democratic constitutions in the world. And the people we fought against weren't communists. They were ordinary people," said Grobler.

He spoke about the former Koevoet members who have suffered from post-war trauma. Some have been booked off due to stress. Others, he said, have gone off the tracks "never to return".

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And many have committed suicide.

"They felt that there's no purpose in life. Nobody thinks you have any right to exist. It's the Vietnam syndrome. You are not being acknowledged for who you are, that you fought as a soldier for the government of the day."

Like the Americans returning from Vietnam, Koevoet members are seen as the forgotten soldiers of an unjust war, outcasts, despised for their war crimes.

One ex-member, Pine Pienaar, who is now belongs to a military collectors' organisation, said: "The SS (Hitler's elite troops) consisted of some brilliant soldiers, but they cannot even hold a reunion like us, because they're branded the worst evil. Just because Hitler was a pig, they're all seen as pigs."

The TRC found Koevoet responsible for the perpetration of gross human rights violations under the apartheid government. The final TRC report describes how Koevoet tied corpses to spare tyres or bumpers, dragging them along, and spreading terror among villagers.

Former second-in-command of Koevoet, ex-brigadier Sakkie van der Merwe, acknowledged that some of the soldiers had "cracked".

But Van der Merwe, who now markets property, said he had no nightmares. "I don't have time for that. I am too busy."

He also said he had no regrets. "The whole period was one big success we are proud of. We shot and they shot and we shot better. We don't apologise for it, not one bit. We were not a hit squad. We were soldiers at war."

In the bar on Sunday, the men drank a few rounds of Stroh Rum and watched a television report about the reunion.

One of them reacted angrily when Koevoet's gross human rights violations were mentioned. After the news, quite by chance, a war movie Saving Private Ryan was showing. When there was a close-up shot of a dead soldier lying on the ground, covered in blood, one of the ex-Koevoet members sympathised: "Ag, shame."

A minister, who preached on Saturday, said if they laid bare their sins in front of God, He would forgive them and offer them "Godly amnesty".

During the sermon, some of the men lowered their heads in their hands and cried.

"They cried because of their fellow-soldiers that were killed that they could never bury," said Grobler.

Only 300 Koevoet members were white and a thousand were black, mostly Ovambos. None of the Ovambos attended the reunion.

"They were my brothers. We drank out of the same water bags. We slept in the same sleeping bags. But it was our war we forced on them," Grobler said.

A candle which was lit on a wooden cross at the start of the weekend to commemorate the fallen Koevoet members burnt until the end of the reunion.

Grobler said the reunion was not a Koevoet "celebration", but a way to deal with the demons of the past.

"That's why we reunited. For stress relief. To try and process what has happened. To share our problems," said Grobler.

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