SHAUN SMILLIE

SKILLIE Human foresaw his death the day before he parachuted into battle in southern Angola. He exited the door of the transport plane and was never seen again.

Now 34 years after his death, one of his fellow soldiers who was with him at the battle of Cassinga, believes he knows his fate.

Yesterday, South African airborne veterans gathered at the South African Military History Museum in Saxonwold, Joburg, to honour their dead.

They do it every year on the Sunday following May 4, the anniversary of the 1978 battle of Cassinga.

At the time it was the South African Defence Force’s (SADF) largest airborne operation when close to 400 paratroopers were dropped near the town of Cassinga. It was an operation against the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) and its Cuban allies.

The operation became controversial when several hundred civilians were killed in the attack, and Swapo claimed the site was a refugee camp rather than military base.

But yesterday one of the veterans, Mike McWilliams, told the gathering that finally proof had emerged that their target that day wasn’t a refugee camp. “It has taken 34 years for the clouds to clear,” he said.

The proof, he said, is a notebook a paratrooper picked up on the battlefield and gave to him only recently. The notebook belonged to a Swapo soldier only known as “Comrade Timothy”, and McWilliams said it gave detailed information of the military strength of the camp.

SADF veterans say they believed the civilians at Cassinga had been bought there to make UN officials believe the site was a refugee camp.

“This also vindicates Swapo fighters. The story has always been told that Swapo on the day were cowering refugees, but they fought like lions that day,” said McWilliams.

Swapo has been invited to the commemoration every year, but has yet to take up the offer.

There was heavy fighting at Cassinga, several hundred Swapo fighters and civilians were killed, while the SADF lost four soldiers.

One of those four was Human.

McWilliams recalls Human had a premonition the day before the attack that he was going to die. “He went to his captain, and his captain talked him out of not taking part.”

No one knows what happened to Human. It’s thought either his parachute failed to open, or he landed in a nearby river and drowned.

But recently McWilliams heard from SA war veterans who visited the Cassinga battle site. A villager told them he had watched the battle and weeks later two bodies were recovered from a river. “He said one of the men had harnesses on him, which makes me suspect he was a paratrooper.”

The bodies were later buried. The villager couldn’t remember the exact location of the grave, but if located, it could mean Human’s remains could one day be repatriated.