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The bittersweet price of a military bravery award

Vinesh Seelvan wearing his decoration on his chest, which he achieved during his days in the SA Air Force. Picture: Supplied

Vinesh Seelvan wearing his decoration on his chest, which he achieved during his days in the SA Air Force. Picture: Supplied

Published Feb 26, 2023


Durban - A military medal of honour presented by the president of your country is a moment to cherish, but it was a bittersweet occasion for Verusha Ramdin and her son.

Ramdin’s husband, Leading Seaman Amrithlall Tothara, along with Able Seaman Francois William Mundell and Seaman Henro ter Borg were awarded the Nkwe Ya Gauta (Gold Leopard) Medal for bravery posthumously on Tuesday.

Amrithlall, Mundell and Ter Borg were killed when they attempted to rescue workmen who had lost consciousness after inhaling leaking gas fumes while working on a sewerage valve at the Durban naval base on February 17, 2017.

Ramdin and her son Surav, 14, received the medal from President Cyril Ramaphosa, who offered a few encouraging words to the teenager during the Armed Forces Day proceedings held in Richards Bay.

“I stuttered and spoke to the president when he asked about my name and age. He told me that my dad was a brave person and I should keep the medal safe.” Surav wished his father were there.

Ramdin said it was an emotional occasion for Surav and her. “I’m satisfied with the recognition my husband and his colleagues received, but it doesn’t bring him back. “It was a bittersweet occasion receiving the award,” she said. The award made Ramdin’s husband the second local person of Indian descent to receive a military decoration for bravery, which also stirred bittersweet memories for Vinesh Selvan, a former member of the South African Air Force.

Selvan was awarded a silver medal for bravery for having placed himself in the line of fire as an assailant attempted to kill a South African special forces commander while they were on duty in Burundi in February 2002. He received the medal in October 2004 and said the incident would be forever etched in his mind.

Selvan landed an apprentice position with the SANDF in 1996. He trained for nearly two years in Pretoria before transferring to the Air Force’s 15 Squadron unit, based in Durban.

In February 2002 he and two others from his squadron were deployed in Burundi to provide support. Selvan’s near-death experience happened on the day he arrived in Bujumbura. “I heard shots being fired and it sounded very close to our tent that night.”

He believed they were being attacked by rebel forces and headed for the exit of the tent he was in with his pistol, and noticed Special Forces commander Major Wouther de Bruin, who was bleeding. The commander’s assailant was a fellow Special Forces team member, which Selvan didn’t know at the time.

“As I walked towards the commander, he said: “Hulp my, die mense skiet my (Help, these people are shooting me).” Selvan tried to get to the other side of the tent entrance so that he could ambush the attacker, but tripped on a cable and fell.

An officer from the neighbouring tent pulled him in and he landed on his back. Although visibility was poor, he was able to see the attacker standing over him.

“He wore camouflage pants, that’s when I realised he was one of us. I saw shots flash past me. He had opened rapid fire on me from point-blank range. “It was a case of him or me; I fired back and struck him in his chest. He dropped to the ground.” That’s when Selvan noticed his legs were shot.

His right shin bone was broken in three places. Two days later, he was transferred to Durban for medical treatment. It took few years before he walked again.

Selvan left the SANDF in 2007. He walked with a limp until 2011, that’s when he was invited to a Special Forces event and witnessed a drill with explosives being performed. Selvan was a contractor supplying military equipment to the SANDF arms at the time. The exercise backfired and a projectile struck his right leg causing an injury once again.

The fixture in his injured leg was readjusted and that enabled him to walk with greater freedom. “It is a proud moment to wear your medal on your chest but the trauma remains with you on the inside. Although I was not killed, the medal comes with a heavy price.”