Forgotten and alone in Pomfret
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The forgotten soldiers of 32 Battalion put down their rifles 18 years ago, but are still fighting for bread. With blood on their hands and dust in their lungs, the trigger pullers of what was the SADF’s most notorious fighting force now live in the shell of a former army base.
Five kilometres from the border with Botswana, it’s difficult to find a more remote town in South Africa than Pomfret – out of sight and out of mind. To get there one must pass Eugene TerreBlanche’s old farm in Ventersdorp and drive 30km down a white dirt road, too insignificant for a road map.
At the end of the road to seemingly nowhere, you stumble across an old red Coca-Cola sign, with “Republic of Pomfret” sprayed on it in black ink.
The older Pomfret children remember being trained to shoot guns in Namibia. Now they take aim at their frustration through the eye piece of a spray paint can.
Driving down the pothole-riddled tar road blanketed with a layer of sand is like stepping on to the set of a post-apocalypse film.
Rust and stray goats reclaim old barracks and mess halls. The wind whistles through broken windows and rustles into alien pine trees.
Two R4 assault rifle butts are found under a film of dust. The old, disabled, widowed and orphaned roam the town.
Rural Pomfret has been squeezed hard and residents feel it’s deliberate. Water supply is erratic, and brown. A mobile clinic visits on Mondays and Tuesdays – sometimes. The municipal offices and the police station have been moved to neighbouring towns.
“We don’t know who to blame,” says Pomfret ward councillor Matamba Cufa.
“I’m part of the government and I’m ashamed. There is no government in Pomfret.
“We don’t fight, due to our history. We remain calm,” says Cufa.
He is a veteran’s son. When he explains his family’s current situation, it’s always with reference to “history”. The soldiers’ silent past.
Legend surrounds the role 32 Battalion played in the border wars like a blood-soaked bandage.
Whether the war was useful, and what its purpose was, depends on who you are talking to.
This version is caught in the crossfire between the history books and decades of rumour.
South Africa was fighting the “communist threat” in Angola and Namibia. The SADF recruited a group of Angolan fighters, sometimes with force.
Armed with heavy artillery like no black South African counterparts had encountered, 32 Battalion was arguably the SADF’s most lethal and effective weapon.
“We were the best counter-insurgency unit in the world at the time,” says former platoon commander and vice-chairman of the 32 Battalion Veterans Association, Niko Vanderwart.
“The first black officers in South Africa came out of that unit. There were 10 of them in 1985,” he says.
The battalion acted as a buffer between the enemy and other SADF units for many years.
When the border war officially ended in 1989, the 32 Battalion soldiers couldn’t return to Angola – they had fought their own.
They couldn’t live in South African townships. They had been used by the National Party government in suppressing anti-apartheid uprisings. The soldiers and their families were given refuge in the army base town of Pomfret.
In 1993 the battalion was disbanded. Fighting for the apartheid government made them perpetrators, not victims, in the new South Africa.
Rumour has it that during one of the National Party’s final sittings in government, a veteran presented FW de Klerk with 30 one- rand coins to represent the 30 pieces of silver for which Judas sold out Jesus.
Wounds may have become old scars, but 18 years on, the veterans are still not at peace. The 32 Battalion veterans’ website lashes out at those who “betrayed us and our families and dishonoured our fallen for political exploit”.
In 2000 the army base closed, the officers boarded up their church and bar, but the Angolans remained.
The veterans were given pensions. Some of the young and fit were integrated into the SANDF, but about a quarter stayed in Pomfret. They had a meagre pension allowance, but a set of skills that made them valuable soldiers in war zones worldwide.
It wasn’t long before Pomfret became a recruiting ground for private security companies.
Things were quiet for a while, until a group of ex-32 Battalion men were arrested in Zimbabwe in 2004, allegedly hired to start a coup in Equatorial Guinea.
In 2008 the government ordered police and the military to clear out Pomfret. They declared the old asbestos mine, less than a kilometre from the town, hazardous, and residents were to be moved to RDP homes in Mafikeng.
“It’s about the history of the past. It has nothing to do with the asbestos,” says Cufa.
Without any work opportunities in the area, only 350 of the 800 veterans are in Pomfret permanently.
“The life they live here is not a good one for someone who served for 27 years. They were abandoned. No one looks after them, so they must go outside and find bread.”
The search for bread took Jose Pedro to Cape Town to work as a security guard when he finished with 32 Battalion.
He wore the same boots to his security guard job in Cape Town that he wore when he killed men. He used the same hands he used to drive a Ratel armoured vehicle to hold his baton.
He doesn’t know what he was fighting for in Angola. He says he was forced into the army in 1976 when he was a refugee in Namibia.
“When you are a soldier you follow orders. They tell nothing. You follow orders and you do your work.” He sits thin and upright on the sofa. “The very same army I served did not recognise me (at the end),” he says.
Moments earlier, the 63-year-old was telling Cufa about his dire financial state. His temporary pension has just run out. He would return home to Angola, but not without something to show for the decades he spent away.
“I can’t go home like this, with nothing. They must give me what I deserve,” he says.
Although there is hurt, there is still an irresistible pride.
“I was a staff sergeant in 32 Battalion,” says Pascal Vasco boldly.
At 58 he’s not a young fighter anymore and his body testifies to his years in service. A scar cuts between his eyebrows from a close encounter with a bullet and there are chunks of flesh missing from his knees.
When questioned about his memories of war and death, his English suddenly breaks and his memory muddies.
“The Bible itself says people will fight and then it will finish. Now it is finished. This is where we used to drink,” he says, innocently changing the subject and pointing at a rusting mess hall.
“We are Bob Marley’s Buffalo soldiers. Buffalo soldiers in the corner of South Africa. Stolen from Angola. Fighting on arrival. Still fighting for survival,” says Cufa.