ONE evening early 1977, eleven new recruits, including myself, were summoned to the commander’s office at Oshitumba. We were to be part of the fighters accompanying newly-arrived civilians to Cassinga refugee camp. The commander ordered us to make sure we have enough bullets, food and took along our belongings. He told us to make sure our guns were clean ready to open fire.
Before boarding the trucks people were divided into small groups, each with a commander. There were over 300 civilians to be transported on these four trucks. We left the base midday driving through rough and narrow roads towards the northeast. The road was sandy in some areas forcing us to drive slowly to avoid getting stuck in the sand.
Eventually, we arrived at Cassinga refugee camp around 18h00. On the way to Cassinga, we passed Tjamutete mining town, Cuvelai settlement and other villages along the main road between Ondjiva and Cassinga. On arrival at Cassinga, the trucks drove straight into the camp and parked at an open space near a big building. Unlike where we came from, Cassinga was electrified, hence the lighting of the camp was similar to a small town back in Namibia.
When I disembarked from the truck, I felt as if I was actually an old fighter. By the way, I had tasted the battle, had seen dead bodies and had undertaken various combat missions though no fighting took place. Of extraordinary importance to me was the fact that I had a gun in my hand unlike other civilians I came with. While waiting for the next orders, I continued thinking about the routes I went through with my three comrades, Sam, Amukwaya and Junias, and the risky journey we took throughout until we reached Cassinga refugee camp. Since we arrived late, we had to overnight in the open space until the following day when we would be given proper accommodation.
Some comrades and I were later deployed at Iladaponde, an extension of Cassinga situated to the north along the Samutete-Zamba road. There we were accommodated in dilapidated Portuguese farmhouses with broken windows and doors. On the second day in the camp, some of us were requested to surrender our guns for safekeeping. We were told that there was no need for us to keep guns because we were waiting to be transported to an undisclosed place where we would receive formal training before we could go back to the battlefront. I stayed in Cassinga refugee camp until 03 May 1978. I left Cassinga a day before the racist South African security forces attacked it on 04 May 1978.
During my stay at Cassinga, I was literally doing odd jobs accompanying those who went to collect firewood and cutting thatching grass and undertaking patrol duties outside the camp. We would also drill and train on guerrilla combat tactics, clean guns and undergo ideological education, among other assignments.
The living conditions in the camp were characterised by occasional inadequate food supply, as this was the time when a big number of Namibians were joining the liberation movement, Swapo. This resulted in food shortage.
Swapo entirely depended on the solidarity and support of the international communities, so from time to time, the movement experienced shortages of essential goods and materials to support the swelling numbers. Maize meal and beans appeared readily available while meat, salt, vegetables and other delicacies were in acute shortage and when available were never enough to feed the entire population in the camp. Other materials not readily available, and even if available could not cover every resident, were blankets, tables, chairs, plates, cups, clothes, soap and Vaseline.
The majority of the camp residents considered all these as luxury items.
I, for one, felt betrayed by the camp commander who refused me permission to go back to Oshitumba where meat and porridge was enough for everyone. The most important thing in Cassinga was that discipline had to be observed to the letter.
We made our own beds out of sticks, while we made mattress out of reeds and grass. The months of March and April 1978 were characterised by acute hunger in the camp. Many people who had just arrived from Namibia tried to run away mainly because of the shortage of food. Most of these fighters who attempted to escape later became fearless fighters in the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia.
The periods also witnessed numerous enemy aircraft flying over Cassinga on reconnaissance missions, resulting in the people evacuating the camp from time to time and only returning when the security situation normalised.
After waiting to be transported to the Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre, as was promised earlier on, we were finally taken to Lubango on the morning of 03 May 1978. I have to admit that the training, which I went through this time, was much tougher than what I went through at Oshitumba and Cassinga.
On arrival at the Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre we were divided into different companies. I was placed under Reconnaissance Company Two commanded by Cde Pondo. Cde Pondo was short, quiet and had battle experience just like me. Reconnaissance Company One was commanded by Cde Manyana. Cde Manyana was tall, a bit aggressive and had battle experience too. For six months we received rigorous training ranging from guerrilla warfare tactics and hand-to-hand combat fighting. We were also taught military topography, ideological education, how to reconnoitre enemy location, sketch enemy position, lead fighting units into attacking position, administer first aid in the event of casualties, plant both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines and operate various small arms and heavy weapons. We were also subject to a harsh operational environment where almost everything was scarce – food, uniforms, soap, bedding and others. The first four months of our training were more difficult because of a shortage of food.
New arrivals from Namibia found it harder to go through such rigorous training on an empty stomach. Some tried to escape from the camp, either to go into villages in Angola or go back to Namibia. Their attempts to escape were not prompted by the fact that they were sent by the enemy – there was just nothing to eat in the training centre. The training proved to be unfriendly to those who had never experienced such conditions in their lives.
We left the training centre fully equipped with all that was needed by guerrilla fighters to undertake successful operations against the enemy at the battlefront. After training we were given new AK-47 rifles, uniforms, boots and bullets, everything was actually new. While on training, I shared my tent with many comrades, among them was Comrade Sakaria Andreas (Haidenga). My friendship with Sacky started while we were at Cassinga refugee camp, just a few months before we were sent for training at Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre.
Our friendship grew stronger as we were later deployed in the same detachment at the battlefront where we fought many battles together in Namibia. He also later named one of his sons after me in 1986 while he was studying at Omugulugombashe Education Centre in Lubango.
We left the training centre at the end of October 1978 for Vietnam base between Ondjiva and Omongwa. One of the commanders there was PLAN Reconnaissance Chief, Comrade Isaak Pondo Shikongo, a legendary brave PLAN fighter who was very courageous during the liberation struggle.
At the beginning of the second week we were ordered to assemble at the parade to be addressed by Shikongo. Shikongo, who was dressed in a Cuban uniform and carried a folded AK-47 and a Makalov pistol, urged us to be committed fighters who were determined to liberate Namibia through the barrel of the gun.
I was put in a group of six reconnaissance cadres who were supposed to go to the Western Front (Ombadja). Others were assigned to different regional headquarters: northern and north-eastern regions and units across the battlefields and PLAN headquarters. Towards the end of the second week at the base, I was informed that I would no longer be part of the section that was supposed to go to the Western Front, so I had to board trucks that would take us to the North-Eastern Front.