Namibians who experienced life in the battle trenches during the liberation struggle era are familiar with the following sayings: “There is absolutely no worse death curse than the humdrum daily existence of the living dead”; and “A sincere attitude of gratitude is a beatitude for secured altitudes”.
These and many other idioms were common among PLAN fighters, obviously not necessarily in the English language. These idioms served to create a strong bond of camaraderie; a sense of appreciating each other with the full knowledge that they were engaged in a life and death national mission.
It is in this light that the words of the war veterans to the effect that “appreciate us while we are still alive” should be understood. Indeed, medals, liberation songs and slogans are not edible and do not provide food or shelter, particularly to those whose contribution cannot and should not be disregarded.
There is no denying, however, that slogans, liberation songs and endless showering of praises on the leadership have earned the majority of the quarter-to-lunch-hour revolutionaries luxurious lives and millions of dollars. It is a pity that loyalty to the country is not meaningfully rewarded while yesterday’s enemies of the struggle are treated like golden geese. The fact remains that war veterans are not in the business of cheerleading or booty-licking.
It is not too late for government to step in and do the right things for the veterans of the liberation struggle. Admittedly, N$50 000, for a veteran who has no accommodation, has not been resettled, has children and grandchildren to look after, is simply not enough.
The N$200 000 project money, which takes forever to be accessed, is simply not the solution. Medical aid is not enough. For example, the common ailments that afflict most veterans are cataracts in the eyes (where the cheapest operation costs about 7 000 dollars); loss of hearing due to explosions (this costs more than cataract operations); post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD); depression, etc. The ideal right from inception would have been free housing with access to basic amenities; free resettlement; access to military facilities that deal with post-war trauma and depression.
Some ex-combatants have developed stress reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.
People with PTSD experience three different kinds of symptoms. The first set of symptoms involves reliving the trauma in some way such as becoming upset when confronted with a traumatic reminder or thinking about the trauma when you are trying to do something else.
The second set of symptoms involves either staying away from places or people that remind you of the trauma, isolating yourself from other people, or feeling numb. The third set of symptoms includes things such as feeling on guard, irritable, or startling easily. Research has established that many military veterans develop symptoms of PTSD.
Bearing this in mind, and recognising that Namibia’s independence is not an accidental historical occurrence, but an event born out of planned military, political and diplomatic struggle, one would naturally have thought that the leadership of that struggle should have put mechanisms in place to deal with cases of PTSD.
Yes, Namibians both inside and outside the country were exposed to traumatic situations, much more so those at the battlefield and in prisons and torture chambers. Unfortunately, we failed to plan and instead planned to fail. Our leadership ought to have laid a bold and solid foundation at independence – a foundation that would have resulted in the provision of facilities to rehabilitate and counsel Namibians exposed to traumatic circumstances.
For the children born in exile, the situation has been even more complex. Apart from the absence of psychological, emotional or social preparation, these children were left to fend for themselves. Some knew no home, no family and had no home or family upon their return. Namibia was a strange country for them. Those who were united with their parents’ families were most often subjected to abuse.
It is from this perspective that we need to understand the situation under which the ex-combatants find themselves. It is disingenuous to ignore the plight of the war veterans while pandering to the whims of the quarter-to-lunch-hour revolutionaries whose insatiable lust for wealth and luxury is unparalleled. It will also not be correct to politicize their plight.
It is not late to come up with a comprehensive strategy to take care of the war veterans before they die in poverty and shame. A sober reflection of the situation and a comprehensive strategy to address the status of war veterans, especially those with no income, is imperative. Piecemeal solutions have not worked and never will.
· Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.