Filthy and cramped are the conditions under which over 1 000 destitute former members of the disbanded South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) and Koevoet and their families, who are mostly Himba-speaking, live.
The group of former colonial government soldiers, their spouses and children hail from Opuwo in the Kunene Region. The group has been camping at Herero Mall, Katutura, since the beginning of this year, in protest of government’s refusal to recognise them as war veterans. If the group were accorded war veteran status they would have benefitted from a one-off N$200 000 lump sum to start up a business, a N$50 000 lump sum and a N$2 000 monthly war veterans grant.
It’s about 10am on Wednesday and the stench of human waste hangs heavily in the air. The former soldiers, their spouses and children, some of whom attend school, are busy going about their daily chores.
About a dozen people sat around in one of the enclosures when this reporter visited. With shrunken, dejected faces they seemed exhausted. They walked towards me, their faces temporarily lighting up with anticipation, but when it became clear I had nothing to offer they assumed their usual downcast postures.
“Who are you, what do you want? Give us money, give us money, don’t take photos, please don’t,” shouted an elderly Himba woman from inside a makeshift plastic-sheet hut.
Leaning on a wooden cane, from inside another plastic-sheet hut from which smoke was billowing, one old man who seemed to be over 80 years of age told me: “This is hard but we will not go home. I came here from Okonguati earlier this year. I want to find a living so that I can have a better life here.”
Elderly women hold out their hands for loose change – they want to be paid for being photographed. They make moaning noises to emphasise their hunger, saying they survive on searching for leftover food in bins at night.
One woman vents her anger at their filthy lifestyle, laying the blame squarely on this reporter, saying it is because of “your government” that they are living in dirt.
“I hate it,” she thundered.
“Your government thinks we are pigs that need to be slaughtered.”
“We thought we’d be treated better than this. We want better lives,” she added.
Another elderly woman, Veongaomengi Tjambiru, said she had not eaten for the past two days.
Accompanied by her grandchild Uazepirehi – who is about three years old – Tjambiru, who does not know her age, said every little meal that she gets she reserves for her grandchild.
She said she does not get the monthly state pension of N$1 100 as she does not have any national identification documents.
Tjambiru said that all she wishes for is to have a decent place she could call home for the remainder of her life.
Many of the families say that in most cases women are left to give labour on their own since they do not have the means to go to hospital.
“Two young ladies gave birth just here last week in this filthiness – luckily their toddlers are fine,” said an old lady who apparently acts as a midwife.
Others complained of a lack of basic medical care. One woman in the group was heavily pregnant and with others lamented joblessness, hunger and extreme poverty.
One young man revealed that up to six sleep in a hut on the bare floor. He and his group sit outside among makeshift tables, armchairs and abandoned shopping trolleys.
Rinanaije Musutua, 72, said that two former soldiers were recently hit by cars and instantly killed. He said another two died from suspected malnutrition.
He said their living conditions are not according to the 1978 UN Security Council Resolution 435.
According to him the way the government treats them will force them to flee to other countries and they will then be forced to fight against their own government.
“Other countries might use us to fight against our own people if this situation is not taken care of,” said Musutua.
Many men said they survive by making knobkieries, which they sell to locals for N$20 each.
Further down the camp an elderly man performs what seems to be a traditional ritual on a young family. The elderly man is a well-known traditional healer who helps locals in the surrounding areas remove bad luck.
Another group is seen preparing porridge in a huge pot made from an old geyser. They collect money from individuals to buy maize meal to prepare breakfast for everyone at the camp.
SWATF was an auxiliary arm of the South African Defence Force and comprised the armed forces of South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1977 to 1989.
It emerged as a product of South Africa’s political control of the territory which was granted to the former as a League of Nations mandate following World War I.
Similarly, Koevoet was a major paramilitary organisation under apartheid South Africa and an active belligerent from 1979 to 1990 in the Namibian war of independence.
Both SWATF and Koevoet are known to have perpetrated gross violations of human rights, including killings of civilians during Namibia’s liberation struggle.