“I was very excited when we arrived at the Cassinga camp,” recalled Lavinia Tuyeimo Muleka (née Nghandi) who arrived at the camp as a teenager, three days before the gruesome attack on 4 May, 1978.
Muleka, a Cassinga survivor, yesterday shared her story from her home in Katutura.
It took Muleka and her comrades who left Namibia on 10 April that year three weeks to reach Cassinga.
“All the way I was in tension. When I reached Cassinga I was relieved to be able to say we are in a free country and there is no way South Africa will attack us in Angola, but to my surprise on the 4th of May 1978, early in the morning, we were attacked by the South Africans,” said Muleka.
The South African air force flew over Cassinga, a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola. It was the South African Defence Force’s largest airborne operation when close to 400 paratroopers were dropped near the town of Cassinga.
The airborne troops bombed the Swapo refugee camp, which was followed by ground forces completing the attack. Muleka, who was 16 years old then, said it was custom each morning for people at the camp to form a parade.
But on that fateful morning just as the last group of pioneers arrived for parade they could see airplanes flying over the area.
“All of a sudden I could see people going on the ground,” Muleka explains as she demonstrates the bending down and running movements of the camp’s residents trying to flee the assault.
She adds: “I didn’t know what to do” – as there was confusion and chaos.
While on the ground, not knowing what had hit her and imitating what her comrades were doing, Muleka started crawling and that is when she started seeing blood, injured people and dead bodies.
That was also when it hit her they were being attacked by the enemy.
She found herself running not knowing where she was going. Then she realised she was bleeding from a gunshot to her hip and abdomen.
“I could see people falling but I kept on running,” she says. Muleka eventually found herself by the river. However, she could not swim.
“Many people died in the river,” she says of the wounded who tried to cross the river.
Nevertheless, she was brave enough to jump into the river and found herself holding onto a blanket covering a baby who was on her mother’s back. That is how she was rescued and ended up on the other side of the river.
Muleka knew that she went to Angola to fight for the liberation of Namibia. And yes, in war, anything can happen, she admits.
However, she had not mentally prepared for any attack as she expected things to go smoothly.
“We were defenceless … we had no soldiers in the camp, it was just women and children.”
Muleka says the South African attackers must have thoroughly planned the massacre.
“The enemy planned it very well because they planted landmines in the areas surrounding the camp.”
She adds that it is believed the Cuban troops could not reach the camp immediately to help them because of the landmines.
“Maybe they (South Africans) could have captured all the survivors there.”
That morning, Muleka says, she did not have any premonition of the attack.
“We were told we would be prepared for school, but that morning I did not feel anything of that nature would happen.”
After crossing the river Muleka became unconscious, having inhaled gas from the attack and from losing a lot of blood.
“I woke up the next morning when they were identifying those who survived the attack,” says Muleka.
Cassinga and its aftermath left permanent scars, not only on her lower abdomen and hip as a result of the gunshot but also in her chest from inhaling smoke from the attack. She also suffered emotional scars.
“It was horrible,” she says emotionally.
“Although so many years have passed Cassinga remains fresh in my memory. It’s like it happened yesterday.”
The pain is so bad that she does not like to think about it. And although she was lucky enough to have undergone counselling during her time in Cuba, it is not something that can easily be erased from her memory.
“The counselling helped a lot … but when that memory comes I don’t want to think about it,” Muleka says, adding that in the attack she lost people who were very close to her.
Just the night before she had spent time with her cousin whom she met at the camp. That was the last time she saw him.
But none of the people with whom she had travelled from Namibia perished in Cassinga. “We all survived,” she says with a sense of gratitude.
Muleka says she has made peace with what happened at Cassinga. However, she feels the day should not be taken for granted because of the lives lost.
“We have to remember and respect the blood of those who died fighting for the liberation of Namibia, not just Cassinga.”
On Cassinga Day, which is observed as a public holiday in Namibia, Muleka limits her movements.
“I don’t like to go out. I stay at home and I read my Bible. I pray and console myself so that I don’t think about it too much. It gives me courage and I think of how great God is.”
The 54-year-old mother of one reflects: “God is alive because if he were not alive there would be no survivors at Cassinga. It is by God’s grace, that’s why I glorify God when I think of Cassinga.”
More than 600 Namibians, mostly women and children, were butchered by the South African Defence Force airborne troops, and hundreds more were injured.