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TRC Final Report
Page Number (Original) 72
Paragraph Numbers 112 to 122
Killings, intimidation and harassment of civilians
112 Civilians were routinely harassed, intimidated and beaten by security forces in the operational areas, especially by Koevoet members in pursuit of SWAPO guerrillas. Many were killed during such operations, either by accident (caught in crossfire) or deliberately. Sometimes the human rights abuses involved detention under emergency proclamations, although it was often difficult to determine when the emergency regulations had been invoked as, under their provisions, any member of the security forces could summarily detain any South West African. Often intimidation happened as a result of a belief that the local population were assisting guerrillas and knew their whereabouts, although retribution against suspected SWAPO supporters was also a factor. The Bishops’ Conference reported in 1982:
The Security Forces stop at nothing to force information out of people. They break into homes, beat up residents, shoot people, steal and kill cattle and often pillage stores and tea rooms. When the tracks of SWAPO guerrillas are discovered by the Security Forces, the local people are in danger. Harsh measures are intensified. People are blindfolded, taken from their homes and left beaten up and even dead by the roadside. Women are often raped …There is no redress because reporting irregularities or atrocities to commanders is considered a dangerous or fruitless exercise4 .
113 In 1986, in a ‘false-flag operation’ that went awry, a group of recces placed a bomb near a bank in Oshakati and detonated it. The intention was to make it look like a SWAPO operation in order to justify harsh measures planned against the organisation. The bomb killed one bank employee who turned out to be the wife of a member of the same Recce detachment. No charges were ever brought.
114 During 1973, following mass detentions in Owamboland, the SAP began to hand over alleged SWAPO supporters to the bantustan authorities. After cursory hearings, the victims were publicly flogged with epokolos, the central ribs of makalani palms. Both women and men were subjected to these ‘traditional’ punishments, which resulted in extensive cuts and bruising, as well as public humiliation.
115 Dusk-to-dawn curfews were imposed on much of northern South West Africa for most of the duration of the war, although the application varied from time to time and from place to place. This was a major grievance of the local population, as the curfews caused considerable disruption of day-to-day life, and also gave rise to many killings and assaults as troops and police tried to enforce restrictions on movement. In some areas, security force members were under orders to shoot on sight during curfew hours, and there are many reported incidents of civilians being shot while going to the toilet, seeking medical attention or looking for livestock after dark.4 Kairos report on Namibia.
Special Operations K Unit of the South African security police
The crowbar which prises terrorists out of the bushveld like nails from rotten wood. (Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange.)
We were basically automatons. We would just kill. That’s how we got our kicks. We were adrenaline junkies. (John Deegan, 1997.)
116 The police unit Koevoet, as noted above, was responsible for many human rights abuses in South West Africa. The unit was set up by Brigadier Hans Dreyer of the SAP Security Branch in June 1979. While its officers were mainly white South African policemen, the unit recruited mostly from the local black South West African population and eventually numbered about 1 000. Cast in the mould of the Portuguese Flechas and Rhodesian Selous Scouts, Koevoet was established as a mobile unit, using specially designed Casspirs (armoured personnel carriers) to gather intelligence, track guerrillas and then kill them.
117 Koevoet was established as a consequence of a failed attempt to create a South West African surrogate force along the lines of RENAMO (the Mozambique National Resistance). This project, known as Operation Vanguard, involved the training of local Owambos at Fort Doppies in the Caprivi but failed when it could make no inroads in Owamboland because of overwhelming local support for SWAPO. Once Vanguard was abandoned, a small group of locals, many ‘turned’ ex-SWAPO fighters (known locally as makakunyanas which means literally blood suckers) and former members of the Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FNLA), were selected and trained as the nucleus of Koevoet. Over time, other groups were established, each made up of ten to fifteen makakunyanas under a white officer with considerable counter-insurgency experience. At its largest, Koevoet comprised approximately 250 white officers and 750–800 Owambos.
118 Speaking in Parliament in Cape Town in 1984, in the only public debate ever permitted on the activities of this unit, Minister le Grange explained the reasons for its formation:
As ... the ordinary conventional methods of warfare appeared to be ineffective in combating terrorism in Owambo and the rest of South West Africa, it was decided after consultation between the SADF ... and the SAP to form a special unit to gather information and make it possible for the security police to track down and wipe out terrorist gangs ... [W]ith the passage of time it became clear that the initial basis on which the unit had come into existence, and according to which it would transmit all information it obtained about terrorist movements to the combat units of the security forces while the latter would carry out the pursuit operations, gave rise to problems in practice ... the unit in due course began to operate as a combat unit5 .
119 Koevoet was in many respects an archetypal counter-revolutionary unit, a means of fighting fire with fire. Its top echelon comprised battle-hardened veterans of the Rhodesian war. Amongst these were Dreyer, Colonels Eugene de Kock and Eric Winter, Captains Sakkie van Zyl and ‘Beachball’ Vorster, Lieutenant Frans Conradie and Warrant Officer ‘Snakes’ Greyling. Koevoet soon gained a reputation for brutality, largely because of its methods of interrogating local people, which invariably involved torture, and for the way its members careered around the operational areas in Casspirs, laying down heavy fire, flattening fences, driving straight through fields of crops, and even people’s homes, whenever they suspected a guerrilla contact.
120 In his amnesty application, Lance Corporal Sean Callaghan [AM4026/96] described his experiences on attachment to Koevoet:
A Koevoet team spent a week in the bush and a week back in camp. I think I was in a contact every week. There was a scoreboard and a map in the operations room in the Koevoet base and on the weeks that we were not in the bush, we were checking the scores of the teams that were in the bush. Koevoet was much more effective than SADF units because of its bounty policy.
121 Koevoet’s operational mode involved monetary rewards for killings, captures and the discovery of arms on a graduated scale which rated and rewarded killings most highly. Corpses were also used for purposes of spreading terror and intimidating villagers. Callaghan described another incident:
I can remember … loading bodies onto and off Casspirs. After a contact bodies were tied onto spare tyres, bumpers, mudguards and were left there until we got back to the base camp, until they could be unloaded. This could be days of driving through thick bush, and the skin could be worn right off the bodies.
122 Space does not permit a detailed description of the violence and torture used by Koevoet. However, the Kairos report contains extensive documentation on physical beatings, the destruction of property, sexual assault and various forms of torture (such as solitary confinement, hooding, electric shock, submersion in water, mock burials, mock executions, roasting over fire, and sleep, food and water deprivation) as a means of coercion, intimidation and the extraction of information. Rape was common, and women and girls of all ages were victims. In the Kairos documentation is an account of the rape of an eighty-year-old woman by a Koevoet member, and one referring to the rape of a four-year-old girl.5 Hansard, 2 May 1984.