In March 2013, South Africa suffered its worst military defeat since the end of apartheid. After a battle that lasted almost two days, 200 crack troops who engaged 7 000 rebels in the Central African Republic were forced to negotiate a ceasefire at their base. Thirteen (13) South African soldiers died in the battle, with two more later succumbing to their wounds. The mission was shrouded in mystery from the start. The deployment and the diplomatic machinations that led to it were kept secret from the South African public and Parliament. So, too, were an assortment of shadowy commercial interests held by businessmen, some with close ties to the African National Congress.
In this extract from the book The Battle of Bangui – The Inside Story of South Africa’s Worst Military Scandal since Apartheid, one of the South African soldiers on this mission finds himself trapped in the hands of armed rebels
The next morning, the streets below are crawling with rebels harassing civilians. Mulaudzi judges it best to use his mobile phone to call a fellow soldier. To Mulaudzi’s delight, he answers almost at once.
‘Are you at the base?’ asks Mulaudzi. ‘How did you get there?’
‘The rebels took us.’
‘There is a ceasefire agreement that’s been signed.’
Mulaudzi’s head is spinning.
‘We are packing,’ his friend persists. ‘We’re going back to Mzansi.’
Mulaudzi calls his corporal, who confirms that a ceasefire is in force. The corporal hands the phone to Captain Nongxa.
‘Where are you?’ Nongxa asks.
‘I’m in the mountains, sir.’
‘We are going back to South Africa.’
‘I’m still here in the mountains, sir. What must I do?’
‘What you must do is get down off those mountains and hand yourself in to the rebels. They will bring you here.’
Orders are orders, so Mulaudzi begins to retrace his steps, heading back to the market where Charlie Company was ambushed. Traversing the hills in full battle kit has him sweating profusely. Eventually he spots the main road. It’s teeming with rebel soldiers in vehicles, firing indiscriminately as they drive past. When they spot him, they start shooting in his direction, forcing him to dive for cover. He slams his knee into a rock, injuring it.
He calls the base again. This time someone he doesn’t know answers.
‘Those guys are shooting at me!’
‘Don’t worry, we are coming to fetch you. Tell us where you are.’
Mulaudzi describes his position, waits for the rebels firing in his direction to pass, then makes his way down to the road. It’s thronging with civilians. Some grab his shoulders and tug at his clothes. Even though he speaks some Sango, he can’t make out what they’re saying. Then someone speaking English offers him civilian clothes. Mulaudzi declines because he doesn’t want to relinquish his rifle.
‘Take me to those guys,’ he says, pointing to a group of rebels loitering in the street.
‘No, they will kill you.’
He explains that a ceasefire has been declared and that he has been ordered to surrender.
‘Fine, I’ll take you to them.’
Mulaudzi walks towards the rebels with his rifle slung over his shoulder. When they see him, they rush at him with their weapons drawn. He freezes and holds up his hands in surrender. They snatch his rifle and mobile phone before stripping off his body armour and battle jacket. Then the beatings begin. They kick him, punch him, slap him in the face and use their rifle butts to hit him. Mulaudzi is stunned. The rules of war dictate that he should be treated humanely and handed over to his commanding officer. Instead, he’s being bludgeoned to death on the side of the road.
A South African special forces Land Cruiser driven by a rebel commander wearing a white turban screeches to a halt. The men address him as ‘General’. He barks something in Arabic and the beatings stop.
Mulaudzi is thrown onto the back of the bakkie, which is loaded with South African Army ration packs from the base and boxes of food, booze and groceries that the rebels have looted from trading stores. Ten rebels huddle around him in a circle. When he asks to use his phone, they beat him. One cocks Mulaudzi’s rifle and forces him to empty his magazine by firing into the air with them in celebration of their victory. Then the beatings start again.
The Land Cruiser drives off with the white-turbaned rebel general at the wheel. But instead of making for the base, they head in the direction of Damara.
Mulaudzi is distraught. This shouldn’t be happening. What on earth do they want to do with him? Use him as a hostage to negotiate the release of their captive compatriots? But they’re in control of the city; they can free anyone they want. For ransom money? They can simply take that too. The only conceivable reason is revenge. They want to make him suffer, to mutilate and torture him. Humiliate him. Parade his desecrated corpse through the city as a symbol of their triumph.
Some of the rebels are drinking beer. They pour it down his throat. Others force him to smoke dagga. He’s not a smoker, doesn’t really drink and hasn’t eaten much in the last two days, so the liquor and zol go straight to his head. But any sign of refusal is met with fresh blows. Sometimes they slap him around just for the hell of it. For entertainment, they dangle him over the edge of the bakkie, his head coming perilously close to the moving wheels.
Can’t they stop torturing me like this? Why don’t these guys just kill me?
They stop regularly along the way to break into shops and loot. Boxes of airtime, watches, radios – whatever they can get their hands on. They take Mulaudzi along at gunpoint, keeping him on a tight leash, like their pet poodle. When they find two motorbikes, they force him to carry them back to the Land Cruiser.
But the real horrors are yet to begin.
Soon they reach the previous day’s battlefield, where South African mortars and machine-gun bullets ripped the rebels to shreds. Body parts are strewn across the road. They force him to pick up arms, legs, hands and mangled torsos, and toss them onto the back of the bakkie, on top of the army rat packs looted from the base.
Death becomes a great yearning, the only thing left to hope for, pray for.
Please shoot me, oh dear God, please do it now. If only I could reach my rifle. Pretend to fire a few rounds into the air, then slip the barrel under my chin and pull the trigger. What a sweet sound it would make. If only they would drop me onto the road so the Land Cruiser’s wheels can crush my skull. Oh dear God, please!
After what feels like hours, the Land Cruiser finally rolls into the rebel base in Damara. Mulaudzi has arrived in hell. In one corner, a large, waist-high pile of bodies festers in the tropical sun, feasted on by flies. They order him to offload the body parts from the bakkie and toss them onto the pile.
Then the beatings begin again – they pound him with their rifle butts, kick him, punch him. His injured knee makes it difficult to walk. Even so, they order him to offload a motorbike and beat him to the ground while he pushes it. When he picks up the bike, they beat him. When his body collapses from sheer exhaustion and the bike falls on top of him, they beat him again. He summons his last ounce of energy to carry it, then goes back for the second bike. Again he falls, and again they beat him. By now he has lost all feeling in his back and his knee hurts like hell.
Mulaudzi notices the rebels are divided into two groups. One, which includes the fighters who brought him here, is clustered around the general with the white turban. Another group takes orders from a swarthy-looking fellow wearing a red beret and dark camouflage uniform. He is armed only with a pistol, indicating he is an officer, and is also addressed as ‘General’. Evidently growing tired of this game, his group takes Mulaudzi to a clearing, leaving the turbaned rebel behind.
While his men fire into the air, the general in the red beret beckons to another fighter. They huddle together for a while. Mulaudzi can’t make out what they’re discussing, but he suspects it must be his execution. Then the general starts barking fresh orders.
The next moment, a young boy in civilian clothing appears next to him – a child really, not more than eleven or twelve. The general hands him a rifle. Then it dawns on Mulaudzi: this is an initiation ritual. The boy must kill him in order to become a soldier – a man.
*The book is published by Penguin Random House
- Authors – Warren Thompson – Stephan Hofstatter and James Oatway