'We were killing kids'

31 March 2013 - 03:49 By GRAEME HOSKEN and ISAAC MAHLANGU
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A young Seleka coalition rebel poses near the presidential palace in Bangui this week. Seleka coalition rebels seized the capital Bangui after the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal with Bozize's regime
A young Seleka coalition rebel poses near the presidential palace in Bangui this week. Seleka coalition rebels seized the capital Bangui after the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal with Bozize's regime
Image: AFP

'They hit us in waves ... wave upon wave ... they knew how to advance, put down suppressing fire, withdraw, use camouflage.

"They were not stupid ... they knew we had no support ... they had intelligence on us ... they knew our movements, our numbers, our capabilities ... everything about us.

"It was only after the firing stopped that we saw we had killed kids.

"We did not come here for this ... to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying, calling for help ... calling for [their] moms."

These are the stories survivors of the battle of Bangui told the Sunday Times. They are among the first on-the-ground accounts to emerge from the war zone in a city where 13 South African soldiers died last Saturday in a brutal skirmish with rebel fighters determined to wrest control of the Central African Republic and overthrow its president, François Bozizé.

The ousted leader had visited South Africa the previous Thursday evening, begging President Jacob Zuma for more soldiers to protect him - more than the 298 sent in January to join a small training group already there. But Zuma sent him packing, telling him it was a "political issue" that needed to be dealt with by Central Africa regional leaders.

A day later, the rebel assault started. By Saturday noon, the South African base 1.5km outside Bangui was under attack.

Battle-scarred and traumatised soldiers have since returned to South Africa, speaking with a sense of betrayal about being attacked by those who had been provided to protect them.

"We were not supposed to be here. We did not come here to do this. We were told we were here to serve and protect, to ensure peace," said a South African paratrooper.

Another soldier, who was flown to South Africa early on Wednesday evening, spoke hauntingly of hundreds of bodies lying on the ground, of limbs missing, gaping wounds, of the dying moaning and screaming for help.

"We were told these rebels were amateurs. We were told there was nothing to worry about - that the thousands of Central African regional troops along with CAR government soldiers would help us," he said.

"But they were the first to run ... when those first shots were fired they disappeared ... when the sh*t really hit the fan the very okes we trained started killing us," he said, referring to the CAR soldiers. Reports have emerged that government soldiers mutinied after the fighting broke out.

"Our men were deployed to various parts of the city, protecting belongings of South Africans. They were the first to be attacked. Everyone thought it was those who were ambushed, but it was the guys outside the different buildings - the ones which belong to businesses in Jo'burg."

The Mail & Guardian reported this week on South Africa's extensive business interests in the CAR.

Describing the panic as the soldiers on patrol in Bangui called for back-up - and the nonexistent medical evacuation support and the contingent's sole medic - the soldier said the South Africans started forming defensive lines outside the base several kilometres away.

"We thought we could hold them there. All along we were told they were a bunch of rag-tags, nothing to worry about.

"We were lied to straight out. They were well armed."

Most alarming during the 13-hour firefight with the rebels was the presence of child soldiers who called for their mothers in their hour of death.

"We didn't know it was going to be like that," said a paratrooper.

"We killed little boys ... teenagers who should have been in school."

Another survivor, back home in South Africa, said the soldiers had known from the day they arrived in Bangui that they were not welcome. Although he never saw it, he said that many of them were aware of a memo written by rebels in January criticising their presence.

A third soldier said there could have been about 3000 rebels, some looking like they belonged in Grade 4.

The first attack lasted about three hours as rebels, armed mainly with AK-47s, attacked the South African base.

"Our first roll call revealed that three of our men had been shot by rebels. But when it starting becoming dark on Saturday, the rebels returned and intensified their attack on us ... that is where most of our men were shot and killed."

The fight lasted until early on Sunday morning. Just when the South African soldiers began to run out of ammunition, the rebels surrendered and came forward under a white flag to ask for medical help.

The soldiers' stories are in stark contrast to bland official versions by South African National Defence Force generals and government officials.

Yesterday the Ministry of Defence said in a statement that the 13 had died for "a worthy cause".

But the presence of South African soldiers in the CAR was this week questioned, particularly because it did not have international backing. The defence ministry said, however, that the South African presence in the CAR had been at the urging of the African Union and the United Nations. The statement said the AU had directed member states "in the name of African solidarity" to support peace and stability in the CAR and that the UN representative in that country, Margaret Vogt , had called for South Africa, France and the CAR's neighbouring states not to abandon their mandates and leave the country.

In January, South Africa reinforced its military training mission of 26, which had been there since 2007, with a "protection force" of 298 soldiers. The 298 bore the brunt of the fighting last weekend.

Also in January, the government extended its agreement with the Bozizé regime until March 2018. Zuma told parliament that this would cost an estimated R21-million a month - a total of R1.28-billion over the term of the deployment.

Today, only about 25 South African soldiers remain in the CAR, holed up at the airport with about 200 French troops, according to reports from Bangui. A senior officer in Fomac, the Central African multinational force, said from Bangui that the South Africans were "making plans to leave as soon as possible".

Sonwabo Mbanaga, spokesman for Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, said there was no intention to leave the CAR, but that this would be "determined by a political process that will be unfolding".

Meanwhile, there have been reports of a South African military build-up in the Ugandan city of Entebbe, close to the CAR border, where South African Air Force transport aeroplanes have arrived. There has been no official explanation for this South African presence.

Yesterday, Zuma's office said the president would lead a South African delegation to an Economic Community of Central African States meeting in Chad, at which a final decision about South African troops in the CAR will be taken.

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