SA soldier pours water on the official version of the Central African Republic firefight
South African soldiers ran out of ammunition during a bloody battle in Bangui that left 13 of them dead and 27 injured.
Before they did, though, the increasingly desperate soldiers fired rocket-propelled grenades on groups of rebels who “stormed” them.
Many of the rebels were “only children”, an SA National Defence Force (SANDF) source close to the military’s controversial Central African Republic (CAR) deployment told City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport.
“The rebels stormed our soldiers in groups, not at all like trained soldiers, and many of them were only children,” the source revealed.
The rebels’ age horrified South African soldiers, he added.
According to him, some of the most traumatised soldiers – all members of 1 Parachute Battalion – returned to their base earlier than the rest of their companions after the fighting in Bangui died down on Sunday.
Another anonymous source, a soldier who survived the battle, has revealed what happened on Saturday, and in the weeks leading up to the firefight.
His version of events is in sharp contrast to that offered by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who says the media and military experts have lied about what happened during the battle.
The soldier confirmed what the defence force source said, and their version was backed up by foreign correspondents based in Bangui.
The soldier said some of the rebels he saw during the battle were “very, very young”.
After rebels took Bangui, news agency Reuters published photos of these young soldiers, described as “Seleka fighters”.
Reuters also confirmed to City Press that there are now many rebel soldiers in Bangui who are clearly very young.
Daniel Flynn of Reuters said: “Our correspondent in Bangui says there are many soldiers who look as if they are 14, 15 or, at most, 16 years old.
“In addition, some of them are on drugs or under the influence of alcohol.”
City Press questioned the new CAR leadership’s spokesperson, Eric Massi, by telephone about the presence of child soldiers in the Seleka forces.
Massi said: “This is something we are definitely opposed to, but it’s a difficult situation because we are assisted by several other groups in our fight against the Bozize regime.
“Those children are therefore not necessarily Seleka soldiers,” he said from Paris.
According to him, the new CAR government of self-appointed President Michel Djotodia will focus on the problem of child soldiers.
“We still have to determine what the situation is, but it’s not something we support. Children belong in school,” Massi said.
The Doctors Without Borders mission of Sylvain Groulx in Bangui confirmed to City Press that child soldiers are patrolling the streets of the country’s capital.
Groulx said: “The situation is improving every day, but there are still problems with the supply of electricity and water.”
Neither the South African ministry of defence nor the SANDF responded to repeated requests for comment throughout the week.
The South African soldier, who related the following story, asked to remain anonymous, even requesting that details of his age and rank be omitted to protect his identity.
He said: “Our mission assignments changed constantly. First we were told we were only there to train CAR soldiers, then we heard we had to protect South African property, and finally we were ordered to protect civilians in and around Bangui.”
The soldier also said his unit was upset about the lack of air support and that they ran out of ammunition during the battle, and did not receive further supplies.
“No one came to help us. No one came to give us new ammunition,” he said.
He was part of a patrol unit involved in heavy fighting about 50km from the South African base, from as early as Friday afternoon, against rebel forces as well as deserters from the CAR forces.
“There were very many of them, but we were only about 25 soldiers. It was very bad.”
SA National Defence Force spokesperson Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga this week denied allegations that CAR troops turned against their South African allies, but the soldier says that is exactly what happened.
“I still greeted some of the guys earlier. We knew each other…then, on Friday, they suddenly opened fire on us with RPG-7s. They were still in CAR Defence Force uniforms, so it was very confusing.”
There was also a great deal of unhappiness, the soldier said, about food and stipends.
“From our deployment on January 2 to the end of the mission, we had to make do with rat packs (ration packs), because there was never a kitchen set up,” he said.
“It was terrible, because you can’t live for so long on that stuff.”
No proper kitchen had been set up despite numerous promises, he claimed.
The soldiers, who were first deployed in January, were also all very upset, because they did not receive the payment that was promised to them, he said.
“According to our contract, we had to get €67 (R793) per day while we were there, but then we only got €5 a day in cash.”
» This is the minister of defence’s version of events, outlined on Thursday during a ceremony at Pretoria’s Waterkloof Airforce Base.
Mapisa-Nqakula told the dead soldiers’ distraught relatives, who were there to formally receive the soldiers’ bodies, that the men had been on a “goodwill” mission and had died like heroes.
Speaking mostly in isiXhosa, she said: “We must never allow our enemy to divide us on our purpose of deploying our children to other countries.
“This was not the first deployment, and it will not be the last one. We will also deploy other children to another country. What is important now is how we honour our children.”
She stuck to the official government and military line, saying the soldiers were only in the CAR to train that country’s military.
“South Africa and its government had no other interests in the CAR except the agreement to train soldiers from the CAR.
“I am raising this because, now, the issue is: ‘What business interests were they protecting in the CAR?’
“Mothers and fathers, I am the one who signed off on that operation.”
The minister also vehemently denied that there had been a clash of interests between the military and President Jacob Zuma about the deployment.
She said there was no truth to reports that some soldiers wanted to return home, even before the battle.
“They fought without retreating. Those were not cowards. Your children are not cowards and that’s something that should make you very proud.”
She said that one day the story would be told of how many rebels – the unofficial estimate is more than 600 – died during the battle, which lasted for about 13 hours.
“Your children, at least from the pictures I’ve seen, were very young boys, but they were lions and they are heroes of our country. Those were your children, but, also, they had sworn that, as soldiers, ‘we will serve with pride,’” said Mapisa-Nqakula, who was flanked by Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla and senior defence chiefs.
She repeatedly lauded the fallen soldiers as heroes and not “cowards” who died with wounds in their backs.
“In the black community, we grew up with the adage that says a man’s wound should not be on his back.”
Pointing to her forehead, she said: “A man’s wound should be here. We do not hear that your children died with wounds on their backs because they were running away.
“I’m trying to say, painful as it is, I want you to always remain with proud memories of your children.”
She also urged families not to stop their children from enlisting in the military, saying the country had to be defended.
Mapisa-Nqakula talked about her visit to the defence force’s training base in the CAR on January 13, a few weeks after fresh troops had been deployed there.
Some of the new troops had complained about the hot weather during their first days in the country, she said.
When she left, the troops saw her off with a “war cry”.
The soldiers – whom she fondly referred to as “my children” – were happy to be deployed to the CAR and to have an opportunity to use the skills they learned during training, she said. city press