WINDHOEK: It took 23 years of a bitter and bloody armed liberation struggle, waged in bushes and trenches that were dug in friendly neighbouring countries, before Namibia gained freedom from Apartheid South Africa’s colonial occupation on 21 March 1990.
This Sunday (26 August), Namibians country-wide will pay homage to the men and women who fought bravely for the liberation of the motherland, defeating an overwhelmingly superior enemy.
The enemy had frighteningly sophisticated blood-spilling weaponry, but the freedom fighters were feeding off the will to create a free and better ‘tomorrow’ for Namibia and all her people.
They fought long and hard, giving their all for the freedom currently enjoyed in the Land of the Brave.
Some of these heroes of yesteryear were senior combatants and hardened war generals who strategised, outmanoeuvred and outlasted the enemy, leading the fight from the relative comfort of the command posts.
A few well-known names spring to mind. Names of famous individuals who are today decorated with shiny medals of valour – grandeurous crosses and buttons of all shapes and sizes.
They are rewarded, revered and celebrated over and over again, in a never-ending cycle of eternal gratitude for their achievements, with each passing year.
But what about the unsung heroes, those who selflessly risked their lives for the cause of independence on many a battlefield?
Sergeant Police Officer Nghidipohamba Haukongo is one such unsung hero.
He gave up his youth and the comfort of home to venture into the uncertainty of exile in October 1977, with just one aim in mind – to reverse the injustices of the colonial past that had robbed his people of their dignity.
He left Etilashi village in the modern-day Ohangwena Region, and in the dead of night stole his way into Angola where he joined Swapo’s People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) combatants at Onamakunde in southern Angola.
“I was only 22 years old when I decided to go into exile. I went alone and walked hundreds of kilometres on foot, until I met the PLAN combatants at Onamakunde,” he told Nampa in an interview on Tuesday.
“The aim was to join the Swapo fighters. I wanted to get training and then to come back to fight the enemy here,” he stated.
The PLAN combatants took him to the Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre in Lubango, Angola where he undertook his military training and graduated as an operator of the 82-millimeter mortar artillery weapon.
After his training, he joined PLAN and became a Platoon Commander in 1979 under the leadership of his Detachment Commander, a certain Masipa, deputised by Nestor Heita who is currently working at the National Council Building in Windhoek.
Haukongo was then sent to the frontline at an area called Ombandja in northern Namibia, where they fought the enemy inside Namibia covering areas such as Uukwaluudhi, Ongandjera and Ombalantu.
“I fought many battles, I survived many battles, but I lost many of my comrades and friends too in the process. It was a bitter war, but we never wavered,” he said.
He remembers the battles at Onangombe, Oshilemba and at Oshikushe as among the most unforgettable. They fought and emerged victorious, losing only one of their combatants in the process.
But the most nightmarish war experience, which still haunts his memory to this day, is the battle that took place in the jungles of Ombadja, where the enemy ambushed his unit.
“The jungle was surrounded by dry water pans, and there was no way for us to come out of there without being noticed. The enemy soldiers came by helicopters, on foot and on horseback. It was a critical time for our members as we were facing a strong enemy, which had the advantage of superior weapons, using helicopters to fire from above,” he recalled.
“We fought bravely but could not destroy the enemy. We managed to retreat under the cover of some smoke which the enemy was blowing about in order to confuse and blind our combatants. After I crossed the smoke, I can remember throwing myself into a fence of thorny bushes (ongubu). Before the enemies left the battle spot, they set the ongubu alight while I was hiding in there. Lucky enough, the fire simply died before it reached the place where I was. That is how I survived. It was a terrible day for me and my unit, as death was just a few metres away,” he recollects.
It was in that very same battle that Commander Heita was injured and captured alive, while several other combatants perished.
Haukongo indicated that, a few months after that, the combatants managed to recapture Commander Heita, and he was taken back to Swapo and then sent for medical treatment in an Asian country.
“We also have success stories where we captured arms and tanks, although it was almost always in a situation of great danger, where death was our shadow.
“When I look behind at the past, I shed tears everyday as I remember my comrades who sacrificed their lives in the process. But I also cherish the memories of those battles where we successfully destroyed the enemy in the thick forests of Namibia,” he said.
“I buried many of my fellow comrades at unknown places because they perished in the war. I remember them every day. I cry for them and I will never forget them,” he added.
He said they mostly used bayonets to dig up graves for the soldiers who lost their lives in battles.
In a free and independent Namibia, there are days when former PLAN combatants, including Haukongo, spend sleepless nights reflecting on the events that happened during the war for liberation. That war has left many of them traumatised to this day.
Besides suffering from the traumatising effect of war, Haukongo has been left with another problem that weighs heavily on his mind.
The war veteran has over the years been questioning the value of his contribution to the country’s liberation struggle, as he feels that little has come of it.
Before his return to Namibia from the war, he held the rank of Platoon Commander.
Today, just a few years before he is set to retire, Haukongo is a sergeant in the Namibian Police Force (NamPol).
Like all other Namibians who were in exile, Haukongo came back to Namibia in 1989 and he joined NamPol in 1990.
While in the police force, he became a Presidential Messenger, holding the lowly rank of a constable.
Haukongo is currently a Sergeant Class 2, this after 22 years of loyal service to the police force and country.
“Some former PLAN combatants have risen through the ranks. Myself and many others have, however, landed and kept the lowest positions in the force. I was a Detachment Commander in exile, but in an independent Namibia I am just a Sergeant officer,” he said.
With a sad look in his eyes, he questioned whether he did something wrong to be ‘stuck’ in a low-paying job, contrary to all the dreams and hopes he had as he fought for independence.
“During the tenure of my duty, I worked very hard as a Police Officer. During the liberation struggle, I fought with determination to bring about independence, but I earned myself the lower rank in the force,” he fumed.
He said his salary is very low and he cannot even afford to buy bread for his aging mother, adding that there are many PLAN combatants who are still constables and sergeants, perhaps because they are not educated.
“Things are not done fairly to some of us. We missed education at our early age, but now promotion goes to diploma and degree holders. What if all of us decided to go and pursue our studies during the liberation struggle? Who would have done the fighting then?” he asked.
“The heroes and heroines who died for our country gave their lives so that we can live in freedom, peace and security. So that we can share the cake of independence equally. They gave their lives so that we can build a united, tolerant, inclusive and harmonious society, free from discrimination, tribalism and racism,” he said.
This is but one man that Nampa spoke to, and speaks of many of his former comrades – men and women who are equally disillusioned about the value of their sacrifice. Men and women who are still wondering whether the sacrifices they made during the liberation struggle have any meaning to their current livelihoods.
Haukongo, this man from Etilashi village in the Ohangwena region, is a hero.