Those of you that have read my trip report to Angola in 2010 would have picked up on the fact that my brother went MIA in 1975 in a battle that was part of Op Savannah.
Niel Lombard was killed on 23 November 1975 after the armoured car of which he was the driver was struck by a projectile fired from an enemy gun. The gunner and the crew commander was not injured in the incident and managed to escape to safety that evening under cover of darkness. The enemy was unable to obtain access to the inside of the vehicle to ensure all occupants were killed.
Niel’s body was never recovered.
Two days later on 25 November a Cessna aeroplane, doing reconnaissance over the area was also shot down and the three occupants, Capt Danie Taljaard, 2Lt Eric Thompson and 2Lt Keith Williamson also went MIA. Their bodies were also never recovered.
These four people became known as the Ebo 4 after AO Rowley Medlin, a retired professional soldier, did some research and through the assistance of a guy in Angola managed to track down the graves while reconnoitring the area. This happened during 2006.
Since then we have been trying to obtain permission to exhume the remains and bring the Ebo 4 back to SA and give them a place of rest here on home soil. Our efforts received some assistance when Jacob Zuma visited Angola and him and his Angolan counterpart in principal agreed that this could happen. They would give their various departments instruction to make it happen.
Finally during March of 2012 we received such permission from the Angolan government and a plan was put in place. We hired a Namibian tour operator who would travel up from Swakopmund and provide the logistics while a team of professionals and others would fly from SA, drive to Ebo province and commence with exhuming the remains. This team consisted of Prof Maryna Steyn, Prof Willem Boshoff, Coen Nienaber, Genl Gert Opperman, chairman of the Ebo trust, Martin Thompson, brother of Eric Thompson and Leon Lombard, brother of Niel Lombard.
The dates were set for 5 – 16 May 2012.
We arrived in Luanda on 6 May and started the journey down to Ebo province, a distance of some 450 km’s which saw us arriving in Ebo around 11:00 pm on 6 May.
Our logistics team had prepared a wonderful campsite with sleeping quarters, diner tent and shower/ablution facilities, so after a quick meal we went to bed to be ready to commence proceedings early on 7 May.
The next morning around the breakfast table it was decided to focus on the grave containing the remains of the 3 guys who died in the aircraft crash as the grave was clearly marked and once we have made significant progress there, we would move to the site where Niel was reportedly buried
Many pieces of aeroplane wreckage marked the spot so with lots of sifting we discovered more and more pieces, some significant, others just burnt pieces of aeroplane structure. At a depth of +-20 centimetres we could clearly define the grave well or graf put in Afrikaans as there was a noticeable difference between the ground structure and one could clearly identify where the soil has previously been disturbed. We focused on the soft soil and started removing the ground in layers of +-30 mm at a time, all the while carefully scanning the upturned soil for any signs of bones. At a depth of +-50 60 cms the pick suddenly uncovered part of a human skull. The process of digging with a pick was immediately abandoned and was continued using small shuffles. This was around 11am on Monday.
Genl Opperman and Andre of our logistics team had in the meantime gone to the town of Ebo to have discussions with the local authority. They have send us a shopping list during the week prior to our departure requesting various items including goats, chickens, blankets, a few cases of wine and U$ 3000.00. As we have refused this request he had to explain the reasons why and come to some sort of agreement for all parties.
We informed Andre via 2way radio of our discovery at the gravesite, something which had the entire team very excited. Andre came back with the news that they have come to some agreement with the local authorities, but that we should cover all the bones, etc as they wanted to come and conduct a traditional ceremony at the site.
That afternoon a group of delegates arrived and a traditional ceremony was held at the site. This involved some speech, chewing on what looked like a piece of stick and spitting it in various directions, biting the toe nail off a live chicken and pouring some wine onto the ground on the four sides where the grave was supposed to be.
Thereafter we moved to the site where Niel was reportedly buried and the process repeated – the hapless chicken loosing yet another piece of toe and bleeding profusely. We were then allowed to continue.
As all this took quite a while we retired back to our campsite and enjoyed an evening of chit chatting over the events of the day, all in high spirits as we had made phenomenal progress. Our team of professionals advised they had only expected to make a discovery by Wednesday, so we were well ahead of schedule.
After we left the first site to conduct the ceremony at Niel’s site, part of the team continued with the removal of the soil and managed to uncover quite a bit a skeleton, including the dentures of Capt Taljaard, still in perfect condition. He was the only member of the Ebo 4 who according to his dental records had artificial teeth.
On Tuesday morning we split the team with Maryna, Willem and Martin continuing to uncover grave one while Koen, Genl Opperman and I moved to Niel’s grave to start the search. The locals had indicated three possible sites and as we arrived there the guys we had hired to assist with the digging were busy digging serious trenches, totally opposite to the careful process we had to follow to uncover the grave well. We quickly interrupted their digging and after much explanation managed to set about doing it the professional way. On the three sites we were digging we were soon able to distinguish two areas where the soil was noticeably softer that the surrounding soil and started concentrating on that.
At 11 am a man arrived and informed us that we had to halt procedures under instruction of the police as there was some problem. We were instructed to leave the site immediately and return to our campsite.
While we were still arguing this, a police vehicle arrived and armed men assured we left immediately. We had to go to the site of the other grave as the Police wanted us to cover the remains that were already uncovered.
At the other site the team had made significant progress and had uncovered three clearly defined skeletons. Prof Maryna was able to show the position of every one of the three bodies and point out the major parts of the human anatomy.
However the accompanying Police and members of the local authority insisted we had to cover the grave. As we were unwilling, two locals set about doing this. We interrupted as dumping two tons of soil on those brittle bones would destroy most if not everything we had uncovered so meticulously. We placed pieces of the aircraft in between the bones to act as some sort of support, before we covered everything with white linen and then carefully poured a layer of sand of it all. Once we were happy that all was covered they continued to pour all the sand back onto the grave.
We were unsure as to why this had to happen but was escorted back to our campsite where a Police commandant and an army Lt Colonel awaited us. General Opperman sat down and started talks with them to try and understand what the problem was. According to the Police commandant we had no permission to exhume the remains and had to return to Luanda to obtain such permissions. Genl Opperman showed them our letter but as it turned out the Minister of Internal affairs was not informed by the Minister of Health, Minister of Police and other departments who initially gave permission and this guys had stopped it all.
We argued that there was no need for all of us to go to Luanda, surely only General Opperman could go to take care of this formality. In the end they agreed that three members of the logistics team could stay behind to take care of their camping equipment and food while the rest of us returned to Luanda. We were stuck with no transport as we had been dropped off in Ebo and were to be picked up on 14 May, while the logistics team has two land cruisers, not suited to transport all of us.
General Opperman was also informed that a meeting were to be held the next day where all government departments concerned would meet and the necessary permissions given via a letter.
We went to bed unsure as to what was going to happen, but hoping that someone, somewhere might realise the mistake and instruct us to continue uninterrupted. At 12:15 am our sleep was suddenly interrupted by sirens and vehicles and several armed Policeman “politely” instructed us to pack our goods and get into the back of a police land cruiser.
By 01:15 we had all packed and we along with all the members of the logistics team, escorted by another police vehicle left for Luanda. The Police commandant promised that nothing will happen to the camp and if need be he would personally sleep on site to ensure that nothing was stolen. What followed was a 10 hour ordeal which we were not quite prepared for. Fortunately every time Prof Maryna, as a female, insisted that we take a break, we could stop and stretch our legs and take a relief break.
Our escort could not answer us as to where we were being taken, but as the day progressed and a few phone calls later they informed us that we were to be delivered at the SA Embassy in Luanda. In Luanda after a mad dash through the worst traffic I had ever seen we drove around aimlessly until we were well and truly sick and tired of it all. Our escort claimed that the SA Embassy had moved and no one knew where the new location was. We eventually stopped at the Police HQ and the lieutenant who accompanied us disappeared into the building. We left without him and drove around for another hour before we stopped at Police HQ once again. Now we were well and truly on the edge as it were already past 1 pm and we have not had anything to eat or drink since we left our campsite earlier that day.
Our lieutenant arrived and informed us that he was waiting for a letter that would state that we were all in good health. We sat outside the building in the blazing sun and eventually after 2pm he came out the building and announced that all was in order and that we could leave. This time another Police vehicle escorted us as we dashed through stationery traffic at speeds of up to 100 km’s/hour with the two Namibians desperately following us in their cruisers. The fact that none of them struck another vehicle was nothing sort of a miracle. Just before 3pm we arrived at the SA embassy where we were met by officials standing outside a building and the inside stacked with several boxes. Yes they had definitely moved. Our police escort left as quickly as they had arrived 13 hours earlier.
Mr Mokoenya was unaware of our visit to Angola as he, according to his own admission, had been without e-mail or telephone for the past two weeks and had not received any communication about our proposed visit. We expressed our dismay at how we had been treated which he repeated after adding the well as you eeee know and at the end of the day parts which has become so part of diplomatic speech these days.
The meeting between government departments never happened and this was now moved to Thursday. We soon realised we were getting nowhere so we decided to move to Kabu Lebo, a little village south of Luanda where we could wait till this meeting had happened and the necessary permissions given.
The Namibia team decided to leave for Ebo on Thursday morning as they had to secure their camping equipment and was worried that the fridge might be down and all the meat/wet rations go to waste.
Needless to say by Thursday evening the meeting had still not taken place but Genl Opperman, having spent most of the day on the phone had now involved the Angolan Ambassador in SA as well as Genl Ngwenya, the SA Ambassador in Angola. SABC reporter, Danie Hefer, who accompanied us to document and film the whole process for Folus wanted to know what was happening next, so we decided to get the media involved maybe something on the news back in SA could spark some reaction from the Angolan government. SABC 2 news interviewed Gen Opperman telephonically and was to broadcast this on the 7 pm news but that never happened.
On Friday Genl Ngwenya started talking of the meeting possibly scheduled for Tuesday or even Wednesday, so it became abundantly clear that someone was trying their utmost to delay the process for as long as possible so that we would run out of time. Our logistics team, who had in the meantime reached Ebo reported back that the fridge had been opened, all the meat stolen along with blankets, dry rations and other goods.
All this bad needs left us in a very low morale so we instructed the log team to pack and leave for Namibia while we would return to Luanda and arrange for an earlier departure. We moved to Omega house, a SA owned Security Company based in Angola who assisted us with making the necessary arrangements for an earlier departure – we were set to fly back to SA on Saturday 12 May, three days ahead of schedule. Mission unaccomplished.
No matter how much thought I give the events of the past week I fail to understand why we were so abruptly stopped and prevented from achieving our goal. It became clear with all the Angolans we interacted that bribery and corruption formed a major part of the society surely General Copalito who is the main instigator is not expecting a back hand from us for giving the permission to continue?
We paid the local authority U$750 and we bought goats and chickens, wine, blankets and linen, surely they didn’t want more?
Well now I am safely back home left disillusioned, feeling helpless with cropped up aggression and not sure what the road ahead will require nor whether I should continue in my quest to get my brothers remains back to SA.
We have a commemoration ceremony planned for 3 June during which we would have placed the remains of the Ebo 4 in the Wall of Remembrance at the Voortrekker monument. The Deputy President as well as the Angolan Ambassador was to be present at this event, along with the families of the Ebo 4, some flying form as far as Canada.
Now all we have to show is photos and footage of something that was so close and yet so far. Danie Hefer, SABC 2, Fokus, said the documentary will be broadcast on SABC 2 on Sunday evening 27 May.