Monday, September 21, 2020

A soldier of fortune

There’s a memorable black and white picture shot from the 1998 Lesotho Peace Keeping Operation that was splashed on the pages of international newspapers: A column of armored cars is rolling down the streets of Maseru, sandwiched by a throng of smiling civilians waving at a contingent of soldiers propped atop bonnets with machine guns slung over their shoulders. The caption at the foot of the picture reads something like: “Lesotho civilians cheering at a Botswana Defence Force peace keeping army.”

It is 4th July 2007; almost 10 years to the day Brigadier Thulaganyo Masisi commanded the BDF contingent on the Lesotho peace keeping mission. The battle hardened soldier leans back against the swivel chair in his spacious office and raises his eyes to the ceiling as he recalls details of the mission which came to be known as “Operation Boleas”.

Curiously, a lot had happened between the time the BDF contingent marched into Lesotho alongside their South African counterparts and the day the pictures were shot. At least 70 people, among them 10 South African Defence Force solders, were killed in skirmishes with the Lesotho Defence Force rebels and 4,000 civilians displaced from their homes. While the capital was being looted, SADF army troops joined in, filling their vehicles with various goods to take back to South Africa. Hundreds of mothers marched in Maseru condemning South African soldiers who allegedly raped young women and used excessive force on civilians.

It is perhaps a testimony to Brigadier Masisi’s credentials as a peace keeping operative that his contingent did not suffer a single casualty and his charges left the tiny mountain kingdom cheered as heroes.

Masisi, however, will not discuss the messy details of Operation Boales. Instead he chooses to put a diplomatic spin to the whole operation as he explains that “we made plans but the plans kept on changing because of Lesotho’s political crisis. To get a clear picture of the situation in Lesotho, we moved to Bloemfontein and appointed some agents in Lesotho to update us on the situation there. My troops from Gaborone waited in Pitsane and were given the green light on the 27th of August. On the 28th at 04:15 am they went through the bridge of Maseru and secured the parliament and ministers home. Our main aim at Lesotho was to disarm and contain the Lesotho Defence Force.

“Many South Africans were being killed; the situation became very tense. We counseled our troops so that they did not get carried away and lose hope. A lot of damage was done in Maseru at Maponyane Barracks where perpetrators were shooting from.”

International military strategists, however, suggest that the Lesotho Peace Keeping Operation turned messy because of one major tactical blunder: An undisciplined South African Defence Force contingent who had no experience in peace keeping operations was allowed to lead Operation Boleas while BDF soldiers with all their experience followed.

“There appears to be substantial evidence that the decision to send troops to Lesotho marked a sea change by the South African government which, after failing to persuade the quarreling parties to sit down and talk to each other, suddenly called upon the SANDF to intervene in the mountain kingdom. This left the SANDF without a proper contingency plan, especially in light of vagueness and uncertainty concerning the ambit of South Africa’s foreign policy framework for peace enforcement.

Moreover, SANDF units were not fully combat-ready, as time was too short for proper planning, preparing deployment drills and rehearsals by the units involved. In addition, stock-level planning for operational reserves was not properly done, resulting in a strain on supplies” observed the South African Centre for Strategic Studies.

Brigadier Masisi, however, is not one to blow his trumpet. For example, this is how he down plays his heroic exploits during the 2002 Somali Peace Keeping Operation:”On the 17th of March 2003 our mission ended and we came back home. We were considered lucky as we did not lose any of our men.”

This is hardly the chest beating rant of a man who wants to be seen as a war hero who survived a blood bath, far from it.

Consider these memorable images from the Somali Peace Keeping Operation captured in Black Hawk Down, a fact-based Hollywood war movie. Black Hawk Down takes place in 24 hours in Somalia in October 1993 and closely adheres to the facts of the military disaster comparable in impact and heroism, if not in scale, to Balaclava or Dunkirk. From a secure airport base outside of the city, the United States blue berets decide to send a party of Rangers and Delta commandos into a hostile section of Mogadishu to kidnap two lieutenants of the notorious warlord Mohammad Aidid.

In the movie, we see the troops prepare for the attack in the morning, then go off on what proves a doomed mission, the Americans depending on an unreliable informer and the enemy having received advance intelligence. After two Black Hawk helicopters are brought down in the streets, a desperate battle for survival ensues, and the commanding general (Sam Shepard) can only stand by looking at monitor screens as a massive, well-armed and semi-suicidal militia surround his troops. They’re following their code of never leaving a comrade or his corpse on the battlefield and the final death toll of 18 dead and 73 injured (two of them stripped and dragged through the streets, though we’re spared the full sight of this). In one macabre shot, a Ranger picks up a buddy’s severed hand, a watch still ticking on the wrist, and puts it in a pouch.

Botswana Defence Force blue berets were by no means shielded from the gory goings on of war torn Somalia. Brigadier Masisi remembers one incident when a brave Somali warrior armed with an AK47 stood his ground against a knot of US soldiers “armed with machine guns which were capable of ripping his body apart. “I came from behind the Americans to see how they were going to rip him apart.”

Brigadier Masisi remembers the man’s body parts piling on top of each other at the rat-tat-tat of American machine guns, “and to my dismay, a young boy aged between twelve and sixteen came running, picked up the AK47 rifle and disappeared into thin air.”

These were everyday scenes from the front and it is perhaps thanks to Brigadier Masisi’s capability as a contingent commander that Botswana did not suffer a single casualty, let alone being caught out in a “Black Hawk Down” scenario.

Despite all his candidness, Brigadier Masisi is however quick to point out that “there is no comfort during peacekeeping operations that I have to admit. Eating is an honour, brushing your teeth is a privilege and bathing I can not say.”

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