The unknown hero: A soldier's story
Three decades ago Tony Batista was a soldier in the Angolan bush war. On a small dusty airstrip in Ondjiva, near the Angolan border, something happened. This is the story of that remarkable day when Batista met a true war hero. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Tony Batista is turning 50 this year, and is taking a sabbatical. But unlike most people who go on a journey or learn a new skill, Batista is looking for the people who changed his life. Batista and I are talking about the atrocities of war, about the evil that people do in wars when he looks up, takes a long pause and says: “I don’t want to talk about other people’s stories. I don’t want to talk about what I have seen. I have my own story that I must come to terms with, which is a large part of what I am doing now. There are people I need to thank. There are people I need to reward, and there are certain people…”
There’s a longish pause. Batista looks down at the table and then he says: “There are people I need forgiveness from.”
A Portuguese national who came to live in South Africa, Batista is telling the story of the only man he met in the Angolan bush war that he considers a hero. “This story is about this guy and how he literally saved my life.”
Batista was 18 when he went into the South African Defence Force at the end of June 1980. “I had just turned 18, and at that stage it was all an adventure. I didn’t have to go to the army and ended up volunteering by accident.”
As a boy all Batista had ever wanted to do was fly aeroplanes. He wanted to be a pilot. “I signed up for the army because I was told by my school principal: ‘Join the army. In two years they will teach you everything you need to know and by the time you come out flying will have been a part of your training.’ I put my name down, but once your name’s down, it is down. Once you got your military number that was you in those days,” Batista says.
Once committed lock, stock and two smoking barrels, Batista discovered that if he wanted to be a pilot he had to become a South African citizen and enlist for 10 years. Not exactly what he had in mind. Batista travelled to Upington where he bumped into the Parabats – as the SADF’s parachute battalion were called. “I thought: ‘perfect – that’s at least close to what I wanted to do – airplanes and jumping out of them with parachutes’.”
Batista signed up, went through the harrowing course, and passed to become a Parabat.
I ask Batista if he remembers his feelings going into the army. “It is quite amazing – when you go in and how your feelings change,” he answers. “You are so malleable. I think that’s why the military catches people at such a young age. At 18 you are a canvas, and they can do whatever they want and distort your reality. Without being pretentious I think of myself as a deep thinker. When I went in I was reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It wasn’t like I was an idiot, but I still went in with my eyes totally closed.
“Crime and Punishment is an interesting book for a person to read before going off to fight what in retrospect was an unjust war. Fyodor Dostoevsky's moral dilemma of a novel asks difficult questions about ethics of justice and crime: it is the story of a student who commits a murder, thinking that he is more worthy and useful than the person whom he has murdered - nothing more than a crazy old hag.
“After the act the psychological process of the crime unfolds. Questions which he cannot resolve well up in the murderer, feelings he had not foreseen or suspected torment his heart. God's truth and earthly law take their toll, and he feels forced at last to give himself up. He is forced even if it means dying in prison, so that he may once again be part of the people. The feeling of separation and isolation from mankind, nature, and the law of truth take their toll. The criminal decides to accept suffering so as to redeem his deed,” Dostoevsky once wrote in a note trying to explain the book.
Batista, on the other hand, is explaining how he found himself in the Angolan bush war. “Being brought up in South Africa with apartheid you have such a limited scope of the world and of people. You know about apartheid, but you’re encapsulated in your own little society, so you never see the harsh side of life, although you know it is there,” says Batista, adding: “But then you go into the army. The interesting thing about the army is that it literally turns you into a monster. There is no other word for it but a monster. An absolute monster.”
For a brief moment Batista talks off the record about the atrocities he’s seen in war. But he wants to tell his own story. “Others have their own stories they need to tell,” says Batista saying that he will only tell the tale that belongs to him – and is his to tell. Others will have to make their own peace, he says.
Before he went to the border, the unit he was in had managed to kill three of our own. “Three other guys lost their legs. Being a paratrooper we would jump into a place called De Brug, outside Bloemfontein. That’s also where we had our munitions training, and part of this training was mortar training.”
A mortar, for those who don’t know, is a short-range projectile which is fairly simple to operate. It has a base with fins, a body and a tapered head. You turn the mortar on by twisting its head from a safety to an “on” position. The mortar – essentially a purpose- designed bomb – is then loaded into a tube and fired.
Batista and his battalion did a parachute jump at De Brug, where one of the crew found a mortar that had been shot off, but was unexploded. It had been left on “safe”. The soldier brought the mortar back to camp with him.
“I had been at lunch and was walking back to my bungalow when I heard an explosion. But we were on a site adjacent to armoured cars and things like that, so hearing an explosion was commonplace.” What happened next, Batista says, affected him deeply. “Up to this stage it was just like Cowboys and Indians, it was just games. Even though there were guns and RPG7s and they were incredibly dangerous weapons, to us it was all a game.”
But that day at De Brug changed all that. “I approached my bungalow and someone was throwing something burning out the window. I thought: ‘Oh. There’s a fire. Let me rush in and help.’ As I ran in through the door I slipped. I skidded through a pool of blood and landed on a youngster who had lost both legs. Both of his legs had been blown off,” Batista says.
“I landed on top of him and all I remember is his face and that he was saying: ‘Help me. Help me.’ After that I remember standing up, being covered in blood, and going to the door. I stood with my head against the door after seeing the carnage around me. There was no good I could do that day. I remember looking around and seeing legs and blood. It was devastating.”
What had happened was this. The soldier who found the mortar brought it back to the base. He and five other guys were in the bungalow looking at the mortar, when the soldier who was holding it turned the mortar head to “fire”. Apparently as he did that he said: ‘If I drop this will it explode?’ The six soldiers were arguing about what would happen when the mortar dropped to the floor.
“All the guys standing around the mortar lost their legs and three guys got killed. One guy who got killed was a South African champion boxer. He was lying on his bed reading the Bible and a piece of shrapnel went into his lungs and killed him,” says Batista, who says that the wounded were rushed off to hospital, but there were no doctors on duty. As the bodies and legs were carried in the nurses took fright and ran away.
“That event had such a profound effect on me. I can’t remember how long I stood against that door. And then the guys came to me and said I should go to hospital because I was in shock. I kept saying: ‘No. I wasn’t even here.’ By the time I got to the border I already knew what war was about,” explains Batista.
“I was in Echo Company but at that stage they called us Evil Echo because the people in that company were a naughty bunch…However, I wouldn’t say we were evil.”
Batista went to the border of what was then South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola. He was based in Ondangwa Air Base, and was part of a group called Fire Force. “The guys used to call us Seek and Slaughter, because we would go in with helicopters to where the danger spots were and do whatever was necessary. Otherwise we would go in on patrols and that sort of thing,” he says.
“We did go in to Angola on an extended stay at some stage, which is where the story I want to tell you takes place. You see a lot of things and you start to question a lot.” Certainly by then Batista was questioning what makes a hero.
“It is so easy to do what is expected of you. And what is expected of you is cruel, calculating and cold. But to go against that dictate and to be in touch with something else inside of you, that is really special.” The entire machination of the SADF was designed to get young soldiers and reprogramme them so they would not question, so that they would anonymise ‘the enemy’, and so that killing became justified.
“My problem came in because I was Portuguese. I got to see a little bit more, I got to know a little bit more.” Batista was what was known as a "tolk”, which meant he could speak the same language as a lot of people in Angola. “It is fine to look at someone and pretend he is a monster, but when you can speak to him and he tells you that he has two daughters, it makes it so much more painful. If you and he share a joke in the same language he no longer becomes the enemy. Or he is the enemy, but he is also human,” Batista says.
Batista had to translate in the case of one captive who had children. “This person told me about his two daughters…” Here Batista trails off, as if lost in memory. “I was asked by a major who could see I was getting a little bit friendly with this man if I could shoot him. Why this major asked me this I don’t know, perhaps he was testing me. My response was ‘no’, which didn’t make the major very happy.”
Photos, clockwise from top: (1) Tony Baptista in the Angolan Bush War. "I had just turned 18, and at that stage it was all an adventure. I didn’t have to go to the army and ended up volunteering by accident," he says. (2) Hughes HH-3E Giant helicopter (3) Tony Baptista today - irrevocably changed by the Angolan Bush War.
Batista says friends who saw his file at the SADF in Pretoria said it was very thick. “I had a lot of run-ins with the Parabats when I was up there. I used to question things a bit too much.”
Batista could also read the Angolan newspapers that were found. “They showed South African soldiers with sharp teeth, stepping on children. The newspapers would have these cartoons in with writing,” he says.
And then there was the man with two daughters that Batista’s group had taken captive. “I said to him in Portuguese: ‘Why are you fighting this war?’ And he said to me: ‘You are in my country, two countries away from yours, and you are asking me why I am fighting this war? Why are you here?’” I had no answer to give that man,” Batista says.
Batista had been in Angola on patrol for over 50 days, between the Kunene River and Ondjiva in Angola. “By this time I had such conflicting emotions in me. I didn’t know who I was, or who God was,” says Batista, who explains that if you start to think about what is good and what is evil, and what is right and what is wrong, and you can’t place yourself on the right axis, it creates immense pain and confusion.
“The danger of being a good soldier is that you don’t think, and you never question. Of course the most dangerous thing you can do as a soldier is to question – not only for your military career – but to survive a war. Mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically, everything revolves around you not questioning. Because if you do, you start to have doubts - and doubt is the most powerfully destructive force in that situation,” Batista says explaining that chaplains would be on hand after missions to justify to soldiers what had happened in ‘religious’ terms.
It was February 1982, and Batista had been in the army for just over 18 months. He and the guys he were with were “ou manne” (old hands), they had seen too much and doubt was beginning to eat away at them. “When you first get up there, you are the best fighter because you are green and you just want to do what you have been told. After you have seen a few things you tend to slow down a lot more.”
Batista was questioning life, death, God and the essence of what it was to be a hero. “I was with Echo Company, there were 80 of us camped around the air base in Ondjiva when I was called to the terminal building.”
The “tolk” walked into the old building pockmarked with bullet holes. Inside was an Angolan woman and a child who was between eight and 10. The boy was lying on a table. “There was a doctor who had been with us in Angola, a radio operator and a commander – his name was Lieutenant Steyn. It was about 10 or 11 in the morning.”
The doctor turned to Batista and instructed him to ask the mother what happened to her child. “Now bear in mind that the Angolans saw people from the SADF as monsters, so for a mother to bring her child into a situation where so many of us camped around the airbase to secure it, must have been terrifying. But of course when your child is dying you will do anything,” Batista says, adding that the woman looked terrified. The child had his shirt off, and there was a hole in his side. The child was battling to breathe.
“The mother said that a whole lot of kids had found a hand grenade, and that one kid had thrown the hand grenade and it went off. Her son was hit by a piece of shrapnel, which had gone into his lungs. She knew she had to do something, and so she had to come into the ‘lion’s den’ so to speak,” he says remembering that fateful day.
“The doctor told me to tell her that everything possible would be done to save her son. The doctor was one of those fantastic people, a person to admire. If I remember correctly, by the time we came out of the bush a month later he had been killed in a casevac (casualty evacuation),” Batista says.
The doctor wanted to get a helicopter for the injured young child. “The radio operator radioed in, and the first thing the person on the other side wanted to know was who the injured was. Was it a soldier, was it one of ours? The response was that it was a black kid who had been injured, who was nine years old and had shrapnel in his lung.”
The doctor was talking to Batista, who was speaking to the child’s mother and was trying to comfort her. “I was saying: ‘I know how difficult it must have been for you to do this. I am glad you came, it was so important. Well done. I know it was difficult but trust me your child is in good hands. We will do everything to save your child’s life’,” Batista relates.
Batista asked the doctor if the child was in danger, and the doctor said no, as long as the child was taken to Ondangwa base for treatment. “The mother was looking at me like I was God. It is not what you want. It is scary because you have so much power in that point in time. She was totally putting her faith in our hands.”
His voice getting softer, Batista says: “We kept radioing in to Ondangwa airbase – a big airbase where all the mirages, helicopters and pilots were. We were about 100 or 120km away from Ondangwa. Time was passing and the doctor started screaming over the radio to Ondangwa saying: “Where the fuck is the helicopter. Are we getting a casevac?” The response was that they were speaking to their superiors,” he says.
Flying in helicopters involved a certain amount of danger, and those in command at Ondangwa were waiting for higher authorities to take the decision. “Obviously the question that they were debating was whether it was worth the risk of helicopter and crew to save a small black child’s life.”
It was approaching four in the afternoon and the child’s lungs were filling up with blood. Eventually the doctor had to do a tracheotomy. “The doctor cut the child’s neck open and popped in a tube so the child could breathe. It was really awful to see the mother sit there and watch this, but I tried to pacify her by telling her the helicopter was on its way.”
But by now Batista had been telling the mother that the helicopter was on its way for quite a few hours. “At about five when it started getting dark, word came through that they were not going to send a helicopter through. Obviously those in power had decided that the child’s life was not worth saving. It was obviously because he was a black child, because he was an Angolan.”
“I remember being devastated and so, so angry. The doctor told me to tell the mother the helicopter wasn’t coming, but I couldn’t. I asked the doctor if the child would make it through the night to morning. The doctor said no. There was no way the child would survive the night.”
Every time the mother looked at Batista she smiled. Obviously the group was speaking English and the mother could only speak Portuguese so she didn’t understand. “She smiled but it wasn’t a smile that showed she was happy. It was a begging, beseeching smile. It was more like that pleading grin you put on your face when you’re desperate,” Batista remembers.
Eventually the situation was so traumatic for Batista that he walked out into the night. He says he remembers to this day the feeling he felt at the time.
“I felt the utmost hate. I detested God to a point where I had walked outside on the runway. Twilight had gone and it was already dark by then and I remember shouting: ‘Fuck you God.’ Over and over. It was all I could think of. ‘Fuck you God. Fuck you God. You are such a cruel, cruel inhuman beast’.”
Batista was on the runway and had still not said anything to the mother about the choppers not coming in. He had walked out the room and was going down the runway. “I was screaming and looking up at the night sky, when a light came on in the sky.”
“I was blown away. This light came on and to this day it is the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me. I was staring at this light, and as it came towards me and I saw it was a helicopter,” says Batista.
The helicopter landed and a man jumped out with nothing but shorts on. He had flown a Giant Helicopter in. “I remember saying: ‘I thought you guys weren’t coming.’ And he said that he had two little kids at home’.”
Back in Ondangwa the pilots had been clustered around the radio hut, near the pool. It was a Saturday and they were relaxing. They heard the urgent calls come in, again and again. The pilots wanted to do something to help, but those in charge refused.
Eventually a member of the permanent force who had been sitting near the radio hut, listening to the pleas for help, couldn’t bear it any more. He got up, walked to the airfield, got in a Giant and flew off just as the sun started to set.
“That this man flew a Giant all on his own is the most incredible thing. You are supposed to have three people to fly a Giant - it is a big thing. That he found us in the dark was the most amazing thing.”
The man took the child, the mother and the doctor into the chopper and flew them back to Ondangwa where they could get medical help. “After that, the only information I could get was that this man was from what was then known as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The authorities hadn’t put him in jail, although they wanted to. He was given a dishonourable discharge. He was in the permanent force, and the army was his livelihood, but he got kicked out with total dishonour,” says Batista.
There is a small silence, and then Batista says: “That man was a hero. He saved two lives on that day. In that moment he saved my life. I am not talking about the physical – but that moment in time has changed me so profoundly. Mentally and spiritually it has changed me forever.”
A light came on in Batista’s life that day. A moment of truth and beauty in a war that made him who he is today.
“In that terrible war he - to me - was the one true hero. I would love to find out who he is, to thank him and to meet him. I never saw the pilot again, but I think of him so very often.”
And so Batista gets up to begin his unique sabbatical. One in which he intends finding the people he needs to ask forgiveness from, others he wants to thank or reward. But his big hope is to find the only true war hero he’s ever met - the one who saved his life. DM
Editor’s note: If you know – or know of - any of the people Tony Batista is looking for, please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main Photo: Tony Baptista, formerly of Echo Company (aka Evil Echo) in the Angolan Bush War. Today, he is looking for a hero - an unnamed Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) permanent force helicopter pilot who saved more than