I PLAYED DEAD! ... story of a war heroine

By Theresia Tjihenuna
March 2013
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She still recalls when a Koevoet soldier kicked her to confirm whether or not she was dead, as she played dead in a pool of blood. Had she not faked her death, Commissioner Hilma Taatsu Tweya would probably be history.

Tweya, who is the first female deputy regional commander of the Namibian Police (Nampol), has a lot to be grateful for. After being spared from a deadly massacre that killed thousands at the Swapo Vietnam Camp in Angola, she has visible scars on her back to remind her of the events of 4 May 1978 - also the day of the Cassinga Massacre. Her scars were inflicted by passing grenades and hails of bullets during the attack.

Today, the 51-year-old iron lady who hails from Omusati Region, has become very instrumental in the development of independent Namibia by promoting women empowerment. Not only does she do this at Nampol but she also tackles gender-associated issues as a board member of the Women’s Action for Development Association (WAD), among others.

Her journey began in February 1978 when she, along with four of her fellow female friends, decided to escape into Swapo’s Vietnam Camp in Angola to join the liberation struggle. Tweya was then a 17-year-old learner at Okahao Secondary School.

“At the camp, we were divided into different groups of specialised fields and given training on how to use firearms. I was in the communication inventory group,” she recounts.

Barely four months after settling in the refugee camp, Tweya recalls the fateful afternoon that changed her life forever: “We were queueing for lunch in front of the common kitchen when we heard the sound of military aircrafts above us.”

It never crossed her mind that it could be an attack from the South African Defence Force (SADF) but chaos would ensue a few seconds later following a loud bomb explosion.

“Our camp commander, Nakada, ordered everyone to run for cover at a nearby trench. People began running in different directions because the entire place was engulfed in dust and we could barely see. It was chaotic, people were screaming and panicking,” she narrates.

While running for cover, Tweya remembers stumbling upon a friend, Nangula Imene, who had been one of her companions when they travelled from Namibia.

“I saw her lying on the ground amidst the chaos. I tried calling on her to get up so we could escape, only to realise she was dead,” she relates.

According to Tweya, the SADF infantry was on foot with machine guns, randomly firing at the panicked crowd of refugees. Tweya and a dozen others ran a few miles to the nearest traditional homesteads where they tried to climb over a traditional fence.

“We got there only to discover that the infantry was actually coming from the same direction we were headed,” she says.

The foot soldiers were throwing grenades at the crowd. Bullets flew past her. Miraculously, not a single one hit her.

“Only the grenade particles landed on me, which explains the scars I have on my back today,” she says, adding, “While most people attempted to climb the fence, I found it safer to crawl beneath the fence so I wouldn’t be an easy target for the bullets.”

Her plan worked but only for a few minutes for she was soon trapped underneath a ton of dead bodies that had just been shot while attempting to climb the fence.

“Although their blood dripped on me, I had to play dead to survive,” she says.

That evening at dusk when there was no longer a sound of a scream or a gunshot, Tweya attempted to escape; “I slowly crawled out from underneath the bodies. Then I screened the place as fast as I could for any sight of the SADF soldiers.

“As soon as I heard footsteps, I buried my face in the soil and went back to playing dead with one eye open,” she laughs, adding, “It may be funny now but it wasn’t then.”

The movements she heard were of the Koevoet soldiers who were screening the place to make sure everyone was dead while finishing off those who were not.

“As they approached, one of them stood next to my supposed ‘dead body’ and then kicked my hand to see if I was alive or dead. The next thing I knew was him shouting: “Hierdie junne is nog lewende! (This one is still alive!),” she narrates, adding, “Thank God I did not panic and continued playing dead until a black Koevoet soldier told him to ignore me because I was probably already dead since I was covered in blood.”

Tweya recalls noticing an elderly lady called Katjomie from Ombalantu, northwest of Oshakati, also pretending to be dead just a few metres from where she lay.

“The soldiers tried to gauge some reaction from Katjomie by urinating in her mouth but she continued playing dead and swallowed the urine,” Tweya recounts.

“I could hear them radioing their military commander to report that we were all dead,” she adds.

Tweya continued to lie in the same position until the wee hours of the morning. As soon as she learnt that the infantry had left, she woke up surrounded by dead bodies. She crawled to where the elderly lady was and together, they made a speedy escape.

“We walked barefoot among sticks and thorns and my clothes got torn. Because it was winter, I caught a fever from the cold and suffered from hypothermia. My companion gave me her military vest to keep me warm and together, we dragged ourselves to an abandoned house in southern Angola where we helped ourselves to some watermelons after the long journey,” she recounts further.

“It was a harvest season, so we crushed a few giant watermelons and began washing off the blood clots from our bodies with the watermelon juice,” she says, adding, “The same watermelon juice we used to clean up, was the same juice we drank to quench our thirst. It tasted of blood but that was the least of our worries at that moment.”

It was not long before Tweya received the medical care she urgently needed at Ondjiva Hospital where she would be hospitalised for two weeks.

“I was then taken to Hainyeko Training Centre for military training, before going for an intelligence course conducted by the Cuban military for nine months between Lubango and Luanda,” she says.

Shortly after their course, Tweya and two other women, Monica Nashandi and Martha Kamati, were sent to the north-eastern warfront as the spies of the Okatale ko Ngwe between Namibia and Angola.

“Unfortunately, our intended mission never came to fruition because word spread through the local news bulletin about it. So we had to immediately return to our regional quarter because we were no longer safe,” she recalls, adding, she and her three former colleagues were the first ever fully-trained Namibian, female spies.

In 1981, the regional office at Okatale ko Ngwe was attacked by the South African army and Tweya found herself running for dear life once more while being chased by helicopters, jets and planes.

Tweya and a few others escaped to a place called Uukanghali Waanyanga from where they were transported to Lubango. There, she attended the Education Centre. “My mathematics and English teacher was David Namwandi; the current Education Deputy Minister,” she submits.

The same year, Tweya was sent to Moshi, Tanzania, for a two-year police-basic training, before furthering her studies in Dar-es-Salaam. She later returned to Angola to work in the Martial Court as a personal assistant (PA) to Commissioner Elias Haulyondjamba until independence.

Shortly after independence, Tweya undertook different positions within Nampol departments including station commander at the A-station in Wanaheda Police Station where she was later promoted to deputy regional commander for Khomas Region.

“In 2010, I was transferred to the national police headquarters and then promoted to the rank of full commissioner under the human resources (HR) department,” she recounts.

Some of her responsibilities now include overseeing that gender balance is maintained at all times; she deals with employee psycho-social problems and sees to it that all Nampol members are equally treated.

“I also promote the health of Nampol members through the rolling out of HIV/Aids awareness campaigns,” she says.

Not only does Tweya serve in the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Tribunal Hearing Board, which is responsible for deporting illegal immigrants but she is also a member of the Southern African Regional Police Chief Co-operation Organisation (SARPCCO), through which she represents the Namibian Police Women’s Network.

The role of women in Nampol, Tweya says, has changed since independence: “There were very few women in the police force back then. They were never given senior positions but things have since shifted in our favour. We are beginning to see more female station commanders, regional crime co-ordinators and heads of directorates in various police divisions around the country,” she enthuses.

Since her appointment as the first female deputy police commissioner, two more female commissioners have since followed suit, including Telephina Kamati and Anne-Marie Goagoses [who became the first female regional commander in 2007].

Nampol currently has nine female deputy commissioners and countless female chief officers. Tweya commends this as a step in the right direction and hopes the number increases in other currently male-dominated workplaces as well. PF