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S. African 'Mercenary Village' Waits For Sons' Return From Zimbabwe Jail - 2004-10-08

The dusty South African town of Pomfret is set apart from other remote villages by one startling fact: It is home to at least 20 of the men jailed in Zimbabwe in connection with a coup plot in Equatorial Guinea.

Like many women in Pomfret, Veronica Caumbo got a call from her husband, Candi, back in early March. He said he had a new job and would be leaving Pretoria soon for the Democratic Republic of Congo. She says he said he was going to work security on a mine in Congo. So when he was arrested in Zimbabwe, she did not understand why.

It came as a tremendous shock. Mr. Caumbo and 67 other men were accused of plotting a coup in the oil-rich West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Zimbabwean authorities said the plane stopped in Harare to buy guns.

Most of the men were sentenced to a year each for immigration violations. The six months they already spent in Chikurubi maximum security prison during the trial do not count.

At least 20 of the alleged coup-plotters came from Pomfret. Most of them, including Candi Caumbo, served in the notorious 32 Battalion of the apartheid-era South African Defense Force, which was based here. That is the reason they were recruited for the job, whether or not they knew what the job really entailed.

The 32 Battalion had a fearsome reputation. Its soldiers were mainly Portuguese-speaking Angolans, recruited to fight for the apartheid military during the wars in Angola and Namibia. It was guerrilla warfare, and it was brutal.

When those wars ended, the army moved the battalion to Pomfret and gave the soldiers South African citizenship.

The battalion's mission shifted to what the apartheid government called "peacekeeping duty" in the townships. The African National Congress accused the 32 Battalion of atrocities, including use of excessive force and rape.

"We were being seen like cannibals, let me say. Yeah, cannibals. Because people were being killed and so on, like that activity in Namibia," says Jose Kapusu, a sergeant in the 32 Battalion. He stayed in the South African army until 1996. Today, in a dramatic change of loyalties, he is the local ANC representative.

He believes the apartheid government and military leaders played up the battalion's brutal reputation. The more frightened black people were, the better it was for the whites. "Just to make a line in between the local people and ourselves. So when we see them, it seems like hey, danger people. And when they see us also, they say hey, danger people," he says.

Deserved or not, the 32 Battalion's reputation has lingered long after it was disbanded in the 1990s at the ANC's insistence. Residents of Pomfret are routinely recruited for jobs as security guards, both in South Africa and elsewhere.

For example, a significant number of them are working in Iraq right now, although residents of Pomfret do not like to admit it. In Baghdad, an official from the security company that hired them told VOA that the firm specifically recruited ex-32 members because they are disciplined, well-trained and experienced fighters.

Many residents are proud of that reputation. But they are angry over the fate of their relatives in Zimbabwe. And they disagree on who to be angry at.

Maria Samba's brother is in Chikurubi prison. So is her son, Joseph Kangozi, who is only 27 and was never a member of the 32 Battalion. Mrs. Samba wanted the South African government to try harder to secure her their freedom. She says "this government is not doing anything because we are not born in South Africa. We are from outside. If we were really South Africans, born here, they would do something, maybe those people would be out already. But they don't care about us."

Others point angrily to the alleged ringleader of the Equatorial Guinea plot, Simon Mann. He is a British ex-special forces soldier and heir to a brewery fortune, who co-founded the now-defunct mercenary company Executive Outcomes. The Zimbabwean court convicted him on weapons charges and gave him the longest sentence. He will spend seven years in Chikurubi.

Mrs. Samba's daughter, Fatima, places the blame for her brother's predicament squarely on Mann's shoulders. "He should tell the truth, where were they going to work? He just lied to the people that they were going to work in the mine. And then the people ended up in jail, where they are not living well. He's a bad man, Simon Mann," she says.

But the main force driving so many Pomfret residents into the dangerous security business is poverty. There are no jobs here anymore. The asbestos mine on the edge of town has long since shut down. And the army, which brought these people to Pomfret in the first place, moved out years ago.

A 32-Battalion veteran named Daniel stands squinting in the hot sun, with one shirtsleeve flapping in the breeze. His right arm has been amputated just below the shoulder, and he is angry. He says he is not happy because the white people used them as soldiers, brought them here to Pomfret, and then they abandoned them.

So it is money, or the lack of it, that has so many Pomfret families waiting for their sons, brothers and husbands to come home, whether it be from Baghdad or Chikurubi prison.