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Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Monday, 16 May 2005 11:21 UK

Future of 'mercenary town' threatened

By Justin Pearce
BBC News Website, Pomfret

Pomfret has been dubbed a "mercenary town" - but few people want to talk about the alleged mercenaries, many of whom have just been released from jail in Zimbabwe.

People there are more worried about the prospect of leaving the place that has been their home since they came to South Africa 16 years ago.

Veterans

The former army base, hidden among the thorn bushes on the fringes of the Kalahari, was given in 1989 to the veterans of 32 Battalion: the Angolan soldiers who had fought with the old South African Defence Force during its incursions into Angola in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most of the 61 men released at the weekend from a Zimbabwean jail, after being caught allegedly on their way to stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea, were 32 Battalion veterans who had previously lived at Pomfret.

With military training and few other ways of making a living, they had turned to mercenary activity - or "security" as the people in Pomfret call it.

After already having had their hopes raised and shattered when the men's release was promised in March, families in the town were sceptical about the most recent reports of imminent freedom.

"We have heard this on the radio, but we haven't received a letter yet," said the daughter of one of the captives, who did not want to give her name.

Maria Fernando, the daughter of another captive, was in the dark about why her father had ended up in a Zimbabwe jail.

"I don't know what work my father went to do," she said.

Her father, Agosto Fernando, had long since moved away from Pomfret, and sent money back to the family from his place of work 600 km away in Pretoria.

Removal

The people left in Pomfret are more worried about the future of their community. The veterans and their families used to be housed in northern Namibia, but have been at Pomfret since South African troops pulled out of Angola, and Namibia gained independence in 1989.

Pomfret resident
Many residents are content to stay where they are

The streets still bear the names of generals in the apartheid-era army; the houses are now shabby and some have been abandoned, but the place still looks as orderly as you would expect from a village purpose-built for officers' families.

South African National Defence Force General Bobo Moerani confirmed this week that residents would be moved from Pomfret, possibly by the end of this year, and rehoused in various locations around South Africa.

Contamination

The government says Pomfret is unsafe because of contamination from a nearby asbestos mine.

Children
A whole generation has grown up in the town

But local councillor Domingos Kapanga believes the authorities have other motives.

"It is not asbestos that is stopping us from staying here," he said. "They say the people are highly militarily trained and they become a problem for security."

Gen Moerani dismissed this view: "The [mercenary] issue surfaced only last year. We have been consulting with the community longer than that."

The general said the residents of Pomfret had been consulted and informed about the plans, but people in the settlement seemed uncertain about what the future would hold for them.

Doubts

The area is too dry for farming, and Pomfret is 200 km from the nearest town. Men have left to do "security" work because there are no jobs anywhere near Pomfret.

Pomfret women
Some people are concerned about living conditions

But people who have spent the last 15 years among other Angolans in this Portuguese-speaking enclave are nervous about leaving.

"When we left Namibia, this was the place given to us," said former soldier Francisco Chaban.

"I won't say if it's good or bad, but this is where we are living - we have our school, our clinic."

Gen Moerani in turn accused councillors of being among those who were resisting change because they were drawing government salaries in Pomfret.

The general also said the South African government had been talking to Angolan officials about the possibility of former soldiers returning to Angola on a voluntary basis.

The soldiers were granted South African nationality after they left Angola, but, says veteran Francisco Chaban, "Angola is our mother and our father."

Would he go back there?

"If God so wishes."



SEE ALSO
Fighters on wrong side of history
16 May 05 |  Africa
Zimbabwe frees S Africa plotters
15 May 05 |  Africa
SA keen to shed mercenary image
13 Jan 05 |  Africa
Q&A: Equatorial Guinea 'coup plot'
26 Oct 04 |  Africa
Timeline: E Guinea coup plot
03 Nov 09 |  Africa

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