IIt’s a sunny Thursday, and I am at the Mobile Military Health Formation of the SA Military Health Service in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to meet Limpopo-born Molatelo Nkoana, a 31-year-old woman who has dodged more bullets than most.
Nkoana’s running a little late, but then she arrives, sallying into the boardroom. She is on duty and in uniform, and proceeds to tell me about her life and the career she almost embarked on.
After completing her secondary education, Nkoana says she first went on to study and train as a nurse. But that wasn’t to last long; she gave it up midway – to join the military, a decision she would never regret.
“Basically, it was about the money, I was young and wasn’t getting enough money, so I went on the market,” says Nkoana.
The enthusiastic 22-year-old applied, and was recruited three months later, reporting to the Thaba Tshwane military base in Pretoria for basic training. She also trained in Kimberly, Bloemfontein and the Western Cape.
Nkoana had thought only the physically fit could join the military, but soon discovered it offered multiple careers one could explore. With her nursing background and experience, Nkoana chose to be a paramedic.
In March 2013, Nkoana was one of the 200 soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) selected to go to the Central African Republic (CAR) as part of South Africa’s peace-keeping mission there.
They would go on to fight a series of battles outside Bangui in the CAR. And Nkoana was the only woman on the frontline.
Michel Djotodia, leader of the rebel alliance, Seleka, had declared himself the new president of CAR and forced the then serving president, François Bozizé, out of the country.
It wasn’t going to be an easy task for the SANDF.
Nkoana takes me back to noon on that fateful Friday on March 22, 2013 when she first spotted the rebels; she remembers it all like it was yesterday.
She literally transports me to CAR with her vivid detailing of the series of events that unfolded. As she relates this story of death and danger, I hear the bullets, the gunshots and the rebels roar; I see the ravages of war in CAR.
Nkoana was amongst the first to see the rebels attack.
“We saw a civilian running away from those people, the rebels. I was at the gate of the base’s duty room. I ran to the sick-bay as a medic and told the people that the rebels are coming, the rebels are coming.”
When she reported it, nobody believed her. But she persisted, proceeding to gather her bulletproof vest, helmet, and weapon.
Her fellow soldiers only believed her when the Officer Commander (OC) ordered them to prepare and check what was happening outside the base. He tasked a team from the special force.
Around 5PM, this team was ambushed by the rebels, but they fought back tenaciously, and the rebels fled.
Three men of the special force team returned injured, one shot in the chest, the other had sustained a fracture in his femur and the third was wounded.
For the first time, the base knew it was rough outside.
“As medic personnel, we took them to civilian hospitals outside to get other doctors to help us,” recalls Nkoana.
Around 10PM the following day, the rebels came back again firing bombs. The SANDF could hear the entire din from their base. The Sergeant Major asked Nkoana to go with them to replenish food for the soldiers who had been on night vigil.
She grabbed her medical bag, helmet, bulletproof vest, weapon and left with the men, not hesitating for a minute.
It was around 12PM, when she along with the others drove 15-20 kilometers to the location of the stranded soldiers; it was quiet when they got there, but as soon as the rebels saw the SANDF vehicles, they started shooting again.
“We went out of the car and took cover, and then we started shooting back. While fighting, I managed to get one of the guys that was injured and suggested I take him back to the base because he could not run, fight or do anything,” she says.
The OC opted otherwise and Nkoana and the injured men had to wait even as the bullets rained over their heads.
At 5PM, as they were heading back to camp, the squad was ambushed again. This was when a number of lives were lost, says Nkoana, for the first time sounding emotional.
They did what they did before: stop the vehicle, step out and take cover.
As Nkoana was taking cover, one of the soldiers had been shot in both legs and was screaming out for her. She bandaged him but the chaos was far from over; yet another soldier was calling for one of the two medics that were there. He had almost missed a bullet but it had grazed his neck.
By then, Nkoana and the other medic could see dead bodies all around them. The injured soldiers shouted to them to leave because they were going to die.
“We told them we can’t leave. We are still alive and we can at least take cover with you. Let’s move to a safer place; the guy that was shot in the legs said he couldn’t walk and we should leave him there.”
The team refused and carried him to safety.
Around midnight, the OC called from the base asking for Nkoana. Many of the soldiers were already back at the base, but the young woman had stayed on with the other fighters.
“When they called, I switched off my phone because it was loud and we could hear the voices of the rebels from where we were hiding.
“I switched the phone back on and sent a message telling them ‘we are here, we are hiding, we’ve got two patients and we cannot get out of this cover’.”
Nkoana had full faith she was going to return home to her son in Senwabarwana, her hometown in South Africa’s Limpopo province. It kept her alive.
She thought she would be running on foot back to the camp because there was nothing that could rescue them.
Many soldiers died, but many of the rebels also died, so there was not going to be any mercy towards the SANDF.
Nkoana then received a text advising her and her patients to remain in hiding and stay calm. Around 4AM, she received a call asking if they were still undercover; they were then instructed to somehow make their way to the airport.
“The commander of the rebels was requesting the SANDF to go back to their country,” she says.
But Nkoana and the injured soldiers had to travel another 15 kilometers to the airport; she was still unsure of their safety. Their hideout was next to a tar-road and the rebels were driving up and down firing bullets into the sky.
A peace agreement had been signed, so the soldiers could go back to camp; get their belongings and head home to safety.
“[But] we were not sure the people in the streets knew of the peace agreement because if they see us they will shoot us; the agreements were done at the base and not in the streets,” says Nkoana.
They refused to come out of hiding.
They heard the Casspir (armed ambulance) that was sent to fetch them and the bodies of the dead soldiers, but they were still unsure if it was safe to surface. The vehicle went up and down, back and forth, looking for them.
“Around 7AM, the next day, we decided to go. They sent me a message to just surrender; I then told the guys ‘the Major says we should surrender’. I was the Corporal by then and the guys asked if we should shoot. I told them ‘no, because if you shoot one bullet, they will kill all of us’.”
Nkoana took command of the situation, complying with her superiors at the base.
The drama didn’t end there though.
Just as they got on to the road, the rebels came after them and took their weapons, bulletproof vests, ammunition and they were instructed to lie down. They then had to stand up and walk in a single file not knowing where they were being taken.
On the way, they climbed on to a bakkie (pickup truck) driven by other rebels which took them to their base. The soldiers at the base had started packing, and they had to pack up too. They were all then taken to the airport to head back home to South Africa. Finally, it was all over.
Nkoana was a 27-year-old woman who defied death at the hands of the rebels. She was honored with a bravery medal, invited to the opening of Parliament in South Africa in 2014 and was given the Sword Of Peace.
Like Nkoana, another South African woman was also honored for her bravery fleeing the rebels in CAR, with an equivalent of R3 million ($323,000 at the time) supporting the mission, in her bag.
Susette Gates, a mother of two sons, currently living in Pretoria, was deployed as the financial officer of the South African mission in CAR in charge of payroll. Before being employed by the SANDF, she had been a hairdresser, she says, laughing, when she speaks to us.
Like most people looking for jobs, she had applied for an open post at the Wonderboom military base and been accepted; she continues to work here.
I meet her at this base – she’s not in uniform – and in her own office adorned with family portraits, certificates and medals.
She was the only other woman besides Nkoana selected for the CAR mission. Those fearful moments in CAR are forever etched in her memory.
When the rebels were attacking the SANDF, Gates was watching a horror movie on her laptop at the base. Little did she know the horrors unfolding around her.
Ironically, she was informed about the chaos in CAR on the phone by her sister in South Africa. Only then did she realize there was no electricity and people had left their homes at the camp.
She called out to everyone but was the only one left. She was later relocated to another place where she spent the night.
“The next morning, I went back to get my belongings. The next thing the rebels were in the base and they took everything, they even took the cars,” she says.
“If they could grab food, clothes whatever. I had my money with me; they opened my bag and asked what it was. I told them it was clothes and asked if I could keep it, but the bag of money was under the clothes.”
Gates was released and managed to get away with the R3 million; the money she had hidden under her clothes and that belonged to the SANDF.
The trip to the airport was grim because all she saw was a dry and dirty town, gunshots going off in the background. On the flight back home, she knew there were dead bodies of colleagues on the plane. Gates almost kissed the ground when she landed in South Africa, she says.
Both these women returned as heroes and were honored by South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in 2014. Of the 185 soldiers who survived the war, the two women stood out amongst the men. Today, there are other women fighting the rebels in the CAR like they did, risking their lives and saving the lives of the men around them.