On 1 January 1996, the camp in Malongo was attacked by FLEC, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, just one of the dizzying arrays of acronyms, created during the war waged by various Angolan sects, against their Portuguese occupiers.
Cabinda was not part of the deal finally worked out with Portugal. At one stage it was part of the Congo and then Zaire, another name for the Congo on the south bank of the Congo/Zaire River, and not the other one, whose capital Kinshasa is on the North Bank.
Amid all the confusion in that part of the world, the ordinary people just wanted to have enough to eat and a reasonable assurance that they would not suffer genocide, or be shot by their own police men or soldiers.
It was around midnight, with the rain pelting down, that FLEC decided to lob some mortar rounds in on top of us.
Make no mistake, this was a serious attack, the rounds were real and the shrapnel was hard.
They landed near the heliport, in the upper part of the camp, behind the last accommodation block.
The screaming of the mortar bombs as they traveled through the air woke me up, and then I heard the crump, crump, crump as they exploded.
Those of you who have read my rather long short story ‘My Military Career ‘will know that I am familiar with the noise that mortar bombs make when they hit the ground, so when I was assured that I hadn’t dreamt what I’d just heard, I woke my companion in the other side of the bungalow, told him what had happened and suggested that he get ready for a shout by somebody, so we got dressed in coveralls and boots, I fastened my belt with the multitool Leather Man pouch around my waist. Not much of a weapon, but I wasn’t intending to have to fight anyone, I then sat down to wait.
There was no follow-up small weapons noise, so whether the camp was under sustained attack or not, I wasn’t sure.
I smoked a couple of cigarettes before we heard movement outside, and then came an insistent knocking on our door.
I jumped up and opened it to one of the English security guys (mercenaries) who pretended to be boat drivers.
I can’t remember which of them it was, but he was now armed with some small sub machine gun, and he was dressed in flak jacket and military field uniform.
“We are evacuating the camp down to the dock, there are boats waiting to take everyone offshore”.
“You pair are dressed already that’s fine, just take your cigarettes and something to read maybe, and then follow us”
I remember the surreal feeling as I grabbed a couple of packs of smokes, and stuck my book down the front of my coveralls, after which I stepped out into torrential, rainy season, downpour, to follow this proponent of derring-do, with his machine gun and flak jacket.
Driving to the dock down the hill, took a minute. However, running, semi-hunched over down that long winding hill, literally soaked to the skin, joining the general exodus of personnel, was a completely different ball game.
On the way down, we met with all our colleagues, all of them were mystified as I was, all that is except our boss, who being 100% army barmy, and was loving it.
Down past the football pitch, we went, past the racquetball courts, past the police barracks, past the lake that wasn’t there yesterday.
It took fifteen or twenty minutes to get to the dock where the boats and pandemonium awaited.
There were usually around three hundred and fifty people living on the camp at any given time, but in the darkness and torrential rain of that scary night, there seemed that everyone had brought three or four guests.
There was only room for two boats at the jetty at any one time, and embarkation was possible only by man basket, there were no ladders and the boats were too far down to jump.
Witches hat man baskets, can safely handle six people at one time, and the transfer of personnel had already begun when we arrived, but there was a lot of people waiting.
It took several hours to transfer everyone from the dock to the four boats, and things were crowded on board.
However there had been no further indications of an attack, so we steamed out and waited for the all clear to go back in.
When everything had settled down and it was considered safe for us to go back, it was 11:30 AM, the emergency had lasted almost 12 hours.
We were given the day off and the caterers somehow managed to resume normal mess hall services at 2 PM.
We never really got a report on what had happened, so of course rumours abounded.
Three mortar bombs had been fired from outside the perimeter wire into the heliport.
There had been no deaths or injuries, and hardly any damage because the bombs landed on an area of wet grass.
Shrapnel had rattled against the outsides of the chalets nearest to where they landed, but that was about it.
The oil company’s response to FLEC’s quasi attack on the camp was immediate.
Within days of the event a high-tech security intercom and alarm system had been installed, which would, in the event of any future attacks, not only alert us with its air raid warning type siren, but also tell us what to do; stay in place, evacuate et cetera.
We were also issued with Kevlar blankets, Kevlar being the material that flak jackets are made from, the idea being that if we were told to stay in place, we should cover ourselves with the blanket, like a tent.
As you can imagine there was much hilarity and guffawing surrounding these particular items.
In the remaining years that I spent working there, there were no further attacks and the only time that the ‘incursion alarm’ was used was during drills, and one sultry Sunday afternoon when somebody spied a shark near the beach adjacent to the jetty.
I’m not sure if it was designed as an anti-shark warning, but when the sirens went off, I was playing football and there was baseball, cricket, golf, tennis, bodybuilding, racquetball, drinking and sleeping ongoing. Of course everyone stopped what they were doing and looked quizzically at the nearest conical shaped speaker to them.
When the announcement came that it was a shark in the water near the jetty, we quickly resumed whatever we were doing, knowing full well, that of all the activities being pursued that afternoon, swimming in the oil scummed, murderous surf at the beach, was the least likely.