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BUSHMEN: the hunters now hunt guerillas

By Gary ThatcherStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 1981

Omega Base, Caprivi Strip, Namibia

The copper-colored woman looked toward the stars, holding up her infant to face the moon and praying it would be gifted with "the heart of the hunter." Her plea, according to writer Laurens van der Post, was for the child to receive the instinct for survival in the desolate stretches of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert. Mother and child were members of the Bushman race, one of the last nomadic groups of hunters and foragers in Africa.

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Now, Bushmen truly are being trained to have the "heart of a hunter." But their quarry is not free-ranging land bucks or swift duiker antelope -- but men.

The South African Army is now inducting Bushmen into its ranks, teaching them to forsake traditional bows and arrows for R-1 rifles. And their phenomenal tracking skills, gleaned from centuries of stalking animals over the vast roadless stretches of southern Africa, are being employed to track down black nationalist guerrillas contesting South Africa's control of this disputed territory.

In the process, the Bushmen's way of life is being changed -- perhaps permanently. And the time may come when, because of their role in a war that they litle understand, the Bushmen themselves may become the hunted.

Bushmen are a unique race, their wrinkled amber skin and slight stature setting them apart from either black Africans or white settlers of this region. Along with the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots), the Khoi-San peoples -- later dubbed the "Bushmen" -- are thought to be the original inhabitants of the African sub- continent. But their nomadic wanderings, coupled with their penchant for hunting -- including domesticated livestock as well as wild game -- clashed with both blacks and whites migrating from the north and south.

The Bushmen "refused to be tamed," as Laurens van der Post writes, and were pushed into the remote wastelands of Namibia, Botswana, and Angola.

The vast, forbidding wastelands in and around the Kalahari Desert have been their protectors, keeping black and white settlements from encroaching while grudgingly yielding enough plants and animals for subsistence.

In this simmering, hostile environment, Bushmen have out of necessity developed tracking skills that other races hold in awe. Some Bushmen live in true symbiosis with the land, trusting snapped twigs as sentinels and animal footprints as signets on some higher plan for their race's sustenance and survival.

It is no wonder, then, that the South African Army -- locked in a guerrilla war with the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) for control of namibia -- is only too happy to enlist Bushmen.

As a South African soldier explains, "Everything in this war goes according to the tracks."

Indeed, tracks have become all-important in the kind of bush war being waged here. Both SWAPO guerrillas, infiltrating from Angola and Zambia to the north, and South African soldiers on patrol leave tell-tale footprints: The other side often takes up the trail. A deadly stalking ensues, in which ambushes are common and a mis-reading of a spoor can mean injury or death.

So, in 1974, the South African Army set about attracting Bushmen into its ranks. Now, here at Omega Base in the far northeastern corner of the country, some 850 Bushmen sport the olive-brown uniforms -- and the 20th-century weaponry -- of the south African Defense Force (SADF).

In return for fighting SWAPO, the Bushmen are paid about $400 per month by the South Africans -- a considerable sum in these parts, and a staggering amount for people unaccustomed to cash. In addition, the SADF provides housing for some 900 women and 1,500 children of the Bushmen troops.

The military is quite proud of its efforts, and regularly steers parliamentarians, civic leaders -- and sometimes journalists -- through Omega Base. The Bushmen obligingly banter in their distinctive language, punctuated by soft clicks made with the tongue, and put on "firepower demonstrations" during which they unleash a fusillade at an imaginary band of "terrorists."