Monday, 28 November 2016

Forensic Meditation: alleged 1979 Rhodesian death flight

A young Chris Pessarra (below) poses at the door of a Dakota

[Extracts from Drinking With Ghosts]

BUFFALO RANGE FORWARD AIRFIELD, CHIREDZI,
RHODESIA, MAY 1979

It is October 1999, within days of Judge Willem Hartzenberg
having shocked trial-watchers by throwing out the murder
charges against Wouter Basson relating to the killing of the
approximately 200 Swapo POWs poisoned and dumped
into the ocean – on the slender basis that former South
West African Administrator-General Louis Pienaar had in
February 1990, on the very eve of independence, issued a
blanket amnesty to all SADF forces for acts committed in his
territory. The Sunday Times’s bouffant-haired karaoke queen 
and long-suffering, all-knowing editorial receptionist,
Sandra Hattingh, flags me down as I walk into the newsroom.
A parcel has arrived for me, postmarked Texas, USA. I take
it to my desk and perform the usual ritual, examining it for
oily fingerprints and sniffing it for the scent of almonds –
both potential signs of plastic explosives – then gently open
the opposite end of the package to that which its sender
sealed; one can’t be too careful. I unwrap what amounts to
a present, stuffed full of sheaves of typed documentation –
journalists dream of the day when such mysterious parcels
will arrive on their desks, containing critical, hitherto secret
information, but in truth such serendipitous days are very
few and far between.
The documentation tells the disjointed and yet
wide-ranging tale of its sender, a former French Foreign
Legionnaire named Charles Timothy ‘Chris’ Pessarra.
Following a stint with the Rhodesian military when the
Bush War was in its brutal final phase, Pessarra had, like
so many other Rhodesian military veterans, abandoned
the emergent democratic Zimbabwe to join the SADF. In
an attempt to verify Pessarra’s identity, I drive down to 1
Parachute Battalion at Tempe in Bloemfontein, and there a
major takes me through the class photographs of the early
1980s and identifies a much younger Chris Pessarra (by 1999
his military leanness had given way to the heavyset look of
a biker), so I know that at least part of the story is true – the
former 1 Para officer commanding having also confirmed
that Pessarra had been on-strength in the early 1980s and
that he’d previously fought in Rhodesia. Pessarra’s rambling
tale veers off into a discussion of his later involvement as a
police spy against organisations of the ultra-right engaged
in their various plots, and on to his return to the USA and
his battle with the Inland Revenue Service. But the part
that holds my fascination – and the reason he felt compelled
to contact me in the first place – relates to his presence in 
southern Rhodesia as the parachute jump instructor (PJI) at
the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield at Chiredzi, in May 1979.

[long cut]

It was against this murky backdrop of racial pro-colonial
struggle that Chris Pessarra, who had been blooded as a
paratrooper with the French Foreign Legion’s renowned
2e Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes (2e REP)... 
found himself working as the PJI at Buffalo
Range, a so-called forward airfield from which small
fire-force ‘sticks’ of light infantry would be dropped to
positions in the bush to engage the terrs. Using the contacts
given in the package I got in touch with Pessarra, and in
several detailed, tape-recorded conversations he told me
that in May 1979 he had been approached at the base by
the Selous Scouts, a rapid-deployment formation based on
the World War II tactics of the famous Orde Wingate. The
Scouts had demanded that he give them five parachutes for
a drop that was to remain ‘off the books’, meaning that no
PJI was to be present and that the Rhodesian Air Force HQ
at New Sarum would not be informed. Pessarra initially
staunchly refused to do so, as parachutes were scarce at this
stage of the war and he would be held accountable if five
chutes disappeared from his stores. The hot day burned on,
with the argument going nowhere. Finally, at about 5.30 pm,
two tarpaulin-covered civilian Land Rovers arrived at the
airfield. Pessarra noted that they contained Selous Scouts,
two operators from the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS)
– a revered special forces unit, the only one outside the
United Kingdom directly established by the British SAS –
several South African Recces, and a CIA intelligence officer
surnamed Davis who worked for the Salisbury-based front
organisation Christians in Action.
‘In the back right-hand seat was [Wouter] Basson,’
Pessarra said, adding that he had immediately recognised
the former South African Special Forces ops medic from
newspaper coverage of the trial. ‘He did not have a beard;
hell of a lot more hair. He looked like a German hunter on
safari … I was within about ten feet. They saw me, I saw
them very clearly over the space of approximately … an hour,
an hour-and-a-half,’ as the argument over the five chutes
raged on. The two SAS operatives approached Pessarra and
tried to use their unit’s fearsome repute and the fact that
he knew them personally to get him to release the chutes,
but he still refused. One of the Selous Scouts, as a fellow
former Legionnaire, confided to Pessarra that there were five
terrs in the back of one of the Land Rovers who had been
‘doctored’ but were still alive, using a Legionnaire term for
poisoned wells. A propeller-driven Dakota aircraft had been
designated by the odd grouping of Scouts, Recces, SAS and
CIA for the mysterious planned flight (Pessarra provided me
with a faded photograph of his young mercenary self posing
in the doorway of a Dakota). The pilot, a civilian Air Rhodesia
pilot who as part of his military service flew rotations for
the Rhodesian Air Force, had approached Pessarra and
privately begged him to sneak on board the aircraft through
the navigator’s hatch in the nose, and secretly fly with them
that night because he was scared of the intense paranoia
surrounding the flight; he had not even been told where they
were headed. Pessarra did so, and found that the ‘aircraft
interior windows were all blanked out. They had sealed the
pilot’s cabin off with canvases so they could not see what
was going on in the hold.’
Tucked in his hiding place, Pessarra tugged at the
canvas and opened a peep-hole through which he saw
the ‘terrorists’ loaded. They were ‘dressed in Selous Scout
camouflage … They had the fake papers, the whole mess
… arms, everything. They were still conscious. Basson …
climbed up the steps. He had his case with him. He bent over
them inside the door, on the back part of the aircraft between
the last seats and the doors. I only saw him inject two of
them with some type of solution. They did some scrapings,
everything. The rubber gloves were put on … Basson had
a mask on. He … put the mask on once he was inside the
door; took it off once he was outside. This all took about
… 24 minutes. They had two Recce guys helping them. We
took off … They made the drop [over Mozambique]. They
dropped the terrs out on the parachutes. We returned to the
airfield.’

PRETORIA HIGH COURT, 19 OCTOBER 1999

Basson’s legal team has not once responded to Pessarra’s
claims since my exclusive – backed up online by key portions
of the Pessarra tapes – was published in the Sunday Times two
weeks ago, but today when I arrive at court Basson makes
a beeline for me and breaks Judge Hartzenberg’s order that
he not speak to the media. He obviously recognises my 
clean-shaven head and what I term my ‘lawyer-killer’ black
Nehru suit from my byline picture. It’s quite a turnaround
since the first time I approached him in the court, offering
my business card – something I always do as a courtesy to
the stressed accused, so they know who I am and can get
their legal team to challenge my reports if they take issue
with them – when he’d startled me by howling out ‘Adolf!
Adolf!,’ not, as it turns out, calling for aid from the ghost
of Adolf Hitler, but calling for Advocate Adolf Malan to
get this damned reporter away from him. This time, he’s
recovered his composure.
‘That guy Pessarra’s mad, you know? He’s been treated
in psychiatric hospitals.’
Fair enough. As the French Foreign Legion marching
song goes: ‘Nous avons souvent notre cafard / nous sommes
des Légionnaires’ (‘We have our black moods / for we
are Legionnaires’). But Dr Basson, usually so cunning,
has mistakenly admitted that he knows Pessarra, and in
breaking the judge’s order has revealed that my story is
close to the mark. Another indication that Pessarra is telling
the truth has already arisen during my investigation of the
story. Pessarra had named the two members of the SAS
who he said had been at the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield
that fateful day. When I call the Rhodesian veterans’ SAS
Regimental Association – it’s based in Durban, where many
Rhodesian ex-servicemen settled when black majority rule
came to their homeland – and name the two men, I am
told that the one is currently ‘working’ in Sierra Leone,
and the other is in Afghanistan; clearly they have followed
the mercenary, or as it is termed these days, the ‘private
military contractor’ route. The man on the other end of the
line then issues a polite death threat: ‘If you name these
guys in print, the Association will not be held responsible
for what may happen, because we can’t prevent members
taking action.’ I’m delighted to be threatened by soldiers 
of such fearsome repute; moreover, it adds gravity to
Pessarra’s assertions.

[ENDS]