Body of SA airman killed in DR Congo arrives home

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The mortal remains of South African Air Force (SAAF) Sergeant Vusimusi Mabena, killed by a sniper in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were repatriated on Sunday 12 February to Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof in Centurion.

The 15 Squadron flight engineer died when hit by a round which also hit and wounded pilot in command, Major Omolemo Matlapeng, leaving Captain Matthew Allen to fly their Oryx (UN tail number 821) to safety. The helicopter was routing to Goma a week ago (Sunday, 5 February) when it was hit by a single sniper’s bullet over Kiwanja, some 70km northeast of Goma in the North Kivu province. The eastern DRC city is home to a SA National Defence Force (SANDF) composite helicopter unit (CHU) operating Oryx medium transport and Rooivalk combat support helicopters in addition to a SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) detachment.

Mabena’s remains arrived at Waterkloof aboard a SAAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise was at Waterkloof as was her top soldier, SANDF Chief General Rudzani Maphwanya, to hand Mabena’s remains to his family.

Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, said Mabena, “served with discipline, self-respect, pride in his unit and his country. He had a high sense of duty and obligation to his comrades and his self-confidence demonstrated in everything he did will be the one thing we shall always remember.”

Durban-based 15 Squadron used social media to pay tribute to the airmen saying of the flight engineer “he was a great servant” to the squadron with “a unique way of doing absolutely everything with a smile”. The post notes Matlapeng is a former 15 Squadron helicopter pilot.

Modise, her deputy Thabang Makwetla, SANDF Chief General Rudzani Maphwanya and acting Secretary for Defence, Thobekile Gamede all expressed condolences and wished the wounded pilot a speedy recovery.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and MONUSO head Bintou Keita both condemned “the cowardly attack on an aircraft bearing the UN emblem”.

Although it is not yet clear who fired the bullet that hit the Oryx, it is suspected that M23 rebels were responsible as the incident occurred over an area controlled by the M23. The Oryx was flying unescorted along a ridge, allowing the bullet to penetrate at a horizontal angle – in the past, SAAF Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters in the DRC have often been hit by small arms fire from below, not from almost head-on.

There are concerns that the Oryx was flying a similar route used on previous supply missions, giving the enemy the chance to lay in wait. Although the SAAF has three Rooivalk attack helicopters in the DRC, the Oryx was not escorted on the fatal mission. The United Nations typically dictates whether escort is needed or not.