KIGALI NIGHTS By Mark Fildes (aka) Plugger, 2/4 RAR
This is the true account about a very eventful night that I and a good mate of mine experienced whilst on the first rotation to Rwanda as part of Operation Tamar in late 1994.
The night was dedicated as a 3 Platoon, Alpha Company, 2/4 RAR piss-up.
Such an event was unusual to have in country, so being 3 Platoon we took full advantage of it. We asked our company commander to attend and enjoy the drinking and festivities which he dutifully did. We had a large cake set up on a table for sharing later in the evening. Like most 3 Platoon functions, there was a lot of fun, banter and heavy drinking, which genuinely led to a fight and tonight was no exception. The OC was caught up in it all and he surrendered to losing control and punching on with, and against several of the 3 Platoon boys. He was my favourite Infantry OC. Jacko’s head was implanted face first into the cake during the mayhem; so much for our desserts. The party petered out after this and most of the drunken boys headed back to the high-density building for some shut-eye.
Two blokes didn’t head back to their farters that night and instead went on the prowl for some more booze and a good time. I followed my good mate, Cotty into the Indian battalion lines to see if anything exciting was happening. The Indian soldiers were sharing our barracks. Although they lived in poorer conditions, they generally were a good bunch of blokes but seriously lacked hygiene and smelt to high heaven. In my eyes they looked up to us Australian Infantry in a superior light. Cotty was smashed and in that frame of mind was capable of almost anything. I found him in the Indian lines trying to tune an Indian female officer. She had a couple of soldiers assisting her in blocking his physical advances.
I told it was time to go but he walked past me and incoherently mumbled something about bullshit while stumbling down their corridor and out of their lines. He then proceeded to head straight for the compound’s fence which several weeks earlier some 2 Platoon soldiers had scaled during the night to search for some excitement in the CBD.
I was walking a few metres behind him and stopped. I called out to him as he was heading for the wire, which meant one thing: he was going over the wire and into town for some serious action. I called out again but he mumbled that he didn’t give a shit and was heading out.
I was in two minds as to what I should do. I decided to go and keep an eye on him as that’s what mates do. The alcohol made this decision an easier option as well. However, I was uncomfortable in following him over.
A bloke could score a root out on the town as the locals needed the extra cash and the best place for action of this or any kind was definitely Kigali Nights – a local nightclub. It was a decent walk on foot, which was made faster to evade the eyes of the RPA who patrolled the streets in utes. Their soldiers would sit in the trays, wearing East German uniforms and holding Soviet-made assault rifles. That, coupled with a desire for a drink and some further entertainment, would make you get there in good time. I was wearing Auscam trousers, GPs and a UN blue sports shirt. I wasn’t exactly a master of disguise.
We entered the nightclub and it was pumping, with plenty of hot natives and white trash which came from the NGOs. There would have been some out-of-uniform officers from UN Headquarters there I’m sure, so in many ways, once you made it past the patrolling vehicles, fun was to be had.
I immediately went to the bar and ordered us a couple of drinks. The music was loud and western style, just like any nightclub back home would play. The place certainly had a lot of energy for a club that only months earlier had been trashed along with the entire city and nation.
As the night progressed, it became harder to find Cotty, especially when it was his turn for the drinks. I became concerned at one point when I couldn’t find him, especially because he was well and truly smashed. I finally found him lying asleep on one of the nightclub’s couches and immediately felt relieved. I woke him and told him I’d get us another drink and that I’d be back soon. At the bar or on the way back with the drinks I began talking to one of the local chicks, who was very friendly. She wasn’t bad looking either, especially with my beer goggles on, which were by then firmly in place.
I returned to the couch were Cotty had been sprawled out, but he was gone. I did a search around the nightclub and couldn’t find him; he was gone. I decided that he’d probably come to and decided to head back to the barracks. The cover of darkness would soon be gone so I hightailed it out of there as well with this slim, dark, yet attractive African chick.
This lady was concerned and asked if she could follow me back to the lines so she could see for herself where he was housed. I didn’t see this as being a problem so I said, “Yes, no worries.”
On the fast-paced march back to the Australian contingent’s lines we began chatting about a soldier that she had been seeing. This was an interesting yarn as there was a strict policy of no fraternisation by the military with the local population. She told me that the man she had been seeing was a driver from Transport (poque). They had been seeing each other intimately for several weeks now and that he had arranged to meet her recently during a drive into Kigali but he had not arrived.
I didn’t see any utes patrolling the streets as I had on the way into town. We were getting closer to the compound fence and I felt a sense of relief. We were about 20 metres from the corner of the tall, wired fence which soldiers who had previously made this mission used to scale, and then you jumped into the sandbagged bunker below. This bunker was handy as cover from the Australian Army’s roving piquet and it also meant you could observe where the Indian Guards were. Getting back to the lines was a challenge because you had a lit-up open area to walk across.
Suddenly from out of nowhere a RPA soldier appeared. I couldn’t believe it. I thought this would be cool; he was on his own and he was probably just cruising by. I was wrong. He immediately came up to us aggressively and began questioning the young lady. He then stuck the barrel of his AK-47 into her belly, I thought, ‘Holy shit, this guy means business.’ I instinctively grabbed the barrel with my left hand and pulled it away from her stomach, just in case he let a round rip. The soldier then recovered and pointed the rifle at me. Instantly I pushed the barrel skyward, as I didn’t like being threatened or where it might all end up. This started a struggle which I wasn’t going to lose. I wasn’t about to be taken out by this weak excuse of a soldier who was probably in his mid to late teens. As we vigorously struggled over the weapon, each of us trying to overpower the other to see who was going to come up trumps with the firearm, sobriety and adrenalin kicked in. I realised if this fucker gained control of it again, I’d surely wear a piece of lead. So I cracked him as hard as I could with an elbow lift to the head. Now dazed, I grabbed him in a bear hug and dumped him head first into the pavement, making sure his new graze tattoo, even though temporary, would be a lasting reminder. I grabbed his rifle, took it to Action, then to Instant and pointed it at him from the shoulder position, with my finger on the trigger. The boy soldier looked at me and bolted for it. I turned to look for the lady but she had scarpered as well, which was a clever move under the circumstances.
I scaled the fence with the assault rifle and leapt from the top of the fence into the bunker, which was fairly high up. It wasn’t the best landing and I slightly sprained my ankle, but it was better than being out in the street. I was now safely inside our compound but had another problem. What would I do with the AK-47? I stuck my head over the sandbag wall to check for the roving piquet but they weren’t around. I looked up at the high-density building that housed our sleeping quarters, and saw an Indian soldier staring straight at me from the second-storey balcony. He was on guard duty and was obviously aware of what had just happened in the street. I hopped out of the bunker and made my way across the road to the base of the stairs, which led to my room. I gestured to the Indian guard by placing my index finger over my mouth – the universal sign of ‘keep this quiet’. I could see by his facial expression that he understood. I crept into the 3 Platoon lines and woke a trusted mate of mine whom I knew would help me out. I whispered to him to come outside quietly as I needed to tell him something, all the while conscious that daylight was approaching and the boys would be stirring. I pointed out the bunker to Rick and told him there was an AK-47 in there. He told me he’d take care of it and to go and get into bed.
The morning was very awkward. Word had got out of a major incident. The RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) had contacted UN Headquarters I believe to complain. I headed up to the mess for brunch and one of 3 Platoon’s section commanders said he thought that I’d done this. I denied it. I was trying to conceal my limp as well; I thought that would blow my cover for sure. I was feeling very uneasy.
My section was given the unusual task that day of attending a local orphanage. We travelled out there in our 6 B, which was configured with centre seating and a machine gun mounted centrally on either side. The orphanage was set low in a valley with large hills surrounding it. The orphans were fun to be around. Towards the end of the visit, a shot rang out. Clearly it was targeting the centre for reasons unknown. We ushered the children and staff inside the brick building and positioned ourselves on the outside. The shot had come from the hillside but we couldn’t see any movement. We eventually mounted our vehicle and headed back to base a short time later.
The next day, the whole male contingent was lined up, or possibly just the Infantry component of the taskforce, as the lady involved in the incident the night before last – who just happened to be the wife of a local RPA lieutenant – was to identify the soldier(s) responsible. The guys were lined up in three ranks from memory, with me being up the back standing next to my good mate, Murph. Grimesy was the acting RSM and walked along with her. As she came closer, she stopped and said, “That’s him.”
Murph immediately said, “Fucking bitch.” She confirmed me a second time by pointing at me and saying, “That’s him.”
“Don’t, Murph,” said Grimesy.
The parade was dismissed and Grimesy told me that her description was of an Australian soldier with a large tattoo on his left bicep. I didn’t have any tattoos so her evidence was contradictory and because of this it wouldn’t hold up.
3 platoon was then posted to Kigali Hospital and while stationed there the order came down that all leave for Infantry soldiers only had been suspended until the person(s) involved owned up. This sucked. Platoon Sergeant Mick Rice told us that a one-hour deadline was being offered to the culprit(s) and to come into platoon HQ to see him. Punishing all the boys for my indiscretions was not an option. I walked into HQ and said to Ricey, “It was me.”
He replied, “I’m surprised it was you, Plugger. Give me your rifle.”
Harro just said, “Fucking hell, Plugger,” and walked out.
I felt like shit. They gave me a smoke before marching me up to the guard room. I was to be questioned by the MP sergeant, whom all the grunts on deployment thought wasn’t the best choice for the deployment and the 2/4 boys knew which MP sergeant should have been in his place. The only problem was that I didn’t know where the located AK-47 had been found. I was told I couldn’t speak to anyone but whispered to the diggers on guard, asking them where the weapon had been found. I didn’t want this part of my statement to fall over as it might draw the heat onto Rick inadvertently. They told me the rifle had been found in a locker inside the empty room at the bottom of the high-density building. Even today I’m still unsure as to where it was. I gave my statement and was confined to base. My section commander, Riles was assigned as a support and defence council for me so we hung out a fair bit awaiting trial whilst the rest of 9 Section continued on with their duties. Rumours swirled around that I would be court-martialled – the first soldier on a deployment to have this happen since Vietnam. I heard that I was going to be flown back to Australia under the escort of two MPs and have to pay for their airfares home before commencing a long stint at the harsh DFCE. That would have meant my whole pay for this deployment in US dollars would evaporate in fines and airfares.
I became distressed and because of the serious nature of the offences, I was allowed qualified council. Interestingly, the only lawyer who deployed with the contingent was the CO’s own legal advisor, whom I had known for quite some time as he had spoken to me and the Alpha Company’s men over the years about the yellow and red cards and the rules of engagement. He was advising the CO as well, which technically shouldn’t have happened. I told him about my huge worry and told me that I wouldn’t be flying home. I felt so relieved at this news. I guess the CO, Big Pat, an old-school Infantry Officer, and also my battalion CO previously, was doing the right thing by me. He was a good man.
I was marched into the CO’s office and had five charges to contest. I pleaded guilty to them all. I was nervous even though it wasn’t the first time that I had fronted the man. But this was different; this was big, even by my standards. The charges were read out and my sentence was given. I was to receive 14 days in the cells and had to pay a fine of about $3000 US Dollars, which back in ’95 was considerably higher than in today’s monetary value because the US currency hadn’t been depreciated by the global financial crisis. I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that I wasn’t heading back to Australia and had only 14 days’ cell time to contend with – or so I thought…
I remember one of 3 Platoon’s Secos coming up to the cells ready to take us for PT on the first afternoon. He looked at me and said, “I almost feel sorry for you, Plugger because you’ll wish you’d never been born by the time I finish with you. Prisoner Fildes (now fully serious), you think you’ve got muscles. By the time the PT staff have finished with you, you’ll have muscles in ya shit from the hell runs and work parties planned for you.” He had been given the green light to flog us by running us into the ground for the next fortnight. This bloke had repeatedly run in the Castle Hill Fun Run in Townsville and was one of the fastest and fittest runners the Infantry had ever seen. Many know him as TJ. Although in my platoon, he used to delight in the punishment he dished out to us. He made us run around the compound with specially designed round metal bars to simulate the weight of an MG. He took exceptional delight in running us past the pogue accommodation, as the females and some males would smile and laugh at us. I never gave them the satisfaction of acknowledging how disgusting they were. Grunts would never behave in such a disloyal fashion.
Cotty was a hard cunt and although I was no slouch either, he really challenged me to see who was the stronger bloke. It was fairly even. Day 10 arrived and Cotty was taken to hospital. Working in the rain and the PT had run him down. He was very ill and it was quite serious.
The good part in this sorry saga was that it forced the brass to get TJ to cease PT. Thanks for that, old mate. We arrived back in Australia and had a parade on the now 2nd Battalion’s parade ground for the then Defence Minister, Robert Ray to inspect us. I remember standing out in the Townsville heat, yearning for leave and watching this very fat politician through the battalion HQ windows keeping us all waiting so he could finish his cigarette. When we marched off we were dismissed and Alpha Company congregated under the pioneer platoon lines awaiting further instructions. My former OC, Micky Day, who had left Rwanda ahead of the main party, approached the group I was standing with and said, “So you made it home alive, Plugger,” with a grin on his face.
I simply replied, “Yes, Sir.”