Lost and found: Namibia's children schooled behind Iron Curtain

Windhoek (AFP) - In the tumultuous 1980s during Namibia's independence struggle, 400 children, some as young as three and many orphans, were shipped off to East Germany to be groomed as model communists and their country's future elite -- until the Berlin Wall fell.

Their forgotten odyssey, sealed in a deal between Swapo, Namibia's Soviet-backed liberation movement, and the East German regime, is now told in a new play, "Oshi-Deutsh: The GDR Children of Namibia".

And four decades later the question remains -- was it bad luck or good fortune, to be removed from families and friends, but also from war and desperate refugee camps?

"For me, it was to save my life," said Lucia Engombe, 43, who was plucked from a camp in nearby Zambia at only six years old and put on a bus to the airport. "Even as a child, I understood that."

Flipping through the pages of an old album, Engombe pointed to yellowed photos of her classmates: one now a lawyer, another an engineer, two others married and living in Europe.

The young black Namibians were then pupils in a small village school in East Germany, and their math, biology and other lessons were heavily infused with hardline communism.

At the time, Namibia, a former German colony, was under South African occupation.

War raged between the troops of the apartheid regime and Swapo resistance fighters as thousands of Namibians fled to refugee camps in Angola and Zambia.

"I knew that Zambia was not good for us because there was war," recalled Engombe.

"If they said, 'Throw yourself on the floor', you had to throw yourself on the floor. If they said 'Run', you ran for your life. We were living in constant fear."

She would learn years later that she was severely malnourished at the time and her mother played a role in sending her away.

When she and the other youngsters arrived in East Germany, they were set up in a castle in the village of Bellin.

Under the strict supervision of both German and Namibian teachers, they learnt German -- Engombe still speaks fluently -- along with their political education and regular classes.

- The future elite -

"It was intense military training," recalled Monica Nambelela, who was taken to East Germany when she was just three years old.

"Swimming, fighting. You know, they said we were going to liberate our country. We were going to be the elite."

Nambelela, a government official, refuses to see herself as a victim.

"I consider myself very, very privileged," she insisted.

"That education system embraced everything you need to know in life, important values about hard work, and punctuality, about standing up for one's country, about being incorruptible."

"Oshi-Deutsh: The GDR Children of Namibia" -- the title is a twist on German and Oshiwambo, the most spoken local language in Namibia -- will be staged in both Namibia and Germany, looking back at this period.

"With all our history, it's easy to see how (the play) could be dark, but you really have to be able to liberate yourself and see what good came out of those years of struggle," playwright Ndhinomholo Ndilula told AFP ahead of a performance in the capital, Windhoek.

Engombe, now a producer of German language education programmes on Namibian national television, recorded her own experience in an autobiography entitled "Kind nr95" ("Child number 95").

Isolated from her parents for years, she eventually learnt that her mother was living as a refugee in the Soviet Union.

But when she asked to be allowed to write to her father, she received a categoric no. She was told he was a traitor: an enemy of Swapo.

"I was only a child, I didn't understand those things, so I asked, 'what's a traitor?' When they told me, I cried."

When that didn't dissuade her, a teacher told Engombe her father was dead.

"It's like a piece of me was cut down... but somewhere in my heart I believed that my father was still alive."

- Homecoming -

Her hunch was right, a nd when she returned home years later she found him.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought an abrupt end to the German exile of the young Namibians.

Changes had been happening at home, too.

In August 1990, months after the reunification of Germany, four jumbo jets touched down in a newly independent Namibia.

The children were ill-prepared for life in an African country. Swapo now ruled, but communism never would take root.

The adaptation was difficult.

"I was a teenager," remembered Nambelela. "Apartheid was now abolished so we were the first black children to sit shoulder to shoulder with white people in one class.

"But it did not come at a cheap price. There was a lot of discrimination from the teachers. You need to understand, they were part and parcel of segregation all their lives."

Twenty-six years later, her 13-year-old daughter Shakira will help tell her mother's story with a role in "Oshi-Deutsch".

"It's part of our history," says playwright Ndilula. ?We have some 400 children who were gone and then came back and had to assimilate.

"Everything that happened in between is definitively part of Namibian history."