A simple wooden cross with a carved figure of Christ has been returned to the community of Mupa in southern Angola at an emotional ceremony some 35 years after it was removed by a South African soldier.

The crucifix was handed back during a packed service at the village’s large Roman Catholic mission church, attended by locals as well as over 100 South Africans.

The service was conducted jointly by the Catholic priest, Father Renato Felix Gaudencio, and Dominee Fanus Hansen, who had been the chaplain at for 61 Mechanised Battalion Group from 1990 to 1995.

The group, made up mainly of military veterans took part in the recent “Unidade de Amizade”, or “United in Friendship” tour to Angola organised by the 61 Mechanised Veterans Association to remember their former comrades who died or were wounded during the Border War and to extend the hand of friendship and reconciliation to their former enemies.

The crucifix was removed from the church – which had been looted and abandoned since August 1982 – in 1983 by a national serviceman, Douglas Beveridge. It was taken back to South Africa and kept by a member of the Beveridge family in Port Elizabeth.

It was later handed over to the 61 Mechanised Veterans Association for safe-keeping. The Association planned to return the cross to Mupa during a tour to Angola in 2015. This did not take place and it remained in the Association’s care.

Speaking during the ceremony, Father Renato thanked the group and expressed gratitude for the return of the cross. He also asked that the church’s bell which was in South Africa, be returned as well.

One of the organisers of the visit, retired General Roland de Vries later explained that this was not the bell at the Hind Memorial at the National War Museum in Johannesburg, but another bell which is now in the possession of 5 Special Forces Regiment at Phalaborwa.

There was also an unexpected and emotional moment at the service for General De Vries when he met the son of Quental – an elderly Portuguese gentleman who looked after the church and whom he had first met in November 1981 during Operation Daisy.

When De Vries returned with several other 61 Mech veterans for a visit in 2011, he learned that Quental had passed away. But he was not aware that Quental had a son or that he would be in the church to witness the return of the crucifix.

The wooden cross is not the only property that De Vries has facilitated being returned to the church. Following Operation Daisy, he discovered that several 61 Mech mechanics had taken an old pedal organ belonging to the Dorsland Trekkers – Boers who moved north to southern Angola in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – and some golden chalices from the church. These were later flown back to Mupa in a Puma helicopter.

After the service, the group contributed to a collection for the church. Father Renato said they wanted to replace the organ and do maintenance and repair work on the buildings.