Angola under Attack
Victoria Brittain
In an extract from her forthcoming book, Death of Dignity, Victoria Brittain describes the assault on Angola in the 1980s.


From Soundings issue 7 Autumn 1997

Arriving in Luanda from Europe in late 1984 for the first time, the airport was an instant warning that this was a world where people lived by other codes, far from my experience. It was stifling hot in the crowd pushing towards immigration, mosquitoes buzzed and bit, and it was completely dark at the entrance to the terminal, the only light far ahead behind the high screens of the immigration officials. I knew no one in Angola and spoke not a word of Portuguese. In the hour or so of squeezing towards the desk, falling progressively further and further to the back of the crowd, I had plenty of time to regret the curiosity which had driven me through the laborious process of getting a rare journalist's visa, and now appeared to promise two weeks completely out of my depth. My years of working in Uganda after Idi Amin, when the entire infrastructure had collapsed and journalists had to travel with their own food and petrol, or Sudan when it was overwhelmed with tens of thousands of Ugandan and Ethiopian refugees, Somalia during the war with Ethiopia, or the Sahel of the great drought which destroyed the centuries' old nomadic civilisation of a whole region of West Africa, suddenly seemed a poor preparation for the toughness of Angola. Waiting in the dark, the heat, and the crush, I went over the little I knew about Angola's war, and the stubborn determination to try to understand it which lay behind this visit. Since independence from Portugal in 1975 South Africa had repeatedly invaded and occupied the southern provinces; a camp of Swapo refugees, including many children, had been massacred from South African helicopter gun ships at Kassinga; an ANC teacher at the University of Lubango, Jeanette Schoon, and her small daughter, had been assassinated by a South African letter bomb; tens of thousands of peasants had been killed, kidnapped, or driven from their villages by land mines - victims of Unita terror tactics. President Dos Santos had recently put the cost of destruction since independence at $10 billion. All this I knew only second-hand, from piecing together scraps of news out of one of the most closed countries in Africa. It added up to catastrophe, but it was a catastrophe out of sight, visited upon anonymous people whose pain never impinged on the rest of the world. Unlike Africa's better known disasters -famines, coups, border wars - which hit the headlines and the television screens for a week or a month, Angola's disaster had gone on for so many years that it was no longer news, triggered no outrage nor even much interest.
My visa had come with an invitation from the Angolan Women's Organisation (OMA). South Africa's ten year old undeclared war with Angola had the country on its knees, and the Angolan authorities were deeply sceptical about Western journalists, who mostly reported Angola out of Johannesburg, or through interviews with the fluent and media-friendly leader of Unita, Jonas Savimbi, at his headquarters in south east Angola, under the vigilant protection of the South African military; and none were allowed in except with a programme carefully controlled by the authorities. The relief at finally being met in the darkness outside the terminal by a woman from OMA was so extreme that neither her minimal English, nor the nastiness of my stuffy room on the tenth floor of a shabby hotel mattered that night.
But twenty four hours later I was in despair as I saw how little I was likely to find out or understand in this place which I lacked any key to. The hotel was state owned and mostly used then by foreigners from socialist countries here in Angola working as teachers, doctors, engineers or military advisers. The lady from OMA gave me vouchers which allowed me to eat in the down-at-heel restaurant on the 20th floor reached by one small lift which worked only intermittently. A slow procession up and down the narrow staircase went on for half an hour either side of the meal hours. The restaurant was filled with tables crowded with groups of chattering Cubans, East Europeans, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Angolans. I sat alone and no one spoke to me. Beyond the language barrier was the even bigger one that I, apparently alone in the hotel and probably in the whole country, was not part of the common fight by these tough people for the survival of Angola's independence. The meals were torture, not just because the food was hard to swallow, though it certainly was, but because I would stare at the faces and imagine the dramas of their experiences, their stories, their thoughts, and know I would never know them.
Once a day my minder from OMA took me out to a formal interview with a selected government official, or to an OMA project where the women of a poor barrio sang and danced for a visitor. It was a paradox that, although the single party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), or its offshoot OMA in my case, could organise entry into anything or a meeting with anybody, lack of imagination and flexibility meant they chose to organise my seeing things only at the superficial level of a prepared presentation. And I was too ignorant and too embarrassed by my ignorance to force a change in the agenda. The formality of these encounters as much as the language barrier meant the frustration of seeing these people living through the drama of war, upheaval, dispossession, bereavement and poverty, as though at the other side of a frosted glass pane. Because the realities were not articulated in any normally casual conversation I felt I was not grasping them, but merely becoming overwhelmed by a crushing sensation of the pain and injustice which underlay all these individual experiences.
There were flashes of something different. I had asked to see the Air Force Commander, Iko Carreira, a hero of the liberation war and a friend of one of my friends in Europe. There was no formality and no interpreters for the interview in his office in the Ministry of Defence. Sophisticated, amusing and extremely good looking, Iko was immediately friendly, and prepared to spend hours on the ABC of the current military situation, and to explain where Unita were pushing forward. Confident, optimistic, he went on to spell out their dependence on South Africa, and the illegal use of Namibia by the South African military, and to forecast that once Namibia was independent Unita would lose its lifeline and be easily defeated. He pointed to the maps on the wall and drew a line showing where the South African military were still occupying a stretch of the south of the country. Then, very casually, he gave me my first taste of how personally things get done in Angola: 'I'll get a plane to fly you down there before you leave and you can see for yourself they're still there, months after agreeing to leave'. No formal request would ever have produced such a gift of firsthand experience, but Iko did it and I did not see him again to thank him. I used to stand on a chair to look out of my bedroom window in the hotel at a small slice of Luanda. Broken pavements, pot-holed roads, huge piles of rubbish, empty shop windows, crumbling apartment blocks, were a desolate
background to the glimpse of the beautiful long curved bay which is the capital's focus. Palm trees against the blue water, and a fringe of sand on the far side of the bay, were like a hint of a normal West African coastal world. In contrast, on the streets downtown the people showed clearly the strain of a society disrupted by war. Country women in faded wraparound cloths, with babies tied on their backs, young people in the rather flash styles of downtown Lisbon, and ex-soldiers in tattered uniforms, usually on crutches, made their way wearily. Neither the sacked and looted towns of Uganda after Idi Amin in 1979, nor the dilapidated hotels and run-down streets of Accra when Flight Lieutenant Rawlings staged his second take¬over in 1981, gave off the atmosphere of overwhelming melancholy of Luanda in the mid-1980s. Here the faces were set, hard to look at.
But one evening, picking my way with a torch between the garbage and the pot-holes among apartment blocks whose numbers were chalked at random, to find a friend of a friend said to live on the eighth floor, I began to find an exhilaration beyond the melancholy. Here were people whose matter-of-fact acceptance of an everyday life lived against the background of rare electricity, sporadic water supply, no telephone, no public transport, and all the shortages of a war economy, plus its sudden deaths, from the continuing invasions and sabotage by South Africa, had a resilience beyond my experience. My friend's friends were part of the mainly white and mestico intellectual circle of Luanda which had opposed Portuguese colonialism and supported the MPLA, often becoming ministers, ambassadors or other key officials in the early exciting years of independence, now vanished as the new war had gripped the country. The evening's conversation ranged from French movies to Algerian politics via American culture. Everyone there spoke French and some English - I was released from my prison of non-communication, though no one seemed to want to talk much about Angola.
Other evenings in Luanda in other flats of friends of friends, painstakingly found by tramping round with my torch ignoring the rats, brought me more of these cultivated engaging people, but still no real clues about Angola. I was beginning to learn that, as I had felt so overwhelmingly at the dark airport, this was not a society which worked by normal rules, nor which had much coherence. For one thing there seemed to be little overlap between the formality and rigidity of the MPLA, the party, the country's defence against the onslaught from South Africa, and these agreeable sophisticated people in the capital.
I had asked in my original formal visa application to go to Huambo, provincial capital of the Central Highlands, and now an island of government control surrounded by areas where Unita held sway. My minder from OMA got the tickets after several fruitless trips to Angolan Airlines, long waits in queues which never moved, and several cancellations of the departure date. The airport in Luanda was a different kind of shock this time. After a long wait for a much delayed flight there was a sudden rush as of a football crowd to the steps of the plane. The OMA lady proved to have sharp elbows and to be a determined fighter and pushed me through the crowd and onto the plane with extraordinary force. People stood aside politely for a foreigner. Several hundred weary-looking people, laden down with bags and children, were left behind on the tarmac, disconsolately heading back to the hard benches of the departure area to wait for another flight, another day.
If Luanda was melancholy, Huambo was desolate. The plane circled abruptly down to avoid Unita missiles, leaving stomachs behind with a lurch. The airport was a windy strip with dilapidated buildings and a tattered MPLA flag flying. The streets were even more broken down than those of the capital, shops closed, apartment blocks crumbling, offices empty. Tangled bushes of dusty bougainvillaea sprayed orange, purple and red flowers out across cracked pavements, the few vehicles on the roads seemed to be all military trucks. The sound of tapping crutches filled the silence, empty trouser legs flapped below the faces of soldiers so young-looking that the blankness of their eyes was impossible to meet without feeling you were intruding. Huambo was raw pain. It was the town which hooked me and ensured that Angola's tragedy would always be refracted to me at a special angle.
The town was under virtual siege by Unita and could be reached only by the irregular internal flight we had come on. The electricity and water supplies had been sabotaged, the railway from the coast was closed after repeated ambushes by Unita and stretches of the track being blown up. The Benguela railway was a key target for Unita and had suffered an estimated $60 million worth of damage from repeated sabotage. The town's factories stood empty. That night, in another hotel room just as dark and grim as that in Luanda, explosions and gunfire punctuated the darkness and made it impossible to sleep. In contrast with Luanda the highland air was cold, there was a bitter wind and it began to rain.
Miette Marcelino, head of OMA in Huambo, picked me up in her car the next morning and showed me around a day-care centre, the hospital, and, with an escort of two trucks of soldiers, one in front of the car and one behind, an orphanage a few miles outside the town. It was an empty shelter where the children were fed and sheltered, there was nothing beyond the barest necessities. On the way we passed a makeshift camp of thousands of displaced peasants on the edge of the town. We reached the hospital by mid-afternoon where a new crop of mine victims lay on iron bedsteads with no mattresses, faces stunned by shock and agony. Angolan, Cuban and Russian doctors passed m and out of the operating room where the amputations were being carried out, drawn with the exhaustion of working round the clock with minimal resources. Miette Marcelino leaned over the cot of a skeletal child with marasmus who an Angolan nurse told us had little chance of surviving, and touched his mother's hand with sympathy. It seemed as though all Huambo's pain was concentrated in that tiny shrivelled face of an innocent victim. (Ten years later visiting that hospital in a different era an Angolan doctor with a deeply lined gentle face came up and reminded me that he had taken us round that day. 'You were in an OMA delegation and you cried over one child who was dying ... all of us had long before given up crying'.)
Miette Marcelino, tall, slim, the mother of seven children, asked me to spend the evening with her family instead of going back to the terrible silence and cold of the hotel. It was a welcome escape from confronting my thoughts about what I had seen of shattered lives in that one day. Miette's husband, Fernando, was an agricultural scientist and head of the research station at Chianga just outside Huambo. Chianga was part of the university and a new generation of agricultural economists and botanists was trained here by his team to the highest of standards in the years after independence. The campus was set in a park of huge and ancient flowering trees, with laboratories, libraries of rare books, and a collection of soil samples in hundreds of glass jars which mapped the different fertility across Angola's contrasting land from northern forest to southern savannah. The night before I was to visit Chianga, Unita placed a mine on the approach road, blowing up the first car to arrive at the research station in the morning. That same night, on the other side of Huambo, they also blew up the International Red Cross office and the clinic at Bomba Alta which made artificial limbs for mine victims. The freshly blackened walls and charred remnants of artificial limbs, like the new gaping hole in the Chianga road, seemed suddenly to bring this war of random killing and destruction even closer than the tens of thousands of maimed and displaced peasants who so visibly peopled Huambo.
The Marcelinos, and their great friend Dr David Bernadino who I was to meet with them, were quite different from anyone I had met in Angola, either the formal Party contacts through OMA, or the cosmopolitan circle of my friend's friends. These people looked and behaved as though from another world - utterly dedicated to the ideals of the MPLA which they had carried since before independence, and so schooled in the acceptance of danger, hardship and sorrow that they were unmentioned. No civilians lived a life closer to the dangers and privations of the front line, but they had chosen that life in Huambo, in part in solidarity with the peasants who could not choose where they lived. Dr Bernadino was a socialist, a painter, a writer, a lover of music and ballet, as his small house in the centre of town immediately revealed when we went there that evening. On big panels on the wall he had painted Picasso-like dancing people with trumpets and horns against a background of blue lakes and black mountains; on another was a solitary, reflective zebra. His chosen work was in a small primary health care clinic which he had built on the edge of Huambo town, where the road disappears into high grass and a red earth track winds past mud and wattle huts, patches of maize, and the waving fronds of banana trees. Every day he was here, treating malaria, malnutrition, the diseases of the poor, and, under the wattle roof built to shade the adjoining courtyard, overseeing the huge pots of food for the dozens of skinny children who came in every day. But at the same time he was one of Huambo's links to the outside world where his specialised research on goitre was internationally known.

Ten years later, these three, whose fierce idealism had made them the soul of Huambo, were assassinated by Unita in two separate attacks. The killers got away with impunity. The quietly heroic lives of Dr Bernadino and the Marcelinos, and the manner of their deaths, symbolise the chance that Angola had and lost, to become a leader of a post-colonial Africa which put its millions of poor and deprived at the top of the continental agenda. That hope was brutally undermined in those years when South African-led destabilisation by Unita flourished and matured into a force which broke the state of Angola. These killings symbolised Unita's determination to have Angola on their own terms. Racism, culture, ideology all played a part in these assassinations. For David and the Marcelinos, their work, which gave their lives meaning, and their pleasures of classical music and movies like Babette's Feast, their libraries, their internationalism, their uncompromising honesty, gave them an unbreakable independence from any central power. The organisations they ran - Chianga, OMA, the clinic - were all ones which promised ordinary people, if not a taste of that independence, at least the chance of making choices and a better future for themselves. But the idea of choices and personal autonomy for Angola's peasants ran smack up against Unita's totalitarian concepts and practices -Huambo was marked for a disastrous clash. In 1984, though, no one seemed to foresee that the disaster could get worse. Everyone lived in the present, and it was made bearable by the thought that the war would be over just as soon as South Africa achieved majority rule.
The following week I flew north in a small plane, invited by the MPLA's Organising Secretary, Lucio Lara, who had had a letter introducing me from his old friend from the guerrilla struggle, the British historian Basil Davidson, and who was visiting peasant co-operatives organised by the Party. Lara, tall, spare, aesthetic, with a heavy Latin moustache, was the man who epitomised the heroic Angola which lived so long in the imagination of so many Africans across the continent. He was the leading ideologue in the MPLA from the years of the guerrilla struggle in the forests of Cabinda and the bush of Eastern Angola, and the man best known and trusted by the top Cuban leadership, many of whom were part of Angola's fight for independence from those days.
'L'Afrique profonde’, that's what they always wanted Angola to be', he once said to me, much later, encapsulating decades of what he had fought against. 'L'Afrique profonde' sums up every stereotype of black Africa: Conrad's Heart of Darkness; Idi Amin's evil buffoonery; Bokassa and cannibalism; the savagery of Doe's beach executions and his own gruesome end captured on video - crude leadership of ignorant, child-like people. Savimbi was a similar figure: Unita's primitive fascism, in which all potential rivals to Jonas Savimbi were killed, and social control maintained by the terror of public burning of women as witches, and the kidnapping which wrested young men and girls out of family and community, created totally dependent people, devoid or free will, emotionally annihilated. The town or Malange was holding the line against L'Afrique profonde in 1984. It was even colder than Huambo and lost in mist and rain. The pot-holed roads, broken buildings, and closed shops told the same story of a community under virtual siege. But the scent of despair was not there. This was a town fighting a war well understood as fired by imperialism. On the walls of the main street, huge painted murals of Angola's first President, Agostinho Neto, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, shouted defiance at the South Africans, Unita and their US backers. In the main square flame trees shaded a war memorial made entirely of old AK47 rifles and spent rounds, which commemorated the Cuban soldiers who had given their lives here. As in Huambo the defence of the town was assured by a Cuban garrison and there was also a clandestine camp of South African African National Congress guerrillas in the province.
We stayed in the Governor's palace, a chateau crumbling from years with no maintenance, but with beautiful long rooms filled with old ornate Portuguese sofas, armchairs, and cloudy mirrors. Meals were at a long table filled with the Governor's staff and Party officials, and the talk, in several languages, was of the difficult, and deteriorating, economic and security situation in the province, and of the uneasy stand-off in the south of the country where, as Iko Carreira had explained, occupying South African forces had not begun to pull back over the border to Namibia as they had promised in negotiations earlier in the year.
Lucio Lara spent two days driving round co-operative farms with the province Governor and MPLA party officials, looking at water taps, tractors, ploughs and harrows, and listening to peasant leaders talk and talk of their difficulties. Shortages of fuel and spare parts for tractors, kerosene for lamps, soap, salt and other necessities meant that many of the co-operatives were doing poorly. The war was encroaching on their rich agricultural province, roads were no longer safe to travel, young men and boys had been kidnapped by Unita and never seen again, supplies of inputs needed for the farms, which should come from Luanda, were scarce. Through hours of sitting in farm courtyards Lara barely spoke, but listened as the complaints came thick and fast, with no fear of the man in authority. The peasants were angry and asking for more military action against Unita, against the South Africans, to safeguard their land and crops from further deterioration. Here was another vision of what the Party meant to people, quite different from the formality I had been shown before. Here the MPLA was the centre of people's lives, their security, their entry into a new world of organised farming, and the faith in the leadership was touching and unmistakable.
On the last day, as he went into the closing meeting with the Governor and Party, Lara sent me off to see one of Angola's wonders, the Calendula waterfall. We drove along a battered tarmac road past forests of huge flowering trees and fields of maize and coffee. When we got out of the car to walk down to Calendula for a moment, the realities behind the escort of two dozen soldiers, the strict orders not to step beyond the path because of the danger of mines, and to start back well before dark, were forgotten before the beauty of the huge, thundering falls, iridescent in the sun, and framed by giant ferns and flowering pink and white trees. It was a beauty that would be cut off from sight for years a few months later, as Unita moved deeper into the province cutting off Calendula and more roads and farming areas. Beautiful Calendula vanished into L’Afrique profonde.