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Angola: Promises and Lies

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In the Time of Guerra

Sílvia Neyala Zinga looks like a little black doll in a pink dress when she answers the door, nonchalantly relieves herself on the floor and withdraws into the interior of the flat. Perhaps it is her natural reaction to a white face, or perhaps it is just time to go. Sílvia is two years old. She is quite practised at opening the front door, although her greeting might be improved upon. Her mother, Deofina Chinima, has not been able to walk very quickly ever since a mortar shell blew away half of her left foot. Her father, Fernando Denis, died two months before she was born. Her eldest brother, Alberto, is missing and her other brother, Inácio, just returned after a two-year disappearance, spends most of his time on the street. Sílvia is growing up in the time of guerra, war.

With fluffy white clouds drifting across a deep blue sky atop the rolling green hills of Angola's central highlands, the view from the veranda of their sixth-floor flat in the city of Huambo is picture-perfect. Inside the panorama is rather more sombre. The dark brown wooden floors are clean but bare. There is one little table in the centre of the living room, three peg-leg stools for visitors and mats for beds. Deofina's wardrobe consists of a couple of shirts and skirts. Everything else, the furniture, clothes and cooking utensils, has been sold over the past two years to buy food. The kitchen is empty too, except for a small plastic bag of maize meal Deofina has received from the International Committee of the Red Cross. That and tremendous will-power are the only things keeping the family alive.

Almost all of Huambo's 300,000 people depend on hand-outs of food and medicine sent by the United Nations and international aid agencies. Angola's vast reserves of oil and diamonds should make it one of Africa's richest countries, but the politicians – Deofina calls them the donos, or owners – spend everything either on the war or themselves.

Inácio, Deofina's twelve-year-old son, was missing for two years before returning home earlier in the month. Deofina does not care that Inácio is another mouth to feed, too young to contribute to the family's groceries but old enough to eat like an adult. He has grown into a young man since he has been away, Deofina says admiringly, but she has no trouble in making him feel at home. 'It is never difficult for a mother,' she mutters below a shy smile. Deofina only wishes that Alberto, aged sixteen, would come back too. He ran away to live as a street kid in the capital, Luanda. 'I don't know how he is living, but I really want that boy back.'

Things started falling apart for Deofina's family in October 1992 when Angola's donos decided that the civil war, already Africa's oldest conflict, had not run its course. Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA rebel movement, claimed that President José Eduardo dos Santos's MPLA government had cheated him in the country's first general elections. No matter that the United Nations and the entire world said the polls had been relatively free and fair, that they were a remarkable demonstration by yet another oppressed people of the universal desire to have a say in their own lives. What mattered was that one side lost, and the only recourse was to take power, or to hold onto it, by armed force.

When the initial battle erupted in Huambo, a soldier named Fernando Denis, Deofina's husband, was one of the first casualties. The United Nations negotiated a temporary ceasefire, but three months later UNITA told the world to go to hell and launched its final drive to capture Huambo, which Savimbi hoped would become the capital of his 'new Angola'.

The siege began on 8 January 1993, just after Sílvia's birth. She and her mother were in the stairwell on the back of their high-rise block when a mortar shell slammed into the wall and sent shards of burning metal ripping through Deofina's foot. Alberto and Inácio went scampering down the stairwell. 'I told them "Run, boys, run and hide,"' says Deofina. 'I knew it was too dangerous to stay in the building. But I couldn't follow them. I crawled back into the apartment with Sílvia and stayed here for four days until some neighbours found us.'

The boys disappeared. After the siege ended, 55 days and 10,000 lives later, friends helped Deofina to reach the Bomba Alta complex of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and from there she was sent to a hospital in Bailundo, a small town 40 miles to the north, where she spent the next six months. She emerged from the treatment as an amputee, a mutilada, one of tens of thousands of people who have been maimed in the fighting, either by shrapnel or landmines.

Deofina's neighbours told her that the boys would never return, that they were dead, just as her husband was. But she would not listen. When other families held traditional symbolic funerals for their missing loved ones, Deofina refused. 'I just could not do it. I kept making excuses to wait longer.'

Alberto and Inácio had fled Huambo during the siege to escape the constant firefights and mortar bombardments. They joined one of the massive human columns of government soldiers and civilians who walked 100, sometimes 150 miles, through the bush, through the rain, over mined roads and fields, to garrison towns near the Atlantic Ocean. For most, it took about two weeks to reach their destination. They swam across rivers, trudged through mud and climbed hills. Some women even gave birth along the way.

Inácio remembers that the most difficult part of the journey came when they reached the River Catumbela. To cross the swift current swollen by the summer rains, the soldiers removed the straps from their AK-47 assault rifles, tied them together to make a long chord and tried to drag everyone across. 'Many people died there, especially the older ones,' says Inácio. 'They were too weak to hold on and were swept away in the water.'

After government forces recaptured Huambo from Savimbi's UNITA in early November 1994, a cousin told Deofina that the International Committee of the Red Cross was helping to bring separated families back together. Then came word that the boys were alive. They were at an orphanage in Lobito, a port city about 150 miles west of Huambo. Alberto had written a letter to the British charity, Save the Children, saying his mother lived in the Benfica neighbourhood of the city and requesting help in finding her.

For three weeks Save the Children asked around the neighbourhood until they located Deofina. In the meantime Alberto stowed away on a boat and, like thousands of other homeless children his age, gravitated to the bright lights of Luanda, where he could hustle money in the company of petty criminals and guarding or, if he was lucky, washing rich people's cars.

It is February 1995 and there should be a feeling of new hope in Huambo. The war is supposed to be over, again. The MPLA and UNITA signed another ceasefire three months ago and the United Nations is sending in observers and 7,000 troops to ensure that this time the peace will hold. Many Angolans fear, however, that the new deal will work no better than its predecessors. There are ample signs that the two sides are simply using the lull in the fighting to re-arm and re-equip their forces to have another go at a war neither can ever win.

UNITA and the MPLA have been fighting back and forth over the two decades since independence, switching international alliances and ideologies as needed, rounding up young men when their ranks are thin, buying millions of dollars' worth of arms when they are short of firepower, even hiring foreign mercenaries, but the result is always the same: a grinding military stalemate that has left thousands more civilians dead or homeless and hungry, more schools and health posts gutted, an entire generation shell-shocked.

The first chance for peace collapsed on the eve of independence from Portugal in November 1975, when the MPLA, supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, drove Savimbi's UNITA and a third, now effectively defunct, faction, Holden Roberto's FNLA, both backed by the United States and South Africa, out of Luanda. The second opportunity fell apart after the 1992 elections. The United Nations and the most powerful nations on earth were unable to stop the return to war. Since then some observers estimate that 500,000 people have died in the fighting and the famine and disease it has provoked.

Only God can intervene, Deofina believes, to save a people condemned to damnation by their leaders. She is a deeply religious woman, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and she is hoping God will do away with the politicians and self-appointed messiahs – the donos – who have dragged the country, her family, to ruin. 'The problem is that the donos never die.'


Welcome to Angola, home of the worst war in the world, a massive international relief effort, white mercenaries, black megalomaniacs, diamond smuggling, arms dealing and record numbers of amputees, like Deofina, so many mutilados that it seems the country has spawned a new species of limbless human beings. It is also a land of natural treasures and a people of humbling determination. Doctors and teachers who earn the equivalent of a six-pack of beer a month, if they are paid, truck drivers who risk their lives on every run, street-market women who must constantly evade police-turned-robbers just to make a sale. Angola is the new world order in its purest form, a nasty stain left over by the Cold War which has proved almost impossible to remove.

The first time I heard of Angola I never imagined it, or any place, could be like this. Now I seem to see Angola everywhere, most obviously in other decaying African nations such as Somalia, Nigeria and, until its recent peace settlement, Mozambique, and in the television images from the countries of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Even in the streets of American cities, where crack gangs and corrupt politicians vie for power, or among the homeless families in the cities of Western Europe, there is a little whiff of Angola.

My first contact occurred just before Angola's independence twenty years ago on a visit to Lisbon. I was seventeen years old and on my first trip outside the United States, indeed on one of only a handful of forays beyond my home state of Kentucky. After I graduated from high school, a friend invited me to visit her mother in Holland for the summer. My friend's mother was a Marxist and her idea of a holiday was to travel to Spain to witness the death throes of Generalísimo Francisco Franco's dictatorship. It turned out to be a very good idea.

We also visited Portugal, which was still in turmoil a year after the Revolution of Carnations had thrown out the fascist dictatorship and set free Lisbon's colonies. The excitement of the new order in Lisbon was like springtime compared to the gloom of Madrid. Monuments, walls, buildings and banks, literally everything was painted red by a kaleidoscope of Marxist mini-parties calling for workers' revolution.

One day I was walking in central Lisbon near the Bairro Alto district when I came upon a demonstration by thousands of people demanding bread and jobs from the new government. Portugal had sent its poor, illiterate, unemployed and its exiled convicts, the degredados, out to colonies such as Angola and Mozambique, and with the collapse of the colonial administrations they were returning home en masse to claim a good turn from their country. I walked up to one elderly man and asked where he had come from. The place he named sounded magical.

'Angola,' he said.

I did not realise it at the time, but Angola had become a flashpoint in the Cold War rivalry. Smarting from its recent defeat in Vietnam, Washington had latched onto another anti-communist crusade. The US Central Intelligence Agency, the Soviets, the South Africans, the Cubans and dozens of European and American mercenaries were attempting to outdo each other in supporting the various factions in a game of one-upmanship in the African bush. All sides pumped hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of arms into the country, weapons Angola's politicians were only too happy to hand out to young troops who were largely press-ganged to fight it out.

With the support of the United States, the South Africans invaded to bolster UNITA and to defend the region against the communist onslaught that existed more in their minds and their need to justify their warped system of apartheid than in reality. A South African armoured column roared across the border with Namibia, the south-west African colony illegally occupied by Pretoria, and was within 100 miles of Luanda before it was routed by thousands of Cuban troops dispatched by Fidel Castro to defend the MPLA. Angola's independence was born in blood. Its democracy would maintain the tradition.

Angola possessed great wealth in oil and diamonds and had once been the world's fourth biggest coffee producer. It was just another dubious beneficiary of Portugal's civilising mission in Africa: up to four million of its fittest youth had been shipped to the Americas in the slave trade, and at independence the illiteracy rate was over 90 per cent and the number of doctors could be counted on two hands.

None of this mattered to Henry Kissinger and his strategic planners in Washington. So strong was their taste for war that when Jonas Savimbi attempted to initiate peace discussions with the MPLA in September 1975, the United States objected. No one supported by the CIA had any business being soft on communism. In the ensuing years the war dragged the country down and helped to lift up the arms dealers' bottom line. Thousands of Cuban troops and oil revenues kept the MPLA government afloat, while repeated South African invasions and millions of dollars in American aid to UNITA ensured military stalemate.

Eleven years later, in 1986, I quit my job in New York City and travelled to southern Africa to become a freelance journalist. Angola was my first assignment. It nearly ended in disaster.
The flight from Harare touched down on a dull grey Sunday afternoon. Only one other person, a Swedish diplomat, disembarked, and the rest of the passengers who were continuing to Lisbon looked at me as if I was insane. Why would anyone want to stop in Luanda? Only after I reached the arrival lounge did I understand their astounded expressions. The airport was abandoned except for a couple of teenage soldiers manning the immigration desk. Pools of water emerged from under the lavatory doors. The stench was overpowering.

My visa was a typed letter signed by a deputy trade minister whom I had met in New York. The soldiers holding down the temporary immigration jobs, their AK-47 assault rifles at the ready, could not understand why the visa was not stamped in the passport itself. Frankly, neither did I. The real problem, though, was that they could not read the paper. They asked me to decipher its words. Since I did not speak Portuguese at the time, they were treated to a distinctly Spanish version of my entry permit. It worked up to a point.

We reached a compromise whereby they would keep the letter to show their superiors while I was free to go. There was, of course, a complication. They had placed the entry stamp not in my passport but on the visa paper, so if I was stopped by the police on the street I had no proof that I had entered the country legally. Paranoia about South African and American spies was running high. President Ronald Reagan had just resumed official American aid to Savimbi's 'freedom fighters'. The likelihood of being questioned by the police was a virtual certainty in those days, and without the visa stamp the chances were high that I would spend a night or two in the local jail.

I caught a lift into town and luckily reached the house of a Uruguayan aid worker who was a friend of a friend. He handed me the keys to an empty flat on the Rua dos Massacres and bid me welcome to Angola. No food, no water, and Luanda was in the midst of one of its regular cholera epidemics. The state radio, Rádio Nacional de Angola, kept broadcasting warnings to boil tap water before using it. At 6 o'clock the next morning I queued at a communal tap outside with a group of women who thought I presented a humorous spectacle.

The Anbal de Melo press centre was about one mile away, and when I walked in to introduce myself to the director he said that, since he had no prior knowledge of my visit, I must leave the country immediately. The ticket to Luanda had cost me about one-fifth of my entire savings and I could see my cherished journalistic career vanishing before me. Then Katia Airola, a 60-year-old Finnish woman who worked at the press centre, took pity on me. She convinced the director to relent and began organising a tour of the country for me.

A few days later I casually mentioned my visa problem to Katia. She rushed out to the airport with me in tow and retrieved my visa after rifling through a three-foot-high stack of papers on the floor of the immigration office. Then, for good measure, Katia proceeded to lecture a group of flabbergasted officials about the folly of their actions. How could you take this man's visa? What would happen if he were arrested? she demanded. My luck was beginning to change. Being on hand when Katia, a naturalised Angolan, was dressing down the agents of the country's stifling bureaucracy became one of life's great pleasures. Her age was one of the reasons she always got away with it. In Africa elderly people still command respect.

I was back in Angola in 1988 hoping to reach a little town called Cuito Cuanavale, the site of the biggest battle in Africa since the Second World War. The clash held out the promise of changing the course of history not only in Angola but in the rest of southern Africa as well. The drama was unfolding in the remote south-eastern bushlands of Cuando Cubango province, which because of their harshness, their complete despair, the Portuguese used to call as terras do fim do mundo, the lands at the end of the world.

Copyright © Karl Maier, 2007

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