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Angola – Land of Endless War

Breaking camp before dawn and traveling further north the following day took us through some breathtaking mountainous areas. All the towns we passed were shot up, with bombed out Police out-posts.

At Ondangua, northern Namibia, I met up with the convoy I was traveling with into Angola. We encountered no border controls and continued on past Ruacana Falls to Xangongo, which was once a prosperous Portuguese town, but now most buildings had no roofs and the town was quiet and overgrown. Many of the crumbling buildings’ white-washed facades were riddled with bullet holes. In some places, the road was not clear and the convoy needed to back track several times. On one such occasion, when the convoy had stopped, we heard faint music to the east. We followed the sound and found the road lined with people walking to a nearby village, joyously singing hymns.

Piet, a rugged and amiable member of the convoy team with Johannesburg registration plates, spoke in Portuguese to one of the passing Africans. He translated that the Madala (wise old man) had said, “He reckons his people were emerging by the thousand each day from the jungle, children with stomachs bloated by malnutrition, scrawny mothers dressed in rags and terrified fathers who feared punishment for supporting the defeated rebels.” Piet looked away and gulped, “The Madala and the other village elders felt that the fog of war was still slowly lifting in Angola, revealing a country close to the Dark Ages, with millions of starving, homeless people, following years of living wild in the bush.”

The convoy continued further and came across a woman walking towards Xangongo, now some 15 kilometers behind us. She stepped off the road to allow us to pass and shaded her eyes against the bright sun. She hitched up the weeping child she carried on her bony hip and found a smile for the passing vehicles. Piet told all the drivers before leaving Xangongo that the Madala suggested they do not stop to hand beggars food as thousands would come charging out of the bush looking for similar sustenance.

Regardless of this caution, I could not pass the woman without rendering some aide and rummaged through the cooler box, handing her two sandwich packs. The woman gently placed her child on the gravel road, ripped open the cellophane packaging and then stared at its contents in awe. She had clearly no idea what she held in her hand. The child started to cry and held his arms up to his mother who knelt down and fed him broken off pieces of the bread. I saw that one of his eyes was gummed with infection and his drum-tight, distended stomach strained over his splayed ribs. I said a silent prayer and continued.

In treacherous stormy weather we traveled on toward Chibemba and met up with our Police escort. It must have been quite a sight for the locals – not since the South African Defense Force arrived in the mid 70’s had this town seen such a large convoy of vehicles. Piet spoke with the Police Captain at length about their recovery from Africa’s longest running bush war. He translated, “The Captain says there is a vast population living in fear deep in the bush, a long way from international aid organizations, and some did not even know the war was over.”

Once passports were checked, names and registration numbers noted down and vehicles given a cursory inspection we once again moved on. The Police were driving Land Rovers and armed with cheap imitation Oakley sunglasses and very real AK’s and each had a leg hanging over the side of their bucking and bouncing 4×4. The front convoy vehicle got stuck in thick black mud and one of the Namibian drivers came to the rescue with a snatch strap, which he hooked up and snapped the Land Rover out of the mud sending the drivers’ head reeling back against the headrest, his eyes staring wildly forward and a silly grin on his face.

At sunset we stopped for the night outside Honga; in a very colonial fashion the men put up the tents and set out their canvas chairs. The party relaxed, the temperature eased down to around 30 degrees and there was a collective sigh at the sound of the ceremonial opening of the first beer. A while later a group of Himba tribesmen appeared from amongst the trees. They walked up to the campsite, leant on stout poles and gabbled on in their native tongue, frowning and pointing. Without warning, the Police Captain shot a round into the air and the Himba dispersed. He settled back against the tree, pulled his cap over his eyes and laid his AK across his chest.

Dinner that evening was a barbequed goat which one of the Policemen procured from the woods. With the proverbial bull of campfire chat and lots of alcohol, the convoy and Police escort partied till very late. The policemen were drunk before dinner and spent the evening maintaining that state. Later the Captain became trigger-happy and used moths for target practice.

In the middle of the night, a donkey (Himba owned) felt the need to play and made a racket galloping around the campsite, neighing for all his worth. I felt certain the Captain’s weapon was the most thought about item during that long night.

Breaking camp before dawn and traveling further north the following day took us through some breathtaking mountainous areas. At one point we were surrounded by peaks that turned changed colour; from black to blue to green and then as the sun picked up the undergrowth so the flowers brought the landscape to life. All the towns we passed were shot up, with bombed out Police out-posts.

We stopped off at Huambo – another town shattered by bullets, mortar and artillery fire. At the Police station, which displayed their country’s colours on a flagpole which clearly had not been taken down since independence, passports were again collected. This was a ritual that had to be followed in every town we stopped in. Names, registrations and who traveled with who was noted.

The drive north was picturesque. The setting sun shone through the dust kicked up by the vehicles ahead, with a foreground of pale green grass contrasting against the pink mountains. Rounding the next bend was a town out of a spaghetti western. Again all shot up and left to rot. The theme tune from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, sprang to mind.

That night we slept in rooms adjoining a brothel/disco. The Police escorts soon found company and thankfully, the loud music drowned out all the other sounds.

The following morning a young African boy was begging by the entrance. He told Piet his sole possession was a tattered anorak. He had not eaten in two days. His legs were blistered and scarred. One of the prostitutes explained that children like him often suffered such injuries because without any clothes or bed linen they were forced too close to the fire at night.

The Police Captain announced he had been radioed by his HQ to change tack. There had been an incident in a town on the route we were to have followed and as such, the Captain decided to head due west, to the coast. It was a hard drive along roads that had long since dissolved into rubble and sand tracks. We passed many beggars, purposefully walking to who knows where. It was clear that starvation was the norm in Angola. We eventually arrived in the coastal town of Cubal, I was awestruck at the beauty before us.

Whilst the convoy pitched tents and got themselves ready for another night of festivities, I detached myself from them and took a long walk along the beach, six-pack in hand. I found a small cove and sat on the powdery white sand to watch the pink sunset. I turned my walkman up and felt certain Dire Straits had been sitting on this very beach when they composed “Brothers in Arms”.

A while later a young, good-looking African couple emerged from the trees. I beckoned to them to join me so we could enjoy the sunset together. The woman’s name was Manuela and her companion was Enrique; in broken English they managed to explain that they were nurses at the nearby Lobito hospital and had worked at several other hospitals throughout Angola. Enrique, nodding gravely, told that the civil war had started before he was born and now that it had ended, they were still treating landmine victims, many of whom were children. Manuela said the hospitals were rundown and medicines were in short supply, often requiring that they treat injuries without anaesthetics or even painkillers.

Roads that people thought were safe suddenly became death traps and casualty rates were rising. Enrique told of the hospital’s latest landmine victims and described how his patients lay numbed with grief, their stumps swathed in bloody bandages. Enrique felt worse still was the stench. He told of a woman who had lost both legs in a blast that killed her child and husband; next to her was a 12-year-old boy who triggered a mine that shattered his leg and left his mother and brother dead. “These were just ordinary people, out looking for food or water, or traveling from one village to another, who had simply stepped on the wrong patch of earth”, added Manuela.

The following morning the convoy and Police escort traveled further north along the coast, towards Kissama National Park, nearing Luanda. I was lost in thought and mechanically followed Piet’s Land Rover and was slightly bemused when he fish-tailed through muddy tracks. I turned on the radio and relaxed, thinking of my family and friends. A loud explosion shook through my Land Cruiser. Ahead of me Piet’s vehicle was engulfed in smoke ” flames coming out from the undercarriage.

He had detonated a land mine.

I looked on helplessly, sure in my mind that Piet had been killed. But as the flames and smoke died down, I realised that he was alive as he was shouting profanities out the window. The landmine had exploded by the side of the road, clearly it had been aggravated by the numerous vehicles passing by and was finally triggered by Piet’s 4×4. The force of it had blown in his side window and caused damage to that side of the vehicle, throwing it of course and into the vegetation. But Piet was fine, albeit, shocked. Angola truly seemed to be a country of endless war.

On the final stretch approaching the capital, I became aware of passing more amputees and even more skeletal remains of blown up vehicles on the side of the road, as well as the now ubiquitous bullet-ridden buildings. I recalled the facts and figures I found when doing my Angolan homework back in Cape Town and had expected to see what was reported, but it did not quite prepare me for the reality. To see, smell and feel the desperation whilst driving through the miles of shanty huts on the outskirts of the city was something else. Up the sides of one of the hillsides I passed was a vast rubbish dump that extended as far as the eye could see, filled with decomposing, slimy, stinking trash with potholed pathways climbing through it. Appallingly, hundreds of families lived in hovels hardly distinguishable from the rest of the dump. Babies were crawling on the edge of stagnant pools, women cooking, squatting amidst unbelievable squalor.

I became distracted by what seemed to be a riot going on up ahead. As I neared I saw two men dressed in faded fatigues, one beating a woman with the butt of his AK whilst the other restrained her, laughing at her pathetic attempts to shield the blows directed at her head. She was screaming and shouting in a language I could not understand. The head Police vehicle hooted in recognition of their comrades who, in turn, cheered at the passing convoy. I glanced in the rear view mirror and quickly averted my gaze when I saw the rifle butt coming down on the defenseless woman’s head again.

Driving through Luanda was an experience in itself. The streets of the capital were the worst I had ever seen with potholes of lunar proportions, temporarily filled with water, providing perfect homes for mosquitoes. My impression of Luanda was that of an old abandoned city that no one cared about any more. The reality was that millions of people lived in the area, many in temporary homes that had become all too permanent – sheds, garages and in one case, a family living inside a chicken coop. On my way through the city I saw people maimed either by war or landmines. Men, women and children came running up to the vehicles, begging for food or money or anything else we had. One man came up to my window when the convoy had momentarily stopped; he could hardly speak. It appeared that he only had half a face. This was a savage land and I struggled to take it all in.

On arrival at our hotel, Piet pointed out the feature wall adjacent to the reception area. Hotel management were clearly patriotic as this wall, historically used for executions, was riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood stains yet elegantly lit with a soft up-light.

The reception area was swarming with what I assumed to be conference delegates. The air-conditioner was clearly ineffective as the room was unbearably hot and there was a strong, distinctive choking smell of sweat. It was more like a goat market than a four-star hotel.

Cindy Lou Dale