the sound of mortars

The sound of mortars


ANGOLA IS HAUNTED by the melancholia of a past parenthesised between Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão’s landing at Cabo Negro in 1452 and Jonas Savimbi’s death in a hail of bullets as he crossed the Luvei River, Moxico Province close on five-hundred years later. Until that moment, UNITA’s1 magnetic and ruthless leader had led a bloody campaign first against the Portuguese colonists and then against the Soviet-backed MPLA2. But while his assassination brought relative peace to a country that had seen three decades of civil war, many have yet to reap its benefits. Now, shell-shocked, it sleep-walks through a present where the currency of slaves has been exchanged for oil and where the methods employed to extract diamonds from the country’s north wouldn't be considered out of place on a sixteenth-century sugar plantation.

Where the capital Luanda once saw slave caravans snaking from the interior on paths worn smooth by shackled feet, it now basks on the coast in the greasy light of MPLA oil wealth. Where South African Eland-90 armoured vehicles once pursued FAPLA3 battalions to the edge of Lobito, Sonangol’s oil refineries rise from its yellow desert sands, and where UNITA once blew apart the bridges of the Benguela Railway, Chinese construction companies are putting them back together.

These days Luanda’s waterfront flaunts skyscraper-skylines towering above Miami-style beach-palms. But there is another Angola you won't find among Luanda's swank bars and hotel rooms costing the equivalent of a month's rent. This other Angola starts where the tar roads crumble, rut and decompose into sandy tracks and where bridges collapse across the boiling rivers that criss-cross the country’s interior. The other Angola stands on the side of the road on the outskirts of Menongue – one foot steady on the ground, the other blown off by a landmine and replaced by a makeshift crutch sawn from the branches of a mopane tree. It reaches east to where the Benguela Railway has been forged over the Kasai River into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and south to the drying pans of Cameia National Park, to where the Cubango and Cuito Rivers merge to become the Kavango which later swells the waterways of the Okavango Delta.

It was barely a decade after Savimbi's death and two decades after my own rendezvous with Angola's troubled history, that I find myself queuing to get my passport cleared at the Santa Clara border post. I'd joined an expedition organised by a South African company to map some of the less-frequented parts of the country in the east, including the little-known Cameia National Park. Finally, after a day of enduring the banalities of an African border crossing and by the light of a crimson sun settling on the rim of a darkening horizon, the Nissan Patrol and Sani begin a slow drunken ballet across the potholed road to Ongiva, forty kilometers inside Angola. From the opposite direction, the headlights of eighteen-wheeler articulated trucks sway towards us through the dust thrown up by our slow advance.

We bring the vehicles to a standstill on the grounds of the Omupanda Catholic Mission outside Ongiva. The chapel is closed. A rosary haloed by a single electric bulb, hangs from the door and the sound of prayers emanates from a building nearby. Alberto, a student at the mission, informs us that Father Nazario will not be back until late, but yes, we are welcome to camp beside the chapel.

From Ongiva, deep sand and road wash-outs slow our progress to Caiundo where the waters of the Cubango River flow south strong and blue. These waters will never reach the sea. On the Namibian border they’ll merge with the Cuito before fanning across the Kalahari sands in a silver lattice of distributaries feeding the Okavango. Before the year is out, over ninety percent will have evaporated into the skies over Botswana.

From here our journey takes us north to Menongue and then Kuito – towns whose names reverberate with the after-tremors of bloody battles. The road is good and we speed across a landscape where long after South Africa’s withdrawal in 1989, desperate armies propped up by Cold War rivals fought a war that raged, subsided and then flared again in paroxysms of violence across the length and breadth of this vast country.

Angola's tragic colonial past rushed up to meet it in the early ‘70s when Portugal relinquished its colonial administration after waging a protracted guerrilla war against independence movements. Portuguese colonists, fearing reprisals, fled. At the same time rival liberation armies fractured along tribal fault lines and rushed to fill the vacuum - vying for the power they felt was legitimately theirs. The prize was nothing less than Angola's oil and diamonds.

The fight for independence transmuted into a civil war with the communist aligned MPLA set against pro-Western UNITA and FNLA4 forces. South Africa, fearing the fall of another neighbouring state to communism, sent a covert task force backed by FNLA troops across the border in October 1975 to prop up UNITA. Fidel Castro sent Cuban troops to meet them. The South Africans skirmished across more than a thousand kilometres5 of southern Angolan bush, coming within a hair’s breadth of taking Luanda before retreating amid growing international condemnation and Cuban resistance.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński described the Angolan war as 'sloppy, dogged and cruel' and on this journey through the south where some of the heaviest fighting took place, the debris thrown up by the conflict is everywhere apparent. On the dirt road outside Kuito an empty AK47 magazine, its bullets discharged, lies in the rusting hulk of a Soviet tank. Sunlight slants through the roof where the turret has been blown off.

Between Kuito and Luena we follow what remains of the Benguela Railway that once linked Lobito on the coast to the copper mines of Zambia and the DRC. For kilometre upon kilometre heavy corrugations throw our vehicles into the air and slam them down in blizzards of sand. We pass abandoned railway stations whose water towers now stand idle, steam locomotives disembowelled by RPG-7 rockets and rolling stock corroded and contorted into vicious metallic memorials to war. To the north, miombo woodlands stretch toward an impossibly far horizon.

In Lumeje the administrator of the local immigration office sits us down in a darkened office with holes in the ceiling and doves in the rafters. “What is our objetiva?” “We have come to visit Cameia National Park … Parc du Kameia … we are ‘turiste’. “Do you have guns?” “No we have cameras.” “Are you sure?” Disbelief and suspicion are evident on the faces of all, but we are sent on our way with broad smiles and handshakes all round.

In the morning, a cold wind blows across the Cameia plains and a red Angolan moon touches the horizon of a land of which I have no memory, but one that feels strangely familiar. Plumes of smoke rise from hunter’s fires and during the day the sky is white near the sun and smoky steel-grey where it touches the slow-bending grasses of the plain. Beneath this sky the land is empty save for parties of fishermen pushing bicycles piled high with dried fish. We stop to talk with Tomé who will sell his catch in Lumeje. There is gentleness and resignation in his eyes, but he won’t allow me to capture it on camera – going rigid and staring intently into the lens when I point it at him.

Cameia once held herds of game that were thought to have migrated to and from the Luiwa plains of Zambia. Now all that remains are egrets, kingfishers and marabou stork hunting fish in the drying pans, steenbok flickering mirage-like through the long grass and termite mounds whose occupants outnumber all other inhabitants in the park.

From Cameia we head still further east toward Luau – the last stop on the Benguela Railway before the DRC. It may as well have been the end of the world, but Luau has all the vitality of a town whose inhabitants are beginning to reclaim whatever hope and dignity they can salvage from their dislocated lives. In many ways it embodies the spirit of the Angolan town: the dilapidated façade of bullet-ridden Neo-colonial and Art Deco buildings enveloped by a thin film of dust and nostalgia, the haphazard assemblage of rustic wattle-and-daub huts on the periphery, and a vibrant village life that daily negotiates the distance between these two worlds.

We set up camp in the police compound near the centre of town. Roméo, the Chokwe police officer, has a broad and ready smile: “We can’t offer much”. He gestures to the standpipe for water and the pit latrine in the corner of the yard. “It was the war, you see … but things are better now”.

By 1988, the Soviets were pouring arsenal into the country and fifty-thousand Cuban troops with Soviet advisors supported by FAPLA brigades were ready to make a run on Namibia. The fighting had escalated into a full-scale conventional war with aerial and artillery bombardments focused on Cuito Cuanuvale, a little-known but strategic town in southern Angola. The South Africans were forced to the negotiation table, but they were in no mood for niceties. The chief of the South African army General Jannie Geldenhuys warned Cuba that the day its troops set foot in Namibia would go down as ‘the darkest day in Cuban military history’. Knowing the alternative would have turned the battlefield into a slaughterhouse for young South African, Cuban and Angolan conscripts, both sides backed down. UNITA and the MPLA were destined to slug it out for another savage decade before Savimbi’s assassination brought hostilities to a close in 2002. It took fifteen bullets to kill him. Lengthy media releases with cameras panning slowly across his bloodied corpse were needed to convince Angolans that this mythical fighter was indeed dead.

On a clear morning I sit among frangipanis and palm trees on a concrete bench in Luau's old town square. An unsettling breeze blows from the Congolese border. I reflect that the political ideologies that brought suffering even to this remote eastern outpost would have no meaning for the children that now play across the road from me in their crumbling playground. Those ideologies would in any event be distant memories in the minds of victors and vanquished alike, replaced by the ideology of oil and the flow of capital.

From Luau we head over the top of the country through Lunda Sul and Lunda Norte, the diamond provinces that fueled Savimbi's war machine. We overnight in the shadow of the mysterious outcrops of Pundo Andongo, the 'Black Rocks' where legend has it the Ambundu Queen Nzinga left her footprints in solid granite after fleeing the tyranny of the Portuguese on the coast in the 17th Century. We bypass Luanda and follow the coastline south, via the Cuanza River mouth and Quiçama National Park. At Mount Moco in the highlands of Huambo province, the highest mountain in Angola, we meet Mike Mills, a South African ornithologist with a passion for preserving some of the last remaining patches of Afromontane forest in the country. Thin slivers of forest rise against a sea of grass, ravines resound to the prattle of sunbirds, shadows are illuminated by the iridescent red primaries of Schalow’s Turaco and at night, Ruwenzori nightjars call from the deep valleys.

From Mount Moco we trace Angola’s western seaboard south – back toward Namibia. At Lobito yellow clay houses tumble chaotically into a steel-blue ocean; Baia Farta is fantastically desolate and beautiful in a cloak of red sand blown on the afternoon wind from the desert interior. At Lucira we take off our shoes and wade ankle-deep into a cold green ocean.

Our last night close-by the Namibian border is spent amid the earthy embrace of giant baobabs. From a nearby village comes the thump-thump-thump of a dance-beat from worn-out speakers. It may not be the Angola I’d left as a young soldier in the South African Defence Force thirty-three years ago holding an R4 assault rifle, but at least, I reflect – it’s not the sound of mortars.

1National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total Angola) Angolan political party led by Jonas Savimbi (1966-2003). 2People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party (Movimento Popular de Libertaçãao de Angola) Ruling political party in Angola 1975-present led first by Agostinho Neto (1956-1979) and then José Eduardo dos Santos (1979-2017). 3People's Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola) MPLA's armed wing and current official armed forces. 4National Liberation Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola) Angolan political party founded by Holden Roberto (1962-1999).5 Many reports put this number at three-thousand but this is unlikely since the maximum distance inside Angola would have been 1500 km