There was a nasty battle at the dusty Angolan village of Savate. I first passed through here in 2012 and paid it little attention, except to take a photograph of some political graffiti on the wall of a ruined house from the colonial era. “Viva the People of Cuba!” it shouted across the decades, its anger diluted by the years. I had fought some distance from here in 1987, to the south and east of Cuito Cuanavale, and on my previous trip I was in a hurry to get back there.
Three years later I am passing through again. Today we’ve driven from Rundu in Namibia, and by the time we’ve endured the tedious Angolan border procedures, Savate, at 75 kilometres from the border, is a good place to stop for the night.
This time I see the town differently because I have since met a man whose brother was killed here. He was a white conscript fighting with 32 Battalion and became another small tragedy in a whole desert of sadness.
32 Battalion, called The Terrible Ones by their enemies, was a unit of Angolans originally drawn from the beleaguered liberation movement the National Liberation Front of Angola, when rival liberation armies turned on each other after the Portuguese shrugged off their colony in the ‘70s. 32 Battalion was led by mainly white South African officers and was based on the Kavango River in Caprivi area of Namibia.
The expedition I’m on is an embodiment of an attempt at peace-making. Our Land Rover carries some former Umkhonto we Sizwe members. We are supporting a group of former SADF conscripts on motorcycles. The convoy is heading north from the Namibian border post of Katwitwi towards Menongue and then to Cuito Cuanavale, which, in 1987, was the scene of the biggest land battle fought in Africa since the Second World War.
Beaten by darkness, we find the local police compound at Savate. The commander is a friendly, quiet spoken man who invites us to spend the night within the walls of his post. He shows us to the rooms at the back of the station where there are bunk beds for us to use. Like most villages in Angola there is no electricity once the compound generator is switched off. Water comes from a tank in the ground; a bucket is lowered to collect it.
Some of us decide to forego the snoring of the dorms and opt to sleep under the stars. The lack of electric light means that the Milky Way sprays across the night sky as an unfathomable cosmic cloud. Before I turn in, I join some of the group across the road in a small family run restaurant.
It’s an informal affair in a simple corrugated iron structure with a dim, bare lightbulb and a concrete floor. I’ve eaten from my own supplies but I keep a couple of the others company by drinking Cuca Lager while they eat. We smile occasionally at the two Angolan truckers who join us at the long table. The only language we all understand is the sucking of grease and gravy from fingers. They report that the chicken is good.
The next morning the expedition leader and former MK member, Patrick, has some minor repairs to do to the Land Rover. The motorcyclists have disappeared up the road towards Caiundo. I walk around the village trying to get a feel of the place. It doesn’t seem like somewhere men fought for their lives. Chickens scratch in the dust and a few people go about their business outside the mud or concrete-brick homes. Once there was a FAPLA unit garrisoned here and it acted as a lightning rod for their enemy, the SADF.
They called it Operation Tiro Tiro. On the 21st of May 1980, 32 Battalion arrived along the Kuvango River and the two armies battled. Young people died. Today there are no soldiers in the village and people work their fields and draw water from the river. A long way away in South Africa a family remembers a son and brother who died in a place they have never seen. No doubt other families closer to Savate remember lost sons too.
Children have taken an interest in me. They request a photograph and group together to peer into the lens. One isn’t looking at the camera; something across the way has attracted her. I press the shutter button. I’m about to shoot another frame when a man, who has been standing close by, steps into the group of children and turns the wayward child’s head towards me as I take the next picture. It makes for a slightly comical pair of photographs.
Another man arrives on a new, clean, 150cc Chinese motorcycle. He’s wearing a blue checked shirt, pressed black trousers and smart shoes. In this scruffy, dusty town with so many poor people in ragged clothes, he stands out. Perhaps he is a local government official or maybe he works in the big town of Menongue, more than two hundred kilometres away. We don’t have a mutual language so, perhaps to break the thickening ice, he gestures for me to take a photograph of him. He stands in front of his bike, slightly side on, a self-conscious pose as he looks beyond the camera and into the distance.
The rough gravel road stretches south to the border with Namibia and north to Caiundo where the tar eventually begins. It has given our motorcyclists some difficulty. They will have fallen a few times before they make the smooth black-top. Here in the village the home-made houses are linked by sandy tracks. Next to the police compound there are some new houses. They look like they have been built for government officials and the police officers. A new tarred street, lined with incongruous kerbstones, runs past their front doors.
I want to take the man who lost his brother something from Savate, something that will show the town in peacetime so that he will have an image in his mind other than his mental reconstruction of a dirty fight next to a river. When Patrick has finished tinkering with the Land Rover, we six passengers cram into the vehicle and clatter down to the Kuvango. It is a serene and beautiful place. The river is wide and the slow water swirls southwards towards Namibia, small eddies creasing its membrane. This flow will eventually pass the place where the young soldier was based. It will continue the journey he was unable to. His life dried up so violently in Angola, along with many others, while his comrades carried on.
I try to capture the peacefulness of the scene in photographs. The war is long gone and the river still runs the same course and the reeds hush us and we speak in murmurs as our footfalls grate on the stony ground. I steal a stone from beneath the cold, clear water and then take a shot of the place. For the man whose brother died here.
As the philosopher, George Santayana wrote: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. The remaining warriors must find peace as best they can.