Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Peace on the Kuvango: a story from Savate, Angola

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.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The HALO Trust

(information to complement the War Ghosts story, below)
The HALO Trust is the largest humanitarian demining organisation in the world.  Their aim is to make the land safe for people in former war zones to live, farm and travel through.   It operates in 16 countries and has been in existence since 1988.  They train and employ local people who know the terrain to lift mines both manually and using various kinds of demining machinery.

HALO has been working in Angola since 1994 and has lifted over 68 000 landmines in around 570 locations around the country.  They also dispose of weapons and ammunition.

Between 2005 and 2015 the Cuito Cuanavale operation has cleared 25 minefields with another 40 still to be tackled.
 In Kuando Kubango Province The HALO Trust has destroyed around 32 000 anti-personnel mines and 14 000 anti-tank mines.  It is estimated that around 40 per cent of the mines have been lifted.  

Read more about the work of the HALO Trust here

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

War Ghosts

(This story first appeared in the October 2015 edition of SA 4x4 Magazine)

At first it is the red-tipped stakes I see rising about a metre from the white Angolan sand.  A double row of them marks a narrow corridor of death snaking through the bush.  Then I see that between the stakes lie partially uncovered anti-tank mines.  Twenty-eight years ago I was a soldier on the frontline of battle.  Now the frontline is still here and the mines fight on like a lost regiment, not knowing that the war is long over.  It is the mine-clearing NGO, the HALO Trust that forms today’s opposing army as they painstakingly find and destroy the mines, making the land safe for the people of Angola.

Disabled and rusting SADF Olifant tank in the Tumpo minefield

A belt of anti-tank mines yet to be destriyed by the HALO Trust
I’m in the Tumpo triangle near the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale.   It is in Kuando Kubango Province, a place the Portuguese colonists called The Land at the End of the Earth.  It was the scene of the biggest land battle in Africa since the Second World War.  The SADF took part in the final battles of South Africa’s involvement in the Angolan war here.  I am part of the backup crew for a group of former conscripts who have come here in support of their friend Johan Booysen who was here during the war.  Johan had contacted me after reading my book about my own trip back to Angola and asked for advice on putting together an expedition to Angola.  Then he invited me to join his group.

Johan is joined by his good friends Kobus, Steve and Wayne, all former conscripts and his daughter Tammy who is in her mid-twenties.   He is journeying in search of peace:  with himself, with Angola and with its people.  This will be an adventure.  It will be something much deeper too.    I have made this journey myself, I understand Johan’s need to make this physically arduous and emotionally difficult return.  It is a pilgrimage of sorts.

Johan towers above the rest of us.  He used to play fly-half and his friends call him Bosch after the legendary rugby player Gerald Bosch.  He takes a strong lead amongst the bikers and is very much the man in charge.   Yet I think I recognise something just behind his eyes.  Perhaps it is the post-traumatic stress he’s carried from the battlefield.  I recognise it in him, because I have undertaken this pilgrimage myself.

It takes us five days to reach Cuito Cuanavale.  And it will be a 5000 kilometre round trip before we return to Johannesburg.  After a long journey through two cold Kalahari nights we reach Maun.  On the way we’ve dodged the potholes, suicidal kudus and insomniac donkeys.    The roadside is unfenced and the donkeys seem to enjoy playing chicken with the cars.  The two designated drinkers on the rear seat of Johan’s Hyundai people carrier have worked their way through the slabs of lager while I have dozed and Wayne has relieved Johan at the wheel.  The two trailers we are towing with two bikes apiece have behaved themselves impeccably. 

And on the bike
At Maun we meet up with Patrick Ricketts and his support vehicle.  Patrick is a former Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran and makes regular visits to Angola.   He is outgoing and loud and laughs a lot from a mouth hidden by a massive bush of a moustache.  Importantly, he has helped with the tricky visa process and he will be expedition leader from here.   The group will proceed from Maun on the motorcycles and in Patrick’s old Land Rover. 

As we leave the next morning Tammy has her first fall on the sandy access road barely 200 metres into the journey.  With no damage except a little dented pride, she gets back on and heads into a very long day that will end after dark at Rundu.  

 I cram myself into the Land Rover along with the other five non-motorcycling members of the expedition.  Anthea, a friend of Patrick’s who I know from my 2012 expedition, reclines across the baggage in the back for want of seating.  The over-worn seats are as hard as those in the Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle I first entered Angola in in 1987. 

Also in the vehicle is Gobbs, an earnest man with white hair and the demeanour of a sensitive soul.   He went into exile in the mid-seventies in the wake of South Africa’s political unrest.  Naked, he crossed the Limpopo into Botswana on a dark night with his clothes in a bundle on his head.  He tells me of how he was terrified of being taken by a crocodile.  Gobbs survived the ordeal and went on to do military training as part of Umkhonto we Sizwe.  This is an emotional journey for him too;  it’s his first visit to Angola since being based here during the apartheid years.  He has a daughter in Angola and they became separated during the dark days of the past.  It occurs to me that we are from different sides of the conflict, each with our own wounds, each on a healing journey.  One day, Gobbs tells us, he hopes to be reunited with his daughter.

The Road to Caiundo:
Travelling through four countries means six different sets of customs and immigration officials to deal with on both legs of the journey.  It’s a tedious yet necessary part of our tour.  Eventually we are through the hour long Angolan bureaucracy and the drivers are adjusting to driving on the right hand side of the very poor roads.  Tonight we will sleep in Savate before heading onwards to Menongue via Caiundo.

Between the border and the town of Caiundo, the road is one of thick loose gravel and bad corrugation. There are huge pot holes and dongas and in places the cars have to be put in low-range to pull through the sandy patches.  The bikes and support vehicles are separated from time to time.   Now, in the distance, through the thick dust hanging low over the road, I can see a motorbike.  It could be one of ours.  Or it could be another Angolan on a small capacity commuter bike.  As we get closer it’s clear that we have caught up with our bikers.
Bikers on the road to Caiundo

Tammy, the least experienced of the group is doing well, though struggling to keep her bike upright at times.  After four falls she is crawling along and looking tense.  Johan is bringing up the rear to make sure she’s alright.

As soon as we reach them they stop.  Tammy is off the bike and has whipped her helmet off and is saying “I’ve had enough!   Uncle Wayne can ride the rest of the way.”  Her concern is justified.  We are up to two hundred kilometres away from a hospital if one of them gets hurt. 

Wayne, the back-up rider, pulls on her pink trimmed biker’s jacket, which is a little short in the sleeves and tight at the shoulders.  He dons a spare helmet and pulls off with a lot of throttle.  I watch the rear wheel twitching and worry that he hasn’t given himself time to assess the conditions.  No sooner have we started off again when we reach the good tar road at the town of Caiundo.  Tammy has managed a couple of hundred kilometres of bad gravel and has quit only about four kilometres short of the tar.

Although the conditions are tough the Land Rover is munching up the dirt.  Johan’s original concern was that the Land Rover would struggle to keep up with the bikers when things got rough.  But the bikers have different levels of experience and the Landy is happily barrelling along at 80kms an hour so we are faster.

We fly over the corrugations and the vehicle is rattling almost too loudly for conversation.  Patrick is trying to catch up with Steve, who is riding out in front.  Occasionally the vehicle slews, exaggerated by the weight of the trailer, as the he avoids a pothole.

The river at Savate

Washing and collecting water at Savate

Dinner with a General
We arrive in Menongue, the only big town on our travels in this country.  It is from where the Angolan air force MiGs flew sorties against the South African forces during the war and from here they supplied the front line at Cuito Cuanavale and beyond.  We hang about while Patrick goes to check in with the Administrador.  I notice how much building has happened since my last visit.  The town is looking more prosperous.  There’s even a little kiosk selling a very decent cup of coffee.  Eventually the vehicles return and we head towards our campsite for the night.

The mine clearing NGO, the HALO Trust, have allowed us to camp at their base.  In a paddock of lumpy grass they have erected a couple of tents for our use.   The bikers are exhausted after another full day of riding and are grateful to roll out their sleeping bags

Tim, the Halo trust area manager is looking anxious.  He’s heard that the Menongue grapevine is chattering about the convoy of South Africans driving around town.  The Angolan authorities can be wary of outsiders.  Especially if the right people don’t know who you are and why you’re there.

I try to reassure Tim that Patrick is friends with an Angolan General and has observed the local protocol, but he looks unconvinced.  “Really,” I say, “you don’t have to worry, Patrick has already been to visit the General to pay his compliments.  Everything’s cool.”

As I’m talking I hear Patrick’s loud voice call out, “Hey, General Nando!”  The retired General  Fernando Mateus has arrived.  Driven by a uniformed colonel he says he’s come to see how we’re settling in.  Soon Tim is practicing his Portuguese on the Colonel and looking visibly relieved to have us endorsed by such seniority.

Soon the anxiety shifts from Tim to the three female members of the group.  The general has announced that the women must not camp but stay at his house instead.  But before they are whisked off in the green army Land Cruiser we are invited to join the General for dinner at The Ritz Lauca.

We’re dusty, sweaty and in need of a shower.  So we feel a little self-conscious as we slope through the shiny reception of the hotel.  I half expect someone to turn us around before we get to the restaurant.  Until I remember who we’re with.  I also wonder with some trepidation, what this is going to cost us.

At this point I realise that the bikers are missing.  Somehow in the confusion and darkness at the Halo camp they’ve either been forgotten or have carefully avoided being corralled with the rest of us.

I’m at the opposite end of the table to the general who is talking intently to Patrick.  After a while the general breaks from his conversation says something to me.  Gobbs speaks Portuguese and acts as our translator.  ‘The General wants to know how many Russians you saw when you were fighting in Tumpo .”  I tell him firstly that I didn’t fight in the Tumpo Triangle.  I fought in the battles on the Lomba River and a few more leading up to the assault on the Angolan Brigades at Cuito.  But no, I saw no Russians.  Though I heard reports that there was a handful of Russian advisors in the Brigades we faced.  This seems to please the general.  He asks the same question about Cubans.  No, I didn’t see any Cubans either.  It seems I’ve proved the General’s point though I’m not entirely sure what it is.  Perhaps he is making the point that it was the Angolans alone who faced down the formidable SADF.  But I’m here as a peacemaker and I’m not entering into the ‘who won at Cuito’ argument, which other former soldiers seem so ready to do. 

Encouragingly though, the general tells me that he would like to see more former SADF soldiers visiting Angola.  “So that those of us who actually fought can discuss the truth about what happened at Cuito Cuanavale,”  he says as, to my relief, he pays the bill for dinner.

We all have our own versions of ‘the truth’.  But it is good when former combatants are able to reach out to one another to discuss their experiences in the spirit of peace-making rather than post-war point scoring. 

The next day we drive to Cuito Cuanavale, a town that was reduced to rubble during the South African assaults.  The G5 artillery could reach it from over forty kilometres away.  But even since my visit in 2012 the town has grown and developed.  There’s a Chinese built hydro- electric scheme being constructed.  There’s a bank and a shiny new cell phone shop representing one of the national providers.  A young man speaking pretty good English, rare in these parts where most speak Portuguese, helps me with my local connection problem.  It’s good to see these changes following the devastation of war.
Cuito Bikewash

The Tumpo Triangle
It’s time to go to the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war:  The Tumpo Triangle.  It’s a wedge of land bordered by the Cuanavale, Cuito and Tumpo rivers to the east of Cuito Cuanavale. The HALO Trust has offered us a rare privilege:  they will guide us through minefield, a journey too hazardous for us to do on our own, to see their frontline in the battle against the landmines.

End of the tracks.  SADF tank taken out by a mine

After several kilometres on bush tracks, we reach a makeshift parking lot and finish the journey wading through the deep sand on foot.  It reminds me of my time here in ’87, and of trudging along bush-tracks, humping  cases of mortar ammunition back to our vehicles from the echelon.  But now the only thing I’m shooting is my camera.  And the tanks I’m shooting at were long since disabled by the Angolan anti-tank mines.  They sit there, rusting and sinking into the white sand.  I notice how this one has driven itself off its tracks, terminally crippled.  I’m viewing a piece of military history.  And it’s my personal history too. 

Next to the broken tanks the Angolans have erected flagpoles flying their national flag high above the treetops.     Rows of white stakes snake off into the bush.  A few metres wide, the stakes mark the former mine belt which thwarted the South African armour.  The mines now safely destroyed by the dedicated HALO Trust teams. 

Landmines litter Angola in their thousands.  And all sides are culpable.  The HALO Trust is doing valuable work here under difficult conditions.  Yet the big donors like the USA and EU have cut their funding to the Angola programme significantly.  They believe the Angolan government is now capable of funding demining itself.   And there are concerns about alleged government corruption. It seems grossly unfair to the people who are trying to make lives farming on the edge of the minefields.  The Halo Trust has cleared over 27 000 mines around Cuito Cuanavale alone and estimates that it will take many more years before the area is completely cleared.

A little way away there is a piece of taped off ground.  A mass grave found during the demining activity.  It could be where the UNITA soldiers are buried.  Many of their infantry were killed by FAPLA artillery as they advanced with the South African armour.  It’s a reminder that this battle was also part of a bitter and bloody struggle between Angolan factions in a civil war that lasted thirty years.   I find it sad that no flag flies over this site as they do over the broken tanks.  This grave of unknown soldiers is surely the most important reminder of the devastating human consequences of war.
UNITA mass grave
After the grimness of the minefield there is moment of levity when the local police chief gets his Land Cruiser stuck in the deep sand.  After much advice shouted by onlookers, Patrick takes charge and uses the winch on his aging Land Rover to rescue the Toyota from further humiliation.
Land Rover rescues the Police Chief's Cruiser
Back at the Cuito administration buildings, Johan and his friends give out the educational toys and books that they have brought for the schoolchildren of the town.  They want to give something back to the community, a gesture of goodwill from a former enemy.  The exercise becomes a little chaotic as the over excited kids make a frenzied grab for the goodies.  But there seems to have been no harm done and one can only hope that the good intentions of the former conscripts have been communicated beyond the language barrier.

The convoy of bikers, support Land Rover, and the TV crew in their shiny Toyota Hilux 4x4 hire car head back to Menongue for a final night at the HALO Trust camp.  There comes a time in an expedition when a difficult decision has to be made.  And safety should always be paramount.  In this case the bikers have decided that not all of them are experienced enough to be sure that they’ll make it back along the dirt road unscathed.  Their purpose has been achieved and that they’ll not risk riding the bikes back along the hazardous sandy gravel to Namibia.  With the help of the general they secure the services of a small truck to drive them and their motorcycles to the Katwitwi border post.

The border post is already closed when we get there.  The local police show us where we can camp and we set up camp and cook and forage for some final cans of Cuca lager at the local tavern.  When the bikers gun there engines in the morning there is a strong sense of achievement in the air.  They have the long road to Maun via Rundu to travel back to their people carrier and then home to Johannesburg.  They have had an adventure, they have supported Johan in his quest to deal with this dark piece of his past.  Maybe the war-ghosts have been put to rest once and for all.  Time will tell.