The talks now under way between four of the main protagonists in the Angolan war – Angola, Cuba, South Africa and the United States – may just bring about a settlement. Yet peace remains a plausible outcome at best. South Africa has committed its forces to regular combat in Angola for thirteen years. In so doing, it has sought primarily to restrict the activities of exiled Namibian guerrillas based on Angolan soil. The decision of Angola’s Marxist government to provide bases not only for the Namibian liberation movement, Swapo, but also for the African National Congress has incurred Pretoria’s unmitigated fury and there can be little doubt that Angola has been a reluctant host. At the same time, South Africa’s presence in Angola and its co-option of the Angolan rebel movement Unita have been consistent with the broader regional doctrine known as destabilisation, based on the (astute) belief that disarray in neighbouring states protracts the life of minority rule at home. The Angolan Government has relied heavily on the presence of 45,000 Cuban troops to combat South Africa and Unita, while the rebels themselves receive additional support from Washington. Disentangling this complex web of interests and arriving at a settlement will not be easy.

According to John Stockwell, who ran the CIA’s covert programme in Angola during the Seventies, it was the Agency which laid the first stone in what is now an edifice of superpower rivalry. In Stockwell’s account, the Americans began funding the FNLA, one of three anti-Portuguese movements, in 1974. Within a few months, the Soviet Union, already allied to the best organised of the movements, the MPLA, had responded with substantial arms shipments to its favoured party. By 1975, with the MPLA dominating the picture, the CIA programme was extended to a third liberation movement, Unita. In October that year, the South Africans intervened directly, marshalling a force of anti-MPLA elements in a joint operation destined to take the capital. The invasion was abortive. In the same months, Cuban troops had entered the country in support of the MPLA, who were able to declare Angola’s independence in November. The war put paid to election agreements; and although US support for Unita and the FNLA was withdrawn in 1976, Unita continued fighting alongside the South Africans. In 1985 it reappeared on Washington’s list of charitable causes.

Jonas Savimbi’s well-organised campaigning in Washington, and the MPLA’s strict adherence to Marxist doctrines, have turned Angola into a super-power cockpit. Unita receives at least $15 million a year from Washington, while the Soviet Union has spent $8.1 billion on military aid for the Angolan Government since 1980. Yet, if a settlement is reached, it will not merely be because Washington and Moscow desire it. South Africa also plays a major role and it has suffered a remarkable setback in southern Angola. To the south-west, Angolan and Cuban troops have been positioned hard on the Namibian border. To the south-east, the MPLA have reversed South Africa’s fourth military push of the Eighties at the obscure little town of Cuito Cuanavale. They did so over a gruelling six-month period, at a high cost, with assistance from the Cubans and the decisive benefits of Soviet air power, for which the South African Air Force was no match. Nonetheless the failure of the SADF to take the town, and the number of white losses incurred in the process, have called the war into question among South Africa’s whites and led Pretoria to reconsider its military commitments in Angola. If nothing else, the tenuous ceasefire should have allowed South Africa to extricate thousands of its troops from a difficult situation.

South Africa was in retreat on the south-eastern front by the time I visited Cuito Cuanavale. The Angolans flew us down to Menongue in an Antonov and on from there in a pair of helicopter gunships, which hugged the ground with a tenacity verging on addiction. The bush of Cuando Cubango province swept underneath us, surveyed by the commander of the Sixth Military Region who sat at the open entrance of the Mi-8. Joao Baptista Ngueto was a young lieutenant-colonel with good looks and an impressive air of authority. ‘Ngueto’ was said to be a nom de guerre, meaning ‘Do not want’; it was South African and US intervention, he explained to us, that he didn’t want. ‘We have not had a minute of peace,’ he said, ‘since independence.’

The gunships put us down to the north of the town. From there we began the brisk drive to Cuito Cuanavale in an armoured personnel carrier and an open truck. The long defence of the town began late last year, after a costly dry-season offensive by the Angolans and Cubans against the Unita stronghold of Mavinga, to the south-east. Unita and the South Africans successfully stalled the offensive. By the beginning of the year the tables had turned, the Government forces had retreated and Cuito Cuanavale was under siege. The MPLA could not allow Cuito to fall under the pressure of Operation Modular, as the SADF had christened its latest intervention. That would have meant turning over the vital airstrip at Cuito to the South Africans and opening up their access to the east of the country. From there they would simply have cut a swathe into the centre.

The South Africans had incurred heavy losses during their first two assaults on the town in December and January. From approximately forty thousand SADF and South-West Africa Territory Force soldiers based in Namibia, two battalions formed the backbone of Operation Modular: the 61st Mechanised, stationed in Grootfontien, and the 32nd Infantry, a hybrid outfit said to contain Angolans of doubtful allegiance, former Rhodesian servicemen, Israelis and even Australians. Buffalo Battalion, as it was known, had borne the brunt of the early casualties. No figures were available for Cuban and Angolan losses, but they were also believed to be heavy. When the ‘Modular’ counter-offensive was at its height earlier this year, Unita contingents were deployed to other parts of the country in an attempt to draw the Government’s forces away from Cuito Cuanavale. At that time the Angolans claimed there were nine thousand South African troops inside the country, Pretoria three thousand. An informed report claimed that Swapo and ANC units were despatched to engage Unita, thereby ensuring that a strong Cuban and Angolan presence was maintained in Cuito itself. There was general agreement that the struggle for Cuito Cuanavale was the biggest land battle fought in Africa since the Second World War.

For a little town at the centre of a maelstrom, Cuito Cuanavale had not come off so badly. Some of the buildings had been flattened, but most were still standing. Roofs were missing, walls had crumbled, there were dozens of shell craters and no civilians anywhere, but Cuito Cuanavale was still recognisably a town. Around Cuito lay several clusters of abandoned mud huts. The South Africans had shelled these too. The thatch on the roofs was charred and the maize stalks had withered in the small plots between the settlements. The worst damage at Cuito Cuanavale was inflicted by the artillery of the 61st Battalion. South Africa’s G5 and G6 guns are the most accurate in the world for the 35-40 km range of which they are capable. They fire 155 mm shells and they are highly mobile. The G5 can be towed around very fast, while the G6 is self-propelled. For months they had poured shells onto the plain, which was now disarmingly quiet. The battle for Cuito Cuanavale was all but finished; the land seemed to be re-emerging in its aftermath like an enormous plaster relief from which the mould is only just being prised.

After some hesitation, Ngueto agreed to take us to the bridge below the town. It was a five or ten-minute drive down a dirt road in bad condition. At the Cuito River we jumped off the vehicles, which turned round and waited nose to tail at the bridge, facing back up the slope. A detachment of Cuban and Angolan soldiers was crossing from the other side of the river, where they had taken up forward positions a few weeks earlier, as the last South African assault collapsed. After a few minutes, Ngueto ordered us back to the vehicles, but we were remorselessly slow. As we prepared to leave, the first shell came in. It threw up a huge, ragged pillar of grey dirt beside the bridge. A kind of abstraction came over me as the frenzy started, so I could not tell what had happened to the little infantry units. There was a flurry of shouting and movement; then the drivers tore up the dirt road as more shells came in. We travelled at frenetic speed for five minutes, past Cuito Cuanavale and onto a crest behind it, where we stopped. Evidently, there were still two batteries of South African guns somewhere to the south of the Cuito River, shifting around in the plain which ran for two hundred miles or so towards Namibia. Before that, about two miles south of the river, there was a rise in the land. It must have been from there that Unita spotters had seen the arrival of our vehicles at the bridge and notified the battery commanders. Wherever they had moved the guns after their last retreat, the South Africans still had a perfect bead on the bridge.

The SADF’s parting shots had resulted in three casualties. A young Angolan soldier who accompanied us from Menongue had sustained an appalling wound. In the first blast, he had been torn open above the hip by a piece of shrapnel and there was some doubt whether he would live. He had been standing on the edge of the armoured car a few feet from our truck when the shell landed and he had been unable to clamber back in. On the journey back up from the bridge he remained slumped across one of the hatchways, while two people inside clung onto him. By the time we came to a halt, there was almost no blood left in his body: it had washed down through the hatchway and filled the floor of the vehicle. He and the other two injured men were removed to a nearby field clinic. We drove on to find the helicopters perched in the road, awaiting our return. The Angolans brought up one of the South African tanks they had captured in March and Ngueto delivered a brief speech in Portuguese. In due course, the young Angolan was returned unconscious on a stretcher and we boarded the gunships. His saline drip was fixed to the top of the cabin with insulating tape, and a drainage tube from his stomach laid carefully parallel with his leg as the Mi-18 blundered off the ground.

The flight to Menongue was harrowing. The pilots were pulling out all the stops; the saline solution was moving inexorably down the drip and the gunship was flung around brutally until the young man began to regain consciousness – a cruel misfortune, under the circumstances. The setting sun had begun to saturate the bush with a deep red light, from the impenetrable blur of trees beneath us to the western edge of the province. In the growing darkness, a plethora of small cooking fires began to glow like filaments in the landscape. Night had fallen by the time the gunships swayed down onto the airstrip at Menongue and the casualties were spirited away for further treatment.

It was at the fronts and airports of Angola that the size of the war became apparent. MiG 23s blast off the runways in a matter of seconds while huge Ilyushin transport jets plough up into the air, pouring a trail of anti-missile decoys like small roman candles from their tails. Truckloads of wounded soldiers wait on the airstrips to be flown to the capital. In Luanda airport, the majority of the aircraft are military and one-third of the people are in uniform. The placid sky over the city is brackish with the fumes of aviation gas. Yet the war has not been confined to the fronts and access points. Like easing oil, it has worked its way into every articulation of Angolan society. In civilian life it manifests itself as indifference, distraction and an exasperating capacity for patience. Even engaged in the difficult business of survival, many of Luanda’s inhabitants have glazed expressions and move with a dreamy elegance. Far from the combat zones, the conflict still exercises a strange hypnosis on the country at large. It would only take a handful of citizens to awake, I once imagined, for the war effort to collapse.

Until now, the spell has remained unbroken; the war has shimmered in front of Angola and its people like a dark mandala. Meanwhile, one of the most powerful armies in Africa has been checked. Much can rightly be made of the assistance provided by Cuba, yet Angola remains the only country to have gone the full distance with the highly sophisticated military machine that South Africa has become. It has done so – or did so – for 13 years. This single fact gives the routine distraction of Angolans an admirable character, for it comes simply to look like the obverse of a grand heroism which extends throughout society. From the blank look on the face of the party official to the mechanical gait of the Luanda street urchin hustling morosely for used beer cans, the obverse is all too often visible. Heroism is a dismal affliction and heroes, having acquired their monumental virtue at the expense of other qualities, are rarely congenial. Angolans are no exception.

The conflict has left deep scars on a society already disfigured by colonialism. It has displaced half a million people inside the country and another 400,000 in neighbouring states. Between 1980 and 1985, 100,000 adult deaths and those of another 150,000 infants and children under five occurred as a result of famine and food disruption, themselves very largely a result of the war. Since 1985, children have continued to die at an estimated rate of 55,000 a year. These figures tell an abject story: of an inexperienced, doctrinaire liberation movement driven into the trap of cliency and militarism before it had even acceded to power; of South Africa’s ability to wreak havoc in neighbouring states and of Washington’s regrettable urge to up the ante in a country of minimal strategic significance even to Dr Kissinger, who approved the CIA’s secret plan for escalation 13 years ago.

The MPLA has had to choose between two unenviable options: fighting a terrible war and billeting an army of Cubans almost half the size of its own or giving way to South Africa and, of course, to its friends in Unita, once a well-organised anti-colonial movement which first lost the power struggle during independence and then went on to jettison its widespread credibility by cheerleading Pretoria on its forays in southern Angola. Today the country is eager for peace. Whether it comes now or later, it will nonetheless be a technicality for many thousands of people: a critical struggle against hunger will have to be waged for several years to come; peasants will continue to tread on Savimbi’s mines in the process and a whole generation of children – those who have survived – will be left to cope with appalling physical and psychological disabilities. If the negotiating process works, however, they may be the last Angolan citizens to have heroism inflicted on them.

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