It was with some trepidation that I flew to the Angolan capital, Luanda, in September. The last time I had visited the country, in early 1976, I had been a journalist traveling with the “wrong” side. I had accompanied UNITA, the movement led by the bearded guerrilla intellectual Dr. Jonas Savimbi, a man usually called “charismatic” by his friends and a “South African puppet” by his enemies, who now rule in Luanda. In those days, the Portuguese ruling power had left with disgracefully indecent haste only a few months before. About 400,000 Portuguese whites had fled in panic (the exact figure is impossible to verify, estimates varying widely). Some of them, in desperate bitterness, smashed all that they left behind, even their washbasins.
The huge country was left in an economic and political shambles. None of the three nationalist movements could agree upon which one should take over.1 There were not even enough Angolans to drive the abandoned trucks, let alone maintain them. The Portuguese had not bothered to train or educate the Africans. In the colonial era, many of the cooks and waiters had been white Portuguese. As the colonial rulers suddenly pulled out, more confusion came when the South Africans, egged on at first by the US, sent in troops in order to oppose the faction backed by the Soviets and the Cubans. The debate over “who interfered first”—South Africa or Cuba—is not a simple one: all the factions had to some degree been dependent on foreign powers since the modern nationalist rebellion broke out in 1961.2 In any event, the South Africans, having engaged in little military action of any ferocity, after a quick advance up the coastline eventually decided to leave; the Cubans stayed.
My first visit, therefore, had consisted of retreating in front of an oncoming wave of Cuban tanks. In central Angola, wherever we went, Jonas Savimbi was welcomed by adulatory chants of “Sa-vim-bi, Sa-vim-bi!” He was among his own Ovimbundu people, and he seemed popular.3 But in the jumble of central African politics, people change sides with mesmerizing alacrity. For all I knew, maybe in a few days’ time they would be singing hymns of praise to Savimbi’s rivals. Probably old ethnic allegiances would keep the Ovimbundu behind their bearded leader, but you could not be sure.
As in all bush wars, there was little real fighting apart from the odd skirmish where main roads joined or crossed, or at obvious strategic points like the waterworks that controlled the capital’s water supply. Often firing turned out to be feux de joie or, just as frequently, mistakes. Few people seemed to know who was firing at whom, or why. Our last battle, around the airport at Savimbi’s provincial capital, Huambo, turned out to be a family affair between two factions supposedly allied in hostility to the Cuban-backed group that eventually won the day…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.