“A green soldier fears everything. When he is transported to the front, he thinks death is watching him on every side. Every shot is aimed at him. He doesn’t know how to judge range or direction of fire, so he shoots everywhere, as long as he can shoot he is killing his own terror.” From Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski
As an enthralled eight year old I watched the sky above our Cape Town house for days as air force transport planes came and went. They were DC-3’s, known as the Dakota. I was into aeroplanes as a kid, Second World War planes, and I knew the Dakota from the war comics I so enjoyed. Dropping paratrooper hero’s into battle at Arnhem and other places of glory. This comic book conditioning, along with the education system and my family’s history of conscripted soldiers and war stories would support my own transition into the world of the army eleven years later.
My Dad thought “something big” was on the go. He was right. Looking back, this steady and unusual stream of aircraft flying in and out of Ysterplaat Air Force base could only have been to supply the 1975 SADF invasion of Angola.
It was only while I was reading Another Day of Life by Ryzcard Kapuscincki, that I remembered that time and realised that the time periods coincided. I picked up this book in a second hand book store. I was attracted by the cover: Two SADF soldiers, a buffel and a palm tree in silhouette. Then I realised it was a translation from Polish and I wasn’t so sure. What would a Polish journalist be able to bring to a story about a Southern African war?
My prejudice, born from the laager of 70’s and 80’s South Africa, soon evaporated. The prejudice that says: “what do outsiders know?” The book was first published in 1976, soon after the events he describes. The English translation was published in 1987, the year I fought in Angola; the war had continued uninterrupted and would do so for over a decade after my war was over. It turns out that he knew much more about that war than most South Africans probably did at the time. During my own time in Angola I realised, through listening to the BBC World Service on my portable short-wave radio that the foreign media were better informed about the unfolding events of 1987 than anyone back home in “The States” as we called SA. In a way, this realisation helped me keep a healthy stance of scepticism towards what we were being told then, and to what I was to be told by the heavily censored South African media in the years to come.
While my eight year old self lay on the grass in our back yard watching Dakota’s, Kapuscinski had already been sending dispatches to Warsaw from Luanda for several months.
The author sums up his book in the first line: “This is a very personal book, about being alone and lost”. There was little hope left in Angola in 1975. No possibility of peace. His words convey his own sense of the futility of this war between liberation movements. The lack of structure to the armies, the lack of a coherent plan, a country descending into what was to become a fight for personal power by a handful of “big men”. Caught in between are the ordinary people, drafted to service are, as is usual in war, the youth of the country. The noble cause of liberation dashed on the rocks of personal power and the politics of the cold war.
Kapuscinkski is sent to Angola by his press agency just as every other foreigner is trying to get out. After the overthrow of Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, the new government gave independence to the former colonies. Some would say they scrambled out with indecent haste leaving the liberation parties “armed to the teeth doing battle with one another and each of these parties wanted to take power at any price (most often, at the price of their brother’s blood)”.
Kapuscinski’s book is beautifully descriptive with a humility often lacking in books about war. At the same time he writes simply and without unnecessary flourish. Some war correspondents seem to enjoy the front line more than most professional soldiers. Of course, why else would they volunteer for a job like that? Military historians on the other hand often appear to be the kind of armchair warriors who would cover themselves in ink before they’d cover themselves in glory. Kapuscinski is no gung-ho war cheerleader and has a sensitive eye for the human story. I appreciate that as I am part of it.
He describes the concerned husband of the Portuguese woman dying of terminal illness in the next hotel room; Kapuscinski worried that his typing at night might disturb her. Then he describes the pack of well bred domestic dogs, abandoned by their Portuguese owners gone on planes or waiting for ships to take them over the seas and out of harm’s way. The dogs spend the morning waiting patiently outside the army barracks where the remaining colonial soldiers feed them every morning. After their breakfast a massive canine orgy of playing and fornicating dogs on the once immaculately trimmed colonial park. Then, as if symbolising the death of the city as a colonial capital, the dogs themselves mysteriously disappear.
Fighting on the fringes of the city knocks out the pump supplying water and rumour after outrageous rumour flies through the small disparate group of remaining Portuguese; rumours of the imagined horrors that might be inflicted on them by the marauding liberation armies when they finally arrive.
Leaving the city of wild rumours and fear, he goes in search of the front line. Only to find that there isn’t one. Pockets of fighting are everywhere and it is never certain which force holds what piece of land or village. Many fighters are inexperienced and towns are taken and lost almost by accident.
I was surprised to learn that there were white men fighting in the liberation forces. It seems obvious. South Africa’s Umkhonto we Siswe had soldiers of every race in its ranks, why not the armies of Angola? I realised that the Angola of my experience and imagination is still fraught with gaps and prejudices still unrevealed and unchallenged. If South Africa is a complex place where white Africans fought for democracy as well as against it, then it is not surprising that white Angolans, those whose families had been settled in Angola for generations, should identify with Angolan freedom rather than Portuguese colonial rule. So I wipe another prejudice from the slate that is my imagined world.
He describes the disintegration of the forces in the face of the South African invasion in 1975. The lack of any prepared defences. They were fighting each other too readily to pay any attention to a foreign invader from the south. This is part of the book that I find myself reading with heightened interest. I am struck by a familiar feeling of split allegiances. It’s a gut response with unpleasant contradictions that I face each time it happens. I find it uncomfortable to admit to that part of me that feels some pride and warmth when I think of the men in brown crossing the Cunene River and heading all the way to the outskirts of Luanda. This has nothing to do with the aims of the invasion nor does it mean I supported the Nationalist regime in Pretoria. The same regime that ordered my own involvement in the war the day my call-up papers arrived in the post in November of 1985. That regime was immoral and I should never have been in Angola at all. We were defending the indefensible. My feelings are towards the conscripts I served with. The allegiance I still feel towards my buddies from Firegroup 1, Alpha Company, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. In the end, we fought for each other and to keep ourselves alive. When I think of those men crossing the Cunene, I think of 18 and 19 year olds like my buddies and me, fighting for each other. And I know them.
Kapuscinski knows what every veteran knows about war. He writes:
“The world contemplates the great spectacle of combat and death, which is difficult for it to imagine in the end, because the image of war is not communicable – not by pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody, dreadful, filthy insides. To others it is pages in a book, pictures on a screen, nothing more.”