( A version of this story was published in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly - 10 August 2014. A more detailed account of my visit to Cuito Cuanavale - and other places in Angola - can be found in my book, Back to Angola.
A multitude of coloured buckets and bowls bloom in the sand next to Cuito Cuanavale’s high street. The sight is as refreshing as a spring flower-bed. And like a flower-bed they wait for water. Down by the river, a water- truck is sucking water from the Cuito River to fill those containers and water tanks around the town.
I am at the site of the last major battle that the South African Defence Force fought in Angola. Cuito Cuanavale, a town considered strategic during the war, is situated some 300 kilometres north of the border with Namibia. It marked the end of government controlled territory. To the south, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels were in control, supported by the SADF. The outcome of the battle is still disputed, but whatever your view, most will agree that Cuito Cuanavale was reduced to rubble during the fighting.
Our Land Rover crosses the post-war bridge and we trundle down to the riverbank below where some men are washing their cars and motorbikes. It seems like a futile exercise in a town where the high street is surfaced with sand. Yet in a place so haunted by the horror of war, this most mundane of activities is one of many I witness that shows people are getting on with their lives ten years after the end of the war. I join some of the men by stripping off and washing several days of travel-dust off my body in the cold river. As I stand thigh deep in the water, rinsing soap suds from my hair, a fisherman poles past in his makoro, known in Angola as a chata or canoa.
Further on, the long, brown flood-plain grass doesn’t quite conceal the rusting dome of a tank’s turret. I take a picture of an anti-aircraft vehicle, its cannons still pointed to the sky. The remains of an abandoned pontoon bridge lies rusting in the silt below the road.
We drive east past an outlying settlement, the Land Rover growling its way through the deep sand track into the Tumpo Triangle. This area was first pointed out to me as we drove past Cuito Cuanavale Airport which sits high on the Cuito ridge. “Down there,” said Patrick, our expedition leader pointing to the east, “that’s the Tumpo Triangle, where the South African tanks got caught in the minefield. It must have been hell for them.”
A man in his late twenties is our guide to Tumpo. He tells us that he looked out over the flood-plain during the siege. He was seven years old. He and his family sheltered from the bombardment in underground shelters. His grandmother and several other close relatives were killed by South African shells.
We round a slight bend in the track and come nose to nose with a Halo Trust truck. The Halo Trust is the non-governmental organisation, once patronised by the late Princess Diana, which clears minefields in many of the world’s past and current war zones. The truck is packed with people returning from a long day of lifting mines. There’s an impasse. Neither we nor they are keen to leave the track to allow the other to pass. If the Halo Trust crew is nervous about leaving the track then so am I. Our guide is jittery. He’s from Cuito and knows the dangers of landmines all too well. “Don’t leave the road!” he warns. Eventually the drivers compromise, each with a set of wheels on the track and the other set off it. The two vehicles pass so closely that at one point I fear that the massive truck will tear the side off our Landy.
A little further on we stop at a small parking area, a clearing just off the track. It is marked out by neatly placed stones. There’s a little thatched shelter and a Halo Trust sign. I gaze to the east, towards the tree line. It’s where the South African assaults came from. Occasionally a gentle breeze brushes the blonde grass. The cooling Landy engine ticks away behind me. What I’m looking at is just bush. It’s quiet and peaceful here and in another part of Southern Africa I could be scanning for elephant, or kudu or even lion, but this place holds memories of war and the predators are buried in the sand.
Patrick suggests that we follow the little footpath that leads from the parking area off into the bush. He tells us that there are SADF tank wrecks out there. He’s been to them before and thinks he can find them again. One by one we shake our heads. Our guide doesn’t know where they are, he’s never been. As for me, the last time I was in Angola I had some near misses. It’s probably safe on the footpath cut by the Halo team, but I have no intention of being blown to bits by a land-mine twenty-five years after my war here ended.
Back in town we pull over to buy some supplies at a little general store. Like many of the buildings here it is made from grey breeze-blocks. It’s hot inside and some children are watching a soap-opera on an ancient television set. We buy our essentials and leave. The children don’t flinch from the screen. When we start off again Patrick has to engage low range to get us out of the deep sand next to the road. I find myself wondering why money has been put into building a new airport when the residents have no running water. Why an expensive war monument has been built when electricity comes from small generators. So much effort has gone into creating a “peace garden”, ironically full of tanks and rocket launchers and even a MiG23 fighter jet, when one needs a four by four just to pull off the high-street. These questions are echoed by several Angolans I meet later in my journey. People here are resilient, they have to be, but there are murmurs of dissent.
As in many countries, the marketplace is the hub of the community and Cuito’s colourful little market represents a community getting on with life. Patrick is in search of fresh fish and I’m looking for fresh vegetables for my dinner. I don’t speak Portuguese so I wander around plucking up the courage to ask for prices. Eventually I buy a selection of delicious looking vegetables including tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers. Other stalls sell t-shirts and baseball caps, rucksacks and household implements. The market is busy and it seems that there’s not much in the way of daily necessities that one can’t buy here.
Patrick can only find dried fish though. “You have to get up very early in the morning and go to the river at about six o’clock if you want fresh fish,” our host informs him. It’s too early so he doesn’t get his fresh, Cuito River, fish.
Once Cuito Cuanavale was a scene of devastation, and the war still clings to it in the form of military wreckage and bad memories. Yet, as people do everywhere, the inhabitants are rebuilding their town and living their lives, blooming like those colourful buckets in the Angolan sand.