Back to Angola

A War Vet Returns

Back to Angola

In 1987, Paul Morris traveled from his home in Cape Town to Angola as a reluctant conscript soldier to fight in the Angolan Civil War. There, Morris experienced the fear, filth and trauma of war. Now, twenty-five years later, he is returning to the war-torn African nation of Angola in hopes of replacing his memories of terror with memories of peace. Not only is Morris going back, he’s doing it on a thousand-mile bicycle trip, alone and unsupported across the country.

Angola is a word loaded with dark foreboding. I’m nervous and reluctant to start the ride. I fiddle with my kit and pack slowly, strapping my tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat to the bicycle’s carrier. I’m in a strange in-between place: I want to get going, to feel the road moving under my wheels, yet I’m afraid of what it might reveal. This is Angola, after all. I had to lie to get a visa: “No, I’ve never visited Angola before. No, I’ve never had a visa application rejected.” But I have visited before. In 1987. I didn’t need a visa then because I was riding in eighteen tons of armor on the wrong side of the war.

As a child, Angola was always mentioned in the same breath as the word “war”, whether on the news or spoken cautiously by men around the braai. While still in primary school, I stood in our backyard craning my neck as a stream of Dakotas and other air force transport aircraft flew in and out of the Ysterplaat air force base in Cape Town. I had come to realize that this burst of activity was probably to supply the South African Defense Force troops who were invading Angola in 1975.


There was talk of the South Africans having bases inside Angola. Deaths in the Operational Area. This place of war was mythical to a child with no understanding of what it all meant; it was a mysterious, dark and dangerous place. No happiness was attached to the word ‘Angola’, no lightness. No fond words were spoken of it. Occasionally there would be news and footage on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), carefully chosen, no doubt, to back up whatever lies were emanating from the mouths of generals and National Party leaders. Footage of bush. Footage of military vehicles. Propaganda footage of helicopters flying low over squat trees. Troops on patrol. Interviews with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of South Africa’s ally, UNITA. But never any good news from Angola. Only war.

Now, as I hesitate before the open road, my relationship with the Angolan shadow is personal. It is a ghostly, haunting shadow tinged with death and sadness and grief. For years I’ve tried to ignore it, but it has followed me, as shadows do. Sometimes, when I’ve turned to look at it squarely, it has disappeared, like a sinister animal hiding in the bush. It doesn’t move. It won’t let me look at it. I can’t see it for what it really is. Instead, it visits me in the night or torments me by gnawing quietly, often unnoticed, deep in my being. Then, when I least expect it, it insinuates itself into a situation or a conversation. A stand of trees may transform themselves into an Angolan bush scene for just long enough to make me feel the darkness of that corner of my soul reserved for the place called Angola.

It may be because of the religious connotation of the concept that I still resist the idea of my trip being a pilgrimage. There is nothing spiritual about my return to Angola. I just want to see the place again. I want to put my war memories into perspective, to contextualize them in a life that has been full and rich and happy. The Angola in my mind is a pit of darkness and I want to change that. It is my plan to travel slowly and without separation from the experience. Surely a pilgrim has a destination to reach, a spiritual goal: to pray at an important cathedral or mosque and to do penance by means of a long and arduous journey. Sure, my bike ride will be long and arduous. But my goal is the journey itself. I want to see the country for what it really is.

Finally I’m here, arriving in Cuito Cuanavale. Considered strategic during the war, the town is situated some 300 kilometers north of the Angolan border. I’m feeling exhausted and gritty-eyed from my long trip from Johannesburg. I pass the new memorial and the peace garden on my right next to the airport, which sits high on the Cuito ridge. To my left is a tank wreck. I try to judge the peace garden on its own merits, but it singularly fails to live up to its name.

Tanks, a multiple rocket launcher and armored personnel carriers stand behind the new railings. This is not a peace garden; it’s a war garden. I want to believe that the people who designed it sincerely thought they were creating a celebration of peace, but in fact it is nothing more than a triumphalist monument to victory. It’s no better than any statue celebrating colonial generals or war-mongering politicians one finds in, say, London. My feelings of disgust aren’t helped by the fact that among these machines of death stands a MiG-23, the vehicle of my nightmares. It is the thing that I gazed up at from my foxhole as it circled above the Angolan forests looking for a way to kill me and my friends during those horrible days of war nearly three decades ago.

This is the site of the last major battle that the South African Defense Force (SADF) fought in Angola. Whatever one’s opinion is about the outcome of the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, it was here that the South Africans decided enough was enough; this was the place where the South African army stopped and turned around.

A multitude of colored buckets and bowls bloom in the sand next to the high street in Cuito Cuanavale. The flowers wait for a drink. Down by the river, a truck is sucking water from the Cuito River to fill the containers and water tanks around town. I cross the post-war bridge and trundle down to the river bank 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 shows that people are getting on with their lives ten years after the war’s ending. I join some of the men by stripping down 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. Farther on, the long brown floodplain grass doesn’t quite conceal the rusting dome of a military tank’s turret. I take a picture of an anti-aircraft vehicle, its cannons still pointed toward the sky. The remains of an abandoned pontoon bridge lie rusting in the silt below the road.

I head east in a Land Rover past an outlying settlement toward the Tumpo triangle. A man in his early thirties is my guide. He tells me that during the siege, when he was seven-years-old, he looked out over the floodplain. He and his immediate family had sheltered from the bombardment in underground bunkers, but his grandmother and several other close relatives were killed by South African shells.

As we round a slight bend in the track, we come nose to nose with a Halo Trust truck. A non-governmental organization once patronized by the late Princess Diana, the Halo Trust 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, and there’s an impasse. Neither of us is keen to leave the track to allow the other to pass for fearing of running over a mine on the sandy shoulder. If the Halo Trust crew is nervous about leaving the track, then so am I. I have no intention of being blown to bits by a landmine twenty-five years after my war here ended. My guide is jittery. He’s from Cuito and knows the dangers of landmines all too well.

“We must not leave the road!” he warns. Eventually the drivers compromise, each driving with one set of wheels on the track and one set off it. The two vehicles pass so closely that at one point I fear their massive truck will tear off the side of our truck.

De-mining operations in southern Angola
De-mining operations in southern Angola

A little farther on we stop at a small parking area marked out by neatly placed stones. There’s a small, thatched shelter and a Halo Trust sign. I gaze to the east, toward the tree-line where the South African assaults came from. Occasionally, a gentle breeze brushes the blond grass. The cooling Land Rover engine ticks away behind me. What I’m looking at is just bush. It’s quiet and peaceful here, and in other parts 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.

Once Cuito Cuanavale was a scene of devastation; the war still clings to it in the form of military wreckage and bad memories. Yet, as people do everywhere, its inhabitants are rebuilding their town and living their lives, blooming like those colorful buckets in the Angolan sand. I visit the scrapyard near the old Cuban wartime base just outside of town. I’m so affected by the dumped hulks of rusting tanks, APCs and even a MiG-17 that I sit down in the sand to record my impressions.

23 June 2012
Today, with this and visiting the Tumpo triangle, I feel sickened, and saddened. My soul cries in pain at what people do to one another. We see the men and women from Halo, now the front line in the fight against landmines. The mines keep fighting like a lost regiment, not knowing that the war is long over; killing indiscriminately. The ghosts of war surely cannot rest until the last mine is lifted. They wait around the fields of battle for the ravages of war to finish its murderous business.

My thoughts turn, inevitably, to a morning in 1987, when somewhere to the south of here on the Lomba River, my fire group came under attack from Angolan artillery. We’d been combing the bush for hours when the first shots were fired. Suddenly there’s a light whip-crack overhead. Then another. Then: snap. Snap, snap. Like heavy raindrops on a plastic shelter, rifle fire from the AK-47s of the FAPLA forward observation post starts to seek us out, the bullets crackling ever more fiercely as they break the sound barrier over our heads. It has started. My stomach is tight; blood pounds in my ears. There is a steady crackling of rifle fire overhead, accompanied by regular machinegun bursts that sound like so many strings of Chinese fireworks. The crack-bang of high explosives has started as FAPLA begins lobbing mortar and artillery shells at us, and now we hear the loud muzzle-bangs from cannons. It’s impossible to tell whether they’re from our Ratel 90s or from FAPLA tanks, but they indicate that we have now fully engaged in battle with the main body of the defending force. Our fire orders come through and I prime bombs, ripping charges from the tail fins and turning the nosepiece to “fire” and passing them to John, our Number 2, who is chucking them down the barrel as fast as I can pass them to him. We’re firing more bombs than ever before. Ten bombs for effect. Twenty. We are on target and the enemy is taking a pounding. They’re well dug in and we keep hammering away, but they don’t budge. Shooting back gives me something to do.

When I’m not priming bombs, my mind has time to scream at me, This is fucking madness – get the hell out! Somewhere through the thick bush our lieutenant is racing to and fro along the front. He’s picking out targets and radioing them back to our fire group. High explosives are churning the sand and splintering trees and I can feel their percussion in my chest as if I’m a drum. The bush is thick. It’s hard to stay in formation. We’re attacking from two directions and our other force has wheeled around, disorientated. For a while we fire at each other without realizing it. We pause in our advance, pull back, reorganize and have another go. It’s a long, intense day and time warps and bends in a fog of adrenaline and terror. We speak to one another in the lulls and pauses in our firing as the battle ebbs and flows and crashes like angry surf on a jagged coast. In conversation we seek comfort, but there is no such thing in this place. There is only fear and the possibility of dying.

Every day after breakfast during training, I would pass the black base workers on their way to jobs as cleaners, gardeners, bin men and pot-washers. I’d greet them. They’d greet me back. I wondered what it must be like to be a black man working on an SADF base, for one of the organizations responsible for their oppression.

For my final year of high school, I went to Abbotts College, a small private school that accepted pupils of all races. For the first time in my life I made friends with people my age who weren’t white. We studied together, had lunch together and played soccer together. We went out drinking together and flirted with one another. We were embarrassed together when we had to split the group to sit in segregated train carriages – apartheid decreed that we couldn’t travel together and, as part of the cowed white middle-classes, we wouldn’t subvert this.

Much of what was sometimes referred to as ‘petty apartheid’, the laws that segregated buses and park benches and beaches had been scrapped in Cape Town by the mid-eighties. The Wimpy had a little sign on the door depicting a black figure eating at the same table as a white figure. As a racially mixed group of teenagers in 1985, we managed to get by in the Southern Suburbs without bumping into apartheid too often, although, not far away, on the Cape Flats, tires were burning and the security forces were running amok. In October 1985, while we sat in our classroom studying for our exams, just a few kilometers away, in the suburb of Athlone, security forces carried out what became known as the Trojan Horse Massacre, an ambush that killed three protesters and wounded fifteen others.

By the time I’d finished Basic Training in 1986, I had given up all hope of change for South Africa. Racism was pervasive and entrenched, both in the institution itself and in the minds of most of the men I spent my days with. Racist comments spattered conversations daily, hourly. It sickened me. It forced me to confront a reality from which my middle-class Cape Town upbringing had shielded me. It’s not that I hadn’t come across racist remarks dropped casually into conversations before; I had. The white Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, where I grew up, was a socially and politically conservative place. Our member of parliament was a National Party representative. But the racism I encountered in the army was of a different nature. It was openly and unashamedly expressed in terms that often shocked me. It was as if black South Africans were considered less than human. Black people were kaffirs, houtkoppe, goffels,hot’nots, peccies, coolies. Regardless of what the National Party was saying about “evolutionary change”, all these ugly racists made up their constituency. Things would never change.

Soldiers of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola in December 1975
Soldiers of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola in December 1975

Afterwards, at university, I learned about the history of South Africa – a history that went beyond my apartheid education at a government school. I learned about how the Nationalist apartheid government had tried to perfect what colonial administrations and previous governments had started. I discovered that white governments had introduced monetary taxes on people who had very little use for money to force them into lives as mineworkers. I learned how people were dispossessed of their land, and that the small number of people regarded by the apartheid regime as other than white who did have the vote were disenfranchised. I read case studies of how people survived in my country by subverting the pass laws and how they struggled to feed their families on starvation wages. I had known that apartheid was morally wrong, but during university my eyes were truly opened to the realities of the daily lives of those who were oppressed by it.

Whichever way you look at it, we had no business being in Namibia. South Africa had no right to hang onto the country when, following World War II, the then newly-formed United Nations declared that former German colonies in Africa be put under UN trusteeship. It had no business maintaining its occupation of South West Africa, as it was then known, when in 1966 the UN declared South African rule of the country to be illegal. In September 1978, the UN adopted Resolution 435, which required South Africa to give Namibia independence, so in spite of whatever covert support the United States was giving South Africa, it was officially opposed to us being there. The world was opposed to us being there.

Now, decades later, riding my bicycle on the road from Cuito Cuanavale, I know a great deal about myself. I am comfortable with who I am because I’ve tested myself against life. I’ve traveled, I’ve loved, I’ve lost and I’ve been lost. I’ve doubted myself, lost faith in others and regained it. My ideas about life and politics and relationships have been formulated and tested and re-formulated. I’ve grown, and I shall grow more.

It’s my first night on the road and all the rusting war machines have filled my head with images of war. I don’t feel ready to be alone among so many ghosts. I don’t want to camp wild tonight; I want to be around people. I can’t explain it, but I don’t want to be alone in the bush. I coast down into the valley where people are taking evening baths and washing their clothes in the web of streams that decorate the floodplain. Figures bent at the waist, half hidden by the brown winter grass of the river banks, rinse away another day of toil.

The village of Masseca is bigger than I expected, it spreads to the left of the road along the opposite river bank. I feel daunted by having to find somewhere to sleep. Dogs bark, children squeal and smoke from cooking fires seeps out from between the mud-brick houses. Somewhere there is loud music playing. A neatly dressed man of about thirty stands next to the road talking to some young women at the water’s edge below. They’re bent double, the fringes of their colorful skirts wet as they rub their laundry. They talk happily, as if they are pleased to know one another.

Boa tarde!” I say in greeting. The man turns at the sound and greets me in return. I tell him where I have come from and, when he tries to question me, I apologize for not speaking Portuguese. I figure that the best way to find a place to camp for the night is to ask for the administrator. The man says something and I recognize the word escola. I assume the administrator lives next to the school. As he speaks he waves his hand vaguely toward the village. There’s no way I’m going to find it on my own, so I deliberately play stupid until he says something to the women by the river and beckons me to follow him.

He hands me over to some men sitting outside a tavern about a hundred meters up the road. I don’t understand the handover, but it seems obvious that the young women on the river bank are more interesting to my short-lived guide than a middle-aged man on a bicycle. Three of the men get up from their plastic chairs. They’re serious-faced but not unfriendly. They lead me between the village huts. They walk quickly and I battle to keep up as I drag my loaded bicycle through the deep sand. Within a few seconds we have a growing tail of children and by the time we have negotiated a route through the little rectangular houses and round huts to our destination, there are more than forty of them.

In front of a rectangular mud-brick house that is larger than most of the others, we are met by some more men and I am handed over again. I explain, with limited vocabulary and gestures, that I need a place to pitch my tent. I’m invited into the house. The man who is now my host turns out to be the local schoolteacher – there is no administrator in Masseca. As the only public servant in the village, he is considered the next best thing.

Someone takes my bike and squeezes it through the front door. Another man barks at the large group of curious children. They shriek with laughter and move back a little before crowding in once more, a sea of delighted white teeth. I’m ushered into the front room and we’re joined by some of the teacher’s family, mostly young adults whom I take to be his brothers and sisters. Above a Formica table and some chairs, a portrait of Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, is prominently displayed. My bike is leaned against the wall and I am offered a chair. At the square, glassless window, the faces of older children who are tall enough to reach, watch us while chattering excitedly. The teacher tells me his name is Benjamin.

Benjamin and I try to make conversation. He tells the children to go away. They back away for a few seconds but their curiosity gets the better of them and soon the window is again crammed with wide-eyed, grinning faces. Eventually my host gets up and closes the wooden window shutter. It’s suddenly quieter but also pitch-black, as the little window is the room’s only source of light. There’s no electricity. Our conversation consists of long, awkward pauses between stilted attempts at communication aided by my head torch and my English–Portuguese dictionary. Eventually I get things moving by pulling out my camera and taking some photographs. By the light of my head torch I set the camera to automatic. I aim hopefully into the darkness and manage to capture some photographs of our little group. They pass the camera around, delighted at their images on the camera’s screen.

I explain carefully that I have my own food and that I don’t want to be any further trouble to them. But although I show them vegetariano in the dictionary, it becomes clear that the concept is meaningless in rural Angola. A couple of the young women appear with serving bowls. A bowl of warm water is passed around and Benjamin, two of the older boys and I wash our hands. The women, girls and younger boys look on. A large enamel bowl contains a form of pap, and the smaller bowls hold some dried fish, what looks like pork on the bone, and something else I can’t make out in the dim torchlight. I need to make a quick decision.

I haven’t eaten any form of animal flesh in over fifteen years. Although a total stranger, I am now the guest of a very generous family in whose home I’ll clearly be sleeping tonight. It would be hard enough turning down this meal, which has been specially prepared for me, were I able to explain my reasons sensitively in fluent Portuguese. I decide that refusing this food in the blunt manner that my limited Portuguese would allow would be very discourteous. My host expertly rolls some pap into a ball and dips it into one of the dishes. I follow his example.

Whatever is in the bowl I choose is delicious, rich in flavor and tender between my teeth. For a second I think I’m chewing a sundried tomato, but of course it can’t be. I’d hoped that the mystery dish would prove to be a vegetable of some kind, but as I make my way through a third morsel of unknown flesh, I come to the conclusion that I am eating slivers of marinated goat.


The following morning, after a good night’s sleep on a thin mattress in the same room as President dos Santos, Benjamin insists on pushing my bicycle through the soft sand back to the road, a final gesture of hospitality before I start out west again.

It’s still early enough for me to be wearing a pullover when I come across a rusting tank just off the road, its barrel pointing at me. It’s a tourist photo opportunity that I can’t resist, so I leave the tar and coast across the gravel to the tank. A young boy of about eleven or twelve clambers onto the rusting armor and becomes a subject in my composition. Two women wander over with a little girl and I take some photos of them. The dusty little girl is dwarfed by the size of the tank’s track and I wonder what the war will mean to her as a child born into a war-free country. The man they were with when I arrived remains sitting on his tree stump. Perhaps there’s a message for me in how he looks in the opposite direction – he could be old enough to remember how this tank came to be rusting here.

The author’s bike and an over-turned armoured personnel carrier
The author’s bike and an over-turned armoured personnel carrier

Everyone experiences war differently. Each person makes sense of it in his or her own way. Back in Angola, I have met men and women who have had more extreme and horrific experiences of war than I have. Yet many of us – maybe most of us – have found that the troubling shadow of war has followed us throughout our lives. Far from it being a journey into my past, my journey back to Angola has been a vibrant, exciting adventure in the present. The war had fractured my fragile and barely-formed sense of self, whereas this journey has been deeply affirming. And my need for adventure on my own terms is only a small part of it.

A pilgrimage, I’ve realized, is not about a destination: it’s a process of growth and change that consists of an arduous external journey that mirrors a grueling internal one. This bicycle expedition has been the final, physical expression of a lifelong process of coming to terms with the war. Of healing. But I know now that my long journey from the battlefields of Angola is over.

This article is an excerpt from Paul Morris’ novel “Back To Angola”.