One of the most brutal episodes in Angola’s long civil war began in early 1993. Rebels belonging to UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) besieged and then occupied several cities, including Huambo in the Central Highlands of Angola. The siege lasted for 55 days. UNITA then occupied the city for 18 months. In 1998, the rebels again attempted to take over the city. In “Stories from Huambo”, seven residents of the city tell powerful and moving stories about their struggle to survive during those long, tragic years.
Photos: Eric Beauchemin
This programme was part of a dossier wide-ranging dossier – Angola: Picking up the Pieces – that won the One World Broadcasting Trust New Media Award in 2000.
Original broadcast: July 10, 2000
Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Stories from Huambo”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin. We would like to advise listeners that the following program contains descriptions of the personal experience of the victims of violence and war. Listeners may find them disturbing.
We were at home with the parents and suddenly were explosions of bomb.
The bomb landed near him. He was without leg, without anything. It was crazy. It was crazy.
I was afraid all the time. All they were afraid, yeah. I was afraid.
Now I only have 3 or 4 friends who are still with me until now. The others, they die in this moment. A lot of them.
Africa’s longest-running war came to an end in April 2002. The conflict in Angola began in the dying days of Portuguese rule. As in so many former African colonies, the country’s unifying factor had been the colonisers. Within months, war broke out between ethnically-based groups. It was a conflict fuelled by the Cold War: the United States and the Soviet Union were waging proxy wars throughout the Third World. But the Angolan conflict didn’t end with the Cold War. It was only in 1991, under United Nations’ mediation, that the MPLA government and the UNITA rebels signed a peace agreement. In September 1992, elections were held. The MPLA candidate, President José Eduardo dos Santos, won nearly 50 % of the votes. The UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, got only 40% in an election declared free and fair by international observers. Dr Savimbi alleged fraud. He left the capital, Luanda, and went back to his base in the province of Huambo. He then launched what many describe as the bloodiest phase of Angola’s long armed conflict: the War of the Cities. Within months, UNITA had taken over two-thirds of a country twice as big as France. Eventually, 10 of Angola’s 18 provinces were in rebel hands. UNITA also took control of several provincial capitals, including Huambo. Before the war, Huambo was Angola’s second largest city. It lies in the central highlands of Angola. It has wide avenues, beautiful colonial buildings, and was once a key stop on the Benguela Railway, one of Africa’s legendary lines. All that changed in January 1993.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. At around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we had to go out to attend a church activity. When we got near the offices of the provincial government, fighting broke out between the army and UNITA. It was horrible. We weren’t prepared for anything like that. We thought it’d be like other clashes we’d had in the past that lasted only for 24 or 48 hours. But this was much, much worse.
Azenildo was 13 when the siege began. Helder was just a few years older.
It was on 19th of January of 1993. We were at home with the parents and suddenly were explosions of bomb. So from this day until March of this year, we really lived this war. Q: Did you stay at home the entire time or did you go out? What did you do? Yeah, I was at home and I just kept myself. I was separated from my family for 9 days because when the war started, I wasn’t at home. I was in the western part of Huambo, and my parents were on the other side of the city. The telephone stopped working, so I didn’t have any way of telling them that I was OK. I was stuck for 9 days. 3 kilometres separated me from my family.
When the siege began, Luciano had already been through a lot. At the age of 18, he’d been forced to serve in the Angolan air force. He was discharged only 7 years later as a result of the peace agreement signed by the government and the UNITA rebels in 1991. Luciano decided to return to Huambo. It took him time to get back to normal life, but then he started helping his brother-in-law who was a mechanic. At night, he was studying at Huambo’s renowned agricultural institute.
That Saturday, I had decided to visit my mother who lived about 12 kilometres away from the centre of Huambo. When the fighting started, I tried to get back to the city, but all the roads had been cut. I went back to my mother’s house. UNITA forces started coming around because they were rounding up young men to fight for them. They came to our house several times, but my mother was well-known in the area, so she was able to hide me. But I had to stay in a room for the entire 55-day siege. The only time I left the room was to go to the dining room to eat.
Our biggest problem was that we had absolutely no food at all. We had to walk far to get food and bring it back to where we were staying. We’d go out every morning very early, but by 6 a.m. there’d be so much fighting that we’d have to rush back home. In the evening, we’d go back out to try to get a bit of water.
The hunger people in Huambo felt is something 29-year-old Francisco still remembers vividly.
In the begin, some of them they had food at home, just because they bought it before. But after that, food is finish. Sometimes we have to fight to go to this place to take something, small thing to eat. But sometimes die a lot of people. Like me, friends of mine, all of them, now I have only 3 or 4 friends who are still with me until now. The others, they die in this moment. A lot of them.
Francisco has a namesake in Huambo who’s 25 years old. When the siege began, he’d already had a rough life. Francisco’s father abandoned him at birth. Then UNITA kidnapped his mother. At the age of 5, Francisco went to live with his aunt. But she was too poor to take care of him. So he wound up on the streets. For six years, he lived there with friends. Then came the fighting.
The war was difficult. War destroys things. It’s something you can’t forget. War is war. Suffering is suffering. It’s true. We took refuge in a place where the bombs couldn’t hit us. We were safe there. There were more than 300 of us. We had to struggle every day to get food and water. Every day, more people would come. Some of them were wounded, others weren’t. We also saw lots of dead people. When there’s fighting, people always die. I was sad because I was thinking that I didn’t have a mother, I didn’t have a father. I was alone. I was wondering when my day would come. I thought it’d be better to be dead because I couldn’t take the suffering any more.
Vitoria has seen and experienced a lot over the past 65 years. Initially, she supported UNITA because the leader, Jonas Savimbi, had studied with her. Life had been relatively good, says Vitoria, at least, until the siege.
Huambo was divided. From São João to here in uptown. A little bit further on was the MPLA area. Really no city should have to go through anything like this. We had to build a bunker to hide from the air raids. When the MIG jets from the Angolan air force would come, we’d go to the shelter to hide. When they’d passed, we’d quickly come back out to make something to eat, and then when things got bad again, we’d run back into the bunker. We survived like this for 18 days.
During the siege, we had to move three times. We stayed at my parents’ house for 26 days. But then, the bombing raids by the Angolan air force became so intense that we had to go to another area, to São João. But we soon discovered that the enemy forces were concentrated there because again we got bombed. So finally we had to take refuge underneath buildings and in tunnels. That’s where we stayed till the end of the siege.
I was afraid all the time. All they were afraid, yeah. I was afraid. Q: Did you talk about it a lot with your family? Yes, we do. And after 25 days we went to the Central Hospital where there is a safe place, yeah just to save our bodies. We asked military soldiers to follow us and it was very terrible because they were shooting in the way. It was a difficult traject to get there, but thanks to God, we reached the hospital without problems. Q: And as you were walking towards the hospital, did you see a lot of destruction? Yes. We did. Many persons in the street, dead, well in the hospital many persons with wounds and everything. It’s something you won’t forget. Yes. It’s something to forget. Yeah, it’s something to forget.
But some of Huambo’s residents will never be able to forget. The last day of the siege remains etched in the memory of 19-year-old Edna.
On the 6th of March, in the morning, the sky was full of clouds. There was a lot of shooting. At 7 o’clock, a MIG over flew the city. It didn’t drop a bomb. I was still at home when it flew over the city a second time. Then my sister told me to go with her and another one of my sisters to the market. We only had oil and soap left, so we had to go buy food. I didn’t want to go. Let’s go, she said. So I went with my two sisters, but I cried the whole time. I was still crying when we arrived at the market. We’d been there about 10 minutes when a MIG appeared. I was scared because when it’s cloudy, the pilot can’t see. He just drops his bomb and disappears back into the clouds. A bomb came and I started running. My sisters ran in another direction. I ran and ran. The bomb fell close to where I was. Then everything went black. I could feel my leg burning. I lost consciousness for a while. When I came to, I was in the middle of the square, and there were many people lying down. Then I realised they were dead. I got up, but I fell back down again. My foot had been fractured. I started to scream for my sisters.
The MIG came back. It dropped another bomb, but this time it was much closer. Everything started falling again. The people who’d survived the first attack were killed. I called for my sisters again. Later they told me they had to walk over corpses to reach me. I stayed for a long time in the hospital. They amputated me once, then a second time, a third time, a fourth time. There were no drugs in the hospital. There were no doctors. The only thing they had was iodine. The first time they cut my foot off. Then my shin, my knee, and finally my thigh.
When the fighting ended, after 55 days, we had to cross the city by foot. I have never seen so many dead people. We saw horrible things. People who had been dead for days. Their corpses were bloated. There were body parts everywhere. We couldn’t breath. Entire families had been killed. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
When the fighting ended, I remember we was in the hospital. It was just UNITA to say that the government is outside and we hear from the radio that the soldiers of MPLA went to Benguela. We had to keep ourselves because UNITA was looking for guys and young people. So we had to stay at home 20 days. They catch some, but for me, it was different. It was possible to go in a Catholic church. I start as a seminarist and I stopped there just during these two years. For two years you stayed there? Yes. I stayed there two years, just studying, yes. Q: And there was no danger that UNITA would take you then? No, well, normal they respect the Catholic church, they didn’t.
The government forces withdrew and UNITA occupied the city. UNITA was still rounding up young men, so I went to another town where nobody knew me. I stayed there for almost two months. I had been forced to serve in the Angolan army for 7 years, so if UNITA caught me, I knew I’d be in trouble. I tried to do some farming because there was nothing else to do there. But then people in the town started getting suspicious, so I decided it would be safer to go back to Huambo. I hid in a building together with many other young men.
I survived for two months. Me and my friends had taken refuge at a neighbour’s house. But things were tough with UNITA. There was hardly any salt or oil or soap. Besides, UNITA was looking for young men. So we decided to escape to Benguela. That’s a city on the coast, around 600 kilometres away.
We had to walk. We had to walk. It was 11 days. We sleep in night, at 8 o’clock. At 6…very soon, soon in the morning, yeah, we had to walk all the day without food. It’s a lot of people, I mean, young people and old people. Some of them they died without food and it is a lot of people. A lot of people. Some of them they died. So we found a river, we call Katumbela. We couldn’t go to other side just because the river is big. You have to swim before. Some of them they couldn’t go to other side. They went with the water. They drowned. Yeah, a lot of them. A lot of them. It was hard. It was hard. During those 11 days, did you have any food to eat? No. No. In the begin, the area of the Huambo, we found some food, just because they make agriculture in this area. Farming. It’s farming. After that, we didn’t find any food just because we was in the jungle. I saw ladies who bring with them a lot of children – 3 or 4 children – she doesn’t know who they are. No one know who is the father, who is the mother. They cry. Orphans. Orphans. They call the name of their mother. The old people tried to call also who is, who is, who is to the father of these children?, this kid. His name is Nando. Who is the mother of the Nando? All the night, all the night. It was like that.
It took us 2 weeks to get there because we didn’t know the way. We’d start at 7 in the morning and walk until 6 in the evening. We weren’t carrying anything with us, so we’d take corn from fields along the way and eat it. 15 of us left Huambo. Only 7 of us arrived. The rest died along the way of hunger and dysentery.
The situation in Huambo was desperate. There was no food. We were ready to do anything to survive. I had lost everything in the war, but my mother still had some furniture. I remember she gave me 4 chairs. My brother and I carried them 100 kilometres to a market where there were a lot of people, not only from the city itself, but from all over.
We went by foot, yes, by foot. At the time, there was no transport, well, at least not to the town we were going to. My brother and I left at 4 o’clock in the morning. We walked all day long. At 5 p.m. we stopped to eat something. Then we walked again till about 9 in the evening. The following morning we did the same thing. We finally arrived at the market at around 6 in the evening of the second day. That’s where we exchanged my mother’s 4 chairs for 40 kilos of maize.
Some people carried the food on their heads. My brother and I had disassembled a motorcycle that used to belong to my father. We put the maize in the vehicle and then we pushed it back to Huambo. It took us another two days to get back. It was exhausting. We had to make this journey several times. That’s how my family survived.
We were forced to leave Huambo because it was impossible to farm around here. My father’s parents lived in Caála, a town 28 kilometres away. So that’s where my family lived for the next two months. But my father, one of my brothers and me would come to Huambo every night because we were afraid our house would be looted. It was a three-hour walk from Huambo to Caála. We’d leave at 4 o’clock every morning, and we’d head back to Huambo at 5 in the afternoon. It was the toughest time in my life. I was only 13 years old.
After those two months, we came back to live in Huambo. It was the worst Chinese torture you could imagine. We had no food, no nothing. We went around cutting trees and we took the wood to the market to sell. We weren’t used to any of this: our life had been good before the war. UNITA imposed rules on the city: everyday we all had to go out to prepare food for their men. Many people died because they refused. They tried to negotiate but UNITA killed them. Others died of hunger. We went hungry so many days that many people in my family came down with gastritis.
I became very, very sick. I couldn’t eat more. The worst thing was that there wasn’t any medicine in the city. I think my salvation was the arrival of a foreign charity group, Save the Children. They started distributing food. One of the people was a Peruvian doctor. We became friends and he examined me. He found that I had an ulcer and a tapeworm. He was able to get drugs to treat me. It’s thanks to him that I’m here today.
Francisco had lost so much weight when he reached the coastal city of Benguela that no one recognised him. He spent three months in a camp for displaced people before going to the nearby city of Lubango. Francisco took a journalism course there and got hired by a local radio station. In 1995, when the government forced the UNITA rebels out Huambo, Francisco could finally go back home to visit his family.
I found them, bad, with bad, bad, bad conditions. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them with my eyes. I couldn’t believe that he was my mother. I couldn’t believe it. She was actually completely different. I asked why she stay like that? She said to me that two years without salt, without oil. She was skinny. My brothers also. I couldn’t believe it was my family. They was crying, crying, crying. And my home, everything I had in my home, they took out. I don’t know where they put. They took everything. My mother was sleeping on the floor. I asked her why the home stay like that? She said me that UNITA people when they come, they take everything. They say to me that your son was anti-muti. Anti-muti is an emergency police. That’s why they take everything at my house. So my mother had to start again.
To start my life again, I joined an international charity. Everyone had to try to get a job. One of my sons had studied in France, but when he was here, the war broke out. So he had to fill bags to survive. I worked for 6 months for the Catholic Relief Services. Then I moved to the International Red Cross. I worked there till 1998.
One day, when I was leaving work, a bomb fell in front of the house. Then another one. Then another. 3 bombs. That was enough to make anyone run. We’d all seen what’d happened in 1993. People didn’t want to go through that again. They ran to the airport. They were trying to escape to Luanda.
I remember one day, I was here in radio, in the studio. It was in the morning, maybe 10 o’clock. I was making a programme. So they start to shell bombs. But when they stop, behind the radio, people was crying. I went there, it was a young boy. He was almost 18 years old. He was with a bicycle, the bomb land near of him. He was without leg, without anything. It was crazy. It was crazy.
My children left. I told them, ‘no, I’m staying. I’m old. I’d rather die here than go with you.’ Besides I had a job with the International Red Cross. I knew I would be able to eat and live. It didn’t last long. It wasn’t like in ‘93 when MIGs were bombing the city. This time it was only UNITA shelling.
The thing that made me the saddest, terrified me actually, was when a shell hit the house of my aunt. Not some distant family member, my mother’s sister. Her house was destroyed and all of them were killed. I told my parents that we couldn’t die like this, all of us at the same time.
I took some money and some clothes and I told them, if there were any way to leave, I would. There was only one way out of Huambo: by plane. The military were the only ones flying in and out of the city and they only took soldiers and wounded people. But there were many other people like me who were trying to escape. We’d storm planes when they landed. There were so many people on the plane that it couldn’t take off again. I had a friend whose brother was a pilot. They helped me get on a plane to Luanda. I finally got out on December 22nd 1998.
I never saw my children again. One had a scholarship to study abroad and he left. The other son never wanted to come back. He says that the fighting will return. I stayed here on my own. The small dreams we still had died during that second siege.
The war affected me a lot. I have stomach problems now. I can’t go a long time without eating. If I don’t eat, I know I’ll die. The other thing is that during those years of confusion, schools were closed. I’m only now finishing secondary school. Just think: I’m 22 and I’m only now starting my first year of university. But I still have plans, ideals.
I don’t hate anyone. I hate war. But that’s nothing new. In the countries where people are now living happily, they had to go through the same thing as us. The worst thing about our war is that it lasted for so long. It became a war between brothers. There was no reason to divide this country: we’re all sons and daughters of Angola.
“Stories from Huambo” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.