Looking into the mirror – Angolans and their dark past

Huambo, Angola
Huambo, Angola (© Eric Beauchemin)

In 2003, the African nation of Angola was emerging from a quarter of a century of civil war and massive human rights abuses. 1½ million people were killed during the fighting, and one in three had to flee their home. All sides committed human rights abuses on the battlefield. Efforts to file complaints or obtain redress had only led to more violence. With the return of peace, Angolans were demanding action to deal with the country’s grave history of abuse and impunity.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: January 22, 2003

Finalist certificate, New York Radio Festivals, 2003

This programme is part of a dossier wide-ranging dossier – Angola: Picking up the Pieces – that won the One World Broadcasting Trust New Media Award in 2003.

Original broadcast: January 22, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents Looking into the Mirror: Angolans and their dark past. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Our war has been brutal, very, very brutal.

Angola’s history has been one of violations of the laws of war and combatants on any side have been using human rights abuses as a tool for advantage on the battlefield.

Human rights is actually quite a simple thing. It’s all about people having certain very fundamental rights.

Every time there has been an effort to ask for redressing or to complain against violations and abuses, there were more abuses.

I think it is a better thing to bury all this and to learn the lesson that through violence, through war, through revenge, there is no solution. We just make things worse.

The African nation of Angola is emerging from a quarter of a century of civil war. 1.5 million people were killed during the fighting and one in three had to flee their home. Human rights organisations have documented widespread and horrific abuses committed against the civilian population by both government forces and the UNITA rebels. With the return of peace in April 2002, there are now mounting calls from human rights groups and many educated Angolans for these violations to be investigated and for the perpetrators to be punished. For this to happen, Angolans will have to decide which crimes need to be investigated, says Mario Rui, who works for the Mosaiko Cultural Centre, an Angolan group involved in human rights education and awareness.

Mario Rui, Mosaiko Cultural Centre
Mario Rui, Mosaiko Cultural Centre (© Eric Beauchemin)

There have been various armed conflicts over the past 40 years in Angola. It started with the war against the Portuguese colonisers. That war began with a tragic event in 1961 when the nationalists launched their independence struggle. They occupied some farmsteads and people were killed. The colonial forces responded vigorously, even bombing the nationalists with napalm and razing certain villages. Some of the repression was less visible: people were persecuted, imprisoned, and many people died in mysterious circumstances.

The human rights abuses continued throughout the 1960’s and the early 70’s, says Alex Vines of Human Rights Watch.

There were a multiplicity of abuses by the colonial authorities, the Portuguese, but also by the nationalist movements. You had summary executions. You had forced labour. You had forced portering. You had widespread use of anti-personnel mines. Those were introduced by the nationalists and caused serious problems for the Portuguese, both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. You had detention without trial, you had infringements of freedom of expression. I mean, you name it.

The human rights abuses of the colonial war pale in comparison to what followed after Angola’s independence in 1975. A full-scale civil war broke out between the two main nationalist movements: the MPLA and UNITA. The MPLA seized power with the backing of the Soviet Union and Cuba. It established a one-party state and adopted Marxism-Leninism as the country’s official ideology. The other movement was UNITA, which received support from the United States and South Africa. For the next 15 years, the two sides fought each other in what became one of the main battlefields of the Cold War.

Both sides soon revealed their violent nature. Following independence, the MPLA, facing internal and external threats, began a campaign to stifle all opposition to the one-party state. One of the dissenters was Justino Pinto de Andrade, an MPLA militant, who had spent five years in prison because of his opposition to colonial rule.

The repression began after independence. The authorities were more interested in suppressing the people than in uniting them. So three or four months after independence, the prisons were full of former militants and others who opposed the one-party state and President Neto’s policies. In 1977, there was a coup attempt against the president that was violently suppressed.

The government killed people indiscriminately, both MPLA members and people who had nothing to do with the party. Most of the victims were civil servants and educated young people. Some of them were not even 18 years of age. It’s said that up to 30,000 people were killed. For a country of less than 7 million, it was a tremendous loss.

Alex Vines, Chatham House
Alex Vines, Chatham House (© Eric Beauchemin)

It was a purge but it was also a way of all sorts of people redressing their own local grievances, so if they didn’t like somebody, they would just say they were a plotter. And so many people died in that period. Again, we can’t really quantify the number because there’s been no independent assessment at all. There was no talk about this. It’s all anecdotal evidence and talking to relatives. We believe there are mass graves but nobody has uncovered them or looked at them. Some are in restricted areas like the presidential mansion, Fotungo, so there’s no way you can get near those. The country still hasn’t recovered from it. It’s one of the really nasty skeletons in Angola’s history that’s locked tightly in a cupboard and nobody wants really to open that cupboard too wide, in the political elite level. I think there’s too much blood on too many hands.

The revolt was quashed within months, but the blood continued to flow in ever-greater quantities as a result of the ongoing civil war. Grave human rights abuses were committed during the fighting not only by the government but also the UNITA rebels. The movement’s leader, Dr. Jonas Savimbi, encouraged a personality cult and he ordered several UNITA dissidents to be burned alive. Many others simply disappeared. As the war dragged on, says Father João Domingo Fernandes of the Mosaiko Cultural Centre, Dr. Savimbi became convinced that only violence and force could lead him and his movement to victory.

Mosaiko Cultural Centre
Mosaiko Cultural Centre (© Eric Beauchemin)

For him, the rights of human beings is no problem. During the war, as he said once, there is no respect for human rights. War is war. And therefore with this idea that violence was the leitmotiv, many, many violations to the human rights. What type of violations? First of all he could kill everybody. No respect. Cut off the fingers, cut the tongue, cut the nose, cut the sex, many things like that, and sometimes they would just do it like to show off, to show others that that would happen to you if you come back or something. Therefore the atmosphere was really violent, violent.

In 1991, it seemed that an end had come to the long years of suffering. The government and the UNITA rebels signed a peace agreement and elections were held the following year. The president, José Eduardo dos Santos, won the first round of the elections, but he did not obtain an absolute majority. Dr. Savimbi disputed the results and before a second round could be held, he dragged his nation into an even more vicious phase of violence and human rights abuses.

It was one individual’s megalomania for power that was a key stumbling point. I think probably the worst period was ‘93 and early ‘94 and basically you had a siege of the cities. You had a number of cities occupied by UNITA for example Huambo. The city of Kuito was divided. Malanje was besieged. You had a lot of incoming fire. You had a lot of violence by UNITA against civilians in those places and very, very terrible situation for civilians. I mean it was the worst humanitarian situation in ‘93 in the world.

Destroyed church in Kuito
Destroyed church in Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

The city of Kuito in the central highlands of Angola still bears testimony to the ferociousness of the siege. Almost a decade later, much of the town’s centre remains in ruins. The nearby city of Huambo was besieged for nearly a year and a half. Francisco Raimundo cannot forget the suffering he and his family experienced. Even the most fundamental rights to food, shelter and life disappeared during that period.

Then the war started inside of the city with big guns… I don’t know how to call the kind of materiel they was to use. We stayed there 23 days. During the 23 days you were stuck in the centre of the city, how did you eat? What was life like then? It was so hard, so hard…without water, without food. We cooking things like – in Portuguese we call rama. Rama [ed. branch] is a small thing, a vegetable things. All the days we’d eat. To pick up water, we had to fight. When some the mens is fighting, the ladies take water. Then we come again to the city like that. Were there people who were starving? There was hungry, without there. Of course. Of course, it was like that, of course. In the begin, some of them they had food at home, just because they bought it before. But after that, the food is finish. Sometimes we have to fight to go to the place to take something, small thing to eat. But sometimes die a lot of people. Like me, friends of mine, maybe 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.

Andrea Lari, Human Rights Watch researcher
Andrea Lari, Human Rights Watch researcher (© Eric Beauchemin)

300,000 people died during the 1.5 year long war of the cities. It was followed by another peace agreement, which UNITA again failed to implement. In 1998, the government, tired of the rebels’ prevarication, launched an all-out offensive against UNITA. According to Andrea Lari, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, both sides used civilians as part of their military strategy…and they abused them too.

For instance, the government was after – taking over a place or an area from UNITA – was moving all the population living there to the major municipal cities. And during those events, harassment, beating, indiscriminate killings and rapes occurred quite frequently. It was widespread strategy. It was not just a group of few individuals committing violations. On the other side, UNITA forces after suffering a few military setbacks and being fragmenting all around the country, they increased hit and run guerrilla attacks, and they used directly the civilians for making their attacks. UNITA forces were quite well known about the system of terror they were applying on the population that were part of their controlled areas, but in the last few years, this meant even mutilation of limbs of the population, trying to threaten the population, indiscriminate killings, abduction of children and women. There was a strategy in terrorising the population by both parties.

The fight to the death would last another four years, till April 2002, when government forces tracked down and killed the UNITA leader, Dr. Savimbi.

The last six months of the war were really dreadful and they were, but more to do with the scorched earth policy by the government. The government was the worst perpetrator in the last six months of the war, really decimating any countryside and forcibly draining people from it so that UNITA would be even more emaciated. So from a human rights point of view, it was absolutely dreadful.

The return of peace to Angola – and everyone believes this time it will be a truly lasting peace – has not brought an end to the suffering and the human rights violations. In the wake of the ceasefire in April, tens of thousands of people began appearing at feeding centres like this one. Half a dozen people are still dying every day on average as a result of starvation or disease, and millions of Angolans cannot return home because their villages have been destroyed, their land is mined, and the authorities have yet to restore basic services. These people, says Andrea Lari, regularly face human rights abuses.

For instance, one of the major problems is that these people have lost their own personal identification document. This allow to the police force for instance, the national police, to beat them up or to take them to jail, if these people were not able to bribe their way out. So I mean if they don’t have enough products or money to pay the soldiers whether at checkpoints or randomly, even in the city, they incur into this kind of violations. So this is still happening. It’s a widespread situation. The problem is that violations have been committed and are still committed because the general framework within those violations are happening is a framework of impunity.

There has been a history of impunity and unaccountability in Angola. Now the Angolan authorities have said, well that’s because we’ve been at war, and in war, civil liberties are infringed on. Well, this is now the opportunity with peace to look at this and re-look at the history of Angola and help to heal it whether that’s through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Mozambican-style at local level where the communities themselves deal with the past, that will be for Angolans to decide. But there will need to be some sort of mechanism to come over the trauma of 30 years of conflict, which is 30 years of human rights abuses. I believe that by confronting these things and discussing them properly will contribute to healing rather than just putting them all under the carpet and forgetting about them.

Dr. Daniel Ntoni Nzinga, executive secretary of Angola’s Inter-church Committee for Peace
Dr. Daniel Ntoni Nzinga, executive secretary of Angola’s Inter-church Committee for Peace (© Eric Beauchemin)

It won’t be easy to get rid of Angola’s culture of impunity, believes Dr. Daniel Ntoni Nzinga, the executive secretary of the Inter-church Committee for Peace. That fact was underscored again in the final days of the war, when Angola’s legislature passed yet another amnesty law.

When being passed, the president of the National Assembly said, ‘this is the 7th or the 8th amnesty this parliament is passing since 1991’. Now the question I asked myself ‘do Angolans still understand what amnesty means?’ Do we hold the same significance to amnesty as the one who passed it? Even this one we have, it never says, what is it that we are being amnestied for, what action that the amnestied has to take for the amnesty to be valid? It never says. Just a blank amnesty passed. So it’s a law which no meaning in the life of the people. And that is problematic. So it is important that a process is put in place that brings the significance of it, that next time, if we go for a law of amnesty again, we know what we are talking about. But at the moment it’s just a joke.

But things are changing. With the return of peace and the prospect of elections, perhaps in 2004 or 5, says Alex Vines, the MPLA government is likely to face growing pressure to confront Angola’s dark past.

It is paradoxical that UNITA now are saying that we may well talk about the past and what happened. It’s lucky for them in a way because their leader, Jonas Savimbi, is dead, so they can blame much on a dead person. It’s not going to be so easy for the MPLA, the ruling dominant party, predominant party, should I say, because of course their leadership is still very much alive.

To come to terms with the dark deeds of Angola’s past, it’s not enough for UNITA and the MPLA to repent and apologise, say human rights organisations. There must also be prosecutions. But according to Andrea Lari, that’s an illusion in today’s Angola.

The culture of impunity is based on almost an inexistent judicial system. The government has really never manifested the will to invest in this sector. There is an institutional problem in terms of how the general prosecutor is appointed. He’s appointed directly by the president of the country. So there are technical problems, institutional problems that are granting impunity. There is a shortage of human resources. There are…in some areas, there are not even judges and there are no physical structures. There are no municipal courts. There are something like 11 courts out of 164 municipalities and of those 11, only 8 are working.

One of the organisations trying to improve Angola’s justice system is the United Nations’ Human Rights Division. It’s headed by Anders Pedersen.

Anders Pederson, United Nations Human Rights Division
Anders Pederson, United Nations Human Rights Division (© Eric Beauchemin)

Now we work with the administration of justice, the justice ministry, the prosecutor general, etc., etc. And I really have to say seriously that they have been very good partners. Of course, any government administration in any country is not a homogeneous body. There are areas that it’s much easier to work than in other areas.

Anders Pedersen and his team have been using the media to raise awareness among the general public about human rights. But they need little convincing. The UN’s Human Rights Division has also been working with the Angolan police and the army.

We carry out basically civic education training programmes, all over the country. It might sound paradoxical but even during the war, the demand from the armed forces for our services were even bigger than we could really meet. So we are basically people all the time in one place or the other in Angola, out in the provinces doing training workshops. Can you give me an example of what happens in these training workshops? Well it’s a 2-3 day workshop. You sit down. You have all kinds of interactive activities with them in order for them to basically to learn. Human rights is actually quite a simple thing. I’m always saying that human rights is nothing complicated. It’s very, very basic. It’s all about people having certain very fundamental rights. And those rights are obvious to anyone that really would start talking about them.

It’s not easy to translate simple truths into reality in torn, grieving nations, particularly those with an authoritarian past. A decade ago, the MPLA government adopted a multi-party system. But change is easier to proclaim than to implement. Nonetheless, says Alex Vines, there are signs of a slight yet gradual improvement.

You are beginning to get the tribunals, that’s the local courts, reasserting themselves for the first time, including a couple of cases where the government’s attempts have been thrown out by the tribunals. There was for example some journalists that were arrested and detained for violations of state law because they had been broadcasting some interviews with UNITA people. That case was thrown out. There has been some other successful challenges in the Luanda tribunal, and even on issues of transparency, you see that members of the National Assembly, the parliament, are beginning to become more vocal and lively again. That’s really important.

The first signs of change may be encouraging, but Dr. Daniel Ntoni Nzinga of Angola’s Inter-church Committee for Peace remains cautious. The MPLA government has ruled the country continuously since independence, and now that UNITA has been defeated as a military organisation, it feels stronger than ever.

It’s a problem of course. I mean, after 25, 26 years in that kind of situation where they do anything. There is never any blame. Even when people shout, they will just tell: ‘we did the inquiry. There is no proof.’ There is never a single inquiry that has been made and then the people to be told, ‘yes, we have noticed it, the cries that came out. The minister saw or the governor saw, really was wrong, and then, this is the punishment. Not. Since 1977. The only people who will be told, ‘we are really bad people, if, when you are unable to manipulate. I mean, you have nobody at the top who can play around the whole thing. So when you lose that connection, you can be blamed for everything that has not happened. Today, the ministers and the governors and the others, they think they are the bosses. We are the employees. So the people have to say thank you for having me here, when they are the ones who should be thankful to the people.

The international community is unlikely to put pressure on the Angolan government to account for its crimes. Some of the main international donors supplied arms and logistical support to the two parties during the war. They have no desire to be reminded of their involvement in Angola’s decades of war and human rights abuses, particularly now that Angola has become Africa’s second largest oil exporter.

These strategic and economic interests are of little concern to the average Angolan, particularly those in the interior, where the fighting was the most intense. Many are happy simply to have survived the years of horror. Bela José was 14 when her village was attacked by UNITA. Her family became separated: her father managed to get to government-held territory, her brothers disappeared, and she and her mother wound up in a UNITA camp.

Bela José
Bela José (© Eric Beauchemin)

Later we heard that my father had been killed. UNITA told us that he died because he was the in government area. They told me I had to join their youth wing which was called the jura or Revolutionary Youth of Angola. One day, I left the base to go look for salt. At the time, you had to walk over 100 kilometres to buy salt. I went with a group of other people, but my mother stayed behind because she had trouble walking. When I returned, I discovered that UNITA had shot and killed my mother. She was buried two days before I got back to the base. So I was all alone.

My grandmother, who was living in a nearby area, took me in. But then UNITA came back and they insisted that I had to join the jura. They told me that my mother had been killed because of my malice. ‘Now you are alone’, they said. ‘You have to join the jura’. I was really afraid. I fled my grandmother’s hut and took refuge in another house. But people saw me, and UNITA came after me. They shot me once in the leg.

Like many people in the interior, Bela José doesn’t speak of bringing to justice those responsible for destroying her family and leaving her with a very bad limp. Having known nothing more than war all her life, now all she wants is peace, real peace. Father João Domingo Fernandes is one of those who believes that it is better to leave the past alone.

Statue of António Agostinho Neto in Malanje
Statue of António Agostinho Neto in Malanje (© Eric Beauchemin)

How could we really make justice now? First of all, the worst people, those who were more responsible, they are not living any more. I’m thinking about even Agostinho Neto, Iko Carreira, who was the really right-hand that did most of the killings in ‘77, or Jonas Savimbi. Who are they now? What we are going to do? Do you think that there is a need for a truth commission or some type of body to investigate what happened during the past 30 years? I doubt if that is possible. I doubt very much. I think the better thing is to bury all this and to learn the lesson. We should not forget this. We should keep it in mind, to learn the lesson, that through violence, through war, through revenge, there is no solution. We just make things worse. We just destroy, kill and that is no good at all. I think for Angola it is the only way.

Mario Rui also feels uncomfortable with the notion of a truth commission to investigate Angola’s long history of human rights violations.

The various ethnic groups that make up Angola have different ways of feeling and expression pain. They also mourn differently. I believe that to impose international models or methods to deal with this issue may not resolve as much as people imagine. It’s the people of the interior who suffered the most during the war. In their cultures, they have purification and mourning rituals and ways of talking about loss. I think these customs and traditions should not be ignored. They might be more effective in helping these people deal with the horrors they experienced than a truth commission.

Andrea Lari has deep misgivings about these arguments. As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, he firmly believes that perpetrators of abuses should be brought to justice. But he acknowledges that for many of the victims, it may still be simply too early to speak up.

They are extremely afraid because every time there has been an effort to ask for redressing or to complain against violations and abuses, there were more abuses, the more violent reactions. How to win this feeling of tremendous fear that people at large are suffering, and the tremendous trauma that decades of war have left in all generations of the country? I would not feel right in pressing non-governmental groups or civilians or even victims to go out on the streets to claim for the redressing of their rights now, the violations they have suffered in the past. I wouldn’t support this strategy because it would be counterproductive and people are fed up with violence and terror. It’s true that the wounds caused by those violations are quite deep. And the only thing we can do now is to gather the information. And then it will be up to the Angolans to find a way how to process these research of justice.

If you say, all this was just the war, forget it, but you still have some children waiting for their parents to come back that were taken at 4 o’clock in the morning by the police. You still have some children or wives waiting for their husband who were taken away by the UNITA people in the area when they took control of it and never came back. They will tell those stories to their children. They make take time for anyone to react but do we still want to see those people moving around who did this? Of course, they received orders. But it’s important that those who gave the orders are known. Not necessarily to arrest them or kill them, but at least it is known because we can’t continue to let things done that way. There will always be tension in the country that can transform themselves into conflict. So how do we prevent them, if we don’t know?

“Looking into the Mirror” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.