Handicapped, but hopeful

Jerry the Geordie* had just been fishing for landmines in the Zambezi River with his bare hands. In two days he had taken out 115 personnel mines in shallow water. His hands were lacerated but his spirits were high.
“How are you Susan, my love?” the ruddy Englishman asked one of the field workers. “Gonna give Jerry a kiss?”

Johan*, the pilot flying for the World Food Programme (WFP), had been hanging out on the runaway in this far corner of Angola near the Zambian border. He joked about waiting for his steak-and-chips before we took off for an even more remote spot on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The most he could expect was a can of beans at that point. Johan was a “regte Suid-Afrikaner [true South African]” who used to fly for what he called “the other side” during the war, bombing the place with the Cheetahs and Impalas of the South African airforce.

Those were the worst of times, the 1970s and 1980s, a time of their secret war. Now he was dropping off aid and humanitarian workers on a Beechcraft and he didn’t want to talk about the war. “Ag, it’s much better now. The pay’s better too. I’m an Afrikaner and married to an English and it’s lekker. Make love, not war. Much nicer.”

On board was Barend*, another demining expert. His face gave him away almost as much as his accent, as rugged as a gravel road in the Karoo. He was an ex-policeman and he had seen a thing or two in his time.

He could no doubt have told a few tales too, but his khaki T-shirt did it for him instead, listing the war zones — Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador and, of course, Angola. Living proof, if any was required, that he had indeed been there, done that and yes, he had the T-shirt.

We had heard that there had been a landmine accident right in the centre of Luau, the town we were about to land in, on the border of DRC. A truck had driven over a landmine. Two pedestrians and two in the truck had been injured.

I asked Barend about it. There was a sense almost of guilt when he told me he was the only demining expert in the area and he had been in Luanda on leave the day the accident had happened. If he had stayed there was little he could have done anyway.

The genuine warmth that engulfed Barend when he brought down the Beechcraft was quite overwhelming. It was all hugs and backslaps, as if for a returning hero. But these were black Angolans, probably MPLA supporters, the kind of “communists” Barend had dedicated most of his life to keeping out of his country.

There was a flurry of activity and excited Portuguese chatter. Then a van pulled up with the two injured from the landmine blast. The people on the runway were pleading with the pilot to take them on board and back to Luanda. “No, man he’s not on the manifest.”

“But can’t you make an exception, Johan? Asseblief,” we joined the pleading. He gave in and we took off back for a pitstop in Luena.

Flying over the lushness of the Angolan landscape it’s hard to believe there was ever a war and a war that at one stage seemed to have no end. I had been to Angola first to cover that brief flirtation with peace back in 1991. Peace as a story doesn’t have much pull and Angola always delivered a good story, hardboiled and brutal … if you could get to the frontline.

As Africa correspondent for Sky News, the news fortunes of the frontline brought me back time and again for the same kind of green-tinged images of tracer bullets and bombs that transfixed the world in the Iraq war earlier this year.

Covering the war brought out the best and the worst in humans and one particular trip, back in 1993, on the road to Huambo, has stayed with me as a tribute to both types.

A group of correspondents was on a WFP trip with the MPLA demining the road as we went. It was a journey of 72km, it took nearly four days and we lost two soldiers — blown to pieces by mines.

Even going behind a bush for a pee was a frightening experience. At night we drank whisky, ate MREs (Meals Ready to Eat or, as some cynical journalists called them, “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians”) and slept in, or under, the vehicles.

Some read poetry; most raged and rattled with frustration. In the middle of it all was the sane, urbane figure of the WFP team leader, a former British major. A gent and a warrior. I had never forgotten.

Then, as if straight out of a novel, there he was 10 years later on the runway in Luena. The self-same figure, bald-headed, white shirt and pressed, grey trousers plucked straight out of the home counties. This time he was with Save the Children, but his agenda hadn’t changed, he was still trying to put Angola back on its feet.

He and countless others on all sides — MPLA government, Unita, NGOs, United Natioins agencies, are slowly but surely doing just that. One of its feet may be injured, but Angola is hobbling along the right road now. Gems of human beings doing jobs that bring no glory.

It seemed that, at the moment of Jonas Savimbi’s death in February last year, the country turned a corner. Peace was brokered in Luena just months after his death and 100 000 ex-Unita soldiers have given up their arms; another 5 000 have been absorbed into the Angolan army, the FAA. This year alone 70 000 refugees have returned home from neighbouring countries. And next year it’s expected that about 130 000 will go home.

Where hope was once as scarce as a flushing loo, it’s now a commodity that is as valuable as the country’s oil and diamonds.

Each week Boeings bursting with businessmen touch down in Luanda. The really important ones get ushered right passed customs queues by locals carrying the signs of major oil companies — Chevron-Texaco, Elf, Exxon-Mobil, Statoil.

Yet the country the refugees call home has, it is believed, more landmines than people — more than 11-million, it’s estimated.

There are huge issues to be solved. What little infrastructure the Portuguese left behind has long been swallowed up by the war and greed, and the international organisations and big oil business seem coy on corruption. A whole generation has been lost to education and it’s anyone’s guess when the suave Harry Belafonte lookalike, the MPLA’s President José Eduardo dos Santos, will call an election. But it’s a spirited place, with what must be the best nightclubs on the continent, and now you can eat langoustine and sip vinho verde on Luanda’s languid beaches without the irony of war spoiling your dinner.

I wanted to ask Barend and Johan what they thought of the changes — didn’t they feel betrayed by the old regime? What was it all for, being pawns in a Cold War chess game?

They must have lost mates in battles, known guys who had gone mad during their grensdiens (border duty) — a border that extended deep beyond any border. Did it haunt them, give them nightmares? For years they weren’t allowed to talk about what they saw and heard in this, South Africa’s Vietnam. So was this then their way of paying back — dropping off food parcels and risking their lives to pick up landmines?

But in the end the answers didn’t really matter. Just watching them interact with Angolans, being fellow Africans, was answer enough.

*Names have been changed to protect identities. Sarah Crowe is a freelance journalist. She was on a mission in Angola with the UNHCR and writes here in her personal capacity

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