DAY 5 -- We enter a new camp just before dawn. We have been sitting in the grass a few miles away since midnight, but the guide says it is better not to approach until daybreak, when our point man can readily identify himself to a camp sentry.
Tired, I ask the guide, a Mr. Inene, why we must wait. "So we won't be shot," he says.
The camp spreads beneath a canopy of trees and vines in the abruptly hilly country of northern Angola. It is a masterpiece of advanced Eagle Scout technology -- everything, even beds and benches, built from vines, branches, reed matting and strips of bark lashing.
Nobody wears a uniform. Except for the man with the ugly leg wound and the abundance of automatic rifles, no sign of war appears. Mr. Inene, the guide, is a paramedic and tends to the wounded man. I sprawl on the hard dirt, tug off a pair of French jungle boots and nurse two bruised and tired feet.
The grassy hills and lush valleys evoke memories of the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, the Inyanga of Zimbabwe or the Green Mountains of Vermont, except here it is hotter and drier. All these places have at one time or another been good terrain for guerrillas.
For three weeks, I am supposed to walk these hills to report on one faction in the civil war in this African country that is, as correspondents are tritely wont to describe things, half the size of Western Europe or twice the size of Texas. I do not expect to see much of its 481,000 square miles on foot.
My hosts are soldiers of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola -- the FNLA. For 14 years before independence, FNLA troops fought their Portuguese colonizers. Tragically, when independence came in 1975, the various groups that had fought so hard for it fell to fighting among themselves. Somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 Cuban troops joined the conflict to back the Marxist faction, which had the weakest guerrilla army.
Today, the FNLA fights Cuban-led units of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola -- the MPLA -- in the hills of northern Angola. In the south, a third group, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola -- UNITA in the jargon of this alphabet- soup war -- also fights the Cubans and the MPLA.
Without going into the voluminous niceties of tribal politics, ideological overtones and diplomatic absurdities, suffice it to say that if you were a fly on the wall among any of these groups, you would hear the FNLA speaking mostly the Kongo language, the MPLA the Mbundu language, UNITA the Ovimbundu language and all of them some Portuguese.
The alphabet-soup war has drawn much big-power attention. The Soviets think it's important enough for the Cubans to be here. The Americans, barred since 1976 by the U.S. Congress from direct involvement, held high- level talks with UNITA's leaders recently. But everybody seems to have forgotten about the FNLA since 1976, when Congress cut off its CIA money and the Cubans drove it into the hills.
Today the FNLA gets a cold shoulder even from those African governments that once backed it. Holden Roberto, its leader, lives in Paris, and some people even question whether the FNLA exists. Cut off from all outside aid and shunned even by once- friendly neighbors in Zaire, it fights a forgotten war.
A reporter who wishes to visit the FNLA is shuttled quietly from country to country on false papers, through a numbing continuum of safe houses and under an assumed name. Mine is Mr. Sandro. Five days ago, without warning, I was plunked into the middle of an Angola valley in the dark of night to stumble 10 miles before blundering wearily into a guerrilla camp at dawn and the greeting, "Welcome to free Angola."
> DAY 6 -- We leave camp for a bath at a stream a mile away. The rocky climb back tests my sore feet. It is the kind of bath from which you emerge into the same filthy clothes, the kind of bath after which you don't mind clearing your nose on your hand and cleaning your hand on your shirt, because you aren't that clean and the practice no longer seems that dirty.
Lunch is manioc, a tough root we eat either boiled or sun-dried. Its bland monotony contrasts with the piercing stench of the smoked buffalo meat served for dinner. I shrug and gnaw. We have not come here to dine.
DAY 7 -- We keep encountering small bands of guerrillas as we trek the hills, mostly along trails made by game. Some groups carry food or supplies. Others appear to be wandering about, waiting for the rare moment when a small band of lightly armed men can catch a heavily armed enemy well off guard.
Shortly after a lunch of unchewable manioc, we encounter our first group for today. Inene calls me over.
"They have MPLA prisoners at their base camp, Mr. Sandro."
"How far away, Mr. Inene?"
DAY 8 -- Up at 5:30 a.m. as usual, but we don't set off right away. First there is a visit from a member of the party central committee, apparently drawn many miles by a report of the presence of a visitor. He delivers little pep talks in Kongo based partly on my visit, then takes me to a hilltop to deliver a fiery Kongo sermon I cannot understand.
Embarrassed, I eye the ground and kick at a rock with my sore feet. Finally, I turn away and play with a handful of leaves. Propaganda was not supposed to be part of the program.
At last we set out, our usual band of six joined by some others apparently headed in the same direction.
We begin as a party of 11 with five automatic rifles and a few ancient Chinese hand grenades. Within several hours, we have mysteriously become a group of 14 with 10 weapons and a seemingly endless supply of the Chinese grenades that look as if they might detonate at any minute. Inene carries one like a candy bar in his left pants pocket, and I make a mental note never to sit or stand near his left side.
The guerrillas, who think nothing of marching 30 miles a day under a full load, move easily up hills that never seem to end. They are in magnificent condition.
For me, it is a different story. Four porters precede me, and each time I try to catch up, they take it as a sign to quicken their pace. They do not sweat. I pour. They do not breathe hard. I huff like a tempest. They have no fear. I suffer anxieties. They are country guerrillas, some with 20 years of combat experience. I am a city boy who knows the alphabet-soup war only from reports laced with its impersonal acronyms. They take the hills with ease. I sweat breathlessly up each. War is hell.
When we are not climbing, we descend through valleys, cross streams, crash through thick forest. The problem with thickly forested river valleys, besides the heat, the dampness and the insects, is that after you have thrashed your way through them, you must climb out.
We climb out, and in a moment of lonely frustration, I remember what Inene always says when I think something isn't working out right. "No problem," he says in reassuring English. It is his only English until later, when, under somewhat strained circumstances, I teach him some deletable expletives.
That comes when we stop to rest after four hours of marching. Inene now tells me that our destination is a group of villages, but that they are four or five days away, not two.
"Yesterday you said two days," I remind him with annoyance. "Today four or five. Will it be seven tomorrow?" He goes to speak with the group commander, and after several minutes returns with what he calls in French a "precise estimate." Six days.
I stare at a chunk of the cursed manioc and mutter obscenities in English. "What do you say now, Mr. Sandro?" he asks.
"No problem," I mutter.
DAY 9 -- We have walked four hours when we stop to rest at 10 a.m. on the crest of a ridge in the blazing sun. I look longingly at the river valley far below. "Why can't we stop there?" I ask. Inene says we must keep the high ground for tactical reasons.
I am curious. There is still no sign of the MPLA or Cubans except for an occasional transport aircraft well overhead or the distant hum of a truck engine on one of the roads we keep avoiding.
By noon, we have inexplicably become 18 men. It is impossible to tell when or how the new faces joined us. The French boots raise hell with my feet and a lunch of unchewable manioc fails to ease the pain. We stop to rest again at 3 p.m. Thirst drains my canteens. I have consumed five quarts, and if today is average, will need three more. The water in the streams has become increasingly unappealing. A week ago, it was clear. Then it was yellow, then brown. Today it is gray.
I pull my map. "Where are these prisoners and villages?" I ask Inene. He points. I calculate. "That is at least 11 days away," I say in anger.
"You said six yesterday."
"That was a precise estimate."
"I cannot get there, Mr. Inene. My feet will not go."
We reach camp in the dark. Exhausted, I crumple helplessly to the ground and hug my pack. The camp is in a marshy forest. Bugs abound. Somebody brings water but I am too weak to drink. I toss my sweat-soaked clothes aside and sprawl under my poncho. The ants have discovered how delicious my shoulders taste, but I am too tired to slap.
"Mr. Sandro, tomorrow we will not walk until noon," Inene says.
DAY 10 -- Despite Inene's promise, the camp rises at 5:30 to begin marching. I alone sit. I point to my feet. "They won't go, Mr. Inene." There is confusion. Meanwhile, I see that the mosquitoes have turned my bare feet into a red, swollen feeding ground overnight.
"We must move," Inene finally says.
"I can't move."
"But you won't see the prisoners."
"To hell with the prisoners."
"But we will not reach the special villages."
"I already told you yesterday, I can't make it to the villages."
"But the people have made gifts for you."
This confirms my worst fears. I am about to become a propaganda tool, led from village to village. "Our friend from America. Mr. Sandro." They cheer. Gifts.
I draw the line. "Inene, I am not going to the villages. This is final." But nothing is final here except death. We argue for an hour, and compromise. No villages, but I will march several days to meet some senior commanders if Inene can cut the pace and the commanders will meet us halfway.
Later, six of us head off on our own under Inene's guidance for what he says will be only "a short march." By midafternoon we are still walking, despite the condition of my feet. Furious, I bull ahead on a surge of adrenalin, pass the point man, and crash foolishly alone through the high grass until Inene catches up, nods, smiles and passes me with graceful ease.
I fume in bitter envy. But I am fortunate. Moments later I enter a guerrilla camp. Inene, who has already arrived, has warned them that I am neither Cuban nor Russian. Later, I ask a French-speaking guerrilla named Marcelle what would have happened had I blundered in alone and unannounced.
"I am sorry," he says. "We would have killed you."
DAY 13 -- A week has passed since my last bath, so when a tropical storm arrives late in the afternoon, I strip and shower. The downpour drives the flying termites up from their subterrranean nests. Like a cloud of locusts, they rise everywhere. Ultimately, they crash to earth in the downpour, lose their wings and die. A score or so of them unfortunately confuse my hair for the ground. I spend the next few hours cleaning up from my shower.
We meet a group of more than 20 guerrillas with only a few rifles. According to my notes, roughly half the men I have encountered have been unarmed. In one squad, the riflemen were limited to five cartridges each, and nobody ever sets his rifle to full automatic, for the guerrillas say that wastes ammunition.
We move openly by day, mostly along the ridges, but avoid what few villages there are in this sparsely populated region where most of the access is by footpath. Ultimately, on my last night in Angola, I will sleep in a village, but will be snuck in after dark, and led out before dawn without meeting any of the occupants. "It would not be good for you to be seen there," Inene will explain.
To kill time while walking, I have taken to making up names for the birds, and imagine myself winning a Boy Scout merit badge for it. The "Knock Knock" sounds like a woodpecker playing a xylophone. The "Lutte Contre la Lutte" sings his name over and over in French, "the struggle against the struggle," and I wonder what he is trying to tell us about the alphabet-soup war.
The "Go to Hell" lives only in valleys and taunts our tired footsteps until I answer him by his name. For a while we have the cowbell bird, for its strange, soft call seems to ring through the scrub bush of the hilltops. Later, I learn it is merely the sound of somebody's bayonet rattling against one of the ancient Chinese hand grenades. So much for the merit badge.
At night, the bugs sing, beginning with the one that chirps, "Free gin," and continuing with another that sings over and over, "Peggy was there." I name it for a friend back home, and am glad she is not here to suffer the misery, or to know I am naming bugs after her.
DAY 15 -- We rest in the afternoon a mile from a large rock outcrop to which we send a scout. Inene and I stay alone in camp with Germia, a rifleman. About 3:15, we hear the crack of a shot in the distance, then another. I look up. The scout is scampering down from the outcrop. Inene creeps out into the bush to find the other scouts. Germia stares toward the rock, then begins packing things, then stares, then packs.
I pack my gear and move toward the tall grass, keeping low but watching in the direction of the outcrop. For a moment, I wonder whether to crawl toward the safety of Germia's rifle or vanish into the grass. I imagine a group of Cubans and MPLA troops appearing on the next ridge. The grass wins.
Germia is still watching the ridge when the scout appears over it. It is he who has fired the shots, and he has a dead gazelle over his shoulder. When I arrive sheepishly back in camp, everybody has returned to celebrate our good fortune. We can skip the manioc for dinner tonight.
DAY 18 -- Five days since my last bath. We camp early by a stream, and I bathe in a small rapid. Later, for fun, the scouts take me crocodile hunting. I am somewhat annoyed when we end up hunting at a pool just downstream from my bathtub. There are signs of croc but we never find him.
My right foot has become a pulpy mass of pain. I have forsaken the damnable French boots for a pair of rotting tennis shoes. The routine takes the edge off things. My tan deepens. I finish a notebook of interviews and learn some Kongo. I acclimatize to the water and learn to like manioc. Sounds, feelings become familiar. I smell what must be a wonderful flower I vaguely recall from somewhere before. It turns out to be Inene, who has borrowed my bathroom talc.
DAY 19 -- The mosquitoes each night are unbearable. The noise alone would deny them landing rights at National Airport. I sleep with a towel around my face for protection, but they bite easily through the other clothing.
Today, we meet the half dozen senior commanders I have come to interview. They are grizzled veterans in their forties with little evident sense of humor and a grim hatred of the Cubans.
They are accompanied by 70 vicious-looking soldiers, some in bits and pieces of uniforms. Well armed, well built and well disciplined, they intimidate with crisp salutes as I wander about the sprawling encampment we have become. They are said to be from a group of several hundred men 10 days' march from here.
They are better organized than the smaller units and have a reputation for skirmishing with large enemy groups. Many bear the ugly scars of combat. Most carry Russian-made souvenirs and Kalashnikov rifles removed from their victims.
The commanders gather by a tree. Most use nommes de guerre. One of them, 42--year-old Masobele Bianga, a 20-year veteran, is still slowed by a six-month-old shrapnel wound in his leg and lower back. "Surprise attack," he says. "They came looking for us." He speaks excellent French and translates from Portuguese for the others. They waste no time getting to their main point.
"The Cubans are nothing but thieves," Masobele Bianga says. He translates this in Portuguese to the others. They grunt and nod. He goes on. "They have taken everything they could get their hands on back to Cuba, even the wrecks of cars we wouldn't bother with.
"They came from a poor country and they saw what we had in Angola, and they want it. They are nothing but new masters enslaving our country."
It is a familiar theme heard repeatedly among FNLA members and their sympathizers, who call the Cubans "Russian hunting dogs" and "new colonialists." By all indications, Fidel Castro has a tough public relations problem here.
Alberto Vilela Canelas, a white commander who once fought the FNLA for the Portuguese, produces some captured Soviet dumdum bullets, ammunition outlawed under that diplomatic paradox called "the rules of war." He charges the enemy forces with using poisonous gas on villages. The others grunt, nod and speak their piece. If Masobele Bianga's translation is accurate, here is what Vilela says: "Of course we can wear them down. That's the way of guerrilla war. We are in our own country. They are foreigners here, and will grow tired."
I make a note of their frequent references to how Angola is like Vietnam, with the Cubans in the American role. There is much nationalism in their talk, but none of the trite, mind-numbing dogma normally associated with guerrilla war.
The right word to describe these men is difficult to find. In Africa, a guerrilla generally means a 16-year-old kid heavy on political slogans and light on training. Soldier is not much of an improvement. These men are well trained, experienced, disciplined and motivated, yet each is more woodsman than soldier. Perhaps partisan is the right word. It comes closer than any other.
How many are out there? Certainly not the 12,000 Inene claims. Eventually, I will come up with the ballpark figure of between 4,000 and 7,000 armed men and an equal number of unarmed support troops. By now I have come to the conclusion that the FNLA is indeed still alive.
DAY 20 -- We reach a rain-swollen river. Inene, apparently in jest, says the crocodiles like fast-moving water like this. I shoot him a disagreeable glance.
The senior commanders and their retinue are still with us. The commanders give orders and the men begin cutting the vines with which we will pull ourselves across 75 feet of turbulent, dangerous water. It is fast work, but not fast enough for Commander Cara-Feia, a scowling, wizened man who habitually chews a straw. He bawls the men out, strips down and crosses the river by climbing a tree, swinging out on a branch, and leaping to another tree that projects from the other bank. He takes charge of that side.
Commander Wampuena, who looks only mildly ferocious, works our side, barking orders. A third commander, Mayala Nsiku, becomes disgusted when his men are unable to pull a thick vine down. He mutters, clamps a machete in his teeth, wriggles 40 feet up a tree and cuts the vine himself, heaving it and the machete at the pack of sweating, embarrassed men below. More orders are barked and we begin, one by one, to grab the vine network with both hands and pull ourselves across the strong current. It is a dangerous, wet business.
Toward dusk, we break into squads and approach a muddy road cautiously from a bank of trees. Crouching in high grass 100 feet from the road, we hear the approaching roar of a truck. A series of soft clicks is barely audible around me as the men switch their rifles from safety to semiautomatic.
The lone truck nears, then bogs down in the mud. I peer over the grass at it until Inene signals me to flatten out on the ground. There is a pause, and I e myxpect all hell to break loose, but the truck chugs free and continues on out of hearing range.
I wonder why a truck, so outgunned and with what appears to be at least one Cuban in the cab, is allowed to survive. I have mixed emotions. Do I really want to be here while its occupants are shot up? Masobele Bianga tells me I am the reason it is not. "Our visitor must return home safely," he says. "Nothing comes before that."
"No problem," I say.
Later it rains. The steady downpour soaks our camp that night. The ground is wet, and I shiver, unable to sleep, until dawn. Tomorrow we will rise at 5 a.m. unrested, swill down some coffee and walk 10 hours to a supply point.
As I lie there, I wonder why they go through this. What motivates a group of men like this, some for 21 years now, against discouraging odds and without outside aid? First 14 years against the Portuguese. Now seven years of the alphabet-soup war.
Most have homes they return to only rarely. They treat fading photographs of their families like icons, laying them out carefully to dry when the rains are gone. How do they keep going?
Is it the hatred of the Cubans, as it was once the hatred of the Portuguese? Is it a dedication to something I am missing in translation?
I can study their weaponry and the care with which they maintain it. I can make rough guesses at their numbers and inquire about their tactics. I can experience their diet and sense their morale. But I want to know what drives them.
I will leave Angola in two days without really finding out.