For three hours, 530 military and civilian delegates sat in drizzling rain on hard log benches, cheering from time to time the speeches of the three UNITA guerrilla leaders on the opening day of their fourth congress.
The next day, March 24, in Luanda - Angola's capital, 400 miles northwest of the hidden forest where the congress was held, Fidel Castro was laying wreaths on the graves of Angolan and Cuban soldiers who have died fighting over the past two years.
Castro had been welcomed by Agostinho Neto, president of the People's Republic of Angola - which, reportedly, also has some 500 Soviet advisers.
In separate hour-long speeches, the three UNITA leaders spoke, in ascending order of rank, about why they are fighting and touched on their internal problems.
"Today," said Commander General Samuel Chiwale, the lowest-ranking of the three, "everyone in the bush, soldiers and civilians, are fighting Neto's friends, the Cubans, so everything will be better for black Angolans, Neto must die."
Secretary General Miguel N'Zau Puna followed Chiwale with an admonition to the delegates: "The person here who doesn't understand that UNITA is fighting for the black Angolan is a traitor. We must be honest in this congress so the road will be clear for battle. We must also fight tribalism, regionalism and alcoholism."
Then UNITA's leaders Joans Malheior Savimbi, spoke on the theme that Angola, having gotten rid of its Portuguese colonizers, was saddled with others - the Soviets.
"We must not be colonized again," said Savimbi. "The Portuguese, who knew all the ways of the people, went out and do you think Neto, who is also Portuguese, can win this war?The Russians are using Neto and the Cubans to rule Angola.They must be defeated!"
The tone for the five-day congress was set - an unyeilding commitment to war and a candid appraisal of their own weaknesses.
As part of this appraisal, the UNITA guerrillas decided on a major change in battle tactics by planning to create a three-battalion semi-regular army. The semi-regular force, unlike the present hit-and-run guerrilla force, would be used to hold strategic locations for psychological effect.
Besides warfare a central theme of the congress was black nationalism - rejecting the Neto government's multiracial ideal in favor of black rule for black Angola.
As an expression of that stance, the delegates adopted the slogan Negritude. A 40-year-old word coined by black intellectuals under French colonial rule, Negritude is an assertion of black cultural consciousness.
Angola's President Neto, who wants to include Portuguese whites in the new Angola, has called UNITA's black nationalism "racist" dogma.
This division over racial philosophy adds a new source of division in a strife-torn country already split along tribal and ideological lines.
The UNITA guerrillas and their leadership also reflect the factionalism that impedes this country's growth to nationhood. Although Angola inherited national boundaries, most of its diverse African population has no concept of nationalism, thanks in part to the Portuguese colonizers.
During the 7 1/2 months I lived and traveled with the UNITA guerrillas inside Angola. I had a rare opportunity to study close-up one side of this war and that deep-rooted animosities that could keep the embers of conflict alive indefinitely.
"The biggest happiness of my life," said UNITA leader Savimbi to the delegates, "is to fight for this country and die for this country. Only with blood can we make our own history."
Savimbi's opening speech was not all inspiration cries for self-sacrifice, however: He also castigated the delegates for practices that he felt weakened the UNITA guerrillas' efforts.
"You people," said Savimbl, pointing to the civilian delegates who made up two-thirds of the congress, "when you see something wrong among the soldiers you are afraid to go to the [guerrilla] commander and tell him because you think he will kill you and throw you in a river. He will not kill you. You must not be afraid to talk to the commanders when they are wrong."
In a revealing reference to the aid UNITA received from the South Africans, Savimbi said: "Some people are saying, 'Why don't the South Africans come and fight for us, so we will pay them later?" That is wrong. If they fith for you, you will be colonized again. You must fight for yourself."
At that point, Savimbi's speech was interrupted by chanting from the delegates. "SA-VIM-BI, SA-VIM-BI," they chanted in unison with equal emphasis on each syllable.
Then the delegates sang religious hymns followed by prayers by a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest, both Angolan. Both clergymen sanctioned the war against the Popular Movement government "in the name of God." About half the peasants who support UNITA are Christians. The rest follow traditional African animist religious, the belief that all natural phenomena have souls.
"All (religious) are needed in UNITA under a common roof to fight for a free Angola," said Savimbi when he resumed his speech. Savimbi's late father, Lote, was a Protestant pastor.
Savimbi condemned "anti-intellectualism" among his guerrilla and peasant followers. "This thing about who is intellectual and who is not intellectual is unnecessary. Fighting is thinking, and we need intellectuals to think."
"I was a peasant like my mother," said Savimbi. "We have all suffered a peasant past." Savimbi left his doctorate studies at the University of Lausanne in 1961, a year from completion to join the anti-Portuguese colonial war.
It was noon when Savimbi finally ended his hour-long speech, in Portuguese and Ovimbundu. A chilling drizzle had ended and welcome sun-shine began to peek through the cloud cover.
Savimbi, Puna and Chiwale filed out in the order of their rank in UNITA, through the milling delegates in the grass-walled amphitheater. The leaders' 20 young bodyguards made a path for them.
The delegates quickly followed their exit. Their flowing out of the amphitheater to communal kitchens for a quick lunch of boiled corn and broiled beef before regrouping in committee meetings.
"Now the work begins and we won't have to listen to any more hymns," Maj. Mateus Katalayo said cynically. He acted as my interpreter during the congress.
The congress was broken up into four study committees - Strategy and Tactics, the Masses, Administration and Conflicts. I was allowed to attend the deliberations of three of the committees. The exception was Strategy and Tactics.
Savimbi, who chaired the forbidden committee, responded smilingly but negatively to my appeal to lift the ban: "We are discussing the lifeblood of UNITA, our future tactics as a guerrilla movement. The officers would be intimidated if you attended, and they don't want you to attend."
The rest of the congress was wide open for inspection. At the third UNITA congress, in 1973 - which I attened. - 70 per cent of the proceedings were closed to me, as I noted in the articles I wrote then. The ban was now down to a quarter of the proceedings.
My cynical interpreter, Maj. Katalayo, seemed to sum up the perceptions of many of the UNITA guerrillas I had met on both trips. We were sitting outside his grass lean-to sharing a bowl of boiled rice and dried salt fish.
"Whose side are you on in this war?" he suddenly asked as I gulped a ball of overboiled rice, "Neutral," I sputtered. Katalayo looked away from me and off it into the distance without saying anything, a general reaction among UNITA guerrillas when they hear something they dislike.
After several mouthfuls of food, he looked at me again and said, "Leon Dash, I like. But Leon Dash, the journalist, I don't know if I like. You are two people. There is one side of you I can't measure, and I don't like that. It leaves me - how do you Americans say it? - uptight.'" Katalayo learned his English during 18 months in a Zambian jail. He had been arrested when UNITA was expelled from Zambia in 1967.
The congress was overcrowded with 1,600 arms-bearing guerrillas, peasant delegates and their families, who had traveled from seven Angolan provinces - Mexico. Ble, Huambo, Cuando Cubango.
Many had traveled by foot for six weeks over hundreds of miles and across rivers swollen by the heavy March rains.They arrived footsore and exhausted. Some were sick when they arrived and had to recuperate during the entire congress. Others, who had heard the congress was being held and had decided to come without being invited, were turned back after traveling for weeks. The uninvited were turned backs, Savimbi said, because the site was already overcrowded, which created a sanitation problem.
The footpaths between the huts were churned into a muddy morass by the first day. By the third day, the outskirts of the campsite was an obstacle course of faces. The stench, in the oppressive humidity, rose daily over the site with the rising sun.
Katalayo cursed in Portuguese as the strench swept over us on our way to a meeting of committee on the masses. "Many of our soldiers and most of the peasants don't know anything about hygiene," he complained. "That's just one of the areas we have to work on."
The Masses meeting, chaired by Commander General Chivale, was the largest committee, with about 200 military and civilian delegates. When we entered, Chiwale asked Katalayo what I was doing there.
"This espiao has been given permission to attend the meeting," Katalayo said in Portuguese with a straight face. Chiwale laughed hard in his deep bass voice. "What the hells is an espiao ?" I asked "A spy," Katalayo answered.
Chiwale good-naturedly waved us to one of the log benches, still wet from that morning's rain, and we sat as an officer was translating opening statements for the Chokwe delegates. Besides Chokwe, all of the congress' proceedings were painstakingly translated from Portugues into the Ovimbundu and Cuanhama languages.
"Most of the peasants understand Portuguese poorly or not at all," said Katalayo, "but most understand one of the three Angolan languages, even if they are not from that tribe."
A civilian delegate, standing up to address his comments to Chiwale, criticized political organizers, called commissars, who prefer to work in their own tribal areas. He said however, that in some areas UNITA civilian assembles, usually made up four villages, did not want political commissars from other tribes.
Standing to respond, Chiwale angrily said, "This will not be tolerated. This is tribalism and we don't want it. The main problem between the political commissar and the masses is that when he arrives at a village he acts as if he is the god, the king." Loud applause erupted among the civilian delegates at this remark. "The people resent this and it gets translated into tribalism if he is from a different tribe. There is fault on both sides." The applause died.
"And you civilian leaders," Chiwale continued into the silence, "are to stop taking political and witchcraft problems to regional military leaders. You are abdicating your authority. The military men have too many problems with the war to solve yours also," he said. "From now on, I want you all to contact the political commissar in your region for problems. That is what he is there for."
The UNITA leadership's election peasant socialism, "Democratic Centralism," was borrowed from Mao Tse-tung while they were undergoing guerrilla training in Peking 12 years ago.
At the base of a pyramidal structure are large peasant organizations with elected officials who theoretically make their wishes known through political commissars. These, in turn, are to report up to the next level of authority, UNITA's 35-member Central Committee. As the administrative body, it is chaired by Secretary General Buna, who choose its members every four years at a congress.
The Central Committee reports to the policy-making body, the 19-member Political Bureau, chaired and chosen by UNITA's leaders, Savimbi.
Policy decisions supposedly flow down from the Political Bureau to the Central Committee to the political commissars and finally, to the political organizations.
Savimbi is also reconfirmed at each congress by secret ballot the delegates placed slips of colored paper - blue for a "yes" and white for "no" - into a wicker basket carefully watched by armed guerrillas. At both congresses I attended, the vote for Savimbi was unanimous.
Katalayo and I left the Masses committee meeting after an hour and moved through the mud to the other side of the camp to the Conflicts committee.
"Theory and practice are always different," said Katalayo in response to a question about UNITA's political system. "The Political Bureau is supposed to assimilate and make policy from information that reaches it from the bottom. Some information never reaches it and some officials make their own policy."
The Conflict committee was the liveliest of the three I was allowed to attend. Guerrillas and civilians alike were venting long standing grievances. Committee chairman Lt. Col. Antunes Cahale would wince every time he saw me bend down to take notes. He asked Katalayo several times if he was certain I had gotten permission from Savimbi to attend.
Cahale, at 54 the oldest guerrilla, "is not used to allowing journalists see our dirty linen." Katalayo explained. "He's from the old school."
A civilian assembly president rose and complained that too many guerrillas in this area "are drunk all the time. They're using the corn and sweet potatoes we give them to make [moonshire] when other [military] bases could use the food. This is a waste and it is also dangerous."
Cahale agreed. "When a soldier drinks we take a chance on his being caught by the soldiers or the Cubans and we lose a soldier and a gun," he said. "But the civilians drink too much also, and, if drunk, when (a civilian) is captured, he is more likely to think poorly and give away the location of a base. I want you sobas (chiefs) and presidents to be very tough on this problem. It is serious."
A guerrilla privated said he had been trying to get married for more than a year. "We want freedom is it when one officer is marrying four or five women at a time and everyone keeps quiet?"
"And some officers" another soldier jumped up to add, "are subotaging the efforts of the soldiers. When they see a soldier has a pretty girl, they have him transferred so they can steal the girl."
An elderly peasant man shouted, "And the girls want to marry only officers."
But a female guerrilla jumped up and told them all to "wait a minute. Not all the fault is on the side of the girls," she argued. "Sometimes a commander will talk to you and when you reject him because you don't like him, then he will accuse you of tribalism or indiscipline and have you beaten as well as persecute you."
A women peasant delegate added, "There is also a problem of classes. The girls want only boys who are educated," she said. "The (guerrillas) make the uneducated girls pregnant and leave them. This is not true love."
"Hasn't he heard enough?" the embarrassed Cahale asked Katalayo as more guerrillas and peasants, male and female, jumped from their seats to make their points. Katalayo told him I hadn't and the discussion went on.
Four recording secretaries on Cahale's left dutifully noted each point to be presented to the closing session for further debate by all the delegates.
"What happens at the committee meetings isn't so secret." said Katalayo when we left much later. "It's just human."
At the Administration committee, Secretary General Puna was leading a calm discussion on the establishment of bush schools for children and adults. "We may be in the bush for a long time and we will need these schools," Puna told the hundred or so delegates, a quarter of them Christian clergymen.
A census would also have to be taken, said Puan, "so during a government offensive we will know how many people have been either captured or killed or have run away. It is also a measure of our success to know the number of new persons leaving the towns, and coming into the forest or UNITA controlled villages."
Puna also told them to collect all the new currency, called kwanzas, the government had issued in January and forward it by courier to UNITA's central forest bases, where it would be turned over to him.
On April 14, Puna showed me a large pile of kwanzas the UNITA guerrillas and peasants had collected in a little more than three months.
"This amounts to 5 million kwanzas," he claimed. "We collect it, create a paper shortage of money, force the government to print more and then put what we have collected back into circulation. Inflation will follow."
The debates, arguments and discussions continued for four days. On March 27, during the evening meal, Katalayo and I were listening on a short-wave radio to the live speech by Castro in Luanda. Castro criticized both UNITA and the National-Front for using "white mercenaries" at the start of the civil war.
"Who is he to talk about white mercenaries?" asked Katalayo angrily. "He's a white mercenary. He should take his soldiers out of here."
The next day, at the closing session of the congress, Savimbi mentioned Castro: "At this moment, Castro is visiting Angola to give moral support to his soldiers and we are meeting here to plan the next four years of fighting against the Cubans and the government.
"To win, we must be unified, and to be unified, we must resolve the criticisms which were raised in this congress," Savimbi said.
The delegates then passed a long list of resolutions, including:
Those exhibiting tribalist attitudes, guerrillas and civilians, were to be transfered from their home regions to other tribal regions.
Soldiers and civilians caught drunk would be jailed and/or beaten severely.
Boards of inquiry, made up of soldiers and peasants, would be established to resolve social conflicts in military camps and villages.
A civilian delegate asked if there, would be any future coalitions with the National Front. In October 1975 UNITA and the National Front formed a coalition government and joined their military forces against the Popular Movement forces and the Cubans. The two allies fought each other as well as the combined Popular Movement-Cuban forces.
"All of the National Front forces ran away - to Zaire, Puna told the delegates, adding that UNITA would be willing to make a pact with another group but not the National Front "because they are not fighting on Angolan soil. They ran away and left their Bakongo people without any support."
A resolution proposing a new coalition with the National Front was defeated overwhelmingly by voice vote.
After the list of resolutions was finished. Savimbi presented a surprise resolution by unrolling a cloth sign with black lettering in Portuguese declaring the UNITA occupied areas to be the Black-African and Socialist Republic of Angola. The resolution and the name were unanimously accepted by the delegates with wild applause.
The major recommendation of the Strategy and Tactics committee, Savimbi announced, was the formation of a semi-regular army. "From this day, 70 per cent of our time will be spent on the structure of the army," he said. "We must have a conventional army to fight the Cubans. It must be politicized, disciplined and well-structured to be able to defeat the Cuban enemy."
Later, Savimbi said privately, "I am pleased with our guerrilla operations so far, but the price has been too high. Too many man and officers have been killed when we attack the towns. Many of our guerrillas are just thrown together momentarily to attack a town and it is too uncoordinated, too undisciplined."
Savimbi claimed that he did not have a source for new weapons to arm his planned semi-regular army. "We have enough weapons now," he said, "the American machine guns, for example, to arm three battalions" of 500 men each.
"A guerrillas army itself cannot defeat a regular army," Savimbi continued. "The government is a puppet government of the Soviet Union and the Cubans, but it is an Angolan government. They will not give up, like the Portuguese."
Two months later, on May 22, I crossed the border into western Zambia escorted by UNITA Maj. Antonio Dembo. From there we entered a narrow log canoe and were poled for three mosquito-bitten nights and two broiling days down the Luanguinga River to Yuka in Zambia.
Dembo had left Angola - to travel through Zambia to Zaire and reenter to help organize UNITA guerrillas among his Bakongo people in the coffee-growing north of Angola.
"We have guerrillas fighting there," he claimed, "but they have been acting without direction. LIke bandits.
"My job will be to make sure none of the coffee crop leaves Angola," he said. "This is going to be a long war."