The Portuguese call this part of Angola "the Land at the End of the Earth." They ignored it for five centuries in their development plans. Even today there is not a single road in the entire region, an area of thousands of square miles. It is infested with the testee fly and, thus, is unsuitable for cattle or farming. The sandy oil is poor. Water is scarce. The few inhabitants huddle along the Luengue, Cuito, Cuando and Cubango rivers.
This is Jonas Savimbi's domain, the territory he calls "Free Angola." We will learn in the days ahead that the Portuguese were right. For all its raw beauty, Free Angola is a harsh and cruel place. You must be very durable to survive in good humor here and Savimbi is that. He has been out here making war and politics for the better part of 15 years.
From the debacle of 1976, when his troops were defeated by the Marxist MPLA movement that now controls the government in Luanda, he is reincarnated, if not as a lion at least as a figure to be reckoned with seriously.
The demoralized band of 3,000 or 4,000 guerrillas who fled into the bush five years ago has been transformed into an effective fighting force. Savimbi claims 15,000 guerrillas now, operating in fighting groups of 30 to 150 men in every province up to the 10th Parallel. Here in the south he has raised, trained, equipped and put into the field 10 conventional combat battalions. He promises to have 15 in action by Christmas.
Savimbi gives an impression of great confidence and candor as we begin our conversations this morning in what I now mentally call "The Throne Room." What he wants from me is very clear -- to communicate to the world outside his views and his assessment of the Angolan situation. He wants the world to know he's alive. These are the things politicians always want from journalists. Savimbi is simply a little more open about it.
This is his case, distilled and paraphrased from several hours of questioning and discussion:
First, we are seeking a democratic Angolan government, chosen in free elections. No eletions have ever been held in this country. The Mpla was not elected. It was put in power by the Soviet Union and its Cuban mercenaries. There are now 36,000 Cubans in Angola. Their only purpose is to keep this government in power. If that is not the case, why will they not agree to elections?
Why did the Organization of African Unity and the West insist on free elections in Zimbabwe and why do they insist on free elections in Namibia but do not insist on free elections in Angola? Is black majority rule something that matters only when it is blacks against whites?
Second, we are fighting to liberate our country from Soviet and Cuban domination. We got rid of Protuguese colonialism only to fall under new colonial masters. That is what we are fighting and in the process we are fighting communism. Does that not deserve the support of the West?
Third, we are going to succeed, not by a complete military victory, because we cannot defeat the Cubans and the Soviet Union. But we will succeed when the MPLA cracks, when it becomes obvious to all that they cannot govern. That is beginning to happen. The economy is a disaster. They must import food to survive when, always before, Angola was a food exporter. They produce no iron ore because we have taken the mines. They provide no services to the people because we have made it impossible for them to administer a government except in a few cities. The morale of the people and of the MPLA Army is very low. If an election were held now, UNITA would get 60 percent of the vote. We are willing now to negotiate with the MPLA to create a transition government and we would put off elections for one to three years while the country recovers from this war. But then elections must be held. The Cubans and Russians must go home.
Fourth, our forces are growing stronger. Our battalions have modern weapons -- SA7 (ground-to-air) missiles, 81 and 82 millimeter mortars, recoilless cannon, antiaircraft guns, Stalin Organs. You will see them. Most of these are Soviet weapons that we have captured. We have shot down Russian planes and many helicoptes. You will see them. We have Russian prisoners. You will meet them. We have liberated most of this province, most of Moxico Province and half of Cuene Province. We will show you. We control territory containing 2.5 million people (of 6.6 million in Angola) and we continue to move to the populous areas in the north and west.
But in the end, a military solution is not part of our strategy. Eventually, the MPLA must negotiate. There will be a political solution.
As Savimbi talked, I realized how difficult this job would be. A reporter is not a tape recorder or a mere bearer of claims and meassages. He is supposed to evaluate and seek proof of what is offered to him. How do you count 15,000 guerrillas cattered over a vast countryside, much of which is inaccessible? How do you take a census of 2.5 million Angolans supposedly under UNITA control or take an opinion poll of Angolan political preferences? How do you measure MPLA morale or the state of the economy from the wild remoteness of the bush? Those things cannot be done. All that is possible is to record and react to a narrow range of experiences that will be largely preselected by Savimbi. On that bracing note, we begin -- the British journalist and I.
There is a program this afternoon. The 600men of the 360th Battalion have completed four months of basic training and are awaiting a combat assignment. Like most of Savimbi's regulars, the have been recruited from guerrilla units. It will be interesting to see how they shape up.
We drive a few miles to the battalion's bivouac. The troops are lined up in company formations on a dusty parade ground. The uniforms are khaki shirts, brown woolen trousers and canvas field caps in the style of the French Foreign Legion. They were supplied, we are told, by Morocco, a constant ally of Savimbi.
Out of the bush now come the ubiquitous Savimbi choristers, the groups that met us at the airstrip. They are singing again and swaying in a conga line. Near the grass reviewing enclosure, a marimba band is playing. Villagers line the parade ground.
The parade goes off nicely. The troops are not as elegant or fine-tunned as Britain's Coldstream Guards, but they have a lot of elan. The are proud of their equipment, especially the heavy weapons section with its mortars, rockets, heavey machine guns and SA7 missile launchers. All the weapons are of Chinese or Soviet manufacture with one excption; some of the 81mm mortar rounds are of U.S. origin.
Finally there is music -- singing. It is as much a part of the lives of these troopers as eating. You can hear them soon after their day begins at 5 a.m. and you can hear them at night as late as 11 p.m. Today, the battalion gives us a concert. The voices of 600 men singing in harmony is moving, but then I've always been a sucker for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. One of the songs, with appropriate gestures, tells how the MPLA robs the villagers. Savimbi loved it, so there were many encores. t
The program ends with night and the cold coming on. It is dark by 6 p.m. That immense African sky is lighting up agin. I have never seen so many stars with such clarity. Meteors flash across the sky like tracer bullets, which seems appropriate. Tomorrow we go north to the combat zone for another fragment of reality. Outline of a Disputed Land
LOCATION AND SIZE: Angola, in southwest Africa, is nearly as large as Alaska. It lies on the Atlantic Ocean and is bordered by Zaire, Zambie and Namibia (Southwest Africa).
POPULATION: 6.6 million.
LANGUAGE: Portuguese and a variety of tribal tongues.
PRINCIPAL CITY: Luanda, the capital, populaton 486,000.
GOVERNMENT: The president and the Cabinet exercise executive and legislative powers. Most of the 17 provinces are administered by military commanders.
MAJOR EXPORTS: Coffee, oil, diamonds.
U.S. INVESTMENT: Many American companies have substantial investments in Angola. Among them are Gulf, Texaco, Marathon, Mobil, Cities Service, United Texas Petroleum, Bechtel Corp., Boeing Co. and General Electric Co.
POLITICAL PARTIES: The Marxist Popular Liberation Movement of Angola-Party of Labor (MPLA-PT) is the only legal political party. Insurgent groups are the National Union for the Total Indepenence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA).