We are deep in the south now, very near the Namibian border, I suspect. But our escort, Miguel Puna, keeps us guessing about the geography. He is secretive and suspicious.
The trip from the north seemed endless. I have lost track of the hours and even the day. All I know is that my loathing for the Star trucks has been elevated to implacable hatred. I fantasize about blowing them away with A-bombs or a secret ray gun.
I learn, purely by accident, on this long leg of our journey that UNITA (Jonas Savimbi's opposition Union for the Total Independence of Angola guerrillas) executed 15 MPLA prisoners about a year ago in retaliation for the publc executions of UNITA guerrillas by the MPLA, the ruling Popular Liberation Movement of Angola.
That is good to know for two reasons. First, I have been developing the journalistic version of the Stockholm Syndrome -- the bonding between captives and their captors. In situations of this kind that is almost inevitable. We are totally dependent on these troops for food, water, transportation and for our lives.We get attached to the young soldiers who protect us and sleep with us and see to our needs. I love their war names -- Gringo, Big Rat, Long Journey, Lonely and Angola. Gringo is a very popular name with the troopers because in all the cowboy movies they have seen, the gringos win the gunfights.
The other reason for knowing about the executions is a practical one. We are going to meet prisoners here: the Soviets today, the Cubans tomorrow and then the lads from the MPLA. I suspect they may have heard about the executions, too, and that if focuses their minds.
Just before dark, the rendezvous with the Soviets is made in a clearing in the bush. They arrive, of course, in a Star Truck, surrounded by guards. They have not seen each other for a long time. They are held in separate camps and are conversing hastily as they climb down from the truck.
Mollaeb Kolya was the pilot and Ivan Chernietsky was the mechanic on a huge Antonov 22 military transport plane when it was knocked down by a UNITA SA7 surface to air missile on Nov. 22. They crashed approximately 150 miles northwest of here, on a trop ferrying mission from Mevengue to M'Pupa, two of the MPLA's major outposts in southern Angola.
We begin with Kolya. The translator is Jimmy, one of our escorts and an accomplished linguist.I don't know whether to shake hands with Kolya or stand off. Finally, I offer him a hand, and he takes it.
He is a sad-looking man of about 40. There is something effeminate about him, although I can't pinpoint it. Maybe it is the long, silky eyelashes and the soft hands. His face is puffy.
He was flying at 3,000 feet, he says, when the missile went into the right outboard engine. The wing caught fire. He had to go down. He picked out a clearing by the Cuito River and crash-landed safely. Four other crew members and his load of passengers escaped by running to the river and swimming across. He and Chernietsky, he said, were stunned by the landing and suffered back injuries. Thus, they were captured. He stands up to show me how a man with a bad back must walk.
I asked him which military unit he was serving with. With none, he said. He and his crew, he said, are civilians, employes of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. They had been sent to Angola under a contract with the MPLA government to work with the Angolan national airline. He had been in Angola only three months before his capture, he said. In the Soviet Union he had never heard anything of a war in Angola and even in his first three months in the country, knew nothing of any war. He had heard rummors of some tribal unrest but that was all.
Why did he think he was ferrying troops between military bases?
"I didn't know who was on the plane or how many there were," he said. "I was in the cockpit. I never looked back there. They could have been civilians or they could have been troops."
Puna snorted loudly at that, saying, "You see what a liar he is."
Kolya said he was treated with kindness by UNITA. But he was sick of the food -- mealy-meal every day. He had no radio, no books, no writing materials, no one to talk to. His wife and two children are in Moscow and he misses them.
Tears filled his eyes. His voice quavered:
"If I have to stay here for a long time, I will die. If my government is not trying to help me, I will die."
I gave him writing materials and said I would mail a letter to his wife. He insisted I should deliver it to the United Nations or to the Soviet Embassy. Puna didn't like that idea but Kolya wrote the letter anyway. I never got it, and I don't know what happened to it.
Chernietski is 47 and is a more stoic figure. He is from Kiev, he said, has worked for Aeroflot since 1957 and has been in Angola for two years. Like Kolya, he professes ignorance of the war with UNITA and says he doesn't know why all the Cubans are in Angola. He saw them walking around Luanda, but he never talked to them, he said: "They are black like the Angolans."
His story differs from Kolya's on one significant point. Of course they were hauling troops on the Antonov, he said. "Who else would we be carrying? There is nothing down there [at M'Pupa] but military bases."
Chernietski had few complaints about his treatment. He had once read a book by an American doctor who said a man who walks six miles a day will be healthy. So Chernietski walks six miles a day.
Puna insists that they are both liars and that they are military men "very well-trained" in the art of disinformation. It seemed immaterial to me whether they were civilian or military, but to Puna it was a matter of great moment.
I'm getting sentimental in my dotage. As a running dog of capitalism, I want to bed hoping these godless commies would somehow soon get home to their families. But knowing Puna, I wouldn't bet on it.
Kolya and Chernietski came back for a few minutes this morning. Kolva seems in a better mood. We take some pictures and say goodbye. There is another handshake and I wish them good luck.
After they have gone, the two Cubans arrive. They are young and very chummy with their guards. I find that unattractive and think about Robert Garwood, a former U.S. soldier who was found guilty of collaborating with the enemy in Vietnam. Their stories so perfectly suit UNITA's purposes that even if true they are not entirely credible in the telling.
Jimmy again does the interpreting. Miguel Garcia Enamorado is 21 and comes from Granma Province. It was once called Oriente Province, he tells us. Angel Paulo Chacon is 19 and comes from Bartolomez Maso. I don't know if that's a town or a province. They joined the Cuban Army on the same day, Aug. 14, 1978. They were shipped out to Angola 19 days later on the vessel, "13 March."
Chacon, for reasons that completely elude me, says he thought he was going out as a kind of Peace Corps volunteer and that he intended to teach Angolan childre. He ended up lugging a mortar for the 5939th Cuban Regiment at Matala. Garcia was a rifleman with Regiment 6535. He walked patrols for 45 days in 1978 and later rode shotgun on various convoys that were ambushed.
They tell us that when they arrived in Angola they were told they must fight South Africans. But in 26 months, they say, they have never seen a South African. Instead, they discovered that their job was to fight Angolans. Garcia tells me two atrocity stories. An undefended village, he says, was bombed and strafed by 15 aircraft and was then assulated by his infantry company, killing women, children and old men, but no UNITA troops. One another occasion, he said, UNITA civilians were taken up in a helicopter and tossed out. I chuckled to myself at the helicopter tale. It was one of the favorite horror stories told about Americans in Vietnam. It was apocryphal then and I suspect Garcia's story is apocryphal now, even through he claims the helicopter pilot as his source.
Garcia and Chacon deserted, they say, because they had come to hate Castro, they hated killing Angolans, they were contemptuous of the MPLA troops ("giving them a gun is like giving a gun to a woman") and because life in Matala was too hard: there were shortages of all kinds including food and clothing and there was no prospect that they would be sent home. They were supposed to have been rotated back to Cuba after two years.
Their ambition now, they said, is to join the UNITA army and become good Angolans, living out their days here. They confirmed what Col. Renato Mateus, UNITA's intelligence and operations chief, had told me: that Cuban troops have done little or no combat duty in more than two years. They attributed all the casualties in their regiments -- 37 dead in 18 months -- to ambushes.
They laughed and joked with the troops after the interview and posed for pictures with their guards and some women.
Puna thinks they were brave to desert because they had been told, he said, that UNITA eats prisoners.
Laters we meet 25 MPLA prisoners. They are a docile bunch, dressed in military dungarees, who work in the crop fields a few hours a day and otherwise live pretty much as they did in the government forces. Through an interpreter, they tell of poor morale in the MPLA forces, of food shortages and of respect for UNITA's fighting capacity. Some of them -- 10 or 12, I was told -- were captured during the Mavinga actions.I picked at random a couple of the Mavinga prisoners. Their stories of those battles coincide with UNITA's: when things heated up they threw down their arms and ran and a lot of them were shot in the back. They are now ready, they say, to sign up with UNITA. But Puna says that day is a long way off. He doesn't trust them yet.
UNITA regards these prisoners -- the Soviets especially -- as important propaganda symbols. I'm not sure why. It's certainly no secret to the world that the Soviets and Cubans are here in a big way. That some of them should be captured is inevitable. That may be one reason they are avoiding direct contact with UNITA troops.
We move on. Many hours on the Stars pass before we reach Jonas Savimbi's principal headquarters, deep in a jungle. On the way, one truck is lost to burned-out bearings.Another has persistent headlight failures. This sort of thing happens on every leg of our journey. The Stars are big and powerful machines, but they break down constantly. Maybe it's the environment, but the mechanics and drivers don't think so. They want Mercedes Benzes.
It is 10 p.m. when we reach Savimbi's camp. A huge sign in English hangs from an entrance arch: "Entering Free Angola." There is a silly ritual at the gate. A guard demands to see my passport and that of Fred Bridgland, my British colleague. I'm sure he wants to put a UNITA visa stamp in it, which can only complicate my life in the hereafter. I get pretty hot about that and they agree to leave the passport untouched.
The whole population has turned out once more to greet us. We have to walk a mile or so down a path to take the cheers and songs of the crowd. There are a lot of banners in English with subtle messages: "UNITA Fights Russian Communism."
These people have been waiting for us for hours, we were told, so we stay through the whole show -- songs, dances, poems and chants. They have a lot of endurance. I don't.