This is the 4th of July. I should be home with my family, waving the flag at some beer-drenched American beach.
It is not to be.
We arrived at the airstrip on the night of July 2 and, well before dawn the following morning, headed out to the aircraft. It was a two-engine Fairchild and I was pleased by that; the Viscount that brought us in here a couple of weeks ago gave me damp palms. There were no lights on the dirt airstrip. But no one seemed concerned. The blackness was faintly -- very faintly -- relieved by people with torches at the far end of the runway.
Fred Bridgland and I got aboard and claimed two of the half dozen seats. There were about 10 UNITA people -- belonging to Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola -- going out with us, including two litter cases. Most of them had to sit on the floor.
The pilots ran up the engines to full power and began the run to takeoff. In an instant, the pneumatic pressure system blew out. The wheels retracted. The nose, belly,m right wing and right engine smashed into the runway. The plane didn't flip. There was no fire. Another hundred yards and it might have been nasty. As it was, no one was hurt.
But this aircraft was now a beached whale. We were stranded in the Angolan badlands. Any flight into here through the Angolan government's air defenses and through other forbidden air space is dangerous. Few aircraft owners and few pilots -- even the mercenaries you find in some African locales -- are willing to risk it. UNITA paid, I was told, $35,000 a trip. But who would they now pay and where would they get the plane? The Portuguese pilot who had flown us in on the Viscount two weeks ago was at the controls of this Fairchild when it cracked up. The viscount had been junked after his return trip; two of the engines were gone.
Before unbuckling my seatbelt, I started thinking about overland escape routes through Zambia or Namibia.
As we crawled out of the plane, Wilson Santos, one of the UNITA passengers, instinctively came up with the phrase the Angolans use in every unforeseen situation.
"No problem," he said.
That was so absurd I broke up in laughter and gave him a new war name: "No Problem."
The crackup was a metaphor for the UNITA enterprise, for its fragility, its shoestrings. The logistics line from Namibia to the battalions in the north is dependent on the unreliable 10-ton Stars; only 30 of 120 trucks in the motor pool are in service on any particular day. The SA7 missiles, the only defense against the Migs and the Antonovs, are in short supply; there are only 10 launchers and fewer than two dozen warheads in the entire army. The troops are on short rations of ammunition. A lot of the riflemen had only one clip for their AKs. Our 60mm mortarman carried his ammunition supply in his hand -- one round that had so banged around in the truck that the fins were bent. God knows where it would have gone in flight. Matches and malaria pills are precious and rare commodities. How these people have kept going for all these years with such high levels of morale is one of the many mysteries of this great continent. "No problem," they say.
I need some of that fortitude. On the Fourth, I mope around, trying to write and keep the faith. Savimbi has been notified by radio of our little mishap and will cast his net for another aircraft. After supper, Ernesto Malato, one of th senior officers here, comes by to invite me to an entertainment. Troops from a nearby battalion, along with some villagers, had gathered around a huge fire. Annabelle, one of the cooks, was the emcee. She introducerd each song, dance and poetry racital and then introduced Ernesto. He stepped into the circle and began to read in English a proclamation. It was an essay on the Fourth of July and what it meant to America and the world:
"We regret the circumstances under which you, Mr. Richard Harwood, are celebrating this joyous day of yours, far away from your loved ones. But the values and ideals that have made your country the greatest on earth are the same values and ideals that bind us together -- the struggle for freedom and liberty. We are therefore gathered here tonight, around this campfire, to share with you some moments of reflections and joy on your national holiday . . . "
It was a surprise party and it was touching and grand. I thanked Bridgland, my British companion, for making this holiday possible. He was not terribly amused.
When the program ended, the informal boy-girl dancing began. The crowd clapped and cheered and the drummers got going. What these kids were doing looked suspiciously like the jitterbug.
Over the next few days I spent a lot of time writing these stories and drafting the perfect SOS message to my newspaper: "Need a little help from a few close friends. Air charter to Juengue. Lear jet preferred." It was never sent.
One day I started whittling on a stick. Gringop and Big Rat, who slept by my hut and guarded me with AK47s on the way to the latrine, watched me and started laughing. They couldn't understnd why I would waste my time on a useless endeavor. "Screw you, Gringo," I said to myself. "It's for my peace of mind." But after a while their spectating got to me. The wood was too hard, the knife too dull. I quit.
There was a lot of time to think about UNITA and Jonas Savimbi and what it all added up to.I'm not an expert on Africa or Angola or on Savimbi. I have no "definitive" knowledge about the rights and wrongs of this war or how it will come out. There are only impressions and feelings of the gut. As reporters, we always come away from stories withthat baggage.
The first thing I will take away -- whenever that may be -- is respect for the personal qualities of these people. Their capacity to endure, their courage, their ingenuity and their resolve have made a deep impression, partly, I suppose, because our own lives in the Uinited States are easy and, in some ways, empty by comparison. They know who they are and what they are about. My colleague Leon Dash, who has a lot of the same qualities, spent about eight months with UNITA in 1977. He walked with them through the bush for more than 2,000 miles. His judgment was the same.
Every Western journalist who has encountered Savimbi comes away with the feeling that he is a remarkable man. He has the mark of Cain on him from the South African connection. He is, nonetheless, remarkable. No other African leader and few revolutionary leqders anywhere have fought so long against such odds. And he has not led from the comfort of exile but from the bush itself. John Stockwell, the CIA agent who managed the fruitless U.S. intervention in Angola in 1975, once said of Savimbi: "He has no ideology. He believes in nothing but his own selfish ambitions and fighting has become hiw way of life. Over the years in Central Angola he has fought against the Poirtuguese, the MPLA [now the ruling Popular Liberation Movement of Angola], the FNLA [the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, one of the groups thaf fought in the civil war of the mid-1970s], SWAPO [the South-west Africa People's Organization] and the Cubans. The United States has far too many problems in the Third World to go seeking new, bloody involvements with the likes of Savimbi." He has been called other names -- "Marxist radical," "blact racist" and, more recently, "South African lackey."
There is at least a superficial reason for all of them. He studied war and Marxism in China. How much of the Masrxism remains is uncertain. His statements on economics sound like a current version of socialism in Britain -- a mixed economy. He espouses the doctrine of "negritude," which some whites find threatening. As he explains it, negritude appears rather like the diaspora sentiment or maybe just black pride: "It should not be defined in racial terms but in terms of our cultural values, saying in short: we should assimilate from, other cultures and other nations but we should not be assimilated . . .
The essense of our own behavior, traditions, customs, languages must remain intact, so that anywhere we are in time or on the ground we will remain Africans." The South African question is more difficult because it is so charged with passion. If Savimbi's crime is trading with South Africa, then he is in the same boat with all the African "front-line" leaders -- Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Samora Machel of Mozambique and even the present MPLA government. They will trade with South Africa. But it is hopelessly complications: racist South Africa supporting a war against a black government. In any case, Savimbi has that albatross around his neck and it won't go away. He uses a tribal proverb to justify it: "When a man is drowning in a river filled with crocodiles, he does not ask whose hand pulls him to shore."
I don't profess to know him. What can be said is that he has that quality so valued in Hollywood and American politics: charisma.
I also don't profess to know what he has accomplished in all these years in the bush. He controls a large piece of territory that, in economic terms, is relatively worthless. He has a real army and followers with enormous dedication. What his guerrillas are doing in the populous areas of Central Angola is unknown to me. Logic suggests that they are doing something fairly well, namely tying up government troops. If that were not the case, the entire government military apparatus would -- or could -- be down here in the South trying to destroy Savimbi's battalions, whose whereabouts must be well-known to the MPLA. You cannot move and encamp large bodies of troops in secret. So either the MPLA and the Cubans have their hands full with the guerrillas or they have no stomach for a fight with Savimbi's lads. If there is a third explanation, it escapes me.
We may get some more compelling evidence on these nations before the end of the year. Demosthenes Chilingutila, Savimbi's chief of staff, has moved six battalions to positions near Menongue, Cuito-Cuanavale and Gago Coutiho, the last remaining MPLA outposts in this province.
He says he can take them any time and intends to do so before Christmas. If he does, it's a new war.
The greatest threat to the Marxist government in Lanunda now is probably not Savimbi's battalions but the awful state of the Angolan economy. I think Savimbi recognizes that. He talks about it a lot. The best evidence on that point has been provided by David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times, who visited Luanda last year. "Angola," he wrote, "is a fragile and wounded country in a state of utter deterioration . . . A 2,000-mile trip through four provinces produced little evidence of anything save decay and stagnation, incompetence and inefficiency." The country was once self-sufficient in food. It now imports 80 percent of its food, by Lamb's estimate. The production of coffee -- once a major export crop -- dropped from 240,000 tons in 1974 to 30,000 tons last year. Iron ore production has stopped altogether because Savimbi has seized the mines. The country is getting $5 million a day from the Gulf Oil operation but it is spending $3 million a day, according to Lamb, on military operations and on fees and salaries for the 40,000 Cubans, Soviets and East Germans in the country. In addition, there are barter deals under which Cuba gets the coffee Angola produces and the Soviets have been given a fishing monopoly.
W. G. Clarence Smith, a British scholar who writes in Marxist jargon, published an article recently in the Journal of Southern African History, in which he claims that the only beneficiaries of MPLA rule have been the "petty bourgeosie" of the government bureaucracy: "The proletariat has fared much worse than the petty bourgeoisie. Gulf Oil provides the financial manna for the bureaucracy, but it employs very few workers in its highly mechanized operations. Many thousands of workers lost their jobs due to the economic crisis and acute food shortages have resulted from the breakdown of transport and distribution networks. The towns have lost up to half of their populations and for those who remain, unemployment and hunger are a constant problem."
Savimbi claims a lot of credit for the economic chaos. The peasants, he says, produce food for him but not for the MPLA. His guerrillas, he claims, have disrupted communications lines all over the country, including the Benguela Railroad, Angola's only rail link to the African interior. He also credits the chaos to the incompetence of the Soviets and Cubans as economic planners.
Whatever the causes, Angola seems to be a disaster area and Savimbi's civil war certainly compounds the problems. Whether he has better solutions is something we may never know.
The Bible says the Lord created the earth in six days. It took Savimbi nine days to find an airplane to get us out of here. It came in late one afternoon, a rickety, oil-stained DC4. It was the loveliest machine I have ever seen.
The American pilot, according to the gossip, charged UNITA $60,000 for this rescue operation.
I stayed all night at the airstrip, afraid to let the old tub out of my sight. We loaded up at 3 a.m. and said the Hail Marys. I felt bad that the Soviets, Kolya and Chernietsky, were not going with us. We rumbled down the runway and were airborne. So long, Gringo. So long, Big Rat.