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Mysteries, myths, and military facts: Archie Henderson looks at two books that cover the Angolan civil war

Published in the Sunday Times

Cuito CanavaleCuito Cuanavale
Fred Bridgland, Jonathan Ball Publishers
*****
 
 
 
 
 
A Far Away WarA Far-Away War
Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet and Vladimir Shubin (Editors), Sun Press
**

It’s been 30 years since Cuito Cuanavale became a landmark in the Angolan civil war. South African and Angolan troops, some of them just boys, died there. So did many Cubans. The full casualty toll in a war that was fought mainly in secret is still unknown.

Along with the mysteries are the myths, one of them being that a decisive battle was fought around the little town between 1987 and 1988. There certainly was some fighting, but the big battle was fought 170km to the southeast on the Lomba River and it ended decisively in favour of South Africa and its ally Unita.

An entire brigade of the Angolan army was wiped out at the Lomba, forcing a retreat by the Angolans and Cubans back across the confluence of the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. There, in 1988, the fighting ended in either a stalemate, if you accept the military facts, or in a victory for the MPLA and Cubans, if you believe Fidel Castro’s propaganda.

Veteran journalist Fred Bridgland, author of Cuito Cuanavale, says: “If anyone won, I’m afraid it was the South Africans because [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev gave Fapla a final £1-billion. ‘Go and take out Jonas Savimbi and his headquarters in Jamba. But if this doesn’t work, that’s it. No more money.’”

Since Angolan independence in 1975, the country’s recognised government, the MPLA, had been fighting a civil war against Savimbi’s Unita. The two liberation movements had fought the Portuguese. Both needed outside support: the MPLA got it from Cuba, East Germany and the Soviet Union; Unita from South Africa and the US.

Bridgland’s book remains one of the best accounts of the war. As a Reuters correspondent assigned to Lusaka, he arrived as a young idealist filled with notions of “liberating the whole of southern Africa by the power of my pen”.

He made an auspicious start. Being in the right place at the right time, he got a scoop on South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1975. “I began to realise that the war was a lot more complex than the musings of an undergraduate,” he says. “This was a grown-up story. Very complicated things were happening.”

Bridgland became enamoured of Savimbi, made many friends among the Unita commanders and covered the war mostly from their side. It put him in touch with the South Africans, whose military commander, Jannie Geldenhuys, allowed him to interview his troops. Those interviews make for a compelling story.

Bridgland has two big regrets: Savimbi turned out to be not a charismatic guerrilla leader, but a madman who murdered his own people; and the other side of the story – that of the Angolans and Cubans – was closed to him. Apart from a limited budget that prevented him from reaching the Havana archives, the Cuban bureaucracy was “horrendous”.

This should have made Far-Away War, which had the benefit of Cuban and Russian editors, a welcome addition to the war’s literature. Sadly, it’s disappointing. There is too much academic pontificating and no personal stories from commanders in the field, or soldiers in a trench or tank. Its value is the photographs from Cuban archives and the extensive bibliography.

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