South Africa continues to bomb Angolan towns – the evidence

The Guardian, September 7 1981

South Africa is still carrying out rocket and bomb raids up to 130 miles inside Angola. I was with a group of Eastern and Western journalists who were caught up in some of the raids on Saturday.

Although South Africa announced 11 days ago that it was withdrawing its troops, Angolan military commanders report that they still occupy 15,400 square miles of territory including six towns in a rectangular block reaching about 70 miles into the country. The air attacks are pushing north of this.

In Lubango, a town of 13,000 people just north of the war zone, the hospital is taking a steady flow of civilian and military casualties. Many have shrapnel wounds. The hospital’s director says that he believes there are many others who cannot reach Lubango because of the bombing.

Provincial authorities have established temporary camps to house refugees from towns in the front line. Some families have come out of the bush after days in hiding. They say there are still hundreds of people sheltering there and that they have been attacked from the air.

A team of officials from the Red Cross has been in Lubango for four days with a mobile field hospital. They are assessing the need for food and medical supplies and trying to get permission to move down to the front.

There is a steady flow of Russians and Cubans through the main hotel in Lubango. They are dressed in camouflage fatigues and wear hip-holsters. Nearer the front I searched through the bombed remains of a house which had been occupied by Russians. It was littered with leaflets on military tuition. There was no sign of direct military activity in the house.

We were attacked as our convoy of 30 journalists approached the town of Cahama, some 12 miles north of the occupied area, at 7.15 am. We had driven south for three hours from Lubango with an escort of 20 Angolan soldiers. The sun had only just risen.

The convoy of seven vehicles halted so that some of the soldiers could relieve themselves. As the vehicle engines stopped, the soldiers heard the sound of a plane above us and started to race into the bush, shouting: “Aviao, aviao.” We scrambled from our trucks and ran after them.

Lying face down in the dust under a thin umbrella of leaf-less branches, we could just hear the sound of the Impala jet, which was flying at more than 30,000 feet to avoid Angolan anti-aircraft positions.

Two rockets thumped into the ground by the roadside. Angolan soldiers fired their Kalashnikovs back in an impotent reply. One of the rockets scooped a deep wound in an Angolan soldier’s back, gashed a party official in the chest and nicked a BBC radio reporter.

The soldier was obviously badly hurt, with a lot of blood spilling from his mouth. He started to crawl towards another soldier, calling for help. The plane disappeared to the south and we walked back on the road.

There was confusion for 10 or 15 minutes as the two wounded Angolans were sent back to Lubango by Land Rover and our escort debated whether to drive the final four miles to Cahama. We continued south.

In Cahama, there was no sign of the 2,000 villagers nor of the battalion of Angolan soldiers who are normally stationed there and who made the village a target. Every building is damaged. Some are quite flattened. Scraps of human flesh testify to the casualties.

Four times in the first half hour we ran for cover in bomb craters and drainage shafts and listened intently to the sound of the invisible South African jets prowling high over our heads. Once, an Impala circled, flew north and rocketed the road a short distance away. We wondered whether they were looking for us.

[In Johannesburg, a Defence Force spokesman refused to confirm or deny that the South African air force had attacked the journalists’ convoy but said that anyone associating with Swapo risked being attacked.]

The Angolans concede that South Africa has completely dominated the air war. They claim to have shot down 10 jets and two helicopters, but these claims are unconfirmed. It is only on the ground that, with the help of Cuban and Russian advisors, they have been able to resist their neighbour’s military power.

In the centre of Cahama is the stone-built Russian house, its windows blown in, the flank walls sagging, chickens picking their way over the glass strewn floor. A half-eaten meal lies on the kitchen table, with an open bottle of wine gathering dust and flies.

In the three double bedrooms the wardrobe doors hang open. On one bed there is a half-packed suitcase. Empty Vodka and Russian wine bottles lie on the floor with shattered pictures of Lenin and Brezhnev. There is a thick file of Russian newspapers.

Wall notices, leaflets and hand-written books in Russian and Portuguese all seem to be concerned with instruction in infantry combat and the use of weapons. There is a reading list of books from the Angolan Ministry of Defence, with additions scribbled in Russian. There is nothing to show that the Russians are actually fighting.

Opposite the Russian building is the long, low Angolan army garrison, battered and blasted, with its sign proclaiming “A lutta continua. A vitoria e certa” – The struggle goes on. Victory is certain. Behind it, the radar installations have been only partly destroyed.

A man and three women appear on foot at the end of the village. The man says they walked through the bush for three days after the first air attack on August 23. They have been in the bush ever since and are returning only to salvage a few belongings from the remains of their house.

The man, who says his name is Pauleino, is wearing a shirt with a picture of a Russian rocket on it. He says his brother-in-law was killed during a South African air attack in the bush next to a river. “I would rather be in Lubango,” he says. “But that is not possible now.”

After two hours there has been an increase in aerial activity, and the military escort decide to take us out rather than risk being involved in a bomb attack on Cahama. Eight miles up the road we see two soldiers standing by a bomb crater scurry suddenly into the bush. They have heard a plane.

Our truck lurches into the side of the road and again we lie flat in the bush. Two planes circle over us moving north and then circling back again. After 15 minutes, we hear the brittle crash of explosions to our north. The plane circles back towards us.

A few minutes later there are more explosions to the south. The planes circle back towards us and then drift away towards Cahama. We have been lying there for 30 minutes and we wait another 10 minutes before venturing out to the road.

By midday we reached the village of Chibemba, the northernmost bombing target in the present incursion and the site of Angolan anti-aircraft guns. We met two military ambulances and a spattered coach which had been converted into a mobile hospital with glucose drips hanging from the luggage racks. We discovered that this convoy was looking for us.

They had heard in Lubango that we had been attacked and feared that more of us had been injured. We heard later that a jeep and an ambulance had been hit.

One of the Angolan military commanders, Captain Mario Oliveira conceded that he had no idea of either side’s casualties. “It is quite clear that the numbers are high,” he said. “Material damage is also very extensive. We do not know when there will be an end to these losses.”

The Angolans have still offered no explanation for the South African incursion. They reject Pretoria’s claim that it was aimed against missile bases and Swapo camps. Reporting the attack on our column Angola Radio asked Pretoria rhetorically how many of the journalists belonged to Swapo.