Following a national liberation struggle – divided between three movements – against colonial Portugal, Angola’s independence in 1975 would translate itself into decades of civil war. A conflict essentially rose between MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) which held power in Luanda and UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) which was limited to the eastern parts of the country. Besides being shaped by internal dynamics such as regionalism, race and ethnicity, the civil war in Angola did also turn into a major Cold War front. Both USA and USSR, and their respectively ‘junior allies’ South Africa and Cuba, had strong roles supporting and intervening throughout the conflict. In the 1990s, a peace agreement was brokered ending the conflict with elections being held in 1992. MPLA won and UNITA rejected the results, leading to a re-escalation of violence in Luanda. The war saw an end in 2002 with the death of UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, by government forces.

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«I met Jonas Savimbi the first time in 1989 in Jamba, the only guerilla headquarters I ever visited that had a white uniformed traffic policeman. A meeting with the UNITA leader meant enormous security procedures, a jeep ride in the darkness around and around in the bush to intentionally make the ‘visitor’ confused, a complete dismount of cameras and other equipment and then a long wait in the warm, black, African night.

I have several photos from this night and the meeting with the legendary guerilla leader. Savimbi waited for us in a bunker under one of the local huts in Jamba, surrounded by his cold eyed body guard (who the regime’s propaganda claimed were all eunuch) and his closest men, General Ben-Ben, UNITA’s vice president Jonas Chitunda, and Alcides Mango. Out of the black and white photos I took of these men in 1989, none are alive today. Savimbi was the last of them; all the rest were killed in battle by the government army or murdered in the confusion after the peace agreement and the Presidential election in Luanda in 1992.

Savimbi tells me on this night in April 1989, how UNITA has to continue the war to establish a democratic Angola; Angola without 50,000 Cuban troops and without a Marxist dictatorship. I asked him, ‘How do you, as a black African ever accept military and economical support from the apartheid regime in South Africa?’ Savimbi’s reply was simple, ‘When you are drowning, you don’t ask who stretches the hand’.

Hunted by the government army and Cuban troops for decades in the bush, with an enormous dollar price on his head, he was at the same time, able to receive foreign politicians and journalists in his headquarters, Jamba in Cuando Cubango, an area once called ‘Fim do Mundo’, or the end of the world, by the Portuguese colonial power. The guerilla soldiers called him President Savimbi or Dr. Savimbi when visitors were present, but his popular name was ‘O Velho’ (the old man), in honor of the old man they were prepared to die for.

During the long war, the guerilla was literally transformed into UNITA, LDA, a multimillion dollar business (profit) in diamonds. I remember a visit in UNITA’s center for ‘natural resources’ where heaps of uncut diamonds with a variety of different colors and qualities were stored. Kept in a simple hut, without any lock on the door, were diamonds worth fortunes in US dollars. All of this is in an area half the size of Western Europe, controlled by a guerilla movement who kept Mao as an idol, but survived on military support from right-winged apartheid South Africa.

Savimbi is dead now, but for all the former UNITA members, Angolan government and its armed forces, who are now trying to find the guerilla leader’s fortune in diamonds, gold, and foreign bank accounts, there is not much hope left. There are only dreams and rumors. Instead of escaping to a life of luxury, in exile, in Morocco, Togo, or the Ivory Coast, Savimbi chose to spend his money to buy weapons and continue the war. Like a Portuguese politician with a close tie to Angola prefers to explain it, ‘Savimbi died like he always lived, a guerilla leader with a gun in his hand; Eduardo dos Santos (Angola’s President) will also one day die like he lived, in one of his luxury villas on the French Riviera’.

Peter Strandberg | Jamba, Angola | 1989