At four o'clock in the morning on an October day last year, I boarded an unmarked 4-engine turboprop at the airport of a black-African capital. The plane was to take me on a clandestine flight into the heart of rebel-held territory in Angola to meet the legendary guerrilla chieftain Jonas Savimbi and get an in-depth look at his UNITA forces, which have been fighting Angola's rulers-first the Portuguese colonizers, now the Soviet-backed Marxist regime-since 1966. It was the beginning of a new leg of my multi-continent investigation of Third World anti-Soviet insurgents.
I had just come from some weeks with the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, with whom everything is informal and spontaneous; so I was not ready for it when a UNITA man insisted, before we could take off for Angola, that I fill out an immigration form asking, among many other things, my mother's maiden name-in triplicate. "What have I got on my hands here?" I muttered to myself as I filled out the form. "Gilbert and Sullivan guerrillas?" In the ensuing month I would find myself repeatedly asking that same question. But I was to become convinced that the story of Savimbi and UNITA is one of the most extraordinary in the history of guerrilla warfare. What is going on in Angola may have some outward trappings of comic opera in the African bush. But in their fight against Angola's ruling regime-in power since 1975-Savimbi's men are deadly serious. Very serious, and very deadly.
The flight into Angola's rebel-held territory lasted several hours. I was asked by my UNITA hosts not to disclose from where we departed-only that it was a black country, not South Africa or Namibia. As daylight spread, we traveled at normal flight altitude across thousands of square miles of eastern Angola, yet the Portuguese crew was unconcerned about attacks from government missiles or MiG jet fighters. "All this," the captain informed me, pointing through the cockpit window to the sandy-green landscape below, "is controlled by UNITA. There is simply no government presence down there." Savimbi's Kingdom.
The Portuguese, who began colonizing Africa in the 15th century, called this part of Angola "Terras do Fin do Mundo"-the Land at the End of the World. In 1976, Savimbi and a few remnants of his forces had retreated deep into this bush, defeated and broken by the regime that had been installed when the Portuguese bowed out. Now Savimbi controlled it all-and much more. Several knowledgeable people had told me that he is the most interesting man in all of Africa. I was now about to find out why.
Jonas Malheiro Savimbi was born on August 3, 1934, in the town of Munango on the Benguela Railway. A United Church missionary once described Savimbi's parents as being of "exceedingly humble, primitive, pagan background." But both were converted to Christianity, and Lote Savimbi, Jonas's father, proceeded to become the railway station master at Munango and to found Munango's first Protestant church. This upset the local Catholic priests, who got Lote transferred to another station, where he proceeded to found another Protestant church. This pattern was repeated several times along the railway from Munango to Benguela.
Lote Savimbi's life-long independence and resistance to repressive authority, the guerrilla leader would later tell me, was a lesson young Jonas learned well.
Lote also gave his son an impassioned nationalism. For Lote, the great symbol of freedom in the world was America. "My father always thought that black Americans would someday come and help free our country from Portuguese colonialism," Savimbi told me during one of our talks. "And I have not lost hope that they may someday play a role in freeing us from that of the Soviets." In 1958, the United Church sent Savimbi to study medicine in Lisbon, where the Portuguese secret police tried to get him to inform on fellow Angolan students who opposed Portuguese rule in Angola. Savimbi refused and fled to Switzerland. By this time, 1961, two Angolan liberation movements had formed-Agostinho Neto's MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertoqao de Angola) and Holden Roberto's UPA, later FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertagao de Angola).
On his own, Savimbi went to a seminar on African liberation movements in Kampala, Uganda, where he met Tom Mboya, Kenya's foreign minister. Mboya introduced Savimbi to Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, who advised him to give up medicine: "It is better for you to help free your people and have doctors in a free Angola, than for you to be a doctor in a colonial Angola." But Kenyatta advised him against joining the MPLA. "They are communists," Kenyatta warned him, "and have been supported by the Soviets since 1957."
On a Swiss-government scholarship for political refugees, Savimbi returned to Switzerland and changed from medicine to political science at the University of Lausanne. Flitting back and forth between Africa and Lausanne, to the eternal confusion of his professors, he obtained his doctorate in July 1965. (His dissertation topic was the implications of Yalta on the Third World.)
In the meantime, armed with an introduction from Kenya's Mboya, Savimbi teamed up with Holden Roberto's liberation movement. But Savimbi says he soon became disillusioned. He explains that Roberto was French-educated in what was then the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and "didn't understand the Portuguese mentality" or how to fight it. He couldn't expand his power base beyond his own Bakongo tribe, nor would he himself go inside Angola to fight, preferring to remain safe in Zaire's capital,
Kinshasa. And Savimbi noticed that Roberto didn't trust those around him who had an education, as they might become rivals to his power.
So in 1964, Savimbi left Roberto's FNLA, determined to fight the Portuguese inside Angola with his own movement. Seeking support, he approached Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, who turned him down. He saw Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, who said no. (That year he also met Che Guevara, whom he personally liked but didn't think was very bright.) Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said no, as well, but had Savimbi taken to Moscow to petition the Soviets for aid. It was an educational experience. "The Russians were very insulting to me," he recalls. "They demanded I work with the MPLA. Worst of all, they were genuine racists. You could see it in their eyes."
Finally, early in 1965, Savimbi met Hua Hua, China's ambassador to Egypt, who invited him to Peking. There, the Chinese listened to him-and told him that he had good ideas but would fail without proper training. They gave him $15,000 and told him to come back with 12 recruits. He returned with the recruits at the end of 1965 for nine solid months of intense training in political-indoctrination techniques and guerrilla tactics.
With 150 men recruited among Angolans who had fled to Zambia to escape a Portuguese crackdown on insurgents, and armed only with knives, Savimbi led his first attack on December 1, 1966. The Portuguese garrison at Cassamba was the target. One of Savimbi's men was killed, and they retreated. Then on December 25, Savimbi scored his first victory, overrunning a garrison at Luau. It was the first the world heard of UNITA-Uniao Nacional Para a Independencia Total de Angola, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.
Six months later, Savimbi was back in Peking, where he met Mao himself. Mao gave him $50,000 and promised a large supply of guns and ammo for UNITA, to be shipped through Tanzania and Zambia. "As a guerrilla leader and tactician, Mao was an unrivaled genius," Savimbi now observes. "But his ideas and methods on running a society and its economy should be avoided at all costs."