Saturday, September 14, 2013

“Escapando ao Inferno/Escaping Hell”

A couple of weeks back I posted a Blog on Portuguese refugees that had fled from Angola as well as Mozambique in 1974/75. That initial Blog was more of a background as to why those men, women and children had to pack up what they could and leave the country that they considered home, often having to run a gauntlet of theft and abuse from doped up or drunk terrorists that manned roadblocks those refugees had to pass through to be able to get to safety.  This Blog is about those individuals and families that had to leave Angola. I have used information collected over the years as well as some info found on a local Facebook page (Portuguese speaking soldiers in the SADF) As is sooooooo often the case, promised information, personal stories or possible leads as to eyewitness accounts from those days has not materialized  so hopefully I can do the subject as well as those brave men, women and children justice…………. “You can be the judge”.

Refugees from Angola coming to South West Africa were badly harassed. Those who did make it unmolested then had to contend with life in refugee camps prior to being shipped out to Portugal as not many were either able or wanted to. Those not able to would have been people of colour or mixed race, which in South Africa in the mid 70’s was a big “no no”. The links between Mozambican citizens and South Africa was much stronger than that of Angolans and that of the few Angolan families that did settle in South Africa, very few adapted and by 1977 most had decided to leave for Portugal or Brazil.

It also has to be remembered that many of those that fled Angola did not have passports with them when they crossed into South West Africa and therefore could not prove that they did in fact have Portuguese nationality. Unlike the Mozambicans who had close ties with both Rhodesia as well as South Africa (both countries absorbed about 120 000 Mozambicans after the September coup and October massacres of 1975) the Angolans did not have much contact with South Africa and while very few were unable to speak English, almost none could speak Afrikaans.   

Something that I love about researching information for a story is coming across information that I had not even thought about. “Sometimes it’s not about the question you ask but who you ask the question”. Asking a good friend In Portugal “why it was easier for Mozambicans to get into SA than Angolans after the shit hit the fan in those countries”, he replied South Africa would have liked that the Portuguese stay in Angola to help control the situation there. But Stephen the USA was very happy to have thousands removed from Angola to Portugal as new voters in Portugal would help control the situation in Lisbon after November 25, 1975. This "Retornados" from Angola arrived in Portugal and joined the anti-communist front. Now there is a new book about Angola and the interest that there was in the US to move the Angolans to Portugal”.

After posting this information to get comments on the Facebook page I got a couple of replies agreeing that this in fact was a strong possibility with this one in particular standing out. “Stephen that spanner in the works could well be true as the story goes, the then American Ambassador in Lisbon, Frank Carrlucci gave Mario Soares some advice and that was. He had to take Socialism and put in the very dark corner of the bottom drawer. If he did that the USA would help him win the elections and keep the Communists out, basically thanks to Carlucci we didn’t go Commie. Kissinger was prepared to let a NATO member go down the toilet…..The book Carlucci vs Kissinger, the USA and the Portuguese Revolution could share some light”. 
Another difference was that unlike the Angolan refugees the SADF had little to do with those coming out of Mozambique.  An e-mail I received from an old soldier who had been an 18 year old “wet behind the ears” troopie brings home the fact that Angola between April and November 1975, “was not for sissies” The civil war brought, plunder murder and mayhem caused by all 3 liberation movements, it was not as he had imagined war would be, but it was the way of the so called “freedom fighters”. Women and children were sexually molested or raped at roadblocks set up by the various organizations, especially if there was nothing of value that could be bartered with to ensure that the women were not harassed, stories of women being raped at all of the roadblocks they encountered are not uncommon.

What shocked him more than the looting and stealing by the Liberation movements was how the Portuguese refugees fleeing Angola were treated by certain members of the SADF as well. 

This eyewitness account may “and I use the word lightly” show us what sort of hell people went through. “Once, when we were receiving people that got away from Angola via Zambia, I came across a couple with 3 daughters that were completely bonkers and with a very good reason as you will see in what follows. They were stopped by the gooks and told that they had to leave one of the 4 daughters behind for them or they would kill the whole family. They had to do just that to save the other 3. That is why they only had 3 daughters with them, Can you get any sadder than that?    

Those fleeing the country that where only given a hard time and had their possessions taken from them by gunpoint where seen as being “lucky”, clearly it was not a good time to be a white in Africa. 

Something that I was not aware of was how many Afrikaners, descendants of the 1928 Dorsland Trek also took flight and had headed to South West Africa and just like the Portuguese men, Afrikaner men could also do little to protect their loved ones from the 3 liberation movements who were not only fighting each other but also turning against the civilian population. With reports that in Silva Porto that a group of schoolgirls had been killed by UNITA and that the rape of women and young girls becoming common place anyone who had hoped that things would get better realised that flight was the only option.

It’s not that those who wanted to stay were not prepared to fight but with the Portuguese authorities having withdrawn the weapons that they had issued to Angolans, they were left defenceless and how did this happen, well again the new Leftist orientated Portuguese government had sat down with UNITA, FNLA and MPLA and drawn up the Alvor agreement.        

Part of the Alvor agreement stated that all civilians were to be disarmed and any civilian found in possession could be shot on sight. This however did not stop the 3 liberation movements from arming their civilian supporters. To the shame of the Portuguese authorities Portuguese civilians were left to their own fate and little was done to protect their lives or property, escape seemed to be the only option open to them.

Due to renewed fighting in the North of Angola between the MPLA and FNLA Portuguese as well as Afrikaners began to flee. Refugees did not have an easy time as they were stopped at roadblocks on a regular basis harassed and humiliated with many cases of molestation and rape being reported. By May 75 the trickle had become a stream and those fortunate enough to have possessions to barter were able to buy their way out of having their women folk and children raped at roadblocks or having their possessions stolen. Many refugees however had nothing but the clothes on their backs and had left behind houses, business’s, farms as well as all worldly possessions.     

Photos of families that had fled the fighting in Malange to a local military camp garrisoned by the Portuguese show despair and fear as well as an attempt to try and salvage some meager possessions. other pictures show dead bodies, both black and white residents slaughtered by men with nothing but hate and revenge in their hearts, they are piled in the middle of the town of Malange some with lime on them them to prevent disease. These are the words of a Portuguese soldier that was in Malange over that period.   (translated from Portuguese)

'Malange in 1975 was a deserted city, besieged by looters and under fire. Everything messed up that could be destroyed. My battalion had the thankless task of trying to keep order. another battalion had more traumatic experiences with dead scattered in the streets and they had to cover them with lime to prevent epidemics" 

On one Occasion a group of refugees, mainly Angolan Boers were halted by UNITA guerrilla’s at Oncocua when they attempted to cross the border. After lengthy negotiations some of the men were allowed to go to Ruacana on condition that they return with food and alcohol. To ensure they would return the women and children were held hostage. At Ruacana they managed to get food and liquor as well as some guns, they returned to Oncocua gave UNITA the food and booze and after the alcohol had done its job they managed to escape to Ruacana. 

While many tried to escape some were not that lucky and a few Angolan farmers and their families were to lose their lives or become badly wounded in the civil war. In one particular sadistic incident a man was tied to a tree had wood packed around his feet and burned to death. Some women and children were abducted from their farms and never seen again.

A large group of 1000 people in 200 vehicles managed to cross the border into South West with another smaller group of less than 200 refugees having grabbed the public’s attention by driving from the Kunene Mouth along the Skeleton coast to Walvis Bay. 

This is there story that I sourced from the internet has been translated and summarized from a book by a Rogerio Amorim called “A Costa dos Esqueletos” (The Skeleton Coast).

“A small convoy of about 180 refugees in 61 vehicles left Mocamedes and Porto Alexandre in August 1975 in the direction of Walvis Bay. At the mouth of the Cunene River they built a small ferry with large empty drums and wooden planks that they 8had brought with them. They attached a cable from a land Rover already on the opposite side of the river, which pulled the ferry with 2 small vehicles at a time, safely across the river, except the last heavy truck which topples over and sank.

The convoy travelled south at about 20km to 30km per day, along the beaches and desert of the Skeleton Coast of SWA in the direction of Walvis Bay, some 800kms away. They camped each evening along the beach, away from high incoming tides, which changed suddenly and frequently forcing them to camp further up into the treacherous sand dunes.

After about 12 days of travel, the convoy began to run out of food and water. Luckily, one morning a SAAF Dakota doing coastal patrol flew over. The convoy leader’s immediately wrote an SOS message on the beach and the following day a SAAF Dakota dropped food and supplies to the convoy by parachute. This procedure continued every other day, while one day a very ill patient was airlifted by a SAAF helicopter to a SAN vessel patrolling nearby and then admitted to hospital in Walvis Bay.

A couple of days later a SAP patrol came across the convoy. This patrol was totally surprised as no one had ever survived such a trip and took responsibility for these refugees all the way to Henties Bay. Some refugees, whose vehicles broke down, were airlifted by a SAAF helicopter onto a vessel of the SAN and taken to Walvis Bay.

This remarkable and courageous trip of desert survival for 4 weeks, characterized by breakdowns, sandstorms, constantly getting stuck in deep sand on the beach or in the sand dunes, sometimes up to their axles and getting flooded by sudden high tides, would not have been possible without the care, assistance, vigilance and support of the SAAF, SAN and SAP.

After a short period at a refugee camp at Walvis Bay set up by the SADF, some refugees decided to stay on in SWA while the majority were placed on a ship and sailed to Portugal were they arrived in Lisbon in mid-October 1975 to start the long journey of assimilation into a society that was foreign to them.     
Those who did make it across the South West border with their lives then had to contend with life in refugee camps. The first group of Afrikaner refugees who reached Windhoek were accommodated in army tents at the Windhoek showground’s. In Walvis Bay a refugee camp was established to house those civilian fleeing from Angola with many being repatriated to Portugal by sea.

Refugee camp at Grootfontein
Refugee camps were also established in Tsumeb and Grootfontein and those crossing the border were accommodated there before being allowed to continue their journeys. While it would seem in general the refugees were accepted with open arms some refugees would not get residence in South Africa as many were of mixed race and at that stage not welcome in South Africa. Those that were allowed into South Africa were either flown or transported by trucks to the Zonderwater or Magaliesoord refugee camps at Cullinan just outside of Pretoria and by late 1975 thousands of people where being housed at these camps. 

The initial refugee camp that South Africa set up at Oshakati by the SADF, it was situated next to the hospital and water tower, it comprised of 10 x 10 military tents with the refugees cars parked on the one side of the camp, the camp held between 1000 – 1200 men, women and children from all walks of life, being thrown out of one’s country shows no favoritism to rich or poor. The camp was guarded day and night by South African troops with each unit in the area sending men to assist with this assignment.  A major who was a medical doctor was in charge of the camp with a Sgt Major who ran the stores and would convey orders to the refugees in the camp who had set up a committee to ease communication between the Portuguese and the South Africans. The camp was cleaned daily by a team of black workers.

The atmosphere at the camp as one can imagine was one of despair and disbelief, people had lost all they had, businesses, homes, vehicles, even their dignity and an air of “we must be grateful for what the South African government is doing for us” seemed to permeate the camp. The Escudo was worth nothing and my source said how he saw fathers pimp their daughters, husbands their wives and desperate women selling their bodies to South African soldiers or anyone else for money just so they could try to have a life in South Africa.

While it should have been expected that the Liberation movements would take advantage of the refugees plight my source did point out to me that Perhaps what shocked him more than the molesting, looting and stealing was how the Portuguese refugees fleeing Angola were treated by not only terrorists but by certain members of the SADF as well. he remarked that some permanent force members also took advantage of the refugees by buying cars, trucks as well as any other items of value for next to nothing.

So on one hand we were assisting the refugees and on the other taking advantage of them with a number of soldiers getting rich off others misfortune. The camp at Oshakati was only used for a month before it was relocated to Grootfontein. What should have been seen by a young soldier as an act of kindness had only made him question his as well as South Africa’s role in Angola It also made him realize that their where good and bad soldiers and that war is not fair, no matter who’s side you’re on………………. “The Innocent suffer”. It must be said that while a number of SADF got richer by taking advantage of the war in Angola a number of Portuguese in South Africa and Swaziland also took advantage and made money out of the misery of their fellow countrymen.           

While there were those that took advantage of people in need, many refugees remember nothing but kindness from South Africans receiving them as this account  shows. “You will go back to Portugal” – that was the official reply to most requests to settle in South Africa from the Portuguese/Angolan Refugees. Unlike those from Mozambique, very few from Angola were allowed to settle in South Africa, I always  maintained that it was a mistake from the South African authorities, but that was the official orientation at the time. Nevertheless, all Angolan refugees who crossed into SWA are thankful to South Africa for all the help that was provided to us. Our profound gratitude, especially to all those South African volunteers (whole families) who waited for us at every camp with a warm plate of food and words of encouragement. I will never forget a young kid in school uniform, about my age, stopping his bicycle at a shop in a small town in South West Africa and after a few minutes emerging with his hands full of sweets that he had bought, most probably with his pocket money, approaching our car and giving it to me and my siblings. Man, it touched your soul deeply”.     

Having to flee your country as an Adult is hard but the effect it had on their children had a deep emotional influence on many of them and for many years kept their experiences buried in their subconscious. This information is from one such child.

“My family left Angola in mid 1975, my dad’s far-sight and correct reading of the situation saw us leave a few short months before the refugee exodus. Fortunately a visit to the family in SA the previous year coupled with my dad securing employment saw us leave Angola with minimum trauma and financial loss. An epic voyage in a little Mazda filled to the brim with family effects (including the pet Spaniel, who would live another 10 years) saw us leave Serpa Pinto, through Caiundo, endless sand tracks through the “terras do fim do mundo”, UNITA roadblocks, Nkurenkuru SAP post and finally Rundu. The little overloaded Mazda which was brand new and would remain in our family right into the 90’s, the little car handled it all, sand, tar and gravel. Our family came off lightly and our trauma and financial loss was negligible compared to those of the most of our friends and acquaintances’. A few short months later I would find myself visiting family friends at a refugee camp in Zonderwater, engineers, Dr’s reduced to pauper status, living on hand-out’s in muddy army tents….sad….even as a 11 year old I knew that I was no longer proud to be called Portuguese and since that time I have considered myself a South African. I am now again proud to be Portuguese but for different reasons, one of them being the way so many refugiados and retornados turned their unfavorable situation around and have led successful and productive lives”.   

While one may get upset at the harsh treatment that many refugees suffered at the hands of both the liberation movements as well as that of certain members of the SADF, what shocked me is the total lack of concern of its citizens by the Portuguese themselves and when I say Portuguese I mean the men in charge of the country at the time.

All Portuguese born in the African provinces, despite being born in a Portuguese territory, had a Portuguese ID as well as a passport, where stripped of that nationality at the time of independence. Those refugees from those provinces had to re-apply to become Portuguese citizens. This had to be done by proving that at least one of your parents or grandparents were born in Portugal and just to make things a little more difficult, despite already having fill Portuguese birth certificates issued by Portuguese authorities, you had to bring forward a witness that was not a family member to state under oath that your relatives were in fact born in Portugal. So basically they wanted is for you to prove that your parent’s and or grandparent/s were in fact the people you said they were.   

This Crazy and some say criminal conduct saw many Portuguese “stateless” for many years as the process was both slow and difficult and in many cases the declaration that was needed to prove that a parent or grandparent had been born in Portugal s done out of compassion from a complete stranger.  A number of those Angolan refugees that did manage to get permission to travel to only managed to get South African resident permits due to the kindness of the Portuguese consul in Pretoria who issued Portuguese passports needed for that.

Those refugees that landed up in Portugal were issued with a travelling document that was normally issued to non-citizens who needed to travel outside the country. To show how bizarre and hypocritical the system was, a good friend of mine who had left Angola and settled in South Africa visited Portugal in 1984, he was arrested by the army and not allowed to leave the country as he was classified as a deserter for not having reported for military service. He had to report to the Military Headquarters in Lisbon who then instructed him to report for duty at the Engineering Regiment in Lisbon so that he could start his military service. Once he was there he had to prove that he in fact lived in South Africa and he was issued with a “military passport” that had to be stamped at the border every time he entered or left the country and he was not allowed to stay in Portugal for more than 90 days a year. If a person was caught they would be arrested by the military police and forced to do military service (1 year for conscripts) .
The last refugees feeling Angola crossed the border in March 1976. Many organizations and government departments assisted the refugees such as the departments of welfare, labour, Interior and pensions, the SAP, SADF and SAR also assisted. Organizations such as the International Red Cross, The Vroue landbou Unie, The Rotarians, The Lions, numerous churches as well as local municipalities as well as civilian volunteers did what they could to ease the plight of the refugees as this eyewitness account indicates.

"Stephen  my father was from  Okahandia Namibia, he was a Ouderling (elder) as we called it responsible for looking after the black churches and his brother used to farm in Angola who died in a crocodile attack. The NG church asked my father to assist a group of Angolans that were crossing at Ruacana, which my father fetched and also other groups. In Okahandia there was a deserted camp of the Department of water affairs. in that area he put up a small hospital and all the farm ladies in the area divided into 2 groups, those who were cooking food, the rest were collecting clothes etc.  The camp was later swamped with refugees, but my father handled it. one of the refugees later bought a small cafe in Okahandia the whole community  Afrikaans and Germans supported him. 

When  I left for the army in 1976, his was the biggest retailer in our town. his son later became the head boy of Windhoek High School the biggest and best school in Namibia. some of those children in the camps had businesses and still stay in contact with me. when my father was old the same said Portuguese gentleman rent a house in Okahandia to him, out of what he did for the Portuguese and black tribes of Namibia".

Something that I forgot about but was reminded when I saw this photo was that many loyal black members of the Portuguese Military or DGS/PIDE were imprisoned, tortured and humiliated, many publicly because of there anti communism sentiments and when the Junta handed over power to the Nationalists, they were thrown to the wolves, some did manage to escape but far to many disappeared.
·        Wikipedia
·         Manuel Ferreira
·         Jose de Sacadura
·         Coenie Bekker
·         Carlos A.C Moita
       Riaan Botes
·         Face book page (Portuguese soldiers in the SADF)

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