Covering Jonas

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Rally in Angolan bush, Savimbi on backdrop. Photo: Larry Leamer

Letters pour in, or might if some did, saying, “Fred, tell us about the time you were a terribly romantic correspondent in darkest Africa with Jonas Savimbi and bounced around in stolen Soviet trucks and had to drink sumo all the time.” All right. Since you ask.

I had just come aboard the Washington Times in the early eighties. The editor was Smith Hempstone, an old Africa hand I’d met on a junket to Taipei. Smith had perhaps read too much Hemingway. On the wall behind his desk was a gaudy tribal shield with crossed spears. Anyway, he told me I was going to Angola to run around with Savimbi’s guerrillas.

South Africa didn’t want reporters running around Angola. Larry Leamer (my photographer) and I landed in Joburg with 200 rolls of film and a line of twaddle about how we were bird photographers. It was all very Terry-and-the-Pirates. We stood under a chandelier in some hotel and gave a password to a guy who put us on a flight to Windhoek and then we got in a high-wing Cessna with some bush pilots and flew to the Caprivi Strip, where I suppose our birds were thought to be, and dropped under South African radar in a blinding thunderstorm about thirty feet above the trees. This was when we weren’t ten feet above the trees because of sudden downdrafts. Finally we found an abandoned airstrip and landed and all these very black guys came out of the bushes with AKs. I remember thinking, “These had better be the right very black guys with AKs or this isn’t good at all.”

Cuando Cubango in southeastern Angola has trees about every thirty feet, so from the air you can’t see anything but you can drive the stolen Soviet trucks. See, the Cubans were helping the MPLA, which was the communist government in Luanda, and South Africa was helping Savimbi’s group, which was UNITA, and lying about it, and something called SWAPO was active in the south, and the FNLA in the north, and somehow the trucks got to Cuando Cubango and Savimbi ambushed them. (This is how scrofulous wars always are, mostly Alphabits.)

Anyway we went driving through sand with these heavily armed guys who gave us sumo, which is Portuguese for godawful sticky red coolade-like gunch. I came to hate it like poison, which it closely resembled. From time to time we ran into herds of really African-looking animals with funny horns but not much dynamism and had to wait for them to decide to go somewhere else. But it was sunny and peaceful. We felt very manful and adventurous. I mean, why be a reporter if you can’t strike poses?

We got to Jamba, which was Savimbi’s bush headquarters, a large collection of stick huts, which can actually be architecturally elaborate with lintels and things. Blue skies, no clouds, drill-instructor looking guys giving classes in maintaining various machine guns. They had wickerwork things that were supposed to stop napalm if Luanda’s MiG found us. I rather hoped it didn’t. Lunch was boiled potatoes in a canteen cup with a fried egg on top, and sumo, like really nasty cherry molasses. We both got assigned bearers who carried our camera bags. (I was shooting for Soldier of Fortune under the name of Rick Venable to make an extra buck.) All we needed was for Tarzan to come yodeling out of the trees.

We talked to Savimbi at length about his democratic tendencies, which he didn’t have any of, but he had graduated from the University of Lausanne and fielded questions agilely in French, Portuguese, English, and Ovumbundu, I believe it was. A very smart guy but I remember thinking that I did not want to be his prisoner. Then we had the boiled potatoes and the fried egg and the sumo. I was reaching my limits.

One day at lunch I finally snapped and came out of my hut, shrieking, “Larry! I think I’m anti-Sumotic!”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because I can’t stand the juice!”

He looked at me strangely. The sun is hot in Angola. Maybe he thought I’d forgotten to wear my hat.

We spent a couple of days driving to villages, which made “primitive” seem like one of those Star Warts movies. Savimbi had the villagers trained. They came out in a mob and sang, ”Wadawhudda-sah-VEEM-bi! Wadawhudda-sah-VEEM-bi!” and danced hiphop, which didn’t exist yet in America but I know what I saw. Once the chief of a village decided to give me a chicken, a vicious beast with death in her eye and a dangerous-looking beak. In a moment of genius I smiled thanks and indicated with a glance that Larry was my hen-bearer, so the chief handed the creature to him. She showed up that night on top of the boiled potatoes.

Savimbi’s people had managed to shoot down a Russian Antonov and capture the pilots. I’m not sure just how that happened. Anyway the fragments were on display in a sort of museum made of hut material and the Red Cross was going to fly in and carry off the pilots, who were in good condition. This was to show Savimibi’s good will, which he didn’t have any of. By this time I was ready to get the hell out, being persuaded that if I even saw another cup of sumo I would develop diabetes on the spot.

We all drove back to the barely existent landing strip to await the Red Cross, who arrived in an ancient DC-3 with a ratpack of reporters. I knew a great moment for posing when I saw one. The Red Cross officials disembarked. Nurses followed to look after the Russians, who didn’t need it. Then came the journalists, who seemed to be general-coverage people agog at being in such an exotic and perilous place. They were our prey. Heh heh.

We swaggered out of the bush with the slight cockiness that marks men who have been months in combat in places not even on the maps, men for whom life with guerrilla bands is everyday experience. Yes, we implied, things have been a bit rough, screaming hordes of drugged-up communists coming through the wire almost nightly — though, to be honest, we haven’t been shelled for days. Well, not much anyway. Couple of sappers came into my hut last night. Took them out with my knife, you know. The usual. I am a conscienceless fraud.

Off we took and out we went, toward Joburg, very low over the trees to keep SAM-7s from getting a lock, in a plane that first flew I think in 1936. I was happy. I knew for a fact that there was no sumo in South Africa.

In the Sumo Hilton. Photo: Larry Leamer

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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