by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
For years Angola was a major battleground in the Cold War. The Soviet Union and Cuba supported the Angolan government. The United States and South Africa supported the rebels of UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Those rebels became known for terror tactics against civilians, including kidnapping children and forcing them to become guerrillas. read more
Former Angolan government soldier Jerimias Salamungo now distributes food to residents in Kuito for the World Food Program. Photo by Reese Erlich.
Feliciano Salamungo was 11 years old when he was forced to join the fight.
It was a day like any other. Feliciano was walking home from school, as oblivious to the scorching Angolan sun as he was to the men lurking in its shadows.
"In the middle of the way, I met a UNITA patrol. I was taken by them," Feliciano recalled. "I was frightened. I was not expecting anything like that. Suddenly, there were troops asking me to join the group."
Feliciano had no choice but to follow—for the next two decades.
"We were obliged to walk a long way," he said. "We reached unknown areas. We didn't have any idea where we were living. It was living in the middle of the bush, like a strange land."
That got stranger all the time."You never have a permanent home. You are here today. Two hours later, you move. Sometimes you have to sleep under trees. Sometimes you have to sleep in rivers, in water."
'Several Times I Cried'Not yet a teenager, Feliciano was forcibly conscripted into a brutal civil war that started before he was born and made a mockery of the former Portuguese colony's independence in 1975. As the liberation movements that fought together for freedom fractured, Jonas Savimbi's guerrilla movement known as UNITA retreated to the bush.
Despite intermittent attempts at peace, the war went on—eventually claiming the lives of more than 1.5 million Angolans. Landmines maimed countless numbers of innocent men, women, and children. Pitched battles that knew no boundaries rendered hundreds of thousands homeless.
Eleven-year-old Feliciano had no idea why he was taken or why the guerrillas who took him were fighting. He just knew he had to do what he was told."Otherwise, your life could be in danger," he said. "I saw people being whipped ... people being sent to distant areas.... When there was physical punishment, we were invited to witness. We were told that if you disobeyed, this could happen to you."
"When there was physical punishment, we were invited to witness. We were told that if you disobeyed, this could happen to you."
"I would like to see my daughters have a different life from the one I've had so far...."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault pictured with Jerimias Salamungo at a camp for demobilized UNITA guerrillas and their families in Kuito, Angola. Salamungo is a former government soldier whose younger brother was forced to fight for the rebels. Photo by Reese Erlich.
The US RoleUNITA became known for its tactics of kidnapping whole villages and attacking civilian supporters of the government. The United States and apartheid South Africa backed UNITA on the grounds it was fighting Soviet expansion in Africa.
Feliciano recalled the support UNITA got from the United States.
"I was told relations between the US and UNITA were very good. This was proven, because I myself saw medicines sent from the US. I used to distribute some weapons from the US to my fellow soldiers."
The United States stopped supporting UNITA in 1993 when the guerrillas violated an internationally brokered peace plan. But UNITA continued fighting, forcing thousands of children to become soldiers. Many, like Feliciano Salamungo, were forced by circumstances to become men. But the child in Feliciano lay just beneath the surface.
"I missed my family," he recalled. "Several times I cried."
He especially missed them when he heard that his mother had died. He had not spoken with her since he was taken 25 years before. "I was very sad because I didn't know my father. When I heard about my mother's death, I was very sad. I cried a lot."Feliciano belonged to a force supporting the front lines—providing food, clothes, and ammunition. He says he saw many young people like himself forced to kill, but he says he never had to. That was one of the few good things about his time as a guerrilla. Because there was a chance the Angolan government soldier on the other side may have been his own brother.
"It was hard, but what could I do?" he said. "I was also forced to do that. At that time when you don't identify with the side where you are, you can be identified as somebody collaborating with the other side. This could be very dangerous."The Salamungo family was touched by the war in many other ways. Their sister was forced to marry an MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) officer. Like many women, including those forced to marry UNITA guerrillas, once the war ended, she left her husband. It was different for Feliciano, who married in the bush—a young woman, herself abducted at the age of eight.
A 12-year-old girl created this drawing of a mother killed in the Chechnya conflict.
Learn more about these drawings
"When I heard about my mother's death, I was very sad. I cried a lot."
The Brothers MeetAugusta Chilombo was forced to tend the wounded on the battlefield. Fortunately for the Salamungos, the brothers didn't meet on the battlefield. Instead, they met in a camp as the armed forces were demobilizing after a peace treaty was finally signed in 2002.
By this time, 39-year-old Jerimias had long since been discharged from the Army and was working for an international food aid agency, one that provided food for the former guerrillas in the quartering camps where they were waiting to reenter civilian life. By chance, Feliciano heard his brother's name called by a colleague. He then asked that he take a letter to the man he thought could be his brother. Jerimias read the letter in disbelief.
"I had to control myself," Jerimias said. "So okay, if it's my brother, he's welcome."
Within a week, Jerimias was in the camp.
"Before 10 minutes, they were coming with somebody who I couldn't recognize. I was still keeping an image of my brother when we separated. He was short and a little bit slim. As he was coming closer to us, I recognized his chin. It was the same I used to see when we lived together 22 years ago."
Feliciano was speechless."All the words disappeared from my mouth," he said. "Twenty-two years of separation isn't an easy thing."
Ticking Time BombsNor is it easy for the former UNITA guerrillas who did in fact kill—if not their brothers, their own kind—and were killed in return. Reconciliation is a key challenge in this deeply wounded country.
The other challenge lies in preparing the former soldiers for the lives they left behind when they were children.
"Now the real change is that we are not dealing with them as ex-soldiers but as a child, principally," said Mario Ferrari, who heads the United Nations Children's Fund in Angola. "If we can reunite them with families and get them to school and get vocational training, those children can go back to a normal life."
The Angolan government is keenly aware of the challenge it faces, said Joao Kussumua, Angola's minister of Social Assistance and Re-insertion.
"Children from 10 to 20 years old were used as soldiers," he said. "They didn't study. We have people who passed school age that we must teach to read and write. As you know, the government must solve all the problems—economic and psychological."
And that's the ticking time bomb that makes the peace of Angola so precarious—finding the resources and the places for the thousands of children and adults whose only skills were those learned on the battlefield.
The government must also figure out how to help those like Feliciano's 29-year-old wife, Augusta Chilombo, who gave birth to their four daughters—virtually on the battlefield. As shy as she is tiny, she rarely speaks above a whisper until asked about her dreams for her young daughters.
"I would like to see my daughters have a different life from the one I've had so far," she said, her voice filled with commitment and determination. "We were suffering because of war. Now that the war has ended, I would like to see my children having a better life. I would like to see them studying. Then having jobs so they can live well."Whatever else Angola's long night of war may have destroyed, it failed to destroy the capacity to dream. It's now up to the people of Angola and countries around the world to help the dreams for their wounded children become reality.