Over the next two days we will be bringing you an exclusive serialisation from Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.
On 27th May 1977, a small demonstration against the MPLA – the ruling party of Angola – led to the slaughter of thousands of people. These dreadful reprisals are little talked of in Angola today and virtually unknown outside the country. With In the Name of the People, journalist Lara Pawson tracks down the story of what really happened in the aftermath of that fateful day, and in the following passage reveals how this dreadful episode became known to her.
One hot and sticky morning in February 2000, I stood waiting in a grassy square in front of a pale pink seventeenth-century Carmelite church in downtown Luanda. A few metres away, on Rua de Portugal, the traffic of the Angolan capital was heaving between broken gutters. An overweight bizneiro (businessman) was talking into two cellphones inside his four-by-four, and a disappointed aid worker sat in a white Land Cruiser, its antenna pulled back like a giant antelope horn. Blue and white minibuses, the candongueiros, were pumping with people and the latest kizomba tunes as their drivers prised open the narrowest of spaces in the gridlock. At the junction, a policeman balancing on a rusting plinth was exploring odd angles with his elbows. He wore long white gloves that flashed like mirrors in his hands, and his fingers formed fleeting shapes in the starched heat. Miraculously avoiding death in the middle of all this was a dog with bulging testicles, trotting back and forth between the tyres and tonnes of metal. Shortly before ten o’clock, a number of men began to gather between the trimmed hedges in the square. They were members of PADEPA, a young and feisty political party that stood for democracy and progress but was barely known beyond the borders of Luanda. When all were finally present, they sat down on the clipped lawn in pressed trousers, clean shirts and polished shoes and began a hunger strike in protest against a 1,500 per cent increase in the price of fuel.
Since I had arrived in Angola in October 1998, my work as the BBC correspondent had focused almost exclusively on the country’s miserable civil war, which had begun a few months before independence in 1975 and had matured into one of the longest conflicts on the continent. One party – the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) – had been in power since the Portuguese colonial rulers left, and an act of political defiance, a protest like this, was rare. I was determined to witness it no matter how insignificant it might be to the rest of the world. I knew it was going to be difficult to persuade my bosses in London to in the name of the people give airtime to what was, by most standards, a tiny demonstration. But I persisted anyway, and pointed my microphone into the circle of fasting men. Within minutes, my recording equipment was picking up a loud and familiar sound. Two van-loads of armed police came sweeping into the centre of the square. Men holding large guns tumbled out and promptly arrested twelve of the protesters. As it turned out, this rapid response from the security apparatus is what sold the story: arrests make a more convincing headline than a half-hour hunger strike.
A few days later, another demonstration was organised outside the provincial governor’s offices, just across the road from the church. It was smaller than the previous one, but that did not deter the police, who arrived shortly after the start and made more arrests.
The day after that, a third demonstration took place, this time back outside the church. Now, the focus had shifted away from price hikes to the previous days’ arrests. The protestors included a few PADEPA supporters as well as other activists such as Francisco Filomeno Vieira Lopes, an austere but attractive economist known for his principled leadership of another small political party. I was in the middle of interviewing him when the police vans arrived. A small man belted up in blue pointed a Kalashnikov at us and shouted at me to hand over my recording equipment. I refused. He shouted louder. I shouted back, and then he turned on Vieira Lopes, swiftly handcuffing him and frogmarching him away.
Moments later, it was as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. I found myself standing quite alone again, listening to the sounds of Rua de Portugal, feeling the furrows of sweat running from beneath my bra down over my stomach, and wondering how such a small act of dissent could have provoked such an excessive response.
During the days that followed, I kept reflecting on this rather curious sequence of resistance. I was struck by the paucity of protesters and even more by the absence of other journalists. Just one other reporter came to witness the demonstrations, and he was only there on the first day. When I asked my Angolan colleagues why they had not turned up, I was given a range of explanations. Some said that the protests were too small to bother with, that PADEPA was only interested in publicity stunts which would never lead to real change. Others blamed their lack of motivation on their editors, who had not paid them a living salary in months. One or two admitted that the fear of being arrested was what had deterred them.
But it was a slightly older journalist, a man in his early fifties, to whom I often went for advice, who told me something remarkable. What I had witnessed, he said, was Angola’s cultura do medo – its culture of fear.
‘The last time there was a proper protest in this country, they didn’t just arrest everyone – they killed many of the protestors and then carried on killing for weeks.’
‘When was this?’ I asked.
‘Nineteen seventy-seven,’ he said. ‘They killed thousands. People have been very afraid ever since.’
This was my introduction to the Twenty-seventh of May 1977. ■