José Manuel Valdermar Prata spent the first years of his life in his birthplace Benguela, a coastal city west of Angola. At the age of nine, he was already aware that the country had been immersed into a civil war, one which at times seemed to be resolved by peace, whilst at others seemed to be everlasting.–
The dispute over the control of the country was especially prominent in rural areas, where armed movements such as MPLA, FNLA and UNITA engaged in ‘guerrilla’ war tactics, strategies and unconventional weapons, affecting more than the just the public.
Benguela was a city taking in hundreds of displaced and injured people who were fleeing from the fighting in the villages. However, the conflict got to the heart of José’s family when his older brother was enlisted by one of the parties in conflict.
“That day, we were both playing football when we were held by the troops. I then witnessed my brother being taken away to war, at only 15 years old. I didn’t see him again.”
Terrified by what had happened, and fearing that a similar tragedy would happen to another member of the family, José’s parents- a primary school teacher and a transport sector manager, arranged for him and his younger sister to leave the country. “One of the toughest times I suffered because of the war was when I had to be separated from my brother, and then from my family, who I left without it even crossing my mind that it could be for a long time.”
That’s why on October 5th 1989, José and his sister left for the country of his maternal grandparents in Portugal. His grandfather was born in Benguela, but he descended from Portuguese settlers in Angola who had been there since colonial times. When the colonists were overthrown on April 25th 1974, the old man left for Europe with some of his children. It is believed that some 300,000 Portuguese people left Angola between 1974 and 1976, an event that changed the economic dynamics of the newly born republic.
Although independence presupposed a new dawn of peace and tranquillity for millions of Angolans, reality was different; the struggle for control of country between the three independence movements that had once fought against the Portuguese sparked a civil war which took 27 years to resolve (1975-2002); A conflict that arose in the context of the Cold War, where participating countries could relate to the ideology of each belligerent group.
The MPLA was supported by some socialist governments such as Cuba’s and the Soviet Union’s, the FNLA was supported by China and Zaire, whilst UNITA had the support of Portugal, the U.S. and South Africa, who didn’t want to have a communist country, which at the time was ruled by the MPLA, amongst its neighbours.
Meanwhile José settled in Portugal, where he lived until the age of 24 when he left for Germany in search of finding better job opportunities, as he had finally received the passport that would allow him to move freely within EU territory.
After living in Berlin for a few years, he made ’pilgrimage’ for Austria, Spain and the UK, (he currently lives in South West London).
In total he has visited a dozen countries, but he is still apprehensive about the idea of experiencing a peaceful sunrise in his homeland, even after 23 years of not being there. “That would be one of the happiest moments of my life, to reconnect with my mother and my older brother who managed to survive the war. My dream is to permanently move to Benguela.”
Angola’s civil war left a toll of more than three thousand deaths, four million refugees and roughly 100,000 landmine victims. Between 2000 and 2007 three thousand children were rescued from the war.
(Translated by Emma O’Toole)