Loading rampIt’s 6.30 in the morning and the dankness hangs over the city trapping the smells of poverty and despair. The curfew has ended, the roadblocks are being dismantled and the exhausted troops are returning to their barracks near the airport. From the slums and shanty towns near Massacres a long line of emaciated bodies head out towards the town centre in search of food and the wherewithal to survive another day. Luanda, the capital of this once proud country totters on the brink of self-destruction as the guerilla war rages on its outskirts.

We stand on the tarmac next to the domestic airport staring at the planes loading their cargoes before taxiing out towards the runway. Huge Russian Aleuyshins laden with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and ammunition, lumbering outwards with their enormous propellors whirling in the morning mist. Smaller twin-engined Antonovs, filled with young conscripts heading south towards the front line near Namibia; and civilian aircraft, jammed to capacity, flying to the remoter parts of the country, inaccessible by road.

We stand there with our eyes fixed on the white, shiny fuselage of the JAK 50 with its distinctive red and black flag painted on its tail. We relax a little. This is the Minister’s plane and this is the way that we will travel south, high above the range of the SAM missiles, immune to the war below. We watch as its engines start and we prepare ourselves for boarding. Then almost imperceptibly at first, it starts to move, gathers speed and taxis to the front of the military planes. Its engines roar and it accelerates away into the morning sky, leaving us stranded and desolate.

We ask our Angolan counterpart what’s happening. He shakes his head and approaches a sergeant standing next to his jeep. He is a short squat man, covered in sweat, with his belly hanging over the front of his trousers. A heated exchange takes place and he returns and speaks to Merrem, the UN Representative. I relax and assume that we will be returning to Luanda, but it is momentary as Merrem ushers us forward. We follow him and stop beside a camouflaged Antonov with its ramp down.  A line of soldiers moves slowly upwards, their AK47s by their side and is swallowed up by the fuselage. Merrem attaches himself to the back of the line and waves us forward, smiling reassuringly. I want to run, to scream, to refuse to go but the others join him and I acquiesce.

We walk slowly up the ramp and enter. There are no seats, just two wooden benches, one on each side of the fuselage. Above them are two taut, metal parachute cables. We sit down in a line staring at the troops on the other side. They are nervous and most have obviously not flown before. I can’t get over how young and innocent they look. They fidget and hold their guns across their chest. Some have taken their hand grenades off their belts and have placed them on the floor between their feet, oblivious to the dangers. One of them produces a cigarette and attempts to light it. A sergeant snatches it away, flicks it outside and bellows at him, “Nao fumare”.

I can see into the cockpit and it’s empty. Perhaps they can’t find a pilot. Perhaps they will have to let us go. But we sit and wait. Sit and sweat as the smell of unwashed bodies and fear starts to overwhelm us. Then we hear a jeep approaching and a figure emerges at the bottom of the ramp. He looks no more than 18 and is wearing a leather, flying jacket and has his a cap turned backwards on his head. He is smoking a large cigar.

He enters smiles and bids us all good day.

Bom Dia, Camarades, Como esta?”

The troops all nod and respond, “Bom Dia, Camarade.”

He looks at us and smiles, “Boa Voyage.”

I try to contain the panic and slip my hand inside my jacket pocket. I feel for the pills, flip off the cap and tip two Ativan into my palm. I raise it to my lips and swallow them whole. They kick in and I relax. You can still get off, I say to myself. Nobody will think any less of you.  But I sit and wait. The young man sits down in front of the stick, turns the ignition and the port engine spurts into life. The propellor whirls and he feathers the starboard engine. The noise becomes almost unbearable and the plane starts to shake. Then without warning the sergeant walks to the back, raises a lever and the ramp starts to rise. I want to run and leap out as the panic returns but I grip the wooden bench and just sit there. I just catch the last glimpse of daylight before it slams shut locking us into this metal coffin. Silence descends and I can sense the fear on the young soldiers. We are only going for a few days to see how the land lies, to make all the preparations for the rest of the team to arrive. But they are going to war. To an awful brutal war against a much better organized and ruthless enemy.  Many of them won’t return. This is their last journey.

The sergeant walks in front of them, raises his hand and speaks.

A lutta continua.

They all respond, raising their clenched fist.

“Vitoria e certa.”

The plane jerks into life and we start to move. I look out of the window at the small airport disappearing behind us and the Russian markings on the undercarriage of the plane. My colleagues are silent and stare into space. The man on my left has covered his head in his jacket and is trembling. I place my hand on his shoulder to try and reassure him but it has no effect. He refuses to emerge and just sits there, hiding.

We taxi out slowly and the plane judders to a halt. This is the moment, I think, the moment of truth. There’s no turning back now. The engines roar, the propellors spin and we move off. There is none of the thrust of jet engines, just a escalating throbbing and whirling as we move down the runway. I feel as if we are not going to make it, then we lift almost imperceptibly and the ground disappears beneath us. We move upwards in a slow methodical climb with the city and the sea on our right. I can see the top of the UN building below with its distinctive blue flag. The city recedes to our right and we climb upwards into the clouds.  I ask Merrem how long it will take and he just nods and tells me two hours. I have this terrible urge to go to the toilet. I look round the cabin for a sign before I realise that there is only small curtain and a bucket near the rear. The thought of total embarrassment overwhelms me and my muscles jam tight.

Without warning, we bank to the left. The right wing rises and we turn sharply. I look out and notice that the sea has suddenly disappeared and that the outskirts of the city are approaching again. The sea should be on our right. That’s the way South. I wonder if we have a problem and we are turning back. We are over the centre again now and have passed the airport. I see the city below us again. We continue to circle and then the sea reappears. We continue this manoeuvre spiraling upwards and upwards with the city growing smaller and smaller.

Merrem turns to me and sees the fear on my face. He places his hand on mine and grips it tightly.

“ Standard procedure. Stay within a 10-mile radius until 10,000 feet. Security zone. SAMs can’t get us at this range.”

He thinks that this will relax me. I sit and try not to panic. We continue this for ten minutes and I do what I always do in these crises. I pull out my notebook and write. The first thing that comes into my head.

Dear Mum,

No need to worry. Having a great time. Flying over the sea at the moment and heading south for a week. Am told that the hotel is great and it has a swimming pool. Great bunch of lads and keeping myself fit and healthy. Weather good and nice and sunny.

Will write again when I get there.

Lots of Love

Graham x

I stare at it and put a line through it. I try again

Dear Mum,

On a Russian plane with no toilet. Full of soldiers with guns and hand grenades. Pilot looks about 18, and the man next to me has his jacket over his head and is crying. Just about to fly south over guerilla country.

Wish you were here.

Lots of Love

Grahamxx

We level off, the clouds disappear and the sea re-appears. I can just make out the coastline and the sandy beaches below, once packed with Portuguese tourists. The atmosphere starts to lighten and the soldiers chat amongst themselves. This is the safe bit of the journey far away from missile range. We fly outwards along the coastline for an hour and then we suddenly bank left and head inland. A desert appears, stretching to the horizon, then the outline of an escarpment. The terrain turns from savannah to grassland.

Stillness descends on the occupants again as they realise that this is the most dangerous part of the journey. We are above guerilla country now and troops loyal to Jonas Savimbe’s UNITA control huge swathes of the countryside and wage a savage war against harmless civilians.  They have recently been equipped with SAM missiles by the Americans and we will be well within their range as we come in to land.

I nudge Merrem from his sleep and he wakes and looks at his watch.

“Not long to go now,” he says, “This is the tricky bit. Nothing to worry about.”

I smile and wonder what it feels like to be blown up in mid-air. I wonder if you would feel anything or whether it would be over in a flash so to speak. I look out the window watching for any sign of attack. My face is glued to the window, almost urging the plane to land. I just want to get off now. I’ve had enough. Occasionally the sun reflects against a small lake or some metal on the ground and the light reflects upwards. I shudder and wait for the bang but there is nothing. It is only my imagination playing tricks. I write furiously. Anything. Just keep writing. Don’t think.

Below, I see the outline of a small town nestling in a valley. The plane starts to descend and we drop rapidly. I hold my breath. The plane banks left and we adopt the same manoeuvre for landing, spiraling ever closer and closer to safety. The town becomes bigger and I can see cars in the streets. We are not far off now and everyone is looking out of the windows. Even the man next to me has emerged from under his coat and has stopped trembling. He smoothes his hair, licks his hands and washes the sweat from his face. I smile at him and he nods.

We make our approach. The wheels drop with a loud bang, the flaps come down and we hit the end of the runway.  Someone starts to clap, then everyone joins in, even the soldiers. Our journey is over. We taxi to a makeshift hut surrounded by troops and the sergeant stands up and lowers the ramp. The scorching hot air surges in and almost knocks us back in our streets. I want to get up, to be the first off. I want to get out, but I just sit and wait.

The soldiers go before us and assemble at the foot of the ramp. Merrem motions for us to follow. We walk out into the baking heat of the South and smile as we look up at the blue skies and the high mountains surrounding the town. A cavalcade of cars awaits us and we clamber in and head off down the dirt track road.

I look back as the young soldiers are herded into trucks and turn south towards the front line. Many of them will not return and will be buried in unmarked graves. Others will return maimed and scarred for life.

Vitoria e certa,’ they shout as the dust clouds envelope them.

© Graham Walker 2012

Photo courtesy of Flickr user heraldpost