A flight crew of Americans, Europeans and a Filipino stretched their legs while sweaty young stevedores arranged the cargo. Tiny white nuns scurried about, badgering pilots about delivering their Catholic Church relief to the right destination.
But for an hour no planes landed or took off. Helicopters rattled overhead and a MiG-23 fighter jet roared past, as cleaning women battled in vain to protect the red carpet from the dust and smoke blowing across the runway. A motorcycle policeman raced into the VIP section to announce the imminent arrival of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos who was flying to Namibia that day. The presidential band sauntered out in their smart blue uniforms and gave a weary rendition of the national anthem. The President arrived in his motorcade, waved and departed, allowing Luanda's 4 February international airport to re-open.
A few hundred yards away, the engines revved on massive Ilyushin transport aircraft and C-130s, some with military equipment, others with fresh recruits dragooned by the army. It is not uncommon to see soldiers chasing the drafted youngsters across the airport.
An aid flight to Uige, a northern city controlled by guerrillas loyal to Jonas Savimbi's Unita movement, was scheduled to take off at 1pm. It left after 4.45pm.
Permission to cross that imaginary line in Angola's civil war, to travel from the government-held capital to a Unita-controlled area, is not easy to obtain. Various UN agencies, the government and Unita must all approve, or at least raise no objection. It took four days to arrange permission for myself and a Reuters cameraman.
As the plane circled for its final approach after a 30-minute flight, the World Food Programme representative on the ground radioed his colleague on board to report that the Unita authorities had decided that 'the journalists can return to Luanda on the same plane'. The message, in typical fashion, carried no responsibility for the sudden decision. It was Unita-speak for 'you are not welcome', a strange turn of events considering the painstaking process of clearing the visit beforehand.
The Boeing landed, and a band of stevedores, even scruffier than those in Luanda, began unloading the maize, as well as the soap, cooking oil and blankets brought by the plane. A Unita official explained that because it was a weekend, his superiors would not be prepared to receive visitors until the following Monday. He mentioned that the decision had something to do with 'operations' and left.
Discussions with local residents at the airport gave a clue to Unita's sudden change of heart on our visit. It turns out that Saturdays often bring flights from neighbouring Zaire, carrying cargo, most likely weapons and ammunition, that no one, especially a journalist, is allowed to see.
Back at Luanda's airport, it was business as usual. Forklift drivers ignored the stunning red sunset and continued to load up the next aid flights. The little boys and young men were back, straining their eyes through the fading light to pick up the tiny grains.
They had been joined by a man twisting and turning on a tarpaulin on which the maize bags had rested before the forklift loaded them. The man, attempting to sweep up not grains but the dust of the departed maize, pulled himself around by his hands. His legs had been blown off by a landmine. An empty wheelchair stood nearby.Reuse content