Out of Angola' With Unita, it's best to stick to letter of the law

HUAMBO - If you want to cover the worst war in the world, be sure to book ahead. And if the goal is to cross from government-held Angola into zones controlled by Jonas Savimbi's rebels, patience, and plenty of it, is required.

Travel arrangements must begin at the state-run press centre where foreign journalists are registered, press cards issued and a lot of hand-holding is done, especially for those unlucky souls who arrive in the country with little or no knowledge of Portuguese.

Within a few days, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff will send over a fax which typically says a correspondent has the army's blessing to travel in the war zones. But the biggest treasure at the press centre is seeing one's name on 'the list'.

'The list' is a piece of paper the press centre duly sends up to the Luanda office of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, known as Ucah, which is overseeing the Angolan relief effort, the biggest UN aid operation under way in Africa. Being included on 'the list' entitles a journalist to the possibility of an all-expenses paid flight on a UN World Food Programme plane to the sensitive Central Highlands cities of Huambo and Cuito.

Huambo is difficult to reach because it is the effective capital of the other Angola, that 65 per cent of the country occupied by Mr Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, commonly known as Unita. And Cuito is always a bit dicey because every once in a while Unita and the government troops holding part of the besieged town engage in mortar and artillery duels.

The Ucah staff are generally a friendly lot, though encounters with correspondents who do not understand that the aid effort to keep 2 million Angolans from starving is slightly more important than fixing up press visits has left a bitter taste in their mouths.

Back to 'the list'. Once in Ucah's hands, 'the list' of hacks desiring to visit rebel territory is sent down to Huambo for Unita's approval. This too can take some days, but not if you have booked ahead. Once 'the list' receives the necessary approval, a plane is organised and the happy reporters are sent on their way. Until recently all press trips to Huambo were guided trips that lasted several hours and included a young Ucah staffer to smooth the way.

Huambo has opened up recently, however, and the fortunate can actually sleep over if they care to. So used to journalists has Unita become that sometimes they do not even send a vehicle out to meet them at the airport.

It is while sitting at the airport, adorned only with a giant poster bearing Mr Savimbi's grinning face, awaiting Unita transport, that doubts about the value of the visit begin to surge. But in due course, which in Huambo can mean many hours, a vehicle arrives to whiz the journalists off to the only hotel in town for another bout of waiting.

It is important to remember that Unita, like the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the 1980s, is none too comfortable with reporters. So if the wait becomes unbearable, one move is to begin walking through town without the requisite Unita minder. Nothing stirs their juices like a couple of foreign journalists scheduled to be in town for a week striking out on their own after just a couple of hours.

Breaking protocol early has advantages but also carries risks. The main advantage is the chance to engage locals in frank talk free of the watchful eye of a Unita militant. Most of Huambo's residents, who have been cooped up in the city since Unita took control in March last year and have suffered relentless government air bombing, are dying to talk. Discussion of living conditions, food shortages, hopes for the future is free- flowing, but not so in the case of politics. That is a subject only Unita militants are happy to address.

It is the palpable fear of talking about politics that alerts one to the risks of circulating without a Unita minder. A BBC colleague ran smack into trouble when, while interviewing some people in a bombed-out building, he was followed by a young boy. After agreeing to take some letters back to relatives of those interviewed living in Luanda, my colleague was stopped by a couple of young men in fatigue trousers and Savimbi T- shirts who claimed to be immigration police. The little boy had ratted on him. The police said my colleague had 'broken the laws of our country'. The letters and his cassette were confiscated and not returned. In Huambo, it seems, even sending a letter outside approved channels is a crime.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there