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Kissinger at 100: The ‘bloody, dreadful, filthy’ Angolan civil war – in pictures

After largely ignoring the continent for years, Henry Kissinger, who shaped US foreign policy from 1969 to 1976 as secretary of state, became involved in successive crises in Ethiopia, Angola and Rhodesia in the 1970s.

The US intervention in Angola complicated the emerging conflict there that followed Portugal’s withdrawal from its African colonies after the fascist dictatorship was overthrown in a coup in Lisbon. Concerned that the communist MPLA forces would sweep to power and open the way for Soviet influence, Kissinger led the US into a lengthy involvement in Angola.

Nancy Mitchell, a historian of the cold war in Africa, said: “He misread the situation in Angola from the start.”

The resultant war, which ended in 2002 after 27 years, killed up to 1 million people. A further 4 million people were displaced; about 70,000 lost limbs. At the conflict’s conclusion, almost two-thirds of Angolans lacked access to drinking water. The infant death toll was equally shocking.

During the course of the violence, key civil institutions were destroyed: schools, hospitals and government buildings across large parts of the country.

A woman chops the stump of a tree, Cuemba, Angola.
Mother and child at a refugee camp near Cuemba Angola.
A family waits to be seen by doctors at a medical centre in Camacupa.

  • Top, a boy runs past a bullet-scarred government building in Kuito. A woman chops the stump of a tree. Refugees camped out near Cuemba deforested the area to provide shelter and fuel for cooking and heat. Bottom, mother and child at the Cuemba refugee camp. A family waits to be seen by doctors at a medical centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Camacupa

With the war often lacking obvious frontlines amid seasonal offensives, large parts of the population were relegated to “grey zones” where humanitarian agencies struggled to operate and were often exploited by the combatants. Angola is one of the most mined countries in the world, and the heavy use of antipersonnel devices disrupted agriculture and threatened movement in rural areas.

A woman wraps herself up against the morning cold as she and others wait for food at the refugee camp near Cuemba, Angola.

When I visited Angola with the photographer Antonio Olmos a year before the war ended, we found – as former US diplomat Donald Easum described it – a “war-racked, landmine-strewn nation”.

Olmos’s pictures depict the consequences of a conflict that Henry Kissinger’s clumsy intervention exacerbated: towns and cities in which almost every visible wall on every surviving building was marked by violence, the grasslands littered with broken equipment, grinding poverty and people mutilated by mines.

A dummy with a mine-warning sign around its neck, Kuito, Angola
A woman and her child make their way to the refugee camp near Cuemba
Angolans waiting for food to be distributed by the World Food Programme in Kuito, Angola.
A former Angolan soldier who lost his leg to a mine, at a school to prepare soldiers for civilian life in Kuito, Angola.

  • Top, a dummy with a sign warning of mines in a field on the road between Kuito and Camacupa. Angola is one of the most mined countries in the world. A woman and her child make their way to the refugee camp near Cuemba after fleeing a Unita-held area. Bottom, Angolans queue for supplies from the World Food Programme in Kuito. A former soldier whose leg was blown off by a mine attends a school in Kuito that prepares military personnel for civilian life

Ryszard Kapuściński – who chronicled the Angolan war at its outset in Another Day of Life – perhaps put it best, prefiguring what was to come.

“The world contemplates the great spectacle of combat and death, which is difficult for it to imagine in the end, because the image of war is not communicable – not by the pen, or the voice, or the camera. War is a reality only to those stuck in its bloody, dreadful, filthy insides.”

For Angolans, that meant almost 30 years.

A crowd gathers under a tree as they wait for food distribution at a refugee camp near Cuemba, Angola.

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