Today’s feature programme looks back to the year 1983 and to Africa, where 66 Czechoslovak men, women and children were held hostage in the Angolan Civil War, some for over a year, and forced on a trek of almost 3,000 km. Christian Falvey presents this week’s Czech History.
Angola, 1977. The country had just ended a war of independence from Portugal and civil war was breaking out – a Cold War proxy conflict in which the American-backed UNITA movement was pitted against the Marxist MPLA, which had the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba and Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak government had agreed to aid the fledgling communist state by helping resurrect and run the Angola Cellulose and Paper Company in the area of Alto Catumbela, which had been left derelict after the Portuguese withdrew.
In 1981 Lumír Novotný was a 31-year-old chemical engineer looking to apply his language skills somewhere in the world. That place ended up being the Alto Catumbela factory, where he helped train the Angolans to manage and maintain the facility.
“We were informed that there were some groups – it’s the same everywhere after a revolution, there are isolated group of bandits and so on – but Alto Catumbela was guarded very closely. So after a year I went home for a holiday and on my return to Angola I took my family with me.”
There were 66 Czechoslovaks in Alto Catumbela, including the specialists’ wives and 21 children, a doctor and two nurses. Also with them was Nuno Borges da Silva, a Portuguese Angolan who had remained in the country in spite of the revolution, and was the director of the factory. He also led the factory’s powerful defence militia, which he told Czech Television he thought would deter the interest of the roving UNITA battalions.
“No one expected that UNITA could attack Alto Catumbela, frankly speaking. Because according to the information we had, UNITA was very scared to attack Alto Catumbela because they didn’t know how many able people we had or how big a force we had inside. They could attack – we knew that. But we were never convinced that that they could win a battle against us.
But on March 12, 1983, the information that the director and his militia had, proved to be very wrong.
Nuno Borges da Silva: “We were all together until midnight, me and the Czechs drinking beer, et cetera, in the clubhouse. And at 5:00 in the morning the attack started. Actually they attacked with 1,500 men, and were very, very well-armed, with very good weapons, they were organised in a very sophisticated way and had good generals as well. They attacked us from three fronts, three sides. It was very well prepared.”
Lumír Novotný: “It was very unpleasant, for example speaking to someone and seeing him lying dead over a bush ten minutes later. And there were many other sad events. Then the UNITA soldiers came to our neighbourhood and took us from our houses, they gathered us in a crowd and we were driven through the neighbourhood and out into the forest. And the next day we began the march.”
The group was in the hands of the death-defying guerrilla general Jonas Savimbi, who led the inexhaustible anti-communist movement in Angola for 27 years. Trained militarily by the Chinese but groomed politically by the Americans, Savimbi was considered a master tactician, but what his strategy was for the abduction of the Czechs and Slovaks is not entirely clear. Ultimately it served as a show of force that won UNITA some name recognition internationally, but the commander who attacked the factory has himself said that the only aim was to destroy the infrastructure and move on. His intelligence had reported only eight foreigners in the compound. When he found himself stuck with nearly a hundred Czechoslovaks and Portuguese, the first thing that occurred to him was that it would be easier just to kill them.
Savimbi had the Czechoslovaks marched north. Initially they were followed by MPLA and Cuban soldiers who allegedly wanted to attack in spite of the presence of civilians, but were ordered to stand down by none other than Raul Castro, after discussing the situation with Moscow and Prague. Savimbi notified the government he would have them killed if they were attacked.
“They promised they wouldn’t kill us,” recalls Mr Novotný. “They said, ‘killing you does not suit our political agenda’. But as you know, political agendas change from time to time. So we were worried, of course.”
The long march that ensued however was so long, over 1,300 kilometres through remote terrain, and so arduous that it did take the life of one of them, Jaroslav Navrátil, a 37-year-old Slovak. Overcome physically and in a poor psychological state, he was being carried in a stretcher by the soldiers on their heads when they tripped and he fell to the ground, hitting his head on a stone. He was buried in a mound in the bush.
Meanwhile others were suffering unfathomable hardships that could easily have ended up the same way. Eva Janečková had serious hip problems and had had both of her hip joints operated on. She had joined her husband in Angola with the expectation of getting a rest.
“My husband helped me, he carried me on his back when he could, he pushed me or pulled me up the hills. I was remembering the war films you see on television, and how people who couldn’t manage the marches were mercilessly shot. For the first half of the march there were no stretchers, and so the Angolans carried me on their backs. But my condition after those operations was such that I had horrific pain even when I was being carried, I remember crying, and when I couldn’t take the pain anymore I asked them to shoot me. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Many of the hostages had no more with them than the clothes on their backs. Soon they were covered in hair and body lice, the only remedy for which was to put their clothes into anthills, where the ants would pick them clean. They often marched for hours before they could drink, and then only from whatever source was available. But all describe the worst problem as being the corn mash that was practically their only sustenance. Lumír Novotný again:
“It was such horrible food. Once you had eaten it you felt aches in your stomach. But you could choose: either die, or eat it, and survive. The worst feeling was – you know, when you are not given any food then your priorities in life change, and believe me, the one priority was the food. If you are extremely hungry you are able to do almost anything. But during the march your output of energy was so exhaustive that it filtered the psychological problems a bit. We had to walk and walk, day and night, and when they ordered us to stop, we all collapsed.”
This went on for roughly 100 days, after which time the hostages were put on lorries and moved another 1,500 kilometres to their final destination. But even then tensions were still high, as Slovak František Zlocha recalled in a Czech Television documentary about the ordeal.
“One of our colleagues said at that point ‘we’re all going to die anyway’. One of the women got such a shock from that that we didn’t know how to console her. I grabbed him by the neck and shoved him up against a tree and I swore at him in a terrible way, saying that if he ever did that again I’d break his jaw.”
The 21 children experienced the ordeal altogether differently. Lumir Novotný’s daughter Gabriela was four years old when she was on the march and indeed remembers different problems than the adults.
“I remember one night we were crossing a wild river, and it was quite deep. My father was carrying me on his shoulders and I was sleepy and started crying and shouting, and blaming him for getting my feet wet. You know, he was really suffering because the current was pushing him and he is also quite short, so the water level was very high. So he put me on the shoulders of his friend, who was taller. Really I perceived it all from a different point of view. My older brother was seven, and he tells me he saw the whole thing as a big adventure.”
Once the group reached their final destination, nearly 3,000 kilometres from where they began, the women and children were freed, along with seven men who the Red Cross found too weak to remain.
The remaining 20 men however stayed in the camp for another year, and while initially they received better food and medical attention, the conditions in which they were kept were extremely trying. Lubomír Sazeček was one of the hostages, and has written three books about those 465 days of his life.
There was every kind of animal in the huts we were given, cockroaches covering the walls, fleas, scorpions. Snakes got into at least half of the huts. There were lions, elephants, hyenas, and the animals would drink from the same water holes that we did.”
Lumír Novotný: “The beginning of that year was quite horrible, because two months after the departure of the first group, we were not allowed to speak to each other, we were kept isolated two men to a hut, we were guarded very closely and we couldn’t speak to our neighbours. It took about four months, and just before Christmas some high ranking came to announce that we would be authorised to speak to each other only on Sundays.
They wanted us to be afraid; afraid of animals, for example. You could hear lions at night. We saw a herd of elephants approaching our huts in the night, they came and completely ate the roof off our dining room, the grass off the roof [laughs]. It was terrifying. And sometimes at night a lion would wake you up making horrible noises you would only know from the zoo”.
The diplomatic work behind the eventual release of the remaining 20 men deserves a chapter unto itself, suffice to say here that after more than a year of resisting any compromise, Savimbi tried a last-ditch bluff before showing his hand, as former Deputy Foreign Minister Stanislav Svoboda remembers.
“Savimbi demanded 300,000 dollars to cover food and board for the year they were holding our men captive. I told him that we could discuss that option, but that in that case we would announce that we had paid a ransom for our captured citizens, and that at that moment UNITA could change from a national liberation movement into a pack of bandits who had kidnapped our citizens for ransom. Savimbi thought about that and said, ‘fine, I’ll free them unconditionally, I only ask that none of them return to our country for the duration of the conflict.’”
The 20 hostages returned to Czechoslovakia on June 23, 1984. Jonas Savimbi was shot to death in 2002, in combat with government troops, and with that the Angolan Civil War came to an end. The current Czech ambassador describes relations with the country as excellent. Angola is a priority country for Czech developmental aid focusing on food sustainability, education, infrastructure and health care. Bygones are bygones also for Lumír Novotný:
“I understood their position. Perhaps if you were in their shoes, you would behave the same way as they did. They were soldiers; they had to obey their commander. I do not feel any hostility towards them. And if there were an opportunity to go back to Angola, I would go.”
Photo: archive of Lumír Novotný