Those days were interminable; each one like a year I wished would end as soon as possible. In the late summer of the year I turned seven, civil war erupted in my country. Post-colonial Angola, which had struggled in the aftermath of Portuguese control for decades, was now locked in a power-struggle between rival factions, all seeking to fill the vacuum and control Angola and her people, lands, and resources. The ninety-two days of bombings, mass killings, and constant terror that kept those of us in hiding for days on end are forever written on my spirit. Inside me, there is, and will always be, a seven-year-old girl, both clinging to her mother for safety and trying to protect her from harm. The Angola of my memory is both beautiful and pocked with the scars of bullets. I wish you could see her.
Everything I see now, I see through the eyes of the child I was. I saw children, women, and old people being killed without mercy, and malnourished children, orphaned or lost, wandering the streets in the wake of the violence that tore my country apart. But what I hear, in my memory, is the voice of my mother, reminding us children, hungry and terrified as we were, to give thanks for all that we had not lost; we were still together, still alive, and as little as we had, there were many far less fortunate than we. I can still hear those words, and I carry them with me now, in this new country.
The war started without warning, on a morning like any other in the late summer. My mother, a schoolteacher, who also ran her own restaurant, was at work. My sister and I were at a neighbor’s house, where we often went to play. The peace of our people ended at the hands of armed men, feverishly and mercilessly shooting and killing innocent bystanders, invading the homes of innocent, hardworking people, sometimes slaughtering whole families, sometimes leaving only infants alive to live or die beside their murdered parents and siblings. The gunshots sounded strange, almost like popcorn. Machines guns.
I was so afraid that I was numb with terror, paralyzed by what was going on around us. My sister was screaming at me, but I was just stuck. I stopped and I could not move. My sister had to pick me up and drag me by the arm to get me out of the street. I fell, unable to make my feet move, right there in the street. She pulled me again and screamed, “vamos, vamos, podemos morrer!”(Come, come we could die!) Hearing her say this woke me up, and I could move again, but it was nearly too late. The men were coming from different directions. Fortunately for us, we were small. We ran, bent nearly to the ground, hiding behind shrubs and tall grass so they would not see us and turn the machine guns our way.
At the time, I could not understand what was happening, or why. This mindless killing of innocent people, all the suffering meted out for no purpose or reason, was incomprehensible. It was not only I, at age seven, who failed to grasp the meaning or motive behind this slaughter. Nobody knew the answer. The population, full of fear, could only scramble to protect their families and lives. For the families with just one parent, like mine, it was worse; in our case, my mother had to take care of all of us alone.
About noon on the first day, things calmed down a little bit. We could not see where the soldiers were, but the gunshots had stopped. My mother came and picked us up. She had come home from work when the fighting started, gathered up me and my sister, and took us home, hoping my brothers would be safely there, too. Miraculously, we were all unharmed, though terrified. My mother could hardly dare believe that none of us were hurt. She felt each one of us to see if we were bleeding or had broken bones. My wounds were not physical; I was still shaking, wondering if the men, the murderers, would come again. My mother said we should be calm, that we would be all right. We were together; myself, my mother and my four siblings. She hugged me and my sister and she said, “Thank you, God; my children are alive. Thank you for guiding me to my children.”
Unfortunately, a few hours later, the sky darkened with toxic bombs. We hid in the basement of our house, hoping to escape the chemicals they were dropping on us as though we were insects. The basement was open on one side, and I could see a red powder falling from the sky. There was a sound like a high-pitched whistle. The air thickened, became heavy, making us cough and gag. A few minutes after that, my mother ran to take us inside and gave us a moist towel to protect us from breathing the toxic chemicals. The air of my city used to be fresh with the smell of damp earth, but on that day, the air reeked of death and guns and whatever poisons were contained in that blood-red powder that fell like a nightmare version of a steady rain. Many animals were dying because of the air pollution. We could not help but see them, lying where they suffered and died. Our neighbor’s dog was one of them. He had been outside when the powder fell. All the people were afraid to leave their homes, ourselves included; all of us who had been going about our normal lives mere hours before were now prisoners of this fear, being attacked and murdered by those who claimed to want what was best for Angola and her people.
In the following days, we hardly dared breathe during the brief periods of calm between bombings. The biggest bombs deafened us, filling our ears like water, shaking the house as though the earth itself was coming apart beneath us. We clung to each other, too terrified to scream, watching as bombs dropped in the center of the city, destroying the market near our house and sending shrapnel through the neighborhood like a giant hand carelessly scattering razors wherever they might fall. The sound of screaming became a constant; when I think of that day, I can still hear it. All the people who had been shopping were trapped inside the market, as the men with their machine guns were outside, shooting anyone who tried to escape the building as it fell in on top of them, massacring those who had escaped the building as they ran, often with children in their arms.
In that moment, I thought of all the times that my brothers and sisters and I had asked our mother why our father was not with us; we were young and disappointed, heartbroken at the absence of the parent who had left us of his own free will. Seeing the young children, terrified and bewildered, separated from their parents or orphaned by the violence, made me understand the answer that she always gave us. She repeated the same mantra, over and over: we should be grateful and give thanks that we were together, that we were still a family, that we had each other, even if our father was not with us. In that moment, I understood how lucky I was not to be orphaned on that street, left to fend for myself at the age of seven. In spite of the conditions and the doubtful nature of being able to provide for her own five children, my mother collected two little lost girls who had made their way out of the market and were wandering aimlessly, in constant danger of being shot in the street. She brought them in with us and gave them food and drink, and we kept them, hoping their parents would come door to door, and find them. They were perhaps five and three years old. Over the next weeks, more people, more strays, came to live with us—friends, neighbors, and strangers all crowded into the slight shelter of our half-standing house. More bombs came, and our house was no longer safe. We took shelter in the basement of a neighbor’s house, sneaking out at night to search the garden for food, and digging deep holes in the backyards, hoping to find water. There was nothing else. We were silent, and moved carefully and slowly, feeling every moment that a trigger would pull and release, and that we would die. Even the animals fell silent and did not move.
The men came back a couple of times, looking for my brothers. Each time, my mother hid them in the rafters of the damaged house, so that they would not be kidnapped and forced to become “soldiers.” This tumult went on for so long, waxing and waning, that we became inured. We had no tears left in us. Shock had numbed our emotions, and we finally realized what was behind all the mindless killing and attacks. Like two feral dogs, the two factions that wanted control of the Angolan government were in a death match, and each side would kill anyone and anything that stood in its way.
In those ninety-two days, life was reduced to basic needs of survival. The garden. The bad water from the holes in the backyards. Somehow, we found enough to give us one meal almost every day, and we shared with everyone, so that all could have at least a few bites of food. My family, having been comfortably off before the war came to our house, learned what was necessary, and what we could live without.
Angola is still learning that lesson. My mother used to say, during those long months of bombing, that men’s ambition had destroyed in hours and days what would take years, maybe decades, to rebuild, and that the city, the country, and the people would never be as they were before.