The Children of Ambriz

Angola 1994.
The pilot in the seat in front of me, pulls his headset off one ear and looks at me: "What do you think? Shall we try?". I'm staring at the ground below us.
Our single engine plane from the World Food Programme (WFP) circles around Ambriz, a small town a 100 miles north of Luanda, Angola's capital. I'm working here for the IFRC, the ‘International Red Cross' for short. They gave me one month to install or refurbish radio equipment in as many outposts of the Angolan Red Cross as possible. More than thirty years of civil war has isolated quite some areas from the outside world, making some Red Cross relief points only accessible by plane or boat. In some places, like Ambriz, the city below us, we are the only 'tolerated' relief organisation. The city is surrounded by the rebel troops of Unitad, who shot down a UN plane around here last year. Since then, no relief organisation dares to risk sending planes to Ambriz anymore, without getting a 'clear to land' by radio, even BEFORE taking off in Luanda. But... there are no radios in Ambriz because these need to be flown in. You see the vicious circle: no plane without radio, and no radio without plane...

After long negotiations with the WFP people, we agreed that they would fly me and two local helpers into Ambriz, and allowing me a 24 hours time period to install an HF radio. But.. this would include a 'blind' landing: having no radio contact with the ground, we would be the first to land on the earthen airstrip in a year, without knowing if we were going to be shot at by any party. And then we would have twenty four hours to install a complete HF station, including emergency power facilities...

"What do you think, shall we try?", asks the pilot again. We fly in sharper and sharper circles above the city's peninsula. I can clearly see the wide lanes with villas, the old oil refinary, and the red landing strip below. "Let's fly over at low altitude first", I suggest, “let’s see how it looks like from close by”.
The pilot pushes the plane's nose down and dives towards the landing strip. A hundred meters above ground, he pulls back up, like a Stuka in the second World War: "Iiiiiiiieeeeeeeaaaaaawww". Everyone in the plane looks tensely at the movements on the ground below. Soldiers come out of the bushes. "Did you see anyone shoot", asks the pilot? "No, let's try again!", I answer, thinking back on our landing, a few months ago, during our expedition to the Antarctic. That landing surely was a bit easier than this one.

Iiiiiiieeeeaaaaaaawwwwww". Now we fly over real low. Groups of soldiers run towards the landing strip, but all looks clear. The pilot indicates he'll land, and we touch ground on the red earth runway, before even realizing it. We taxi to the end of the strip and get out of the plane. The soldiers look surprised, but friendly. They smile and wave at us. With their arms, not their AK47s. "Sigh".

After a traditional "picture_of_all_of_us_near_the_plane", we load my metal boxes with radio gear into a truck -the only vehicle in town- and drive to the Red Cross “headquarters”. Our local contact person sits next to me and tells the story of Ambriz, which must be typical for so many other places in Africa at a time of war. Almost everybody has fled the city during the recent conflicts between Unitad and the government army. Since the latter took the city over again, a few months ago, Ambriz has been isolated from the outside world. For the thousand people still living here, there is no food, no fresh water supplies, never mind gas or electricity.

We drive through the wide avenues with large villas in soft pastel colours, reminding me of those in Southern France or California. But, here everything is deserted, the villas are empty, windows and doors have disappeared, and traces of the war can be seen everywhere. Once a luxurious Portuguese holiday resort with 60.000 inhabitants, Ambriz is now a ghost town. While driving through, I can only see a few people here and there. Most of them are soldiers. Birds are singing in the high trees. A lonesome skinny dog looks up as the truck drives by.

The Angolan Red Cross HQ is set up in one of the many deserted villas. It's 5 pm, and while the sun slowly descents, we scout the area around the house for some way to get the radio antenna up. Trees will do nicely. Half an hour later, I'm hanging in the top of one, 15 meters high, thinking to myself "What the hell am I doing here?". We work through the night and in the early morning, we're ready: the radio connected to a dipole antenna, hanging way up and clear of obstacles, powered by a heavy battery and a small generator which I brought along. I do a radio check with Luanda. The reception is loud and clear at both ends, and the local Red Cross staff standing around me laughs and shouts of joy. They look at the wonder of radio, and the magical powers of 'Loco Peter de Belgica' - 'Crazy Peter from Belgium'. From now on, this small radio will enable the big relief planes to land. Planes bringing in regular water, food and medical supplies. In my best Portugese (not!) I train the local staff on the use of the radio, batteries, charger, generator and dive onto an improvised bed to take a nap for a couple of hours. Above my head, on the wall, graffiti letters stare back at me: "Unitad was here - Oct'93".

The next day, I have an hour to spare before the plane picks me up again. I ask one of the local Red Cross volunteers if it is safe to walk around town. She says ‘Sure, there’s nobody left anymore’. And that is how it looks. Deserted.. Empty lanes. Empty houses. Empty everything. Almost no traces of life anymore. Not even garbage. I come across a low building. ‘Ambriz Tennis Club’, it says on the sign. The iron gate hangs off the bottom hinge. I push it open and walk in. Careful, just to make sure there is no hidden trip wires from booby traps anywhere. All doors are open. The clubhouse is empty. Everything that could be removed is stripped and looted. The pool is empty. The bottom is filled with dead leaves. The tennis courts still look intact. The orange-red dirt once was well maintained and probably the life-work of one of the old caretakers. I can imagine it clearly. The nets still hang as they hung probably during the last match two people played there, a couple of years ago. And above all, there is silence..
The WFP plane comes to pick me up in the afternoon, and a few hours later, we're back ‘home’, in the capital Luanda. As I walk through the door of the office, I hear the radio operator talking to the people in Ambriz. It feels good. My task is fulfilled. For Ambriz at least, as there are dozens other similar outposts waiting for equipment, and I will at least visit a few of them before flying to Malawi.

Antonio, my local driver/helper who went with me to Ambriz, walks me back to my apartment. The streets of Luanda are dusty and busy. Old cars of all makes, rally in between the newest models of Mercedes-es and BMW's. People are selling all kinds of things on the sidewalk. You can buy everything here: from guns to ties, from light bulbs to cigarettes per piece, from car tires to gas per liter, sold in recycled plastic Coke bottles. I think of the contrast with the silence and emptiness of Ambriz just a few hours ago. The smiles of the local people are the same. Friendly and light hearted, despite their 30 years of ongoing misery. The sun sets, as I walk up the stairs to my flat. "Ola, Senor Peter, Senor Peter!", the kids of my neighbours call out. 'Hey guys, everything OK?", I answer in my best Portuguese. They smile at me, and continue with their football match on the stairs of the building. The streets are too unsafe.

The sun stands big and reddish just above the horizon. The smell of baked fish and fried noodles hangs around me. Exotic music plays through all doors and windows. Kids shout to eachother in the heat of their game, while their mothers sit in the doorway, talking to the ladies across the hallway. This is Africa. It starts to feel like home already. I guess, for me, this is already my home, for as much as the world as a whole feels more and more like home. The horizon seems only a few steps away... As I open the door of my apartment, I know this has been a good day. This is a good life.

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