- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Back in the days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union could be depended on to back opposite sides in the struggles going on all over the world for control of various nations. On the southwestern coast of Africa, the Portuguese colony of Angola, which was granted its independence in 1975, became the scene of a particularly long and bloody battle. In its deepest penetration into southern Africa, Moscow backed a local communist group called the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), headed by Jose Eduardo dos Santos. More or less inevitably, the Western powers backed his chief opponent in the civil war, Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Their battle for control of Angola long survived the Cold War, continuing, intermittently, to this very day, and is estimated to have cost a million lives (out of a total Angolan population of 11 million). As early as 1976, the communists, aided by Cuban troops furnished by Fidel Castro, acquired control of the capital, Luanda, and much of the rest (though by no means all) of the country. In 1979, without bothering to hold an election, they installed Mr. dos Santos as president. But Jonas Savimbi, supported by Angola's largest tribe, the Ovimbundu, fought on, aided by South Africa and more importantly by the Reagan administration.
It is common in leftist circles these days to condemn Savimbi for accepting the help of South Africa, which was still dominated by its white apartheid regime in the 1980s. But it should not be forgotten that even the United States relied on that regime to keep South Africa on our side during the Cold War. When the Cold War ended at the close of that decade, South Africa swiftly became a politically multiracial society, led by a transformed Nelson Mandela. But Mr. Mandela never made any secret of his loyalty to the Soviet Union, and he would have moved South Africa briskly into its orbit if he had come to power while it still existed. With him he would have taken a communized Angola.
Instead, President Reagan gave Savimbi the support he needed to battle on. And battle on he did, controlling wide swaths of the country from his headquarters in Jamba, a newly created town of some 9,000 people in southeastern Angola.
I was one of a group of journalists who visited Savimbi in Jamba early in 1987. It took a good deal of doing. We were told to be at a small private airport on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia, at 6 a.m. on a certain day. Not even the control tower could tell us what to expect next, but in due course, an elderly DC-3 without markings, with a white pilot and co-pilot, arrived from somewhere and we climbed aboard. North and east we flew, over the broad expanse of the Kalahari Desert, then very low (about 300 feet, to avoid possible ground-to-air missiles) over the Caprivi Strip and into Angola, where we landed on an extremely bumpy grass airstrip in the jungle. Armed men emerged from the undergrowth, piled us into trucks, and took us on a two-hour, deceptively devious ride to Jamba.
There, in guest huts (every one of them festooned with pictures of Savimbi visiting President Reagan in the Oval Office), we spent the night. And late that evening, assembled in a larger building, we heard the roar of an official motorcade announcing the arrival of Jonas Savimbi.
He was very cordial, reasonably frank and impressively vigorous. He was to need all of that vigor, because after the end of the Cold War the West lost interest in him and he had to finance UNITA with the proceeds of smuggled diamonds. In 1992, his communist foes, now duly sanitized, finally got around to staging an election, which they predictably won. But Savimbi rejected the outcome, and fought on.
Until Feb. 22 this year, that is, when he was at last killed in an ambush in a remote rural area of eastern Angola, at the age of 67. There will be few in the West to mourn his passing; he was an embarrassment, a relic of other days. But I will always remember, and honor, Jonas Savimbi. He fought for freedom not unsuccessfully when freedom needed him most.

William Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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