Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace

Back to Angola…without language we are left to watch each other carefully…
– Paul Morris

I went to see it twice. I still don’t really understand why, but Anthony Akerman’s Somewhere On the Border (1983) moved me deeply. The scene when Bombardier Kotze crushes the conscripts’ cake with his boot still haunts me.

When you think about it for a second, war is so pointless that it’s impossible to imagine why we are still doing it in the twenty-first century. I don’t mean the greed and politics behind it, nor the ideologies abused to wage it – I get all of that. I mean the everyday, human aspect of it.

No, as a species we haven’t learned much.

I have this fantasy that, like during that famous Christmas Truce of 1914, one day soldiers all over the world will be compelled to simply put down all their weapons, exchange smiles, and go home to their loved ones. And never, ever pick them up again. Not because some government or leader has said they shouldn’t, but because they simply have had enough. I know I will never live to see the day, but just imagine it: it is a simple as that – a communal decision, a definite, ultimate NO. To greed, exploitation, violence and death.

Reading Paul Morris’s Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace (Zebra Press, 2014), I was constantly reminded of my naïve fantasy, of the heart-breaking Somewhere on the Border, of my grandfather’s dark recollections of Second World War, of my father’s mindboggling stories from his two years in the Polish Army around the time when I was born, of my brother’s strangely defining eight months of service in the Austrian Army when we were at university, and especially of a dear South African friend’s horror stories from the Angolan border. I am infinitely grateful that, to me, these are just stories. That I have never had to experience war or train for it myself. I hope I never will. The war stories I know, now Morris’s among them, bring home to me how, if it doesn’t kill you, soul-destroying and utterly futile war is.

In the beginning of Back to Angola, Morris mentions that he doesn’t consider himself a brave man. But only a brave man could have written this book. It is “my truth”, he says, but it is the kind of personal intimate truth which has universal appeal. A quarter of a century after his first involuntary visit to Angola in 1987 at the height of the military conflict, Morris decided to return to the country of his nightmares and confront what he refers to his “shadow side”. To fully experience the present-day Angola and to come as close as possible to its people, he chose an unusual way of travelling and went by bike. Assisted by friends and former enemies, he cycled for hundreds of kilometres to revisit the places haunting him and to transform the sinister image of Angola of the past into something different, more positive, more real today.

It is a parallel journey into the past and into the present; both have their challenges, both require guts, a lot of guts. During both, Morris confronts his understanding of courage, masculinity, loyalty, borders, and forgiveness. Confessional, shatteringly honest, beautifully written, Back to Angola tells a story of great relevance, specifically because it is told from a profoundly personal perspective. It captures the essence of why an entire generation of South African men is still dealing with the unimaginable.

A story about death is transformed into a story about life and facing up to one’s demons and responsibilities. It is a story of reaching out, of going back only to move forward. Back to Angola is also a chronicle of a riveting adventure in contemporary Africa. Not an easy read, but necessary. Highly recommendable.

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