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We did not see it even in Afghanistan

Memoirs of a participant of the Angolan war (1986-1988)

By Lieutenant Colonel Igor Anatolevich Zhdarkin

These recollections will be published as part of a collection of memoirs, in the series, “Oral history of forgotten wars.”
They contain information little known not only to the broader public but also even to professional military historians.

And the difficult battles, of which the author was a direct participant (at that time as a lieutenant and interpreter), sharply changed the geopolitical situation of at least three states – Angola, Namibia and South Africa.

The following historical events – the independence of Namibia in 1989, the transition to a non racial society in South Africa in 1994, and the conclusion of the twenty seven year civil war in Angola in 2002 are to a significant degree linked to the battles around Cuito-Cuanavale, which took place during 1987-1988 in the south of Angola.

These recollections consist of three parts – a diary, which the author kept from October 10 to December 3, 1987; notebooks of radiograms which he kept from October 9 to December 27, 1987 (both items compiled in his capacity as military interpreter of the twenty first FAPLA brigade) ; and also his own oral narratives. The English edition of these memoirs will consist only two parts – a diary of the combat period and oral narratives.

Almost intentionally, in these recollections, the tape-recorded memories, of the Russian officer, Igor A. Zhdarkin, cruel and frightening in their candour, were almost not at all edited. They were produced at the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences on 28 October, 2000, 25 November, 2000 and 6 October, 2001, as well as during frequent meetings at his home during the period, 2000-2007.

One should add that many native and even more foreign academic and journalistic studies, not to mention articles dealing with the Angolan civil war and the events during 1987-1988 are, at best, full of “inaccuracies”, to put it mildly. Perhaps in this way these recollections should fill certain gaps in our knowledge dealing with the events which occurred within this country.

As far as concerns the author’s tales about his subsequent service in Mozambique during 1990, in the UN forces in Angola during 1996-1998, and on extensive missions in various parts of the world, it is planned to publish these sometime in the future.

Dr Gennagy Shubin
Senior Research Fellow
Institute for African Studies (Africa Institute)
Russian Academy of Sciences.

 

Reproduced with kind permission from The Union of Russian Veterans of Angola (www.veteranangola.ru)

 
From the Diary of Lieutenant Colonel Igor Anatolevich Zhdarkin
The song written by I. Zhdarkin in December 1987, in Cuito-Cuanavale (translation from Russian)   Read More...

Today, from morning to lunch, we accompanied the commission along the defensive positions. The defects were revealed, as well as their causes.   Read More...

Today at 15 hours, a Higher Commission headed by a major of the FAPLA General Staff arrived for an assessment of the existing situation and for the checking of the organizing of our defenses. The chiefs of the Military District services came together with that commission.   Read More...

The rain which began yesterday evening, poured on all night. As a result, our dugout leaked and at 3 AM, water began to trickle right into our beds, or, more accurately, between them. We put a bucket on the floor and moved the beds apart as much as possible. The rain continued the entire day, albeit with interruptions. The wet season had begun.   Read More...

Night passed quietly. Our technician officer Sasha Fatianov and I left our usual place of sleeping under armored personnel carrier and went to sleep in our new-built dugout, acquiring, so to speak, a new home. It is sufficiently large and spacious, we made the roof in three layers, we covered the walls with sticks, we built bunks upon which we placed mattresses, and we hung up mosquito nets. Terrific!   Read More...

Today at 8:00 in the morning, according to our Brigade Commander, a group of the enemy, situated in the area not far from the defense positions of our 1st battalion, ran into our ambush or, perhaps, FAPLA ran into the enemy’s ambush. In any case, it was a serious battle. As a result: one of ours was wounded, two were declared missing, and one sub-machine gun was lost.   Read More...

All night and to the morning, there was an exhausting, protracted silence: not a shot was to be heard, nor the sounds of an engine – nothing. And we couldn’t fall sleep because of it.   Read More...

Today differs little from previous days. In the same way, they bombarded us and nearby they also bombarded our adjacent brigades. On Soviet radio, there is a deathly silence about Angola. We try to catch this news every day and we get nothing.   Read More...

Last night I awoke from the earth rumbling. Inasmuch as we sleep under the armored personnel carrier, this rumble was easy to hear. Evidently it was the armed column of the enemy.   Read More...

During the night we again heard the helicopter. As the reconnaissance of our brigade has announced, South Africans are concentrated 20 kilometers to the east of us.   Read More...

Yesterday, at 20:00 we heard a helicopter. As the Angolans told us, clearly the enemy was facilitating the landing of scouts or diversionary groups. During the whole day, except for the “obligatory” bombardment, nothing happened. But then at 17:00, the South African air force swooped down and fired with non-guided rockets against the Brigade’s Command Post. They approached from the direction of the source of the Cuatir River so that our «Strela-10» anti aircraft missile system could not catch sight of them.   Read More...

Yesterday evening, we listened to the radio and completely by accident heard the news in Portuguese. It wasn’t clear which radio station but it resembled the BBC. They were reporting about the aggression of the South Africans in Angola, i.e. about us.   Read More...

The night passed peacefully (for us at least) but the enemy constantly bombarded the brigades allied with us.   Read More...

Yesterday, we communicated our coordinates to the District (in fact the Angolans communicated them with our help) and already today we received the result: the South Africans began to strike with precision at our brigade headquarters command post.   Read More...

Today we moved to a new place. The whole day, we made arrangements in order to make our stop, if only from afar, resemble a dwelling more or less for civilized people. We put down stakes and set up an awning in order to protect ourselves from rain and sun. We knocked little tables together for crockery and the preparation of food.   Read More...

This morning, our Osa-AK anti aircraft specialists departed, together with a battery, for Cuito-Cuanavale. We are only four now.   Read More...

Today, i.e. November 18, we continued to collect our personnel and materiel and count up our losses. On November 16, from ground fighting and from bombardment, we lost 17 men killed and 86 wounded. But also: 1 tank, 2 E-25 motor vehicles, 2 B-10 antitank guns, 1 ZU 23-2 anti aircraft automatic coaxial gun. On November 17, we lost: 5 men killed and 31 wounded.   Read More...

And so until eleven o’clock, we languished under the bombardment, waiting to cross, without sleep, hungry, and angry like the devil. We suffered from the foulest sensations: how much did we have to put up with so as finally a stray shell could «cover» us and thus finish our lives.   Read More...

It is difficult to write about what occurred during the past two days (November 16 and 17) since one must have experienced all this directly to understand it. Right now, we ourselves don’t yet understand how we stayed alive and broke out of this hell.   Read More...

This morning, a military directive came ordering us to launch an offensive into the area of the source of the Ube River and to start it at 10 AM. Everything in this directive was beautifully outlined – where each group should advance and with what forces, the requirement to use tanks available in the Tactical Group (but none of them have operable planetary steering mechanism, so that they can only move directly forwards or backwards), and that only one tank runs on a storage battery.   Read More...

Today we departed at 6:00 AM. We wandered the whole day, covering altogether 13.5 kilometers instead of 5 planned kilometers before we found the Tactical Group.   Read More...

Today, I woke up and there had been less than five hours in the morning because the water began pouring on me. Our technician officer and me sleep under our armored troop carrier inasmuch it is more comfortable and not stuffy here, and there is more room, than in the carrier itself. During the night, it rained, and water collected in the bottom of the troop carrier and then it began to run out through the holes.   Read More...

Today in the morning, I turned on the radio and found out that Cuito-Cuanavale had been shelled during the night by long-range guns. Fortunately there were no casualties among us and the landing strip area (runway) was not damaged.   Read More...

Today, during the morning, the air force paid us a visit. Evidently, they simply wished to greet us on the occasion of the 12 years of Angolan independence and well, of course they brought some «gifts».   Read More...

Yesterday night passed more or less peacefully. However, the next morning, the Brigade Commander came and he said he had received a telegram from District Headquarters with the following order: stay on constant alert inasmuch as the enemy can always attack, employing the strategy of sudden surprise.   Read More...

All night, we heard the rumble of engines and nearby explosions. It was the 59th brigade approaching us but the South Africans were "escorting" them with their artillery.   Read More...

All night, the enemy was disturbed that the column had reached us, but he could not hit it. The sons-of-bitches (enemy) launched mortar mines and shells all the time!   Read More...

During the night, from 22.00 to 23.30, the enemy bombarded us from 155-millimeter cannons, and also from "Kentrons", from the source of the river Lomba. Our own forces retaliated by firing against the Kentrons from BM-21s and D-30s. So far, the results are still unknown. Our advanced battalion posts send us news about cars moving from the source of the river Lomba across the Lukaia and the area between the rivers Mianei and Colui.   Read More...

During the night, between 21.00 and 23.00, the enemy once again bombarded us from his "Kentrons" and from recoilless guns. As a result, two men were killed and one wounded.   Read More...

Today, at midday, the first battalion returned. It brought yet another radio station, captured at the same base.   Read More...

Yesterday evening at 21 hours, the enemy subjected our brigad⁥s third battalion to a powerful bombardment from its "Kentrons" and 106-milimetre guns. The results were: our battalion commander and chief of staff were seriously wounded, the chief-logistic officer and chief of the special section were killed, not including another two soldiers killed as well as seven wounded.   Read More...

The day today began with two South African air raids, at 5 AM., consisting of 7 planes. At 13:20, our brigade's first battalion, which is continuing the «combing» operation, discovered a UNITA base.   Read More...

This morning, our group, consisting of the first and third infantry battalions of our brigade, a tank battalion, air-assault companies attached to it from the Tactical Group, and subdivisions of the 59th brigade, launched an operation on «combing» through the area. The operation will take 4 days. The brigade’s chief of staff heads our two battalions. So far we have not received any news about them.   Read More...

During the night the silence continued. And today is the birthday of our group leader, Anatoly Mikhailovich. He is 40 years old. The day was fine and not too hot, but the South Africans managed to spoil our fun. At noon, planes flew over the 59th brigade, located nearby, and they dropped over them more than ten 500-kilogram bombs. So far we still don't know the extent of the casualties.   Read More...

Yesterday, between 18:40 and 21:00, the enemy launched intensive artillery-mortar fire, but today it was quiet the whole day! What might this well signify? Perhaps this is the last day of the month for the enemy and therefore either devoted to room cleaning or to stock taking? Such quiet is not a good sign.   Read More...

At night, the enemy continued to strike at us by means of large caliber heavy artillery, launching shell after shell past our heads.   Read More...

Last night, the enemy hit the 59th brigade with 148 shells. In the morning, we found out that as a result one officer, one sergeant and four soldiers from our brigade had been killed. There were many wounded and one officer and one soldier were missing.   Read More...

Today, from morning to night, there was enemy artillery fire from all sides and in every direction. It is easier to calculate how much time we were outside than hiding.   Read More...

Last night and the whole of today, we were enveloped by an unceasing din of cannon fire. The South Africans shelled the 59th brigade, the crossing over the Shambinga river and our Tactical Group. As yet, they did not disturb us, perhaps because they still did not realize where we are.   Read More...

This morning, we took leave of our Tactical Group and pushed forward.   Read More...

In the morning, we resumed our march. From 7:40 to 10:20, we marched under constant bombardment from 81-millimeter mortars. On a number of times, we had to stop because groups of the enemy were attacking our column and fighting was breaking out.   Read More...

This morning, we received an order to depart and go to the 59th brigade, located on the river Mianei. At 11 o’clock, we formed a column and set off. After 3 kilometers, we heard explosions behind us. It was the South Africans shelling who, assuming that we were still there, had begun to bombard our previous positions.   Read More...

The enemy shelled us all night. Shells with a very disgusting «howl» and whistling flew both past us and near us. A whole row of them fell very close, on the other bank of the Cuzizi.   Read More...

From morning, we formed a column and advanced. At 15:30, we reached our destination at the Cuzizi River.   Read More...

We sent reconnaissance groups to find the river and determine more precisely where we are situated.   Read More...

We continued to move. During the day, we covered 26 kilometers. The column was shelled during a day. Fortunately, many shells fell short of their targets so that we suffered no losses.   Read More...

Today at 4 A.M., the brigade commander, N’Geleka, received an order: to depart and to go to the source of the river Cuzizi, in the area where the 59th brigade was situated, and to be ready to launch a counter attack.   Read More...

Today is Sunday and we have decided to spend the day resting in the hope that there won’t be any airplanes and that the South Africans are also taking the day off.   Read More...

This morning, as we were sitting at the table, all of a sudden, at 06:50, a South African plane swooped down towards us. Our troops did not evidently succeed in taking note of it in time. The fire was opened with much delay only. The aircraft hit the forward positions of our brigade’s first infantry battalion. Luckily, there were no losses.   Read More...

In the morning, major Batista drove off to the command post of the First Tactical Group, took leave of us, thanked us for everything, and asked us to provide help to the brigade commander.   Read More...

Yesterday and today we settled down in our new positions, making the acquaintance with the Commander of our 21st brigade and major Batista, the Group Commander, and, at brigade headquarters, we familiarized ourselves with the situation.   Read More...

Today, at 07:30 AM, we finally reached the Command Post of the 21st brigade and Operational Group. We met here advisors and specialists of the 47th brigade and of the “Osa-AK” anti aircraft missile system (nine people in all). So many «horrors» they recounted to us.   Read More...

Today at 05:10, four South African planes appeared in the area of the 21st and 59th brigades. The brigades opened up furious fire from all types of weaponry. The entire sky looked like a rainbow or a salute. As a result, one plane was put out of action, while a second was hit on the nozzle by a “Strela-3” type rocket, and although hit, managed to escape. The rest dropped their bombs in disorder and made off.   Read More...

Today, from 06:45 in the morning, our column once again ran into attacking UNITA forces. The shooting continued for twenty minutes. The column was again fired upon with incendiary mortar shells. But the return fire of our combat means (B-10 anti tank guns; 120 millimeter mortars; BM-21 forty-barrel 122 millimeter caliber volley fire fired from “Ural” trucks; Grad-1P portable guns delivering 122 millimeter caliber volley fire) did not permit the UNITA forces to aim their guns accurately at us. Only one single mortar shell ever landed on one of the cars in our column while the rest were released without any impact.   Read More...

The day today was rich with events. At six in the morning, the column gathered in military formation for the day’s march. We stood for half an hour, waiting for news from the head of our column as to where they were to pave the way. By six thirty, UNITA began to fire its mortars. This time, the majority of mortars were being discharged to release incendiary bombs with the exclusive aim to set our cars on fire.   Read More...

It is already the second month during which I find myself in the 6th district and ten days of this period - in Cuito Cuanavale. Conditions here are very tense. On 20 August, a diversionary group from South Africa, consisting of eight people, blew up a bridge across the river Cuito.   Read More...

Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET

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