Relative Values: Amaral Samacumbi and his brother, Luis
Amaral Samacumbi, 46, and his brother, Luis Samacumbi, 36, grew up in rural Angola. During the country’s 27-year civil war, which formally ended in 2002, the brothers were co-opted as soldiers on opposing sides. Today Luis lives in Angola’s capital, Luanda, where he runs the humanitarian division of the partner to Christian Aid, IECA. He is married with four children. His older brother, Amaral, who is unmarried, lives with their father in Huambo, some hundreds of miles away.
Amaral Samacumbi, 46, and his brother, Luis Samacumbi, 36, grew up in rural Angola. During the country’s 27-year civil war, which formally ended in 2002, the brothers were co-opted as soldiers on opposing sides. Today Luis lives in Angola’s capital, Luanda, where he runs the humanitarian division of the partner to Christian Aid, IECA. He is married with four children. His older brother, Amaral, who is unmarried, lives with their father in Huambo, some hundreds of miles away. The exhibition Children in Conflict, by John Keane, which includes paintings of the brothers, is at Flowers Central, London, from March 5 to 29 (see www.christianaid.org.uk/conflict). Angola in the Frame, a documentary in which the brothers took part, will be shown on the Community Channel on March 5.
LUIS: Our story begins in Nazareth, a village about 900 miles from Angola’s capital, Luanda. When I was a small child, before the civil war, we led a good life. We went to school. On Saturdays we went fishing, and on Sundays, after church, we played football with a ball made of old socks. Like most people in Angola, my parents were small farmers. They had livestock and grew beans, potatoes, coffee, banana, sugar cane. My brother, Amaral, was the eldest, 10 years older than me, and then came our four sisters. I am the youngest, so at first I was very, very, very spoilt.
When my brother was about 12 he left our village to go to the mission school, about 90 miles away. When he’d return home at Christmas and holidays I’d look at him with total hero-worship, especially when he came home on a bicycle. I thought: “How can such a big man move over two wheels without falling over?” I was very impressed that he wore a nice clean shirt and trousers, whereas our hands and clothes were often dirty from working in the fields. I was so proud of my big brother, I’d follow him around all the time. My friends looked at me with great respect, so he made me feel important. When Amaral was around I felt secure and safe.
I was with my mum in the fields in November 1975 when my dad ran to tell her that the Portuguese were leaving Angola. Although our country was free of the Portuguese, there was then civil war between two factions — the MPLA and Unita. Like many people, my parents were caught in the middle. Now, from being people who worked hard and had good times, we became people who had little and were often on the run. Our lives were a nightmare. Before independence I’d have had a whole plate of sweet potatoes for dinner, but now I had only one potato. Soon my stomach was like a balloon.
In December 1976 tragedy struck. It was a Sunday in the Christmas holidays, when my brother was home. We were in church praying, and the choir was singing, when suddenly faces appeared at every window. Imagine our terror. It was MPLA soldiers who marched in and announced to the congregation: “Everyone outside — but we only want the teenage boys.” Shocked and scared, everyone left the church and the soldiers seized six boys, including Amaral, who was 14. My father rushed to stop them, but the soldiers immediately set on him and beat him. This was awful to witness.
That night my brother managed to escape the soldiers and fled back to our village. Amaral and his friends hid for the next few days, but some nights later, as they sat in our kitchen planning what to do, we heard the terrible sound of soldiers’ boots marching towards our house. This time it was the Unita soldiers, who didn’t wear uniform. As they marched in, I was like a mouse, trying to hide in the corner. I could see my brother’s scared face.
“Don’t beat me — just take me,” pleaded my brother. It was all over very quickly. “All of you, outside,” the soldier ordered us. But when he saw how small I was, he told me to go back. I had to wake my parents and tell them my brother had been abducted a second time. My father wanted to go after him, but my mum and I begged him: “Please don’t go. They will kill you.” I didn’t see my brother again for 29 years.
As the days went on, I could see in my parents’ faces an increasing sense of hopelessness. My father was frequently beaten by MPLA soldiers because my brother was serving in the Unita forces.
I understood all too well that I could be taken too, and I was afraid all the time — especially at night. To be safe I’d often sleep with the cattle in the field.
At night my mum used to make a fire with green leaves underneath, a traditional invocation. As it burnt she’d call: “Amaral, come back!” But he didn’t. At school the teachers would say: “You, boy, does your brother come to see your parents at night?” One teacher made me kneel on a pile of small stones, trying to get information out of me about my brother and Unita. Still I knew nothing, and I have the scars from the stones.
In 1981 I moved to a small town to continue my studies. But when I was 15, the inevitable happened — I was abducted by the MPLA, on my way to school. I was a soldier until 1992, and it was a very hard life. As a soldier you have to be bad and kill people. I soon became a tank-company commander on the front line. But in 1990 our brigade was completely destroyed by Unita. All around me I saw people dying like animals, all covered in blood. What I didn’t know was that my brother was also on the front line — on the other side. We may have even fought each other. Later I would learn that he had stepped on a mine and lost his leg.
In early 1992 I was demobilised and the peace process began. My family had a purification ceremony for me. “Look, our son is back from war,” they said. “He did what he was obliged to do, and now he needs to be purified.” They put hot coals into a big pot of water, I inhaled the steam, and everyone clapped and shouted: “He is purified!”
When my brother didn’t reappear we had to realise he was dead, so we held a funeral for him. What we didn’t know was that he was in a refugee camp in Zambia. One day my father received a letter from him through the International Red Cross. When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. How could he have survived?
I’ll never forget the day we were reunited. I walked into my sister’s house in Huambo. There were my sisters, my father and a man with a mutilated leg. I couldn’t speak. Not a word. Then the man with the mutilated leg began to cry. He said: “How can this be my brother? He is brown!” In fact, we are both tall but we don’t look alike. Amaral looks like my dad, whereas I look like my mum, who is light-skinned.
We embraced each other, and it was as though we were trying to make up for all the years of not seeing each other.
“I am your big brother,” he said. “I am back but I am useless. I’m just someone else you have to look after.” That made me cry. Over a big lunch we tried to tell each other our stories.
It’s been very strange getting to know each other again. Today he lives with my father in Huambo, and I send money every month. I bought him a mobile phone so I can talk to him every day. He’s always sending me text messages. But his spirit has suffered, and he’s often very depressed. He’s not married, and that’s a sorrow for him. And he’s frustrated because disabled people in Angola aren’t given any respect. Sometimes he says: “If you were not alive and in a good job I wouldn’t be able to survive.” Today I am the big brother, the key person in the family, and Amaral gets status out of being my brother!
But he, too, can be the big brother, because he is looking after my father.
AMARAL: When we were children I had two thoughts about Luis. I wanted him to go to school, and I wanted to see him become an important person within the family in order to replace me whenever I was not there. What I wanted became true, but not in a way I ever imagined. I left Luis when he was only four years old, when I was abducted. Then we were separated by the war, and now he is a very successful and hard-working man.
When we were children and our parents were farming, it was not easy for them to find money to send us to school. Step by step they started growing crops, and then it was possible to send me to school. When I was 12 years old I went to a mission station to study. My dream was to be a pilot, because I liked the uniform. But unfortunately this dream was taken away from me by the war.
I came home for holidays, very eager to see my family. I was so enthusiastic and I liked to make an exhibition of myself in the village and tell all the girls that Amaral was back from school. A student at the mission school had power and status in the village — I was considered a teacher, even though I was not. We gave speeches in the church on Sundays, because we had a different view from people in the village. My parents and brother and sisters respected me a lot, because they thought I was a very important person.
My brother was so pleased to see me, and whatever I was doing he would do too. During the holidays I would wake up early in the morning and go to the field, and whenever I was awake Luis would be awake and would follow me.
But because of the civil war the two opposing political parties wanted young people who were able to read and write to serve in their armies. During the day, MPLA soldiers came to the village looking for young conscripts; then at night, Unita soldiers would come and try to abduct children, male and female, to be soldiers and to carry weapons. One day I was collecting dried meat with my mother, and soldiers asked her if I was her son. These questions made me afraid, but my mother gave the soldier some dried meat to make me safe.
Then I was abducted. The first time I managed to escape and went back to the village, but a few nights later I was abducted with three friends by Unita soldiers. I didn’t cry, but I was frightened because I didn’t know where they were taking me. On the way to the camp we had to climb mountains and cross rivers and I was afraid I’d be killed. At the camp there were six other boys the same age as me, but Unita did not have enough weapons for us, so we were given sticks. Eventually they became more organised and got more weapons, but as we still didn’t have enough bullets, we were taught to ambush MPLA soldiers. If we did not do what we were told, the commander would have shot us. I was always thinking about running away but I was too scared. I knew if they caught me they would kill me — if I stayed I might stay alive.
When I was first abducted my understanding of the war was very weak because I had never thought that we would have death in Angola. As things got worse and our fellow soldiers were dying around us in very bloody battles, we developed anger and wanted revenge against MPLA soldiers. But all of us, MPLA and Unita, were black, and we could not understand why we were killing each other.
During our 29-year separation my daily prayer was: “God, keep me safe and alive so one day I will see my brother again.” I missed him a lot. I left him as a child and I could only try to imagine how he was growing up. I never thought that I would find him very well educated and in a high position like he is now. And I thank my parents, especially my mother, who protected him from the soldiers and helped him to be educated. Despite the many difficulties, she had the courage to keep my brother alive.
After the fighting stopped I found out that my brother and the rest of my family were alive through a letter that I wrote for the International Red Cross.
I was overjoyed. I was in a refugee camp in Zambia and the family was in Huambo in Angola. The United Nations paid for me to leave the camp by bus and then to get a plane there.
When we met in my sister’s house we were surprised and nobody spoke — we just looked at each other. But I could not hold back my tears. Honestly, I did not expect that my brother and I would ever meet again, and soon I was crying. I had been worried how it would be, because I had been Unita and Luis had been MPLA. But when we talked about it we didn’t have any anger, because we were forced to do what we did. I now feel reconciled with my brother from the bottom of my heart. And without any doubt I feel free. Praise the Lord for keeping me alive and allowing to come back to be with my family.
Interviews by Ann McFerran