Antonio Bouxa

They arrive on the eighth day as heroes

They arrive on the eighth day as heroes. The vast port of Luanda, Angola stretches before the Portuguese troop ship named “Niassa” that will be sunk a decade later. The young soldiers are greeted with fanfare and tears by the scared citizens they came to protect. They leave the ship, into the coastal city, where civilians rush to give them food, drink, and affection. This is the respect and heroism they were promised. They are here defending their home country, their colony, their people, from the terrorists who had slaughtered innocent civilians and Portuguese police officers alike in violent revolt.

The next two weeks shame the Greek pantheon in its decadence. The young men drink and enjoy the hospitality of the grateful local women, who are entranced by the “rich” European soldiers who have money for gifts, and have promised to put to rest their fear of the self named Unions of Peoples of Angola (UPA).

Fearless is my grandfather, like all the men assembled at the front of the base in Luanda, as they board the red open-top jeeps and begin their slow crawl through the jungle. It is May 15th. The dry, Mediterranean air that he is used to is not here; he feels choked by the thick jungle humidity, with its odd perfume and weight. His head swims as he watches the dense tropics rise before him, and is swallowed by the nocturne canopy.

Days pass, anxiety swells like the bloated jungle insects grown fat on the soldiers’ blood. May 18th, gunfire. From the brush: an explosion, and the impact of a bullet against a jeeps hull. No one is injured, though most are shocked into immobility. A few fire haphazardly into the dark underbrush, but there is no second volley, no corpses are found. Their first firefight passes with no casualties, but none are fearless anymore.

They pass through miles of jungle, small villages.  Sometimes it takes a day’s march to move ten kilometers, as the rebels have pulled the jungle down behind them, leaving thick trees and piles of shrub cluttering the path.  Each village they come through, is barren, stripped of resources and left to be managed by the old, the young and the women of the area.  Some glare loathsomely at the Portuguese troops as they pass through, but most simply shuffle fearfully from the men.  It is their sons and husbands the army has come to put down.  The men sit around campfires at night, fearful eyes cast to the brush, and bullshit about their home.  Speaking of their duty and their country, around the fire they can still be heroes.  But in the dark and in their blankets, alone, they are scared, young men who don’t want to be killed; don’t want to kill anyone.

It takes three weeks to arrive to Dumba, the area around which the Portuguese military has set up their base of operations for this conflict.  Small fights in the brush have been common on their march, but neither side has truly engaged the either en masse, and no significant casualties have been recorded.  This is about to change.  At 5:00 am one morning, a soldier gets up to relieve himself outside.  Moving from his tent to a nearby bush, he hears movement in the trees.  

My grandfather is awakened by a scream, a call to arms, he and his fellows rush to their positions, armed and undressed.  In the waxing light of the coming morning, they see thousands of young Angolan men, armed with the implements of their trades, and makeshift weapons, charging their camp.  They begin to fire.

He is a machine-gunner, my grandfather.  He was told when he was assigned the weapon.  His job was not to hit anything, but to suppress the enemy, and protect his friends.  He will tell me later he does not believe he ever hit anyone, he never saw anyone he shot.  He insists he did not aim at any person, he didn’t want to kill.  “None of us did” he tells me later “not on either side.  You just want to survive, to be lucky.”

The sun rises and the living revolutionaries dissipate like fog, back into the dense jungle.  The dead are left behind, solid.  There is uneasiness, confusion about what to do with the bodies.  They are moved away from the camps, put into the brush.  Some are buried.  This was the first large conflict his group had faced, and from then on they would still never be truly prepared for their situation.

After the siege at Dumba, the revolutionaries begin to flee further into the jungle, and to different towns and cities.  Seizing police stations and attacking the official government sites they could get away with, but attempting to keep ahead of the Portuguese military that was ever-massing on the Angolan shores.  

Slowly, my grandfather’s unit makes after the revolutionaries, trailing their way south, across the country to the region called Lucunga.  More jungle is felled in their path, trees laid across any usable trail or road.  Every time they stop the enemy comes upon them from the bush.  Perhaps only a couple men, perhaps dozens, it changes any time and in the thick brush, or the dark of night, numbers count for little when you cannot see your attackers.

In the rare moments between work and survival, they huddle around campfires and talk.  They mention girlfriends and soccer, old jobs and adventures.  They cling to anything the helps the leave the foreign land, with a foreign enemy.  They can’t escape every conflict, they are better armed, and better trained, but constant surprise attacks mean that the dead on their side accumulate, if slowly and in small numbers.  “You don’t have time to make friends, you don’t get close.  You eat, sleep and face the things that come.”  He will tell me later, looking at photos of men in that were in his squad.  He is lying, I know.  I’ve watched him and his friends talk about old squad mates and call them friends.  “You bullshit, you take your mind off it however you can.”

It is June 15th when they enter Lucunga on the tail end of an attack.  The revolutionaries had cleared the town of its lighter-skinned inhabitants and chasing away the native Angolans.  They find a dog, a black lab, starving and laying protectively over the bloody remains of his owner, now unidentifiable due to a mass of machete and other wounds caused by farming implements.

They try to clear away the corpse, but the dog bites at anyone who attempts to touch the body, so weak he can barely stand to growl at the soldiers.  It takes a bribe of the soldiers’ rations to get the dog to leave the body, so they can clear the street and begin to establish a perimeter.  This town is to be the new base of operations for the region.

They begin to establish a perimeter of landmines and wire, setting their tents among the houses in the center of the town.  This region is less forested, and their command hopes that it will dissuade attacks, it does not.  The dog will not leave my grandfather’s squad alone after they feed it.  It follows them around town as they get established.  Despite their best efforts to chase it away, it cries and whines at their heels, sitting outside their tents at night and begging for food at meal times.  They end up naming it fifteen, after the number of their squad.

It joins them on their expeditions into the surrounding countryside, hunting revolutionary encampments and attempting to trace movements.  It howls in firefights, and bites at men that charge the unit.  “Fifteen saved many men.  Attacking when we were attacked, and letting us know whenever he heard terrorists sneak up on us.  At night, when they attacked our base, he would bark and wake us up.”  My grandfather would tell me, showing me a picture of the dog posing with the man in Lucunga.

The men awake to an explosion, a large one.  It shakes the ground and roars through the night, a giant beast in the dark.  They rush armed to the perimeter.  Once lit the surrounding ground reveals hundreds of revolutionaries sneaking slowly towards the town.  Gunfire erupts on both sides.  Those revolutionaries who have scavenged firearms from corpses, or who have been sold firearms by Cuban, Soviet, and German supporters, cover their poorly armed companions who charge the perimeter with bladed and tined tools.  

Men die on both sides, but far less on the Portuguese side.  The well armed and trained men, with a vast array of explosives and heavy machine guns are easily able to fend off the attack once they are aware of it, and quickly put an end to the firefight.  My grandfather is among them, clutching his trigger and firing into the surrounding fields, not aiming at any person, but hoping to force back the night’s danger encroaching upon his squad.

In the morning light they assess the damage.  A few soldiers became causalities in the night, their bodies not found until a proper search can be conducted in the safety of the day.  The field and scrub beyond the perimeter of the town is covered with dead bodies.  Men clutching machetes and hammers lay in bloody heaps, riddled with bullet holes, missing limbs and parts from the grenades and mines that they faced in their desperate charge.

Squad fifteen is among those that are sent into the carnage, retrieving weapons and finding fellow corpses.  In their search, they come across part of a furry corpse, dismembered by a land mine and forgotten in the chaos of the night’s attack.  “Fifteen saved many men.”

They stare across the body-strewn field under the hot African sun, and see men their age and younger, who had been killed wielding implements that pale as weapons in comparison to the arms of the soldiers; ones that could have been lethal in the dark of the night, silently creeping through the camp, but offered no fight in the face of concentrated gunfire and light explosives.  They no longer feel like heroes.

Antonio Bouxa is a professional writer, dabbler and charlatan who is much better at pretending to know what he is doing than he is at actually doing anything.  His work has appeared in the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Anthology, and has earned him the Thomas Hickey Creative Writing Award from the University of Wisconsin Platteville, where he also obtained a degree in Professional Writing and in Philosophy.  His current project is “Professional Immigrant” a memoir that follows his grandfather through post-World War II Portugal under the dictatorial regime of Antonio Salazar.