In Angola, the fifth largest African country, which was being liberated from the fourteen-times-smaller Portugal, new forms of communal life were not implemented as fast as one would have wished. The local chiefs and their militant groups equipped with arms produced by Western and Eastern defence contractors escalated the civil war. Just like in the Biblical parable of the beginnings of the world, Ryszard Kapuściński describes the chaos prevailing in a country trying to end its enslavement. The victims multiply – not only among the militants, but also the civilians, who were not aware of the global political game and uninterested in eliminating their brethren yet forced to use weapons in order to protect their own lives.
Another Day of Life is a great read. It is an absolute classic and a benchmark for the Polish school of reportage. Ryszard Kapuściński stirs up our curiosity by carefully dosing the tension and introducing turning points in the manner of a thriller film.
The image of slow-moving disorder which conceals terror is intriguing. The book starts with a description of Angola's capital, Luanda, abandoned by the forces which were meant to ensure order: the police, the fire brigades, the rubbish collectors. The author colours his story with information about the bombardment of strategic objects, leading to the paralysis of the entire city and a catastrophe of unimaginable consequences, especially since there is only a single trained specialist left at both the electricity station and the waterworks.
Those still alive pack up all their belongings and leave the city in panic. Among their packed possessions, the reporter saw items that are of little to no use, such as artificial flowers. The wealth status of the runaways is determined by the size of the boxes: the big ones, owned by the richest, were the size of summer cottages and built of solid wood; the smaller boxes, haphazardly constructed from plywood, scraps of lumber, and sheet metal owned by the poor, resembled the shacks of slums.
And now the wooden city was sailing on an Atlantic swept by violent, gale-driven waves. Somewhere on the ocean a partition of the city occurred and one section, the largest, sailed to Lisbon, the second to Rio de Janeiro, and the third to Cape Town. Each of these sections reached its haven safely. I know this from various sources.
As a writer, Kapuściński inevitably reflected on the fate of unneeded bookstores. Before leaving for the front, the soldiers bought up pornographic magazines, leaving behind piles of masterpieces mixed with second-rate literature. This is why ‘those who dabble in literature can receive an important lesson in humility here’.
Kapuściński, the author of a series of lectures published under the telling title Cynics Are Not Suitable for This Job, wrote about simple people thrashed around by the winds of history and thrown into hopeless situations against their will. He was a witness to such events many times – for example, during the interrogation of armed Angolan adolescents seized by an opposing military formation.
The next prisoner looks twelve. He says he’s sixteen. He knows it is shameful to fight for the FNLA, but they told him that if he went to the front they would send him to school afterward. He wants to finish school because he wants to paint. If he could get paper and a pencil he could draw something right now. He could do a portrait. He also knows how to sculpt and would like to show his sculptures, which he left in Carmona. He has put his whole life into it and would like to study, and they told him that he will, if he goes to the front first. He knows how it works – in order to paint you must first kill people, but he hasn’t killed anyone.
That is very probable because the tactical capabilities of an average Angolan were limited attempts at chasing off the enemy by exchanging fire to scare them off with endless shooting, because ‘he does not want to harm the opponent, he wants to kill his own fear ’.
Similar ordeals were shared by war correspondents detained at the checkpoints of the ever-changing front. When a reporter’s life or death could depend on a single word, it all came down to intuition – the followers of Agostino Neto reacted positively to ‘Camarada!’, while the constables of Holden Roberto and Jonas Savimbi were in favour of ‘Irmão!’ (‘Brother!’).
The point is that both sides of the conflict were dressed in almost identical uniforms, equally ragged, without any indication of affiliation with a given formation. In this case, a mistake meant only one thing – digging your own grave. However, unlike the majority of journalists of many affiliations and orientations, Kapuściński did not steer away from this extreme risk. Thanks to this, he was able to be at the very centre of the events transpiring on the front, which made his unique correspondence much sought after.
Not everyone had as much persistence and luck as the Polish correspondent. People from MPLA granted him security which pushed even the faint-hearted Lisbon TV crew to take the risk of travelling to the conflict’s epicentre.
All that was left of the smiling female fighter was just a few short videos filmed by the Portuguese TV crew and a photo taken by Kapuściński (reproduced in some editions of the book). Soon after the reporters returned from the city of Balombo after it was conquered by the MPLA, there was a counterattack by the opposing forces. Young Carlotta, yearning to go back to her peaceful job as a nurse, died on the battlefield.
The world eyes the grand spectacle of fight and death, which is also difficult to imagine, because the image of war is incommunicable. Not with a pen nor voice nor a camera. The war is a reality only for those who are trapped in its bloody, hideous, dirty insides. For others, it is just a page of a book, an image on a screen, and nothing else.
Another Day of Life turned out to be a breakthrough for Ryszard Kapuściński. The book was first published in print in 1976 and commenced the era of essay reportage.
Written by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, May 2018, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Jun 2018