I had been thinking how terribly young the soldiers were that Ryszard Kapuściński wrote about in Another Day of Life when he brought me up short by noting that they were the same age as many of the fighters in the Warsaw Uprising at the end of World War II. Alexander Hamilton raised an artillery company for the American Revolution when he was no more than 21, and possibly as young as 19. A story of war is, inevitably, a story of many young lives that come to an abrupt end. They do not have another day of life.
“In Europe,” [Commandante Farrusco] said, “they taught me that a front is trenches and barbed wire, which form a distinct and visible line. A front on a river, along a road, or from village to village. You can trace it on a map with a pencil or point to it on the terrain. But here the front is everywhere and nowhere. There is too much land and too few people for a front line to exist. This is a wild, unorganized world and it’s hard to come to terms with it. There is no water, because there is a lot of desert here. You can’t hold out for long where there are no springs, and it’s a long way between springs. Here where we’re standing, there is water, but the next water is a hundred kilometers away. Every unit holds on to its water, because otherwise it dies. If there are a hundred kilometers between water, that space is nobody’s and there’s nobody there. So the front doesn’t consist of a line here, but of points, and moving points at that. There are hundreds of fronts because there are hundreds of units. Every unit is a front, a potential front. If our unit runs into an enemy unit, those two potential fronts turn into real fronts. A battle occurs. We are a three-man potential front now, travelling northwards. If we are ambushed, we become a real front. This is a war of ambushes. On any road, at any place, there can be a front. You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a meter from where you’re standing. There are no principles, no methods. Everything comes down to luck and happenstance. This war is a real mess. Nobody knows just where they stand.” (p. 76)
That’s the state of the war in Angola, in the months before the Portuguese departed from their southernmost African colony after centuries of engagement, and of war. Angola was one of the largest sources of slaves for the New World, and slavery meant war, both between the colonial power and local powers, and among the indigenous powers themselves. At one point, Kapuściński looks through the archives and is hard pressed to find five consecutive years of peace in 300 years of Angola’s history. True to form, the civil war in Angola continued until 2002, 27 years after the events that form the narrative of Another Day of Life.
In contrast to big-name correspondents who descended into Angola’s capital just days before independence, Kapuściński spent three months reporting on developments. He was also able to communicate directly with people there, as distinct from his reliance on translators for Shah of Shahs. The result is a vivid and immersive book, as immediate forty years later as it was when its story was straight from the headlines. As Kapuściński tells it, he was the first reporter to tell the outside world of South Africa’s invasion of Angola from the south. He starts that almost on a whim:
When we arrived at the airport that morning … there was also a two-engine Friendship whose pilots — two unshaven, deadbeat Portuguese with red, sleepless eyes — said they were flying immediately to Lubango to pick up the last group of refugees there. … I didn’t have a pass to go there because no one is admitted to the southern front, the weakest, most neglected, worst organized, and most poorly armed front. But I thought I might get away with it. (p. 59)
Almost immediately upon landing, Kapuściński is whisked into a truck headed down the only road south toward the border with Namibia, a country that at the time was occupied by South Africa. No convoy had made it the southern outposts in about a month; Kapuściński is on a truck carrying fuel and ammunition, and driving hundreds of kilometers through terrain almost designed for ambush. They have only two advantages: the relative emptiness of the countryside, and their willingness to drive in the blazing heat of midday, a time when the war in Angola generally shuts down.
His expedition to the south, a shorter but more eventful run to the eastern front, and days in Luanda waiting for the Portuguese to leave and the war to arrive form the book’s narrative pillars. With vivid strokes, he quickly captures the people around him — a Portuguese diamond merchant who will not leave the side of his dying wife, the young fighter Carlotta, seasoned Commandante Farrusco, or Diogenes, the driver of the truck down the ambush-prone road that no convoy has made it down for a month. They are all caught up in the war, almost all fighting for something, almost all hoping for another day of life.