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Angola will celebrate on Saturday for the first time the anniversary of the 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale which changed the region's political landscape, accelerating the independence of Namibia and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
"We are not just celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale but also the victory of democracy in the southern African region," said the South African ambassador to Angola, Themba Khubeka, who was invited to the celebration along with dignitaries from Cuba and Namibia.
After Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975, a civil war raged between the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), with the support of Cuban troops, and the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), backed by soldiers of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Twenty years ago South Africa's white minority regime, opposed to communism, was determined to prevent Angola from providing a base for the anti-apartheid militants of the African National Congress (ANC) as well as Namibian fighters opposed to the administration of Namibia by South Africa.
On March 22, 1988, the two opposing camps faced off in Cuito Canavale, southeast Angola, which occupies a geographically-strategic position on the route leading to major cities such as Huambo and Lubango in the center of the country.
"At 1800 hours, March 22, the enemy was moving from east to the west side of the river bank where our defences were stationed. Ninety minutes later they engaged us," Angolan Colonel Mele Francisco Camacho said in an interview with AFP, recounting the battle.
"The enemy was pounding us with G-5 (long-range guns) and tanks. The soldiers were shooting. We were also launching our artillery. The battle went on and on throughout the night," Camacho, then a lieutenant, recalled.
Cuito Cuanavale, a town without electricity at the time, was lit from the canon fire as deafening shells hit the ground.
"We couldn't see anything. We were working with our senses only. We knew the enemy was on the other side of the river and that is where we aimed our weapons," he said.
The barrage of ground fire made any air support from either side impossible, said Camacho.
"We were so close to each other that any air bombardment would end up hitting our own troops. I think the South Africans realised the same."
After 12 hours of battling, the shelling ceased. The South Africans had pulled back and "we knew it was over," he said.
But the debate over the human and material cost of the battle went on. While the Cuban and Angolan forces claimed victory, South Africa claimed it lost only 31 soldiers against 4,785 who fell on the other side.
Whichever way the argument went, the South African Defence Forces faced a barrage of criticism at home with the media and the civil societies condemning the human losses and questioning the troops' involvement in a foreign battle.
The Angolan regime finally accepted to find a negotiated solution and sat down with the Americans, Cubans, Russians and South Africans.
At the same time, the apartheid regime in South Africa also entered into discussions with the ANC and in July 1988 agreed to elections in Namibia in exchange for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
These developments led to a chain of other historical events: Namibia's independence in 1990, dismantlement of apartheid between 1990 and 1994 in South Africa, and the signing of a ceasefire agreement in Angola in 1991.
Fighting which resumed in Angola in 1992 finally came to an end in 2002.
Colonel Camacho, who was awarded a medal for his role in Cuito Cuanavale, could not have imagined the implications of the battle he fought.
"I'm happy that so much changed in the region," he said. (AFP)
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