Slaying past demons
There are many different experiences of war and many ways of dealing with its effects. Not everyone's post-war journey follows a healing path.
While some may look to psychotherapy and others will take a spiritual journey, many have resorted to alcohol and drugs.
The South African Defence Force gave us no space for coming to terms with what many of us saw or did. When I came out of Angola, where I had been in the bush between Mavinga and Cuito Cuanavale in 1987, my mortar fire group got less than an hour with an industrial psychology honours graduate: a woefully inadequate debriefing. Twenty-five years later, and as part of my own healing, I made a solo cycling journey through Angola.
Last month, I was taken to Cuito Cuanavale by 4x4 by an ex-Umkhonto we Sizwe colonel who received his initial military training in Angola in the 1970s. From there I started my journey. I travelled nearly 1500km by bicycle and exchanged a greeting with nearly everyone walking next to that long road.
People smiled or stared or laughed at the sight of a man on a loaded bicycle.
In Cuito Cuanavale I met a Cuban who had fought there when I was in the attacking army. We spoke no common language but connected in a way only old soldiers can. We held each other like long-lost brothers. Another scar felt healed. There are scars that are often buried, unknown until they surface unexpectedly in the form of unresolved grief or anger or sadness at all the death from those dark days.
I met former People's Liberation Army of Namibia soldiers and felt humbled by the courage it took for them to fight for what they believed in. They reached out to me, who once wore the uniform of their hated enemy, with a magnanimity that shone into a previously dark place in my soul.
I conversed, often without a common language, with farmers and teachers, engineers and herd boys, and was reminded of how warm and hospitable people could be to strangers.
Cuito Cuanavale - an almost mythological place in my war, a place on a map never seen as I sat not so far away in a foxhole in the Angolan sand. I felt surprisingly strong emotions in the few days I revisited it.
Then I went from Cuito Cuanavale to Menongue, the "Road of Death", strewn with the wreckage of war: tanks and logistics vehicles hit by attacks. It was a depressing reminder of the utter waste caused by 30 years of war.
My slow progress from those battlefields was mirrored by my slow internal processing; my responses to returning to Angola. Evidence of war decreased with every kilometre beyond Menongue and my thoughts turned slowly from the past, to the beauty of the bush and the openness of the people I met. I became absorbed in journeying, feeding myself, finding a place to sleep and with every meeting along the way.
The war receded both in its manifestation in the landscape, and in my mind. The further I travelled from Cuito, the less I thought about war. Now I'm home.
My journey continues by other means. Once I felt the constant pull to return to Angola, to put some ghosts to rest. Now I need never return again. And if I do, it will be for other reasons.
The word Angola will no longer only mean war to me, but a deeper, richer, more positive tapestry.
This article first appeared on Morris' blog 'The Journey Home' (http://angolajourney.blogspot.com). Morris is a counsellor and executive coach in Johannesburg