4 December 2003

Angola: A Death For a Song and the Triumph of Impunity

Angolan writer and human rights activist Rafael Marques wrote this account of the late-November killing of a member of the public by presidential guards.

"The wolf’s guards killed my son," Inês Sebastião kept screaming as she mourned the death of her son, Arsénio Sebastião, killed in a ritual of torture by President José Eduardo dos Santos’ guards, in November 22, 2003.

Arsénio Sebastião, a.k.a Cherokee, was a car washer in Mussulo’s Quay, a few hundred meters from one of the presidential palaces, Futungo de Belas, outside the capital, Luanda. As he waited for clients, he cheered himself up by singing a very critical rap, by an Angolan group MCK. The rap led to his death. Ironically, the song stresses that those who speak the truth end up in a coffin.

"...They harbor in you, the fear they have instilled in your parents/ your attitudes depend on the Radio and Television... clean up the dust in your eyes/ open your eyes brother/ switch off TPA [public television] tear off the newspapers and analyze the quotidian (...) brothers what freedom have they given us if political arrogance does not cease? Who speaks the truth ends up in a coffin/ what sort of democracy is this? We have freed ourselves from 500 years of a steel whip but we do not use our brains/ after colonialism ended they gave us almost a half a century of misrule."

A group of four presidential guards, identified by armbands with the distinctive UGP [Presidential Guard Unit], heard the song and, guns at ready, manhandled Cherokee and started to kick and slap him all over the body. As people tried to stop the beating, one of the guards called in for reinforcements. A few minutes later, 45 UGP members jumped out of a military truck (number plate: FAA - 61-55).

A sergeant, who arrived with the troops, learnt about the song and ordered the youth to be taken to the beach, just a few meters away. According to local witnesses, a foreigner tried to offer US$ 100 as a "reward" for the release of Cherokee, while a beer vendor bid 1,500 kwanzas (US$20). But as the beer venddor Maria João recalled, the guards said that "the youth was a bandit, who spoke ill of the president and thus had to be killed."

"...you have no shelter/ for centuries you have been searching for a job/ yet you remain loyal to the system. You are locked by a remote control frequency of the great invisibles/ they decided your future while you were in your mother’s womb/ you don’t know how to complain about your daily suffering/ the guns have gone silent but your stomach remains at war..."

As reported by the Angolan weekly newspaper A Capital, drawing on first-hand witnesses’ accounts, Cherokee was dragged to the water, where the soldiers stabbed him to further weaken him and tied his hands with a soldier’s boot laces. Eduardo Semedo, the victim’s friend, said tearfully that the soldiers pushed Cherokee’s head into and out of the water for minutes, three times. Cherokee’s last words before he was drowned were "I am going, my friends."

To ensure the successful completion of their mission, the soldiers held their guns at the ready to prevent anyone from rescuing Cherokee. Eduardo Semedo alleged that the soldiers threatened that "anyone who dared to save him would have the same fate."

Only when the soldiers were sure the youth had died did they retreat. According to local media reports, a General later sent divers to retrieve the body, but it was only washed ashore the following day, still tied with the UGP boot laces. As the friends remarked, "our friend’s spirit is very strong. It only returned the body the following day when they could not conceal the tied up cadaver, and many people could see it."

For the funeral, the presidential guard sent a coffin, three trucks for the mourners to attend the burial, food and 10 armed soldiers.

A cartoon in A Capital, illustrating the president’s guards drowning the youth, sums it up: "Don’t you know that the presidential guard is also the president?" The local media has now dubbed the presidential guard, the 'Fedayin', an allusion to the private guard of former Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein.

In an interview with A Capital, the rapper MCK, 26, whose songs are censored by the State Radio and Television, said: "The tragedy will mark my career forever. I am almost without words. It could only happen in a country like Angola."

The rap goes on: "...we export oil and import suffering/ we have won four war championships in the past decade and we look forward to win a new title in this millennium..."

"The cause of Angolan suffering is borne out of the philosophy of de-humanization/ in the policy of selfishness and foreign trickery/ the bourgeois way of life is part of the obvious process of your egocentrism (...) / what irritates me is not the face of the culprits but the attitude/ your actions demonstrate the extinction of virtue/ you ignore the role of the State to your own advantage..."

And, it ends with an appeal: "...Viva [long live] the conscious rapper/ viva the one who speaks the truth. People need the truth/ people need the truth/ people need the truth/ truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth, truth..."

Rafael Marques represents the Open Society Institute in Angola.


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