40 years since the biggest kidnapping event in Czech history
A group of 66 Czechoslovaks, including women and small children, were abducted and forced to walk 1300 kilometres after being captured in Angola by members of the guerrilla UNITA movement, all the while suffering from diarrhoea, exhaustion and terror.
In the early 1980s, civil war had broken out in the southwest-African country of Angola following the end of its war of independence against Portugal. A power struggle between two former anti-colonial guerrilla movements, the communist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was raging.
The Angolan Civil War had effectively become a Cold War proxy conflict, as UNITA was backed by the USA while the Marxist MPLA had the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba and Czechoslovakia. With the assistance of Cuban soldiers and Soviet support, the MPLA had managed to win the initial phase of conventional fighting and become the de facto Angolan government. The Czechoslovak government had agreed to aid the fledgling communist state by helping resurrect and run the Angola Cellulose and Paper Company in the area of Alto Catumbela, which had been left derelict after the Portuguese withdrew.
A group of 66 Czechoslovaks were sent to Alto Catumbela to help restore the operation of the local pulp and paper mill. The group was made up of 28 experts, a doctor, two nurses, 14 spouses and 21 children, three of whom were under five years old and eight of whom who were between six and ten. Each family received a house which was luxurious by local standards, with a swimming pool, Czech doctor and social club at their disposal.
Paradise turns into nightmare
At 6am on 12 March 1983, the town was stormed by hundreds of anti-government UNITA soldiers. The aim of the UNITA insurgents was clear – to bring the prisoners to their military base in the south-east of Angola and to receive international recognition by negotiating with the Prague government for the prisoners’ release.
From one day to the next, the Czechoslovaks’ little slice of paradise in the middle of the Angolan countryside turned into a nightmare. They set off on the 1300-kilometre long march with only the clothes they were wearing at the time of the ambush. In summer shoes and trainers, they waded through rivers, cut their way through the bush, and walked through impassable terrain full of swamps and poisonous snakes. One of the abductees, Slovak Jaroslav Navrátil, died on the journey.
469 days in captivity
After two and a half months, the exhausted captives arrived at the Jamba military base. There they were personally greeted by the leader of UNITA, Jonas Savimbi, in a general’s uniform with gold rings on his fingers.
Not long after that, the Red Cross negotiated with the kidnappers to release the women and children in the group. UNITA eventually also let seven unwell men go. However, that still left twenty men, who were kept at the base by the insurgents as a bargaining tool. They ended up spending 469 days in captivity.
After a long period of negotiations, a representative of the Czechoslovak government had to come personally to receive them once they were finally released. Thus, the guerrilla insurgency movement was de facto recognised by the Czechoslovak government. Czechoslovakia also had to promise not to supply Angola with arms or soldiers as part of the deal.
The civil war only ended in Angola in 2002, two months after the death of the leader of UNITA. Jonas Savimbi was shot to death with fifteen bullets by government troops in his own birthplace, the province of Moxico.