While everyone was distracted by Cecil the lion, this is what was being ignored: in Angola in April, hundreds of peaceful worshippers were reportedly slaughtered as the army attacked a church camp on Mount Sumi. This particular sect was growing too powerful for the country’s rulers, and they paid the ultimate price for their presumed defiance.
The tragedy underscores the extent to which the government endeavours to control the flow of information on the case, undermining the free press.
In a botched operation, the police officers were killed as they attempted to arrest the sect leader, José Kalupeteka, during worship. More than 3,000 followers, from many parts of the country, had camped at Mount Sumi, in Huambo province, for the sect’s summit.
The sect is an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Members have opted to live in seclusion while awaiting the end of the world.
Angola’s foremost cartoonist, Sérgio Piçarra, has shown in his work how press freedom became a casualty as well.
In Piçarra’s illustration, Mount Sumi is cordoned off with barbed wire, and there is a signpost that reads: “The access of strangers to this mountain is forbidden”. Next to it, an angry government official is accompanied by a police officer, whose finger is already on the trigger of his gun. The official is scolding three individuals on the other side of the fence – a parliamentarian from the main opposition party, Unita, a man carrying a briefcase representing an independent inquiry, and an ordinary citizen – who are not allowed on the mount. “Massacre? But haven’t I told you that we have killed only 13 guys?” screams the official at the three individuals.
As in art, so in life: the area and surrounding villages remain sealed off by the military and police, with the free circulation of people in and out of the area effectively suspended.
Using the state media, the government is imposing its own version of the story – the only version with nationwide outreach – while demanding that everyone else provide evidence to the contrary, even though it is not allowing independent journalists and civil society members near the site.
The authorities have been adamant in claiming that the police killed only 13 “snipers” who shot at them. Articulated through the state media, the official version of events has insinuated that Unita and unspecified foreign forces are behind the sect.
President José Eduardo dos Santos has labelled the sect “a threat to peace and to national unity”; as the commander-in-chief, he justified the actions of the defence and security bodies.
State media has trumpeted Dos Santos’s vow that Angola’s security forces will “continue with the same vigour to completely dismantle this sect”.
Despite the climate of terror in Huambo, I have been able to speak, via telephone, with a number of police and military officers who participated in the raid.
They all told me how pilgrims were mown down indiscriminately, many of them praying to the end. They all gave accounts of how makeshift shelters were set alight with people inside. There were also stories of police officers sparing women and children who escaped down the mount but were unable to elude the manhunt that ensued.
These officers also told me how they bore witness to the filling of mass graves, dug by an excavator, in the nearby village of Cuassamba.
I heard too that the witch-hunt was broadened to several areas beyond the mount, where the sect seems to have a strong following. I reported the arrest of 18 hawkers in the city of Huambo for selling CDs of Kalupeteka, who is a popular gospel singer. Their whereabouts are unknown.
I also reported on the killing of 52-year-old Eduardo António in the village of Catata, in the vicinity of Mount Sumi, on suspicion of being a member of the sect. The police took with them his herd of 27 cows.
My sources were also swift in telling me about a further 30 people gunned down in the same village on 27 April.
As I expressed disbelief, after 10 days of following leads, one officer who toured the area met me face-to-face. He told me he wanted to sound the alert on a “massacre still in progress”, and the need to stop it. He echoed what another military officer, unbeknown to him, had told me: “Our colleagues, even many from the police forces, are at pains with this action. Those killed were not enemies, but our people. The orders were to be obeyed.”
I obtained first-hand information about how the intelligence services were searching the phones from the personnel involved in the operations to delete any videos of the event.
As I am currently on trial for exposing precisely such abuses, I feel a sense of grief and powerlessness. Independent journalists like myself are few, and on the margins of the mainstream media.
How to speak of a free press in a country where the overwhelming majority of journalists work for the state, and are used, at will, as weapons against the freedoms enshrined in the constitution?
Neither the Mount Sumi massacre nor the show trial should come as a surprise. The regime of Jose Eduardo dos Santos is coming under pressure from a troubled economy and a vigorous political opposition, and is protecting itself in the only way it knows how: by violently cracking down on dissent wherever it sees it, or imagines it.
A version of this article first appeared here
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