As if to present all he has done in the struggle for life and ideas as only a skirmish, Lázaro Martínez Pérez, a humble man from Ciego de Ávila, recounts, with confidence and modesty, the story of how 40 years ago he faced enemy planes unloading their fury on residents of a small Angolan enclave, an event the world knows as the Cassinga Massacre, despite the fact that the corporate media, especially in the United states, ignore it.
“When I was about 13, I met Che, and from then on, I wanted to be like him, and I became a Guevaran with a cause. When I left (for Angola) I was already a Literature teacher and had read a good number of texts.
“I took six books to African lands: Con la adarga al brazo, by Che, and his Diario en Bolivia; and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Also going with me were César Vallejo, José Martí, and a poetry book by Miguel Hernández.
“I had also read a great deal about the Great Patriotic War and WWII; Leon Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Armed with all this, I arrived in Africa, but nonetheless, I can say today that I went afraid of combat, and I am not ashamed; but when fear and dignity are counterpoised, dignity wins.”
With his 68th birthday coming in November, Lázaro tells the story without adding or neglecting anything, exactly as it happened that May 4, 1978, when the sun scorched the earth and they were in Tchamutete, some 16 kilometers from hell.
The attack on the camp of Namibian refugees, in southern Angola, was well planned by South Africa. Participating in the operation, given the code name “Operation Reindeer,” were 527 paratroopers from the Bravo combat group, who were sent to destroy the Cassinga camp (codename: Moscow) and then escape aboard helicopters.
“The Cassinga Massacre was one of apartheid’s worst crimes. First, the aviation bombing; then the paratroopers who landed and murdered hundreds of defenseless residents, among them women, children, and elders,” recalled Lázaro, who as a young man had arrived in Angola of his own free will, in January of 1978.
“Etched into my memory is the image of a little girl that didn’t weigh 60 pounds. Eusebio González picked her up. Her leg was wounded. Many years later I learned that she was Claudia, who was one of the children who came to study on the Isle of Youth and went on to become her country’s ambassador in Cuba. Who could have imagined!”
Clothed in dignity, a man is invincible, no matter the glory, life, death, or medals.
“With the first explosion, I didn’t wait for the order and I said to Eusebio: Negro, let’s go, they’re attacking us. From the emplacement, we opened fire, though later we were obliged to fire on the march, when the planes were within reach.
“We were heading to the settlement of Cassinga to defend the Namibian refugees. We advanced along the raised roadbed, and those flying devils were always on us, clear shots for bombs and rockets. It’s wasn’t long before the three artillery pieces in my platoon were separated from the group, and we were obliged to unhitch from the vehicles and set up.
“By about 3:00pm, the only “four mouths” (anti-aircraft artillery) that fired was mine, from one barrel. The only artillery-men left in the platoon were Eusebio González and me. Eusebio, the bravest man I have ever known, was mortally wounded and I think the same projectile, or maybe another one, threw me into the air. I tried to get up with a great deal of effort, and realized that both my legs were wounded. Practically without strength, I get back to the artillery and see a plane come straight ahead, I shoot and hit it. I’m almost certain I downed it.
“Everyone’s courage came to the fore. When you are far from your homeland, valor and dignity go within each person. It doesn’t matter if your hair stands on end during the battle, although the misfortune of losing a friend, a brother in struggle, may arrive. As I remember, there they killed our Eusebio, Antolín, Francisco Seguí, Ricardo González, Zamora, El Yoni, and Pedro Valdivia Paz, all from Ciego de Ävila. And a young man from the East, last name Barea.
“I would estimate that the South African aviation operated without interruption for about three hours or a bit longer, but I was fighting half the day. I was going to pieces, overwhelmed by inexplicable feelings… Just imagine, seeing your friends, your brothers, dead, seeing them fall before your eyes; seeing the civilian population, the children, women, old people, ripped apart by the machine gun fire, with handfuls of spikes in different parts of their bodies… Inside I felt something very strange: the hate of men who love, I say.”
A good dancer, a bad cook, in the kaleidoscope of his life, he’s been, at some point, a journalist, teacher, reader, principal at a rural secondary school, taxi driver, Party militant – plus the father of four boys, two of them with María Esther Alcorta Chau, the same woman who, after Cassinga, heard the mysterious knock at her door and the whisper that stills the soul: “We’re here to inform you that your husband, Lázaro, has died in Angola.”
Luck would have it that the nightmare was short. The next day, the same men came back, to say, according to María Esther, “That business yesterday was a mistake. Lázaro is alive, and being treated in a hospital, but he’s not doing well… He still has several wounds on his legs, although that hasn’t kept him from walking.”
Death, like the ebb and flow of daily life, creates brotherhood. So say Jesús Acosta Lanchazo and Sixto Salvador Ledea Velázquez. Both pay eternal tribute to their fallen comrades, who did everything humanly possible with their anti-aircraft artillery to aid a group of Namibian refugees sheltered at Cassinga.
“I’m 77 years old and my memory is beginning to fail me, but what happened that day is right here (inside) with almost all the details,” Jesús Acosta says, holding back the emotion. It’s enough to see the slight trembling of his hand as he removes his cap.
“The alarm was given when we heard the morning news. Within a short time we were on the march, because we were always completely ready for battle. Cassinga wasn’t far; we only had to circumvent a reservoir of water.
“The truck that was pulling the artillery piece, a 14.5mm or ‘cuatro-bocas,’ as people know them, went off-road to avoid the mines, and took the bank. A few minutes later, close to nine in the morning, it got stuck, and from that moment, well into the afternoon, we resisted the aviation attacks in a clearing with no protection at all.
“I operated the artillery sight block. Not being able to move made us an easy target for the planes. So we kept up constant fire, calculating the number of projectiles used and the heat of the barrels, although this (overheating) was inevitable and they began to stick.
“At one of those moments, I told Manuel Cruz, one of my companions, to go over to the place, not too far off, where the other artillery unit had stopped firing. When he came back, he said the cannons of that piece were bent; it had fired with more intensity than ours. The worst was hearing that the squad was dead.
“Around five in the afternoon, they sent a truck to pull us out. Back on the road, we met a plane that attacked us with missiles and bursts of projectiles. Along with the other artillery pieces we concentrated our fire on the plane, and saw it retreat trailing black smoke.”
But there was no time to celebrate the damage done. What would be the enemy’s last aerial incursion left another casualty: Alfredo Barea Franco, one of 47 compatriots from the municipality of Urbano Noris in Holguín, who participated in the operation. He was part of the command squadron, which had lost its truck early in the fighting. This didn’t prevent the group from continuing to fire on the AKM planes, supporting all the artillery squads they could reach.
Once the battle was over, Jesús joined the group of Cubans who entered the camp. The pain he felt for the deaths of his comrades turned to wrath and hate for the aggressors who had caused the deaths of more than 700 persons, among them children, women, and elders. Some bodies showed clear signs of shots at close range; others with bayonet wounds delivered by the paratroopers who arrived and were retrieved by air. They found bodies riddled with spikes from the cluster bombs.
The death of Alfredo Barea Franco made a strong impression on Sixto Salvador, a member of artillery squad number four, who said, “He was face down. When we picked him up and took off his helmet, we saw the impact of a missile fragment. We placed the body under a tree that we marked, because we had to move on. After the battle had ended, we returned for the cadaver. We wrapped him in my hammock and left him at the Tactical Group Medical Post, in Tchamutete. That’s the way things are in a war.
“Practically the entire time, my artillery piece was firing in motion, on the rapid, well-armed planes, like the Mirages. I always say that those pilots knew their trade; surely they had studied our combat tactics. The whole time, they tried to interrupt our zigzag movements, trying to estimate the moment we would change directions. It was on one of these turns that they destroyed the command squad truck.”
Sixto is satisfied with his 74 years of life and the retirement he is enjoying, after working a long time in the sugar industry. He had other experiences from the beginning of that hard day, until the end. Entering into action, he was the only loader of the artillery piece. When the alarm was given, his companion had to drive their truck, since the usual driver was in the hospital.
He says he doesn’t know exactly how he managed to react. But listening to him, there is no doubt that his knowledge - and the will to live with the honor of overcoming fear – prevailed.
“I am not ashamed to say that I trembled many times amid the explosions that lifted columns of dirt, uprooted trees and everything around us. I even thought I might never see my family again, but I overcame it, as did the other compañeros.
“Juan Pavón Matos, head of the artillery squad, was wounded when he was getting out of the truck. Dionisio Millán, who was the Number 1, that is the shooter, yelled out loud that he assumed command of the squad. So we kept firing on the planes that attacked almost always with their tails to the sun, to hamper our vision. My job was to follow their movement, indicate the direction of the attack and keep the piece supplied with enough projectiles.
“We knew that the cannons had to be changed every so often, after completing a certain number of shots, but the enemy fire was so intense, we couldn’t give them any relief, until we forced a retreat.” And that’s the way it was.
Jesús and Sixto talk about Cassinga only when they are asked. The rest of the time, they are everyday men. But just like many of their comrades in arms in the municipality of Urbano Noris, they are faithful to the tradition of getting together every May 4 in San Germán. In the company of Alfredo Barea Franco’s family, they visit the school and community center for elders that bear his name.
And they march to the Fallen Patriots Cemetery, where his remains rest.
On these occasions, there are no flowery words. Sometimes, they don’t talk at all. Silence reigns, to contain the emotions evoked by memories of their epic internationalist mission on African soil.