Tales of human rights abuse at the hands of the Angolan government are numerous and vivid in the rebel-held bush areas of Angola. This reporter, traveling for seven weeks in rebel-held territories, has heard both men and women describe how they were arrested on charges of being rebel sympathizers. They say they were beaten, imprisoned without trial, and psychologically intimidated. There are also allegations of far more vicious assaults and killings.
Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, has accused the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) of widespread rights violations - ranging from arbitrary arrests and detention to torture and executions.
Amnesty (AI) and other international human rights organizations are not able to cite precise numbers of political prisoners held by the MPLA regime. But they say the figure runs into the thousands.
In the past, AI also has charged the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) with rights violations. In August 1980, for example, AI said it received reliable reports that the rebel movement reportedly executed a number of government prisoners. AI said they had been sentenced to death by a resistance tribunal in retaliation for executions of UNITA sympathizers. There have also been reports of UNITA forces killing captured Cuban and government officers.
The MPLA government and UNITA regularly accuse each other of committing atrocities against the civilian population. The US State Department's latest report on human rights worldwide says hundreds of civilians were killed in 1982 in the civil war, and that there are unsubstantiated reports of indiscriminate killing of civilians by both the government and UNITA. The US report also notes there are unconfirmed reports that UNITA practices urban terrorism in MPLA-controlled areas.
A government-run detention center at Tari in Cuanza South Province is identified in the Amnesty report as one of the main rural detention centers. This reporter talked at length with eight former Tari prisoners. They were among a group of about 60 who traveled for two months through dense, bug-ridden bush to reach this rebel base near Baixo Longa after UNITA forces ''liberated'' the detention center in a raid Jan. 30.
According to these individuals, most of the camp inmates - black Angolans as well as six Portuguese settlers and technicians, a Brazilian, and a Zairian - were held on charges of ''economic sabotage'' or ''bourgeois attitudes.'' These are the terms typically used by Angolan authorities to classify alleged antigovernment activists or political undesirables.
Two of the black Angolan internees interviewed were Juan Francisco Cotingu and his wife, Marguerida, who are from the western Angolan town of Huambo. Mr. Cotingu, a bus driver by profession, said he was arrested on April 23, 1980, and accused of being a UNITA sympathizer.
He related that he was carted off to jail and interrogated by the state security police. The security police is known here colloquially as the DISA (Direccao de Informacao Seguranca de Angola), even though that was officially dropped as the organization's name in 1979 after allegations of widespread corruption were leveled against it.
''They beat me with their fists and rifle butts,'' Mr. Cotingu said. During the interrogations, Cuban advisers working with the DISA would often intervene in the interrogation with questions, he said. Occasionally he came across uniformed and civilian-clothed East Germans in the corridors as well.
Asked how he was able to identify the foreigners, he said: ''One often sees Cubans, Soviets, and East Germans around Huambo. One learns to recognize them by the way they dress and speak. The Soviets and East Germans speak very poor Portuguese, if at all; the Cubans, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish.''
Cotingu said he was confined for four months in a local jail before being sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for collaborating with the rebels. He was sent to Tari, where his sentence was inexplicably reduced to eight years of hard labor.
Several days after Cotingu's arrest, he said, the police came to get his wife. They accused her of collaboration for not having informed on her husband.
In prison only nine cells down from Juan's, Mrs. Cotingu said she was stripped and beaten. ''They sprayed me with a hose and accused me of belonging to the JURA (a UNITA youth movement),'' Mrs. Cotingu recalled in Portuguese. ''I was forced to stay naked. They gave me no covers to keep me warm at night and made me sleep on the cement floor. Then two FAFLA (Angolan soldiers) came in and tried to rape me. At first I was able to resist. But for this, they beat me badly.''
She was soon joined by other female prisoners, also suspected of being JURA members. Over a three-month period, they all were beaten and raped frequently, Mrs. Cotingu said.
She said they received little food, usually fou-fou, a type of grits made from cereals, with a bit of meat. In the end Mrs. Cotingu, who was not charged with any crime, was allowed to join her husband at Tari.
Armindo Rodriguez, a white Portuguese-born farmer who chose to stay behind after Angola gained its independence, was another Tari prisoner. Mr. Rodriguez said he was arrested on his 87-acre banana plantation on Nov. 29, 1980, and charged with harboring pro-UNITA sympathizers. He does not deny the charge.
Rodriguez said he was taken first to Benguela jail in western Angola, where he was interrogated at all hours of the day. ''They used all sorts of techniques ,'' he said. ''They would give me no water, which made life unbearable in the heat. Or, they salted my food heavily. They were always trying to destabilize you psychologically.''
He was then taken to St. Nicolau, another detention center that served as a jail for antigovernment activists during the colonial period. Conditions were somewhat better there, he said.
Although he said East German and Cuban advisers often visited the detention center, they did not actively participate in interrogations.
At Benguela, foreign advisers played a larger, more visible role, Rodriguez said. ''Cubans would take ropes and semi-strangle prisoners to make them talk.'' he said. Fellow inmates told him about alleged courtyard executions. But Rodriguez said he did not witness any executions himself.
After 106 days in detention without trial, Rodriguez was sentenced to 20 years in prison and dispatched to Tari.
Former Tari prisoners interviewed say that Cuban and East European advisers did not actively participate in the running of that detention center. But they said Soviet ''agricultural'' advisers would occasionally ''inspect'' the center. (Tari, a former sisal plantation, was operated in the manner of a state farm.)
Cuban troops were positioned near the camp when UNITA forces made their Jan. 30 raid to ''liberate'' Tari prisoners. The Cubans made no attempt to intervene against UNITA, the former prisoners said.
Mario-Antoine Cortez, Tari's chief of personnel and a member of the DISA who was captured by UNITA, said that Tari had been under direct orders from the Angolan Ministry of Security to ''reeducate'' political deviants. Three types of prisoners were incarcerated at Tari, he said: persons officially sentenced, those awaiting trial, and those detained without trial as security risks.
Compared with security centers in the towns through which most of the freed Tari prisoners passed en route to their current rebel base, conditions at Tari appeared to be less harsh. Some Tari prisoners lived in barracks, others had their own huts.
Forced to work on the state farm, the prisoners could nevertheless grow much of their own food on small private plots during their spare time. Relatives could also send food and other supplies.
Guards would publicly punish those who had tried to escape; they were beaten with sticks or fists, former inmates say. Prisoners were sometimes ordered to strike fellow inmates.
''People often had their arms and legs broken in this manner,'' said Jaime Barata Dos Santos, a Portuguese road mechanic serving an eight-year sentence at Tari for alleged diamond trafficking. He says he was held for 22 months without trial.
''They would give them (inmates) water mixed with gasoline and food with too much or no salt at all. Sometimes they would punish people by forcing them to stay in an old car wreck out in the sun for days on end.''
According to the former prisoners, the camp reeducation programs had been virtually dropped over the past two years for lack of political motivation on the part of camp personnel. ''Many of the guards had not been paid their salaries for months, and generally there was a 'couldn't care less' attitude among most of them,'' said Mr. Barata Dos Santos. ''We also refused to cooperate during their reeducation lectures. We would talk back or ask irritating questions. So they finally gave up.''
The former prisoners interviewed said many Tari inmates are held incommunicado and that others have been interned without trial for periods of up to six years. Others, they allege, have been summarily sentenced by a people's revolutionary tribunal on trumped-up charges or without evidence.
Amnesty International alleges that between July 1980 and June 1982 more than 60 persons were sentenced to death for allegedly committing terrorist or other crimes against the government.
According to AI, there appears to be no automatic right of appeal. But some detainees have been suddenly released without reason.
Several of the former prisoners said they had been given monkey trials - their lawyers unable or unwilling to provide proper defense.
Some of the Portuguese former prisoners accused diplomats at the Portuguese Embassy in Luanda of being pro-communist collaborators. The Lisbon government, they said, was reluctant to help detained Portuguese nationals for fear of upsetting relations with Angola.
There have also been reports that UNITA forces have killed captured Cuban and government officers.
While visiting the rebel areas, this reporter was informed that a captured young Cuban lieutenant would be available for an interview as soon as his ''psychological condition'' improved.
Over the next few weeks, however, UNITA politely rebuffed all attempts to see the man. The rebels said his condition remained ''traumatic.'' The Cuban's fate is still unknown but UNITA spokesmen insisted he is alive.
Angolan government POWs held by UNITA and recently seen by this and other Western reporters seemed to be in relatively good health. Living in clean, traditional wood and straw huts, they, too, undergo political ''reeducation.'' According to rebel officials, the object is to eventually reintegrate them into the insurgent army.
UNITA has taken numerous foreign nationals prisoner in the active war zones. Most recently, UNITA apprehended 66 Czechs and 20 Portuguese.
All the Brazilian, Portuguese, and Czech prisoners encountered appeared to be well treated. But some were deeply depressed and anguished by their plight.
Dr. Jonas Savimbi, UNITA's leader, maintains that it is not rebel policy to take foreigners hostage. He says the guerrillas want to release them as soon as proper arrangements have been made.
By obliging foreign governments to negotiate for their release, UNITA hopes to obtain international recognition as an opposition force.
AI has received little reliable information concerning the fate of prisoners in the hands of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, a third rebel group that reportedly still operates in parts of northern Angola.