Review By Savia Viegas
The twentieth century was a period of decolonisation, revolutions and revolutionaries who challenged colonial regimes and existing governments. These ideas of a brave new world emanating from Russia and Europe sent seismic tremors across continents. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Rosa Luxembourg and Frantz Fanon, with their revolutionary ideas and exemplary lives, kindled a fire in the young to yearn, and attempt to create a new world order.
Sita Valles was a kindred revolutionary spirit. Romantic, idealistic and young, she laid down her life in defence of her beliefs. Her father, Edgar Francisco Valles, was an agronomic engineer and her mother, Maria Lucia Dias, was a translator. They were one of the few families of Goan extraction who settled in Angola. The three siblings Ademar, Sita and Edgar grew up in Angola identifying as Angolan.
A biography titled, Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death, (Goa 1556, 2018) by Leonor Figueiredo and translated from the Portuguese by D. A. Smith, pieces together the life of this firebrand rebel, and the controversies that surround it. Despite the lacunae of source material, the book has been extensively researched, and builds a lucid and unbiased narrative of Valles.
As a medical student, Sita studied in Portugal. She plunged into student communist politics first while in Portugal, and later returning to Angola, she continued an active student and political life. Medical students, co-workers, friends and family who knew her, describe the qualities and traits which orbited her into prominence, and eventually consumed her. These telling conversations are few and far between, for Valles, has been despicably blacked out from memory, inked out from alumni records, and her residences and artefacts destroyed and conflagrated by the authorities in power. Her mortal remains lie in an unknown and unmarked site. Many remarked that Valles was just the right material that the revolution needed. True. But as the biographer remarks, the revolution also swallowed the best.
Valles had vast powers of persuasion, recall political workers who knew her. Just 26 years old, she was strong-willed and held sway over her siblings as well as her co-workers. Even Jose Van-Dunem, her partner, and Nito Alves, the guerrilla leader of the MPLA (the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola) who later led the dissident group, and for whom she worked as secretary, would willingly listen to her. Her co-workers attest to the charm, elegance, poise and intellectual vivacity with which she won hearts, and expanded their cadres. ‘Ideologically she was a puritan,’ writes Leonor Figueiredo, ‘afraid to discover that what she believed in was not real.’
Young workers who worked with her testify that, ‘She was at the centre of the whirlwind.’ Ana-Maria, her sister-in law extrapolates that, ‘Sita lived on the outer limits of risk.’ A son, nick-named Che, was born when she was in the final year of medical school, and was only six months old when she was killed. It was rumoured that she was pregnant again when she was incarcerated.
Nito Alves became the foremost challenger to the MPLA government of President Agostinho Neto. Alves published a 150 page book challenging the MPLA’s uppermost hierarchy. Then 27 May 1977 happened when a small demonstration against the ruling party led to thousands of deaths in retaliation. The MPLA launched an offensive with the help of Cuban forces to flush out dissidents. Young people labelled fraccionistas by the government disappeared without trace following the alleged coup. Mass graves, burnt bodies, people buried alive or thrown from helicopters or tied to stones and drowned, became everyday occurrences. Others were transported to concentration camps where they perished without food and water. The scenario was so bleak that there were murmurs of cannibalism in the camps. Sita Valles, Nito Alves and Jose Van Dunem were identified as the masterminds by PIDE (The International Police for the Defense of State). Former associates and friends turned torturers for the ruling party. Ademar, Sita’s older brother was imprisoned and executed for being a Valles. Edgar, her other brother, prompted by his wife’s and his own disenchantment with Angola had moved to Portugal, and was saved from the consequences.
Four decades later, the circumstances surrounding her disappearance are still shrouded in secrecy, but evidence points to a death by firing squad without a trial, following the bloody cleansing in the wake of 27 May, 1977. Valles’s parents continued to request the Angolan government for information of her whereabouts, in the most heart-rending manner. They knocked on the doors of the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. They tried to leverage the American Catholic Council in Portugal, none of which yielded an outcome. The mood was summed up in a phrase in one of their missives about Sita and Ademar’s unknown fate: ‘We see before us a wall of silence, a veil of mystery and uncertainty.’ The retelling of this story, and its translation into English, throws light on the ‘proxy theatres’ of the Cold War which persisted for much of the twentieth century, and which has so many unaccounted casualties.
The book is a compelling read.
Savia Viegas is an artist, art curator and author of several books including, Let Me Tell You About Quinta (Penguin, 2011).
Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death (Goa 1556, 2018) is available at leading bookstores in Goa.