The official in Westmeath County Council was bemused by the name on the voter registration application. Something had to be wrong. She picked up the phone.
In Athlone, Beetriz Bailundo answered. “You’ve ticked the box that says you’re Irish,” said the official. “I am Irish,” said Beetriz. The official paused. “I’m an Irish citizen,” said Beetriz Bailundo. “Can you send me some ID?” said the official, disbelieving. Beetriz Bailundo sent a photocopy of her Irish passport, and didn’t hear from the offical again. This June, therefore, is likely to be the first time that a member of an Angolan royal family votes in an Irish election.
Beetriz is used to people taking exception to her name. “In Angola, just by my surname, everybody knows who I am, where I am from,” she says. During the long war in Angola, which ended in 2002, the name Bailundo had immediate, and provocative connotations: “Everybody immediately thinks, ‘UNITA’,” says Beetriz.
UNITA was one of the most fearsome of the guerrilla forces on the Africa continent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Angola was abandoned by its colonial power, Portugal, almost overnight in 1975, and war broke out between rival liberation movements. One, the MPLA, claimed the capital, and slowly asserted itself as the national government. UNITA, led by the charismatic Jonas Savimbi, won support from the US and South Africa, and waged war against the government for 27 years. UNITA drew its strength from the Ovimbundu people of the central highlands, and the Bailundo family was one of the most prominent Ovimbundu clans (Angolan tribal heritage has numerous royal clans, as did the old Irish). The clan’s traditional seat, the town of Bailundo, became the UNITA headquarters in the 1990s.
Beetriz’s father inherited the Bailundo royal title, but forsook it to pursue a religious vocation, and became a Christian minister. But he was a well-known figure in his locale and, as tensions ran high between the rival liberation movements prior to the Portuguese withdrawal, he was targeted. One day in 1974, when Beetriz was six years old, he disappeared. Beetriz’s mother sent her away to live with her godparents, saying she would follow after. She never did. Beetriz never saw either of her parents again.
Many years later, Beetriz escaped across the southern border of Angola into Namibia, and then to South Africa, and eventually to Ireland, where she was recognised as a refugee. She had by then trained as a nurse, and had been enlisted in the army’s medical corps, and when the military hospital at which she was stationed ran out of medicines, had begun volunteering with the Red Cross. When a fresh outbreak of fighting forced the Red Cross’s international staff to evacuate, Beetriz went with them. All this time, she says, “I didn’t know who I was”.
In Ireland, she settled in Athlone, made friends locally, and concentrated on raising her two daughters. The Angolan war finally ended in 2002, when government troops ambushed Jonas Savimbi’s convoy deep in the Angolan bush, and killed him. In 2005, Beetriz travelled back to Angola to start the search for her parents, and put out an appeal for information via the Red Cross. “I grew up always thinking that perhaps there had been an error, that my parents were still alive somewhere in the world. Many children found their parents again.”
Eventually, two years ago, she got a phone call from a childhood friend. During his own search for his father – who had disappeared in like manner – he had been given information on the fate of Beetriz’s father. Her father had been shot, and his body dumped in a river. But one of the men in the group responsible for his murder had subsequently retrieved his body, and buried it in a shallow grave. This man had come forward – without identifying his own role in the killing – and shown the grave to Beetriz’s old friend. The friend offered to have her father reinterred, with proper funeral rites, but Beetriz said no. She would do it herself.
Friends in Athlone rallied round to help her raise the money for the trip and, in July 2007, Beetriz travelled to the provincial capital of Huambo, once famous as the university town of Angola, but largely destroyed in the civil war, and then on to her home town, Luvemba. She negotiated with the local authorities to have her father disinterred, and organised a proper funeral.
One day on this pilgrimage, Beetriz was approached by a woman. She knew where Beetriz’s mother was buried, she said. Beetriz’s mother and her sister had been hiding in the bush, waiting for an opportunity to escape and follow Beetriz to the town of Huambo. They were found, and were savagely killed: the woman said they had been dismembered. This woman had found their bodies and, recognising Beetriz’s mother, had placed her remains in a bag, and buried them in the back yard of her house.
When the remains were disinterred, Beetriz found scraps of a dress that she remembered her mother wearing, thirty years earlier. Her mother was reinterred with her father.
“After thirty years, it seems, for me, as if my parents have just died,” she says.
“Having found them and buried them, I am at one again. But now I have a desire to return to Angola. I know that they are there, and I want to work there, to be near them.”
“I grew up without anyone to call Mother and Father. I grew up without a roof, without protection. My concern for my daughters, now, is not just for their well being, but for their identity. Now we have Irish passports, whatever happens, the Irish Government will be responsible for us, because we are Irish.
She was saddened by the poverty she saw on her return to Angola, and determined that she would do something to contribute.
“I have had a lot of help here in Ireland. Now I have to do something, as an Irish person, to help them.”
The most important thing for this new citizen of Ireland, though: “I know my parents are in their place.”