I was barely five when my father left to fight in Angola, a place I’d heard very little about (it was the name of my day care center). They only told me that children in that country lived in poor conditions, and that the Cubans were going to help make things better. Even to a young child those explanations weren’t so convincing; they only triggered my concern – Would he ever come back?
Fortunately I had my mother, always attentive and caring, though burdened by the situation of being alone with two small children, as well as working outside the home and trying to raise us the best she could.
We learned about my dad through his letters and postcards that came regularly. Through those and the photos he took, I learned about the geography, people and the colors of Luanda, Malange and others towns.
He was there for 22 months, where on his work table he had my drawings, those of my brother and family photos. We were never out of his thoughts, not even for a moment. However here in Cuba at least one little girl would wonder — especially when going to bed and on the weekends — “why doesn’t my daddy come home and tell me some pretty bedtime story?”
Those were difficult years for all Cuban families (like almost every year). Separation from loved ones is painful, but if the reason is a war, the pain mixes with horror.
This was the case when I found out why a classmate of mine had missed classes; Camilo had received the news of his father’s death. That was my first contact with the Grim Reaper. Up until that moment I’d never suspected that someone who was loved could stop existing forever. I had only known that some magicians were able to make people disappear, but they always returned.
I had lain behind any childish jealousies. It never went through my mind that my father could stay to live with other children, another wife and other friends. Could there be anything worse than that. Then my worries grew: Could they kill my dad too?
The two years passed slowly for everyone, but finally my father returned alive and the house again lit up.
When I was about to turn 12, one day in March my father disappeared once again, but this time not even a magician could make him come back. A fatal lung illness caused him to suffer a short time before taking him far away. Death had once again frightened me, though on that occasion the emotion changed from fear to the deepest sadness.
Now an adult, I occasionally ask myself about our internationalism, about parents being made to abandon families to struggle for a better world. In that war in Angola, Cuba lost more than 2,000 men and women, many who were parents that would never again have the fortune of playing with their children or learning about their lives. Nothing can compensate for that.
Their bodies were returned to the island in 1989 in what was called Operation Tribute. I still remember the coffins, each with a photo of the dead attached to its black cloth cover. In some of the pictures they were smiling, in others they had spirited looks, but all the faces were young.
Among those who survived, many returned with personality disorders, transformed, torn. Some came back with missing limbs, others without the desire to live. Some of them now sit around on whatever corner recounting their heroic feats while hawking cigarettes just to survive.
I don’t feel any bitterness toward my father, though perhaps I recognize a bit of selfishness on my part. By his having to leave to fight in other lands we lost the opportunity to be together those two years, and I don’t believe that has ever stopped hurting.