Before Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule in 1961, its citizens would freely move to other colonies of the empire, including to African enclaves of Mozambique, Angola and Cape Verde. While most migrants and their children steered down conventional life paths, a few stood out for their distinctive work – like joining the liberation struggles in their adopted lands.

From the shadowy pages of history, one such narrative has wound its way back to relate the valiant, contentious and tragic story of Left-wing revolutionary Sita Valles, an ethnic Goan-Indian who was born in Angola, where her Goan parents had migrated for work.

Starting out as a student leader, Valles rapidly rose in prominence, until her intense political activism ended on August 1, 1977. She “was said to have been shot in each arm, then in each leg, before her body fell into a ditch dug for the purpose. A fatal shot then killed the 26-year-old doctor,” writes Valles’ biographer Portuguese-Angolan journalist Leonor Figueiredo.

In March 1978, her older brother Aldemar Valles, an electrical engineer who had eschewed political activity, was executed without trial – merely for bearing the surname of his sister. Their family was never informed of their deaths, writes Figueiredo, and for years, their elderly parents pursued the case of the “disappeared” children – to no avail – with Amnesty International, the Portuguese and Angolan governments, and the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

The Valles siblings: Ademar, Sita and Edgar. Ademar, the eldest child, was also killed during the Angolan civil war.

Turning point

At the age of 26, Valles was accused by the Angolan government of being one of the main plotters of an alleged putsch on May 27, 1977. Her co-conspirators in the crime, it was alleged, were her husband Jose Van-Dunem, a former member of the central committee of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, and Nito Alves, a former MPLA guerilla and ousted interior minister. Valles had worked for a while as a secretary in Alves’ office.

The day, referred to by Angolans as “vinte e sete de maio” (27 May), marked a turning point in the history of the newly independent country. Some reports described the events as a botched coup attempt by a dissident MPLA faction led by Alves and Van-Dunem, while other sources downplay them as a demonstration which drew a violent pushback. The dissidents favoured a different set of political decisions for Angola – they wanted a stronger pro-Soviet foreign policy – while the ruling President Agostinho Neto government advocated non-alignment, and was open to western investment and a liberal citizenship policy.

The events resulted in the takeover of the public radio for a few hours, before Cuban tanks and troops stationed in Angola joined the soldiers of the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) in opening fire to quell the rebellion.

Whatever the contested truth, seven senior members of the ruling MPLA were killed in the uprising. Historians suggest the Neto leadership reacted with a brutal crackdown and repressive purge that continued for two years, though it was hardly reported in the international media. An unknown number of people – some say tens of thousands – were arrested, sent to reeducation camps or disappeared, creating a fear of dissent that persisted for decades.

How did Valles land at the epicentre of this intricate international power politics? And why did she choose to join a faction that questioned the choices of the 17-month-old Neto government?

The cover of the translated 'Sita Valles: A Revolutionary until Death'.

These and other questions are answered in Figueiredo’s 2010 biography of Valles, which was recently translated into English by DA Smith. Titled Sita Valles: A Revolutionary until Death, the book reconstructs her early years in the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, where her father worked, and follows her trajectory into student politics. It examines the ideology and motivations that drove Valles into Angola’s complex geopolitics.

Switch to politics

Valles was initiated into student politics shortly after she joined medical school in Luanda in 1968-’69. It was a heady time. Students in Angola were influenced by the protests that had erupted in France in May 1968. A tide of anti-colonialism was sweeping Angolan universities, with campuses coming out in support of MPLA’s demand of liberation from Portuguese rule. In response, the Portuguese police, called the International Police for Defense of the State, had arrested many students belonging to secret organisations, many from Luanda’s medical school.

Like many radical students of the era, Valles came into contact with activists of the Portuguese Communist Party. In 1971, she moved to a Lisbon medical school, where she further embraced student politics. Campuses and hostels in Lisbon were seething with anger and student opposition to the stream of young soldiers being sent to quell liberation movements in African and Asian colonies.

To her supporters, Valles was vivacious, charming and fearless, and to her critics, she came across as seductive, reckless and ambitious. Her energy and organisational skills propelled her to the number two position in the clandestine Union of Communist Students, which was affiliated to the Portuguese Communist Party. At the forefront of action, she organised flash meetings, distributed pamphlets denouncing colonialism and escaped arrests on several occasions by the dreaded Portuguese police, which kept a file on her activities. Her visits to youth conferences in the USSR must have left an impression, for “she was a staunch defender of orthodox Soviet doctrine”.

After Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of April 1974, which ended the dictatorship in Lisbon, Valles, like others with similar political leanings, returned to Angola, where she ostensibly rejoined medical studies and field practice, but dived into political organisational work.

Angola declared independence in 1975, but soon after, a civil war broke out in the oil- and diamond-rich nation. On one side was the MPLA, supported by the Soviets and Cuba, and on the other were CIA- and South Africa-backed armed guerrillas of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (NFLA). Amid this struggle, at the height of the Cold War, when both the USA and USSR were competing to increase their spheres of influence, President Neto opted for non-alignment.

Figueiredo’s book recreates Valles’ story from testimonies and interviews of family, friends and critics – painting a picture of a fearless, dogmatic young woman, “a convinced communist”, devoted to her politics and ideology to the end. It raises the spectre of her being a willing soldier to a cause she believed in – but one that caused her parents and family considerable grief.

“Sita went to make her revolution in Angola, where her deepest, most secret contacts revolved around Nito Alves and Jose Van-Dunem, the latter of whom became her partner and to whom she was ideologically close, as well as a whole wing composed of more radical Marxist-Leninists,” writes Figueiredo. “There were other leftists groups…The MPLA leadership called all of these militants ‘fraccionistas’, seeing their criticism as an attempt to divide the movement. Nito Alves, Sita Valles, and Jose Van-Dunem, however, saw themselves as revolutionaries consistent with Marxist-Leninist theory.”

At the same time, there was criticism of Valles and her group. It was said of them that though they never actually fought Angola’s guerilla liberation movement, they were meddling in its affairs on behalf of external forces, even as President Neto and the ruling MPLA were steering the nation through a foreign and economic policy path that was in its best interests.

The 1977 rebellion in Angola.

The divisions worsened after the alleged putsch of May 27, 1977. According to her biography, Valles faced her executioners bravely, refusing to be blindfolded and defiant to the end. She left behind a three-month-old son she had nicknamed Che after Che Guevara.

Gaps in the Valles story persist to this day. “Sita can only be understood in the spirit of those unique times… Many questions remain about Sita Valles and 27 May, which led to her death. Was there a coup? A counter coup? There isn’t enough information to clearly understand how this power struggle played out,” says Figueiredo’s epilogue.

In 1994, the UN working group wrote to the family based on information from the Angolan government confirming that “Sita had been part of the insurrection, imprisoned like the others, tried, found guilty of various crimes and executed by a firing squad, as were Jose Van-Dunem and Ademar Valles.”

At the beginning of this century, in 2001, the 27 May Foundation was formed in Luanda to seek accountability. The Portuguese 27 May Foundation, formed in 2004, counts Ademar and Sita’s brother Edgar Valles as its member. It continues to seek justice, highlighting the incident each year through the media and promises to keep the memory alive, “to remember in order not to forget”, and hopes for a truth commission someday.

Valles with her child, whom she had nicknamed Che after Che Guevara.