WORLD

Out of the ashes

Destitute and weary, Angola is struggling to emerge from the shadow of civil war

January 16 1995
WORLD

Out of the ashes

Destitute and weary, Angola is struggling to emerge from the shadow of civil war

January 16 1995

Out of the ashes

Destitute and weary, Angola is struggling to emerge from the shadow of civil war

ANGOLA

For the 10 million citizens of Angola, last week’s New Year celebrations had a special resonance: with a little luck, 1995 will prove to be the year in which peace finally returns to their battlescarred country after two decades of bloody civil war. Since Angola won independence from Portugal in 1975, an estimated 500,000 people have died in clashes between the leftist government and the rightist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In the process, the oiland diamond-rich country on southern Africa’s Atlantic coast has been pushed to the brink of starvation. As 1994 drew to a close, however, both sides in the conflict appeared willing to abide by a UN-brokered ceasefire that was signed in the Zambian capital of Lusaka on Nov. 20. And last week, rebel leader Jonas Savimbi offered to meet face-to-face with President José Eduardo dos Santos in an effort to consolidate the peace process. UN officials said they were hopeful that such a meeting would take place before the end of January. To gauge the prospects for a lasting settlement, Maclean’s correspondent Philip Winslow recently visited Angola and spoke to many of its destitute, warweary inhabitants. His report:

Standing in the courtyard—it is now a graveyard—of a ruined apartment building in the central city of Cuito, >edro Enoque chain-smoked cigaettes down to the filter as he glanced iround at a dozen girls and boys playng in the rubble. “Everybody is so ;ick of war,” said Enoque, the social iffairs minister of Angola’s Bié irovince. “Nobody can stand it any nore. All these children—none of hem has ever seen peace.” During a fine-month siege by UNITA rebels in 1993, 400 families crowded into the flock’s ground-floor apartments, hopng they would provide some protecdon from bombs and rockets. Still, many died. Today, in the lombed-out buildings, Cuito’s survivors cook on smoky wood fires n blackened corners. They have no running water and little elecxicity. When hunger grips them, they venture out to scrounge for food on the city’s outskirts. Some never come back. Several times a week a land mine or unexploded grenade claims another victim.

The story going around, easy to believe after touring the remains of the provincial capital, is that the city is so devastated it will have to be rebuilt somewhere else. A once beautiful place of flower gardens and broad streets lined with jacaranda trees, Cuito was bombed, shelled and rocketed without mercy. Not a single building escaped damage, not one family survived intact. For nearly a year under ferocious bombardment, the people of Cuito ate roots and banana leaves, and buried their dead in the back gardens. “The only song we heard was the sound of shelling,” vice-governor Estevao Kossoma said of the siege. ‘The only smell we knew was blood.”

Not far from Cuito’s main street, metre-deep combat trenches zigzag among the shattered apartment buildings. A mere 30 m separated the UNITA rebels and government soldiers in this area, and the fighting, often hand-to-hand, raged for weeks on end. The still-uniformed skeleton of a soldier lies in the weeds and rubble of the no man’s land between the old front lines. It is too dangerous for anyone to recover the body: the ground is littered with unexploded grenades, rockets and Russian “bouncing mines”—which, when stepped upon, jump in the air and explode at waist level. “Not a good place to go for a walk,” comments Mike Marmol, a volunteer minesweeper from the British nonprofit group Halo Trust, as he cautiously makes his way along the edge of a trench.

Crawling on his hands and knees—confidently, but a little too quickly to please his Halo Trust colleagues—Mohammed Aslam tests the sandy ground in front of him with a fighting knife. Satisfied that his path is clear, Aslam, a former general in the Afghanistan army, climbs down into a pit full of tree branches and litter. He emerges with two unexploded Chinese 82-mm mortar shells and a 57-mm shell. Watching his quick movements through the grass, Marmol calls out: “Aslam, that area is very suspect—it’s not a good

idea.” Aslam replies over his shoulder: “It’s OK The ground is hard.” A day later, Aslam’s luck ran out: a land mine he was holding exploded and took off one hand.

Over two days, Aslam, Marmol and colleague Paul Heslop had collected 44 pieces of unexploded ordnance that read like an international catalogue of destruction. There were mines, rocket-propelled grenades, cluster bombs and mortar shells from China, Russia, Romania, South Africa and Portugal. In the same area, three weeks earlier, a young girl innocently picked up a shiny object in the sand. It blew up in her face. Heslop, who has cleared mines for the British army and in Mozambique for the Halo Trust, says that Cuito has more amputees than any place he has ever worked.

Angola’s capital, Luanda, 600 km northwest of Cuito, looks at times like a city of one-legged men and women, their progress on aluminum crutches slow and agonizing. Every few months, tens of thousands of new refugees arrive from the provinces, choking an already overcrowded city. Little wonder, then, that Luanda’s inhabitants seem more surly, desperate and depressed than they did a few months ago. There are more children begging in the streets, the potholes are deeper.

In a country with vast resources—diamonds, oil and some of the richest farmland in Africa—3.8 million people, or more than onethird of the population, depend on emergency food aid flown in by the United Nations. Fighting and an estimated 20 million land mines have brought agriculture to a standstill. The kwanza, the local currency, has lost 45 per cent of its buying power in the past month alone—it now stands at about 500,000 to the dollar. The price of lunch, for those who can afford to eat in a restaurant, can be a stack of kwanzas an inch thick. Luanda police officers earn the equivalent of five dollars a month, the price of a couple of beers. As hungry as the people they are meant to protect, policemen resort, in broad daylight, to extortion at gunpoint. Streets are packed with a roving army of orphaned children, prostitutes and teenagers hawking clothing, beach toys and electrical goods stolen from Luanda’s Atlantic portail desperately trying to make enough money to buy food.

Elsewhere in Angola, the countryside is lush and the air is more breathable than in the heavily polluted capital. But the only way to get there is on military or UN aid flights, and in the case of the latter, the planes fly only when the fighting eases and both sides grant permission. The battles of the past two years have destroyed road and rail lines and divided Angola into besieged enclaves, cut off from the outside world. Civilians are imprisoned by land mines and the threat of being attacked or kidnapped if they try to work their farm fields.

Exceptions are rare. But at least one exists. Baking under the early summer sun, Camundambala, a tiny village 180 km from the Zaire border in eastern Angola, is a picture-postcard suggestion of what Angola might look like without the war. Shaded by a grove of large mango trees, Camundambala boasts gardens rich by wartime standards. Com, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, sunflowers and manioc, the starchy root staple crop, flourish in the red, sandy soil. Children are clear-eyed, with few signs of the malnutrition common across Angola. Women go to the church in the morning, work the fields and share gossip with friends under the mangoes in the afternoon.

Camundambala’s relative peace has a unique origin. Half of its 200 inhabitants have leprosy. Soldiers from both sides refuse to enter the village for fear of catching the disease. Left alone, villagers live under a still-intact tribal structure. The village chief decides when the mangoes are ripe enough to pick, the people obey as they have for generations, and the crop is shared among them rather than pillaged by marauding soldiers.

The villagers are not self-sufficient, however. Those who risk foraging too far afield for water risk being kidnapped by rebels. A hydraulic pump that brought water from the Chicapa River, two kilometres away, broke down two years ago. Christian Brethren, the missionary group that looks after Camundambala, recently asked the Canadian government to help supply a new one; the village is still waiting for an answer. The smiles and easy laughter seem unique in this war-ravaged land. “We know soldiers do not come here because there are sick people,” says an elderly man in his native Choquee language. “Perhaps because of our own suffering, God has kept us. We just wish for peace for all of Angola, for us all to sit together in peace.”

The most commonly used word in the Angolan lexicon these days is probably esperanza-"hope" in Portuguese. `We hope peace will come," says Estrella Sampayo as she moves back into her Cuito home, which was taken over by UN1TA rebels during the siege. "It's what keeps us alive." But for many Angolans, hope remains a distant concept. On a recent day in Cuito, a government soldier in dirty cam ouflage fatigues chatted with a foreign visitor who was examining a Russian-made cluster bomb. The soldier's chest was draped with pouches of rifle magazines and his eyes were as hard and empty as the eyes of any battle-weary war veteran. "How old are you?" asked the visitor. "Fourteen," he replied. "And how long have you been a soldier?" "Along time," he said. His eyes never flickered.