- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

KUITO, Angola — Pedro Alberto, a wiry man of 42, has pulled on a clean shirt and a clean pair of trousers and has polished his thin-soled leather shoes because today is a special day.

For the first time since he picked up a rifle 28 years ago as a child soldier to fight with rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), Mr. Alberto is going home.

A flatbed truck provided by local authorities was ready to take him and other former guerrillas on the last leg of a journey that began when Angola’s quarter-century of civil war ended a year ago, after the army killed UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

Like other African countries, Angola for centuries was shackled by colonial rule from distant Europe and freed only to be torn apart by a Cold War proxy conflict that split Angolans into opposing camps — a division that produced the continent’s longest post-colonial conflict.

Mr. Alberto has bundled up his foam mattress, cooking pans and a chair with string. His wife and five children sit quietly around him as they wait in a bombed-out roadside warehouse that is the government-run transit center in Kuito for demobilized troops.

The former UNITA major has made a toy for his 6-year-old son: a small piece of tin bent into the shape of a car with chewed, cut-down corncobs for wheels.

“We’re all just so glad it’s over,” Mr. Alberto said as he whittled a stick to pass the time. “I just want to settle down, set up a home, maybe start a little farm.”

After 41 years of war — first against Portuguese colonial rule, then against each other after independence in 1975 — Angolans are embarking on the long road back to normal life.

Almost all of UNITA’s 86,000 guerrillas and their 350,000 dependents are passing through transit centers like the one in Kuito as they leave demobilization camps and head to homes they barely remember.

Despite the makeshift conditions — dirty tarpaulins strung out against the rain and daily handouts from the U.N. World Food Program cooked over wood fires — the several hundred people waiting for trucks are in a holiday mood. They display no resentment or hostility toward former foes.

“The civil war is over. There’s no doubt about that,” said Joao Porto, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

Mr. Alberto has only a blurred vision of the future. He has less than $100 in his pocket — his demobilization pay — to start his family’s new life. He has no idea what awaits them in Chitenda, his home village 100 miles to the south.

During the war, Mr. Alberto spent long periods away from his wife and children, who stayed in rebel-held areas while he went off to attack government positions.

He fought battles all across this fertile southern African country almost twice the size of Texas. During the Cold War, he fought alongside South African soldiers, who, with support from the CIA, tried to defeat a Cuban force protecting Angola’s Marxist government.

Since age 14, Mr. Alberto has had no contact with his family. He doesn’t know if he still has relatives, a house or land in Chitenda. In a country where average life expectancy is just 40 years, Angolans are starting over virtually from scratch.

Roads, power systems and other infrastructure are wrecked after decades of bombing, neglect and scorched-earth tactics by both sides. The little that is left dates from the Portuguese colonial period.

In the gloomy, low-ceiling children’s ward at Kuito’s main hospital, three dozen rusty beds stand on bare concrete. Sick infants lie three to a bed, watched over by their mothers.

A woman in a dusty crimson dress begins to wail, “My child, my child. Open your eyes, open your eyes.” A doctor steps over, searches for the 12-year-old boy’s heartbeat and shakes her head slowly. He was fatally weakened by malnutrition.

No one pays attention to the wailing, a frequent sound in the hospital. The woman slowly pulls her son by his lifeless arms onto her back and shuffles out into the bright sunshine.

Less than 10 minutes later, a 14-month-old child on a bed by the open window succumbs to malaria. No one speaks as the weeping mother picks up her baby, politely wipes off the plastic covering the mattress, and trudges out of the hospital.

Poor sanitary conditions, inadequate diet and cramped living conditions spread disease, killing almost 200,000 children younger than 5 each year, UNICEF estimates.

The countryside is lush around Kuito, a city in the central highlands 360 miles southeast of the capital, Luanda, but tens of thousands of people scrape out a living. Few paying jobs are found outside Luanda, and at least 85 percent of Angolans live hand-to-mouth from subsistence farming.

Many of Angola’s 11 million people depend on foreign aid for survival, and the government estimates 300,000 are in “critical” need of food.

One thing Angola does have is land mines. It is one of the world’s most mined countries, and amputees from explosions are common sights. The occasional detonation of a mine can close an important road for weeks.

Mine clearing is under way but will take years. Angola’s dirt hides an estimated 8 million to 14 million mines.

Kuito has no electricity or running water. Every building shows the scars of battle, especially a brutal nine-month siege in 1992 and 1993 when the government and UNITA each held parts of the city. Residents refer to that period as “the time we ate our dogs.”

Yet there are glimpses of a better life.

The road to Luanda is open again, allowing supplies to reach Kuito’s handful of general stores and a recently reopened restaurant.

Children stream in from outlying villages to attend school. They race across the dusty playground, giggling and shouting. School bags strapped to their backs, they scramble up bullet-pocked walls and through glassless windows.

Classrooms are crowded at Kuito’s main school in a colonial building used as a military hospital during the war. Some classes are held outside, gradually shifting along the walls to follow the shade.

“Calm down, now, calm down,” a teacher in a white smock shouts to a class of excited 8-year-olds.

She teaches them the words for leg, foot and knee in Portuguese. It’s Angola’s official language, but not as prevalent in the central highlands as Ovimbundu, a tribal tongue spoken by about a third of Angolans.

Nearby, city employees sweep debris out of partly collapsed apartment buildings and a roofless Roman Catholic church. Others clip public lawns and prepare flower beds along avenues lined with bullet-riddled colonial villas.

“This area suffered horrendously in the war, but the improvement is plain to see,” said Maria del Carmen Real, a Cuban working for the World Food Program.

In Luanda, meanwhile, life seems to defy logic.

Official figures document widespread and severe poverty, but the capital’s cratered streets are jammed with traffic, including a lot of flashy imported cars costing more than $50,000.

Corruption is a way of life. A government clerk draped in gold necklaces and bracelets says his monthly pay is equivalent to $200 but quietly acknowledges he earns thousands more each month in payoffs. Clerks routinely hold up licenses and other official documents until they get cash.

When the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola shed its Marxist ideology at the collapse of the Soviet Union, it unleashed a grab-what-you-can mentality.

Human-rights groups charge that the ruling elite has skimmed off as much as $1 billion annually over the past six years from offshore oil pumping that makes Angola sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest producer after Nigeria.

For years, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have withheld development aid unless they are shown the government’s books. Aid is provided by other agencies for food, education and other needs, but nothing is earmarked for rebuilding.

Shantytowns sprawl for miles outside Luanda. Barefoot toddlers forage in narrow alleys and play amid heaps of trash coated in green mold and buzzed by clouds of mosquitoes. The stench spreads over the sweltering port city.

“Things are just the same as they were during the war, but there’s no excuse for it now,” growls Mauricio Gomes, a taxi driver.

Popular unrest, though, is rare.

Groups on the sidewalk scatter when the cops pull up. People fear beatings by the “ninjas” — riot police in mirror sunglasses and ammunition belts.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, a reclusive figure, has ruled with an iron fist since 1979. His detractors charge that he keeps his cronies happy with payoffs.

In Futungo, a suburb south of the city, more than 100 speedboats bob in a guarded bay. On weekends, political and military leaders speed across the lagoon to Mussulo, a spit of sand where air-conditioned restaurants among villas and swimming pools serve up meals of grilled lobster for $100.

At the festering city dump on the north side of Luanda, dozens of ragged people swarm around garbage trucks, picking out stale bread, moldy chickens or anything else they might want to cook.

Francisco Canha, 25, whose skin is blotchy with sores, complains of bug bites and itching eyes but says he has to help provide for his parents and seven brothers and sisters who share a shanty.

“Our war is getting by each day,” he said.

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