CUBAL, Angola -- The road to Cubal is a war scar, riddled with potholes and littered with the bodies of cargo trucks that didn't survive the trip from Benguela, a coastal city 100 miles to the west.
The terrain is dry and full of massive rock formations that provided cover for rebel soldiers, who regularly ambushed government convoys taking supplies inland from the coast.
It reflects the shambles from which this country is trying to rescue itself after three decades of revolution and civil war -- the latter a fight that was the by-product of the Cold War, pitting U.S.-supported rebels against a Soviet- and Cuban-supported Marxist government.
"This was the heartland of the war," said an Angolan relief worker traveling on the Cubal road for the first time in three years. "A few months ago, the soldiers wouldn't let anyone pass after 2 o'clock. UNITA would always attack after that."
Army guards keep watch at bridges along the lightly traveled road, a favorite rebel target until the fighting stopped in May after a cease-fire agreement was reached between the government and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebel movement.
The rebels waged war for 16 years against the Luanda-based government, which until last year espoused rigid, Marxist-Leninist philosophies and refused to recognize any political party except the ruling one, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
The civil war, which came on the heels of a long independence struggle against Portugal, ravaged the southwest African country and caused tremendous suffering among its 9 million people. An estimated 300,000 people were killed, more than 1 million were displaced and at least $25 billion in damage was done to the nation's infrastructure.
Rebels planted hundreds of land mines along the route from Benguela to Cubal, blowing up tanks and supply trucks bound for army bases as well as those carting food and supplies to civilians. Dams and bridges were sabotaged too, making normal travel impossible and shutting off towns and villages in the interior of the country.
The dam that supplied power to Cubal, a town of 120,000 before refugees began streaming in from the countryside, was blown up in a guerrilla attack in 1983. Since then, the residents have depended on two temperamental, old generators for electrical power. They break down regularly, leaving the city in darkness except for the dim glow of candles and oil lamps.
Despite its problems, shortages and suffering, Cubal is seen as a safe haven by thousands of civilians who have fled the fighting in rural areas. Last year, 15,000 people walked 40 miles to Cubal after the village of Capupa was attacked by rebel soldiers.
"UNITA came to sabotage the government, but it was the people who suffered," said Avelino Gungo, a leader of the large refugee group. He said the people lost everything they owned in their flight to safety. Now they live mostly on the charity of international relief agencies in a community of brick houses and grass huts on the edge of town. They call it Capupa Novos -- "New Capupa."
"The government gave the people land but provided little more," said the Rev. Luis Keller, a Catholic priest who has lived in Angola since 1957 when he left his native Switzerland. He said the Red Cross dug five boreholes for water, and the French relief agency, Doctors Without Borders, provides medical help.
The Catholic mission donates sacks of meal and cans of cooking oil that come by army-escorted convoy from the port city of Lobito, where the Baltimore-based charity Catholic Relief Services has its warehouses.
"All these people have land in Capupa," said Schuyler Thorup, a CRS relief worker who visited the dusty refugee village with the Rev. Luis. "They are just waiting for the mines to be cleared to go home."
Most of the Capupa refugees were subsistence farmers, he said. But like hundreds of thousands in this war-torn country, they are afraid that going home too soon will yield a bitter harvest. Although the war has been called to a halt, roads and fields are still covered with the land mines that were planted mostly by UNITA, but also by the army.
"The land doesn't produce here," said Mr. Gungo, a devout Catholic who wears a small temperance button on the lapel of his tattered blue jacket. "We are going back home. We are just waiting for the time. The people want to return but they don't want to harvest mines."
He said about 1,000 people had gone back to Capupa, but they returned to Cubal because there was nothing to eat at their old village.
In Cubal, the people of Capupa found food and relative safety, but men were frequently taken from their homes and forced to join the army. "They do that a lot here. They come at night and take people away if they are the right age," said Mr. Gungo. "UNITA does it too. But when UNITA comes, they take the whole family. They take people to increase the size of the UNITA villages, to increase the number of people on their side."
Cubal has also been hit heavily by the war. The schools are operating, but the teachers have not been paid by the government in months. Railroad workers for the government-owned Benguela Railroad, once a busy transport route but now hardly operational, say they haven't seen a paycheck in nearly two years.
Emilio Tuapita, who teaches English at the high school in Cubal, said he had just received his January check in June. The monthly salary of 17,000 kwanzas for a teacher with nine years of education is enough to buy two shirts, which sell for 7,000 kwanzas each.
But there is little to buy in Cubal. Most of the shops are closed and boarded up. Most teachers must farm as well as teach to make ends meet.
The 75-bed government hospital in Cubal has a professional staff of one doctor, one nurse and one nutritionist. The doctor, a French gynecologist named Beatrice Guyard, was sent in May by Doctors Without Borders. She is married to an engineer who also works for the French relief group. When the power goes out, as it often does, Dr. Guyard dons a cap with a flashlight mounted on front and does her rounds while husband Patrick goes out to help repair the town generators.
"I had never done an amputation before I came here. Since I arrived, I've done five," she said, adding that sometimes she has to operate at night by flashlight.
Dr. Guyard handles everything except tuberculosis cases, which she sends to a 300-bed TB center run by the Catholic mission as part of its hospital complex.
She thinks that probably 10 percent of the TB cases are victims of AIDS, but she can't be certain because she doesn't have facilities to test for AIDS.