A hot spot in the Cold War, Angola now sheds blood unnoticed


LUANDA, Angola -- A year after elections that were supposed to set Angola on the path to freedom and prosperity, this country is worse off than ever before -- worse, some believe, than Somalia or Bosnia.

Thousands have died in the last year of renewed warfare in this land that once was the obsession of the rival superpowers but now attracts little international attention. Thousands of others have been wounded -- many by mines planted all over the country. Angola is said to have the world's largest population of amputees.

Between 2 million and 3 million of Angola's 10 million people are war refugees. According to UNICEF, the country now has the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

Most agree that only large amounts of international aid are staving off widespread starvation. The United Nations' World Food Program is feeding 1 million people, and its director in Angola, Phillippe Borel, says he should be feeding twice that number.

The country, torn by 16 years of civil war after independence from Portugal, went to the polls last September to choose between the combatants, Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the formerly Soviet-backed government led by Jose Eduardo Dos Santos' People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

It was an honest election, monitored by the United Nations, and to practically everyone's surprise, the MPLA won. No one, perhaps, was more surprised than Mr. Savimbi. He refused to accept the results and his forces have been ravaging the countryside ever since.

UNITA now occupies 80 percent of the country, including the territory of Angola's diamond and oil resources. And while there have been some gestures toward a settlement, little hope for success exists.

In the days when Angola was a hot battleground of the Cold War, with the United States supporting Mr. Savimbi and Moscow backing the MPLA, the fight was waged mainly in Angola's rural areas. Most of the victims were members of the opposing armies. But the last year's fighting has been all-out, concentrated around besieged cities.

The infrastructure has been a constant target. Land mines have been planted everywhere there is conflict, and not just on battlefields, but around planted fields and fruit trees. Their one-legged victims are a common sight.

Most of the deaths do not come from the weapons of war, but from disease and malnutrition.

Because farmers have been driven from their fields, and the economic and delivery systems have broken down, ample food is not making it to hungry mouths.

The same problem plagues medical supplies. And, with little planting going on now during the spring season, the food shortage is expected to get worse.

Because so much of the country is cut off by the fighting, no one is sure how many are dying. When the war was at its most intense, estimates ranged up to 1,000 deaths a day.

Whatever the number, the Angolan death rate may well exceed those in Bosnia and Somalia, countries whose tragedies have dominated the world stage, pushing Angola's long-running drama into the wings.

Cold War remnant

What Angolans ask is that the world pay the same type of attention now as it did when this once-rich country was a significant Cold War battleground.

"This war is a direct result of the Cold War," said the leader of one of the many aid organizations at work here. "Now that the United States and Russia are having such a hot love affair, they don't want to see the nonsense they left behind."

The acknowledged aggressor in the current conflict is Mr. Savimbi, once a favorite of the Reagan White House, which viewed his fight against MPLA as part of a worldwide anti-Communist movement.

While the United States and South Africa backed UNITA -- the former with weapons, the latter with invasions -- MPLA countered with Russian weapons and Cuban troops.

A 1991 agreement that called for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and the end of South African operations promised Angolans what Mr. Savimbi said he was fighting for all along -- free elections in a multiparty democracy.

The charismatic Mr. Savimbi was widely expected to win the Sept. 29, 1992, vote. But he ran a bellicose campaign in a country yearning for peace.

When the MPLA won, Mr. Savimbi claimed widespread fraud and within a few days, he ordered his highly disciplined UNITA troops back into action.

Those troops were supposed to have been disarmed before the election. But a hopelessly understaffed United Nations observer force did not sufficiently monitor UNITA forces that were spread throughout the countryside. The urban-based government troops were demobilized.

Though UNITA was driven out of the country's seaside capital, Luanda, in three days of fierce fighting last October, with little opposition elsewhere in the country, it immediately put most of Angola -- though only 20 percent of its population -- behind its lines.

"It is only because UNITA had bad leaders that they did not take over the country then," said Gen. Joao de Matos, the government's military chief of staff. "They certainly had the military force to do it."

After UNITA launched its offensive, the new government began building its forces back up to strength, re-taking some areas and defending cities throughout the country, especially in the southern highlands that have always been pro-UNITA territory.

UNITA took over the city of Huambo, which is now its headquarters. The fiercest fighting now rages around Cuito. Up to 20,000 people are thought to have died in this highlands provincial capital that is cut off from aid by constant bombardment.

Food-laden aid flights do reach other besieged cities, such as Luena, Malange and Saurimo, where the fighting is only sporadic. When UNITA troops surrounded those cities, tens of thousands of farm families moved into the urban areas, straining the capacity of aid organizations to keep them fed. Adequate medical care and proper sanitation are lacking.

Luanda has also taken up to 1 million refugees, swelling its population to 3 million and putting further pressure on an infrastructure already crumbling from 15 years of neglect.

Inflation has made Angola's currency, the kwanza, virtually worthless. A year ago, one dollar was worth about 5,000 kwanzas. In April, the figure was 20,000. Now it will buy 50,000. On street corners in Luanda, the money-changers offer huge sheafs of kwanzas in exchange for dollars.

The result is that many cannot afford to buy food, especially if they are supporting a household swollen with refugees. A flourishing black market, fueled by government corruption and pilferage from the port, has replaced the country's official economy.

The refugees keep coming

On a hillside 30 miles north of Luanda is a town of 13,000 that wasn't there three weeks ago. Some of the inhabitants of this camp of U.N.-supplied canvas tents and hastily constructed thatched huts walked for a month to escape fighting in the north of the country.

About five miles from the camp is the battle-scarred city of Caxito, recaptured by government troops in April but still subject to UNITA raids.

A Norwegian medical team works at the Caxito hospital without electricity. "When UNITA left, they took everything out of here," said one of the doctors, Trygue Ariansen. "Even the door knobs."

One of their patients, 49-year-old Pedro Ganda, stayed behind in his nearby village after UNITA troops moved through. The next day, he lost the bottom of his left leg when he stepped on a mine while trying to harvest manioc, the root whose flour is the staple of the Angolan diet.

"The soldiers have very good imaginations about what people will do," Dr. Ariansen said. "They know where to plant the mines."

UNITA has lost virtually all of its former international support. The United States recognized the Dos Santos government in June and has joined the United Nations in condemning UNITA.

There was a flurry of diplomatic activity last month as UNITA attempted to get negotiations going in order to avoid an oil and arms embargo imposed by the U.N. The sanctions are expected to have little effect as UNITA is able to buy arms with diamonds mined from areas under its control and easily smuggled out of the country.

Though the government says it recognizes that UNITA will play a part in Angola's political future, it refuses to negotiate unless UNITA acknowledges the validity of the election and withdraws its troops from the territory taken in the year of fighting. UNITA wants an in-place cease-fire.

"Believing UNITA before was a very bad experience for our people," said General de Matos. "It is not a creditable organization."

Shine a spotlight

It is not clear what the international community can do other than shine a spotlight on this war. There was talk late last week of a possible meeting between Mr. Savimbi and Mr. Dos Santos, but only Mr. Dos Santos had agreed to attend and a date had not been set.

"There are hard feelings on both sides," said a Western diplomat, pessimistic about the ability of the combatants in Angola to undergo the smooth transition from civil war to peaceful coexistence.

"I think at times the people here exaggerate how much the Cold War caused all this. It's an African problem and it's going to have to be solved by Africans."


Capital: Luanda

Estimated population: 10 million

Area: 481,353 sq. miles (larger than Texas and California combined)

Languages: Portuguese (official); various Bantu languages

Religion: Roman Catholic 38%; Protestant 15%; Indigenous beliefs 43%

Resources: Angola is rich in oil and diamonds.


1583 -- Colonized by Portugal

1961 to 1974 -- Guerrilla war for independence

1975 -- Portugal grants independence

1975 to 1991 -- Former independence fighters turn against each other in civil war that lasts 16 years. U.S. supports Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. USSR supports Marxist Angola government, led by Jose Eduardo Dos Santos's MPLA. Cuba send troops to support government.

May 1991 -- Angola government and UNITA sign peace accord in negotiations sponsored by US, USSR and Portugal. Last Cubans leave. Elections set under UN supervision.

Sept 29 1992 -- MPLA wins first round of voting. Savimbi rejects results, resumes war.

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