Rhodesia city skeptical as border opens

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Rhodesia's bitter guerrilla war is winding down and its trade links with black Africa are being reopened. But here in Umtali -- one of the cities hardest hit by the guerrilla war -- many whites remain skeptical about the future.

Umtali, on Rhodesia's mountainous eastern border, was the first city to benefit from the resumption of trade with neighboring black African nations. The gates of the Forbes border post here, linking Rhodesia and Mozambique, swung open on a recent sultry summer morning after a four-year hiatus. But few Umtali residents turned out for the occasion. Many whites seem doubtful that normality will return to their country -- even though Britain has reasserted control over this former colony, even though more than 20,000 fighters of the Patriotic Front guerrilla organization have turned up at various assembly points, and even though economic sanctions are falling away.

"Oh, they've stopped raining down bombs on Umtali for the moment," concedes the Rev. John Knight, an Anglican priest.

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"But there's still intimidation going on. All the hard-core [guerrillas] are still in the bush," he says, echoing a widely held view among whites that the Patriotic Front alliance is not fully adhering to an 11-day-old British-sponsored cease-fire here.

Indeed, Umtali is one of the areas where resistance to the cease-fire continues. Guerrillas of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union wing of the Patriotic Front are still having encounters with government troops. Travelers in the area still move in convoys escorted by armored military vehicles.

Visitors to the downtown Cecil Hotel are still frisked before entering. And, a Mr. Knight notes, the number of funerals he conducts for war victims does not seem to have dropped much since the cease-fire began.

"You've come to the wrong place to find people jubilant," Mayor E. M. Phillips says to a visitor. "We've seen too much."

Indeed, Umtali has been on the front line since the guerrilla war heated up seven years ago. The white population has dropped from a 1969 total of 9,950 to 8,600 in June, 1978.

The local economy suffered under sanctions imposed by the United Nations after Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965. But perhaps the hardest blow came four years ago, when newly independent Mozambique closed its border with Rhodesia.

An oil pipeline from the Mozambican port of Beira was shut down, and consequently an oil refinery here had to be mothballed. An Umtali auto-assembly plant found it could no longer import parts through Mozambique ports. And tourist traffic from the Rhodesian interior to Mozambique coastal resorts ground to a halt.

But some Umtali businesses have managed to hang on in spite of the difficulties.

But the multimillion-dollar refinery has been carefully maintained, and could start operating again without much difficulty. The auto-assembly plant has secretly imported parts from South Africa, and still turns out cars.

Yet the opening of the border and the accompanying prospect of an upsurge in economic growth is largely overshadowed by continuing political uncertainty among whites.

"We're not excited. We're incredibly worried," Mayor Phillips says, "because this settlement, as far as I'm concerned, has all the ingredients for chaos."

Among his worries: that next month's majority-rule elections will be marked by behind-the-scenes intimidation, that tribal warfare will break out after the polling, or that the Patriotic Front will win the elections and install a Marxist government.

"I think you'd have a tremendous exodus of whites if that happens," the tall, silver- haired mayor predicts.

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