ANGOLA The Cold War's Brutal Remnant

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PEACE has officially come to Angola but little Paulinho Cinjamo is not convinced.

Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle that dwarfs his small frame, the young teenager patrols the fringes of the shattered highland city of Cuito as part of a civilian militia that fears attacks by UNITA rebels. Reared from infancy on warfare, he finds it hard to imagine life without artillery fire and massacres.

The government and the National Union for the Independence of Angola (UNITA) signed peace accords Nov. 20, 1994, in Lusaka, Zambia, to finally end two decades of a civil war that killed 1 million people, or about 10 percent of the population. The war was the only destabilizing element in an increasingly pacified post-apartheid southern Africa.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

After its independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola became a pawn in the cold-war struggle for client states. Cuba and the Soviet Union backed the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), now in power, while rebel UNITA forces were supported by the United States and a white-dominated South Africa.

Once the cold war ended, Russia and the US were eager to end their involvement. Many Western diplomats believe Portugal, Russia, and the US wanted to gloss over Angola's problems, such as lack of a working civil service and adequate infrastructure, in abandoning their support and letting the United Nations take over.

These critics say the UN, which brokered the peace accord, is too eager to trumpet success in Angola to erase its past unsuccessful peacekeeping record there and in Rwanda and Somalia.

Many Angolans are skeptical of calling the accord a success. Several other UN-sponsored truces have collapsed since 1991.

Civilians are holding on to arms, the Army is still recruiting troops, and there is no freedom of movement between UNITA and government-held territories. Hundreds of people have died in skirmishes across the country since the peace accords, and both sides are planting new land mines.

``Vamos ver - let's see,'' says Paulinho, echoing a refrain heard across Angola. ``We don't feel secure at all.''

In Luanda, the capital, UN mediators voice more optimism. They note UNITA is internationally isolated, its supply lines from former US and South African supporters cut off. They say UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi realizes he can not win militarily after losing most of the territory gained after resuming the war in late 1992 following his electoral defeat.

They say this time, the UN, which until now has had a limited mandate of only 300 observers, will more effectively oversee demobilization if, as expected tomorrow, it decides to send some 7,000 UN soldiers to Angola. They hail an agreement to form a national unity government giving UNITA senior posts.

``This is a major step in the peace process,'' UN mediator Maj.-Gen. Chris Garuba said on Jan. 10 in the UNITA-held town of Chipipa, after the military chiefs of both sides embraced and vowed to revive the Lusaka accords.

But within a week three separate UNITA attacks killed more than 100 people. Rebel leaders blamed the truce violations on a lack of communication in remote areas. UN officials blamed the raids on hungry soldiers seeking food. But the government and international aid workers are not so sure.

``There is great distrust on both sides,'' said one aid worker in Huambo, UNITA's former headquarters, which was taken by the government in November. ``Many people have lost their faith in peace after being let down before.''

Even Gen. Joao de Matos, the government's military chief, would not predict whether peace would stick. ``I hope so but we have to wait and see,'' he told the Monitor.

What nearly all observers agree on is that even if peace holds, it will not necessarily end the violence.

One of the biggest obstacles to reconstruction are 9 million to 20 million land mines planted by both sides across the country, which prevent Angolans from returning to their land. International mining experts say Angola, which has countless amputees, is fast outstripping Cambodia as the world's worst mine-infested country.

Regional leaders such as South African President Nelson Mandela are keen to see the peace that has come to his country, Namibia, and Mozambique also extended to Angola. They hope that several hundred South African mercenaries helping the MPLA will return home soon. But Angola's economic disarray, corruption, and a breakdown in law and order do not auger well for stability, diplomats say.

The government is earmarking senior ministerial posts and houses for UNITA officials, who are gradually leaving the bush for Luanda. But intolerance of dissent was evident with the assassination this month of Ricardo de Mello, editor of the independent Imparcialfax newsletter, whose exposes had angered government officials.

Then there are the ruined towns that lack decent electricity, water, schools, and commerce. Luanda police routinely demand bribes from drivers to supplement meager $2-a-month wages. In Huambo, government soldiers have been looting a population already traumatized by UNITA's repressive 18-month occupation.

In Luanda, a new generation of delinquents has sprung up - hundreds of child refugees who roam the streets, begging and stealing.

Oil revenue, which accounts for 90 percent of exports, has been mortgaged several years ahead to cover multimillion-dollar arms purchases. Life is a struggle for Angolans, with the currency (kwanza) devalued 1,800 percent last year and monthly inflation of up to 100 percent.

``Peace will bring new problems,'' concluded Luanda businessman Jorge Abrantes.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...