CUITO, ANGOLA — THE woman from Angola's Ministry of Social Assistance stood in the ruins of the city of Cuito and asked, bewildered, how to deal with the legions of children traumatized by war.
Nearby, a gang of homeless orphans aggressively begged foreign-aid workers for money to buy drinks. Two small children playing on top of rubble that was once a house pelted each other with mock grenades. Others skipped gingerly down the main street, where unexploded mortars protruded from houses.
``We have a severe lack of resources and expertise to deal with the problems of trauma,'' Evangelista Chamale, the ministry official responsible for children's affairs, said. ``It's something we've never dealt with before. If you have any suggestions, please let us know.''
Angola's children are the bitter harvest of 20 years of a civil war driven in large part by cold war, big-power rivalry; millions are displaced, orphaned, or emotionally disturbed. Countless have been forced to join the government and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel armies. They were rounded up at markets and streets, and guns were thrust into their small hands.
The country's oil wealth mainly goes toward buying weaponry. The task of looking after the children generally lies with international aid organizations, whose priorities are attending to emergency physical needs.
``First we have to stave off hunger and epidemics,'' said Africare official Pedro Siloka. ``Only then can we attend to shattered psyches.''
Cuito was the scene of the worst battle in the war. Children made up more than half of the 30,000 killed in a nine-month siege. Boys as young as 8 fought defending the city. They learned to sleep to the sound of relentless artillery fire. Many buried their parents. Some were forced to kill them.
Signs of post-traumatic stress are etched on the impassive faces of children at a refugee camp three miles away in the village of Cunje.
In the tent that serves as an orphanage, an Angolan teacher tries to mobilize two dozen youngsters to sing. But most sit silently. Especially withdrawn is a girl of perhaps 3 who can only say one word - Teresa - her name.
She was found clinging to the breast of her dead mother in a field full of people shot by UNITA rebels while foraging for food.
The children who do talk speak almost emotionlessly about the horrors they have experienced. Fifteen-year-old Geraldo, who wears a T-shirt with the word ``LIFE,'' says his nightmares are not just of massacres past, but of a bleak future. He is the oldest survivor of a big extended family. He cradles in his arms a little sister, whom he must support along with two other siblings. He has no skills, no home.
Next year he will be too old to receive help in the orphanage.