Baby Steps Toward Final Peace in Angola

A few child soldiers go home, heartening the UN

Under an impossibly hot African sun 17-year-old Pvt. Francisco Luca waits patiently for the Angolan Army to give him his freedom back.

"I didn't want to join the Army, they made me join," says Francisco as he explains how soldiers burst into his home one night three years ago in the interior province of Bie and took him away. "All these years, all I have wanted to do is go home. Now finally I'm going back to Bie to see my family and work with my father on his farm."

His discharge, along with those of 212 others between the ages of 13 and 17, at a ceremony here in late January marked the first official demobilization by the government - a small but significant step.

His excruciatingly slow return to civilian life is typical of Angola's sputtering peace process, which began when the government and the former rebel group UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) signed a peace accord in Lusaka, the capital of neighboring Zambia, in 1994.

The United Nations special representative to Angola, Alioune Blondin Beye, has gotten used to nursing the peace along. The gregarious Mr. Beye takes every opportunity to usher the two reluctant camps toward a formal peace, the result of which will be the inauguration of a Government of National Unity and Reconciliation that will include members of both sides.

"The eternal pessimists have once again been proved wrong," Beye told diplomats and military officials at the child-soldier discharge ceremony.

But serious problems must be solved before a formal end to the civil war, which exploded after Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, can come about, say observers close to the process.

Chief among them is the role UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi will play. A UN-mediated proposal to give Mr. Savimbi the job of "principal presidential adviser" seemed to be making progress just before the Jan. 25 date for the inauguration of a new government. Then Beye announced a delay in the process.

Although the Lusaka Protocol stresses there should be no link between forming a new government and the status of Savimbi, those close to the process say this issue is the main sticking point.

Also at issue is the problem of how to extend the authority of the Angolan government, headed by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, to areas under UNITA control. Although a proposal was approved in late January by both sides, it is vague on specifics and has no timetable.

Large swaths of northeastern Angola under UNITA control contain huge diamond deposits that have fed Savimbi's war machine for years. Diplomats and analysts associated with the diamond industry here say Savimbi is unlikely to give up such lucrative areas without winning some kind of diamond concession that would ensure a steady flow of income to UNITA.

The UN is also worried about the slow pace of demilitarization. The government still must discharge some 50,000 soldiers, and UNITA has suspended its program to discharge child-soldiers. UN-sponsored assembly points around Angola have been set up to provide for the discharge of more than 48,000 UNITA soldiers. But aid workers in these areas claim most of the inhabitants are peasants pressed into the camps by UNITA.

The UN's Beye is not likely to allow a repeat of the disastrous UN performance here in 1992 when Savimbi rejected his loss in the elections and took his troops back to war. That fighting, some of the most intense of the civil war, came to a halt only with the signing of the Lusaka Protocol.

Beye oversees the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. The mandate for the 7,000-strong force runs out at the end of February, but will almost certainly be extended.

On Jan. 31, the UN Security Council pointedly blamed UNITA for failing to meet the Jan. 25 deadline for the inauguration of the new government. The Council also warned UNITA to honor a promise to send UNITA deputies - who are meant to represent the former rebel movement in the National Assembly - to Luanda by Feb. 12. Only after the deputies arrival will a date for the inauguration of the new government be set.

But what will happen, many ask, after the new government is installed? Observers worry that hostility between the two sides could continue to take precedence over the pressing need to rebuild the country.

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