TETE CITY, MOZAMBIQUE — Paolo Lissitou and his family spent most of Mozambique's 16-year civil war in a United Nations refugee camp. Their food, education, and medical care were free.
Back home, their sugar-cane plot reverted to bush, their goats and chickens died, the village road was mined, and the clinic, school, and well were destroyed.
Yet the Lissitous pined to return home. In 1994, despite the relative ease of life at a UN camp in neighboring Zimbabwe and the destruction of Mozambique's rural economy, peace drew the Lissitous back to their ancestral village.
Today they and 5.7 million other former exiles can take the credit for Mozambique's postwar economic miracle.
On the one hand, Mozambique's poverty is so deep that the country comes close to falling off the UN's scale of development indicators. But, thanks to its peasant farmers, Mozambique now enjoys one of the fastest growth rates in Africa - 7 percent growth was forecast for 1997. That's far better than most industrialized economies.
"We may have returned with nothing, and to nothing, but at least we can work here and try to make something of ourselves," says Mr. Lissitou in his native village in northern Tete Province.
"In the refugee camps you just sit there with your arms folded across your chest, waiting for a handout," he says.
Handouts are still given to Mozambicans, but they don't necessarily wait around for them.
"We're sorry there are so few people here to greet you," a local leader told a group of visiting UN and government dignitaries on a visit to Cassupe village in Tete. "But most people are off in the fields, planting."
While most farmers still live at a subsistence level, agricultural production is booming. The crop of cashew nuts, the country's second largest export earner after prawns, was up 99.1 percent, while tea production rose 70 percent. Farmers are earning five times the annual average income of $90 by growing tobacco.
By the end of 1997, food aid had fallen to a fraction of former levels, the country had proved capable of feeding itself, and incomes were slowly rising.
Mozambique is one of the most blessed and blighted countries in Africa. With a population of just 15 million in a country 1.5 times the size of France, there's plenty of room to grow. The soil is so rich that fertilizer companies don't bother sending sales reps into the country. The coastal fisheries are teeming, the beaches are pristine, the coral reefs untouched. There's plenty of fresh water and hydroelectric potential.
But Mozambique is also 10th from the bottom of 175 nations on the UN Development Program's "human development index." AIDS cases are spreading. Despite the 1992 peace accords, arms proliferate in the countryside. It is estimated that one land mine has been sown for every two Mozambicans.
History of hard times
Times have never been easy for Mozambique's black, rural majority. Their former colonial rulers, the Portuguese, refused to provide them with schools and clinics. A guerrilla war launched against the Portuguese in the 1960s finally ended with liberation in 1975. Unfortunately for the peasants, the Marxist liberators, led by President Samora Machel, then set out to destroy village culture, to wrench the country into the industrial age.
Mr. Machel's Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) government was soon under attack by rebel forces, later known as the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), funded by white-supremacist governments in neighboring South Africa and what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The superpowers then entered the fray, with the Soviet Union on Frelimo's side and the British and Americans on Renamo's. Peasants were caught in the middle, and 5.7 million people - one-third of the population - fled into exile, either internally or in neighboring countries.
A devastating drought in 1991-92 finally forced the two sides to sign peace accords. The exiles began returning home in a trickle in 1992, then in a torrent as the 1994 elections marked consolidation of that peace.
"The refugees came back because, living in a camp or otherwise in a foreign country, you don't have the same choices you have at home," says Joo Carrilho, president of Mozambique's Institute for Rural Development.
"In your own village, you know how to solve your own problems, you have your own informal safety net with your family and friends. You have your own land. People speak your tribal language."
No place like home
"Everyone wants to go back to the place they were born and where their ancestors are buried," adds Lissitou. Before the civil war came to Tete Province, his family counted its wealth in cattle, pigeons, and sugar cane. Lissitou says they are poorer now, with corn, millet, goats, and peanuts, but they are optimistic.
Anxious to solidify the peace, in 1992 the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) launched a $145 million program to smooth the way home for refugees. The 1992 drought was followed by good rains for several years, which probably did more than anything else to secure the peace.
The people have very little to work with, a hoe being a valuable commodity. Yet Mozambicans are producing more than enough to meet basic needs. A three-day trek along rough pathways and roads in Tete Province led to a surprising number of markets where barter is as important as cash transactions. Goods ranging from tomatoes to newly made doors and desks were on sale.
Perhaps more important, it seems Mozambicans are willing to forget who did what during the war. "Despite the intensity of the Mozambican conflict, the many atrocities which took place during the war, and the enormous amount of social dislocation which it generated, there has been a remarkable absence of revenge and recrimination," the UNHCR noted in a recent report.
Unlike the situation in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the report said, "returning refugees and displaced people have been subjected to very little discrimination or harassment."