After cease-fire, Angola still on hold

As Angolans wait to see if this time peace will last, the government and UN face a humanitarian crisis.

Toothless, ancient Emelia Mascente is one of the few people here who can remember peace, but even for her it is a distant memory. More recent in her mind is the starvation that brought her here, to the Mess Hall of the Officers, a decrepit transit center for displaced people.

"We were starving," she says. "There was nothing to do but leave to search for food."

More than 300 people, some of the last of the more than 4 million displaced by Angola's 27-year civil war, are waiting here to return to their homes in the vast countryside.

Several dozen have already packed up their meager belongings and stolen away during the night. They're hoping that with a cease-fire signed earlier this month, life back in their villages will be better than here in this dark building where families sleep huddled together on dusty, stained floors.

Mrs. Mascente, however, is waiting to make sure that this peace is real. Three times in the past 10 years, peace has been promised and then stolen away.

The conflict in Angola was Africa's longest civil war. It began, after independence from Portugal in 1975, as a power struggle between the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was backed by the United States and South Africa, and the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

In 1992, A United Nations-brokered peace deal fell apart after UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi rejected the results of the country's elections. For 10 more years, between intermittent attempts at peace, the war raged on, this time funded by the illegal diamond trade.

"The first wars in Angola were well understood by the people," says Eugenio Ngolo Manivakola, head of UNITA Renewed, which split with Mr. Savimbi and joined the Angolan parliament as an opposition party. "First there was the liberation war. Then we fought the Cubans and the Russians. That was the resistance war. This last war wasn't for something, for a cause, it was a war in the mind of Mr. Savimbi."

On February 22, the Angolan army killed Savimbi near the eastern city of Luena. Within weeks, discussions for a cease-fire were underway and on April 4, a skeletal group of UNITA generals flew to Angola's capital city, Luanda, to sign a cease-fire.

With Savimbi dead and UNITA forces starving and scattered, this peace is expected to last.

Angola now faces a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. International aid groups say hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in the last months of the war. As many as a million more may be starving in areas previously inaccessible to international aid workers.

"This is an operation that is cracking," says Lise Grande, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We don't have the resources we need in order to meet the needs of the all the people in critical distress."

In the longer term, Angolans expect peace to translate into more food, schools, jobs, and health centers, though international aid workers and many Angolans accuse the government of corruption and say it has used the war as an excuse for doing nothing.

Outside Luanda, government structures are almost nonexistent, while inside, most people live in shantytowns with open sewage and no services. A few who have grown rich on oil, diamonds, and lucrative wartime import business- es navigate the city's rutted roads in sparkling Land Rovers.

Twenty-four year-old Ana is one of Luanda's neglected poor. Displaced from her home in Cuanze North province nine months ago, she scrapes together a living by selling black-market medicines from a plastic bucket in the San Paulo market, her 1-1/2 year-old baby, Nelson, strapped to her back.

Noberto dos Santos, information secretary for the MPLA, says one of the first priorities of the government will be to help people like Ana return to their homes in the countryside.

"Most of the people are farmers. As farmers in Luanda, there is nothing for them to do. They are asking to go back," he says. "The first thing the government will do is take them back to their original place. Then we will help them build schools and medical centers and other things."

Aid workers laud the intentions of the government and ruling party, but say they are waiting to see those words translate into deeds. "The donors are looking for signals and signs from the Angolan government," says Erick de Mul, UN Humanitarian Coordinator. "They want to see that in this new situation, the government is reallocating resources to humanitarian needs."

In the meantime, Angolans like Mascente are waiting patiently for change to come. For the first time in a generation, they see a glimmer of hope in the future.

"I want my grandchildren to grow up under peace because they can go to school and have clothes and shoes that are better than what I have had," she says.

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