At Luanda airport, Antonov cargo planes land and take off continuously. They unload arms, troops, and sophisticated tracking equipment. Angolan officials describe this as one of the most massive Soviet airlifts.
This quantum leap in ''foreign aid'' follows the recent escalation of Angola's civil war. In August, Jonas Savimbi's antigovernment UNITA rebels launched a massive attack against towns that had been solidly controlled by Angola's government, ruled by the Marxist-leaning Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
Moving from the southeast area bordering on Namibia (South-West Africa) and the Angolan province of Cunene - both occupied by South Africa - UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces of as many as 1,500 troops at a time cast aside guerrilla hit-and-run tactics and waged pitched battles to take over several towns. They occupied Andulo, Cangamba, and Mussende , and pushed as far north as 50 miles from Luanda, Angola's capital.
MPLA officials claim the rebel forces had South African air protection and that the aim of the operation was to encircle the capital and promote an uprising to overthrow the government. (South Africa, on the other hand, claims its own activity in Angola was directed against Namibia-based rebels from SWAPO, the South West Africa People's Organization, who reportedly operate from bases in Angola.)
''The (South African) operation failed. The critical stage is over and we pushed them back,'' an MPLA spokesman said.
But one result of the UNITA offensive and of the South African military attack was an increase in the spiral of Soviet aid to the MPLA government. And in attempting to repel the attacks, the MPLA cut corners on its early anticolonialist ideology: The government accepted help from Portugal, the former colonial power here, to train antiguerrilla squadrons. The MPLA also agreed to Soviet and Cuban air protection, which it previously refused for fear of ''excessive dependence'' on foreigners. The MPLA also moved Cuban troops, already in Angola, into direct combat against the rebels.
When Angola won independence from Portugal eight years ago, the second-richest the ''black belt'' around white-ruled South Africa was tightened and the decolonialization process in southern Africa gained new impetus. But at the same time, Angola has not known a day of peace since independence. And the internal war is eroding nearly all its resources.
Today the Soviet Antonovs are welcomed with Marxist slogans, while thousands of Angolans fill the airport patiently waiting for planes out of the country.
The city of Luanda still fits the description Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave a few years ago: ''a shiny empty shell.'' Its glass and concrete skyscrapers, palm-lined bay, and sandy beaches are surrounded by musseques, clapboard and adobe shantytowns to which hundreds of thousands of Angolans have flocked during the politically and economically insecure days since independence. Luanda's population has risen from 250,000 in 1975 to the current 1.2 million.
For much of the day there is no water or electricity in the capital. There are virtually no cafes or restaurants. Most stores in the city have shut down.
Official commerce no longer exists but the kandongero, the black market, flourishes everywhere, from the musseques to the bayshore. Every essential commodity is available illegally, but the law of supply and demand has made a mockery of government-set prices. A towel can cost $170, or half the average monthly wage. A box of detergent can reach $80, and even a chicken, one of the common sources of nourishment in the third world, arrives frozen from Portugal and sells for $60. Yet a flexible bartering system dominates the market and sidesteps the inflated prices.
''Angolans have replaced inefficient official structures by rediscovering the most traditional forms of organization and solidarity existing in African villages,'' one Angolan writer points out.
The government blames Angola's economic chaos on South Africa, which it says ''wages a war of destabilization to prevent Angola's economic recovery.'' But some officials privately concede that a centralized socialist system is at least partly to blame.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos says the war has cost the country nearly $ 10 billion in damages alone. Another $10 billion has gone to arms and foreign troops, according to Western estimates.
Acting Prime Minister Lopo Do Nascimento has admitted that the war soaks up more than half the state budget (Western sources say the figure is closer to two-thirds of the budget.)
A state of emergency keeps the best-trained people in the Army for two to three years, and has made all the more difficult the task of replacing 400,000 skilled and semiskilled Portuguese who made the economy work but who fled the country during the independence process.
Eight years after the Portuguese left, industrial production is down to 20 to 30 percent of capacity. What was once one of Africa's most prosperous agricultural sectors is in a shambles. The Cassinga iron mines are shut. Weeds cover the tracks of the Benguela railway.
The country survives by drilling oil (which provides more than 80 percent of foreign currency) and mining diamonds (13 percent), which pays for arms, soldiers, and two-thirds of food needs. This, in a nation that recently had the second-highest per-capita income in Africa.
Infant mortality is one of the highest in southern Africa. The search for food and lack of incentive cause worker absenteeism of as much as 40 percent.
An MPLA official grudgingly admits, ''We thought we could quickly create the new man and a new economic structure, certain that our oil profits would overcome difficulties and mistakes.'' But now ''the time for dreams is over,'' he said. Next: Extent of Soviet involvement