A FIVE-WEEK-OLD cease-fire between government and rebel forces has begun to take hold in the towns and villages of this war-ravaged former Portuguese colony, which is currently in the grip of the worst regional drought this century.
Mozambique, which has been classified as one of the world's poorest countries, has endured 16 years of civil war. With drought bringing the country to the brink of collapse, the tentative peace accord signed last month in Rome has brought cautious hope.
In the isolated villages along the Zambezi River and north and south of the transport corridor between Beira port and the Zimbabwean border, word of the cease-fire is spreading. Thousands of villagers - formerly captives in rebel-controlled areas - are migrating to food distribution points under government control in the larger villages and towns.
"I had heard about the peace accord," says Celestino Chipende, a teacher who walked with his two wives and 10 children to the government-held village of Senna on the Zambezi River. "I came here because I was hungry and I heard on the radio that the war had finished. I want to start a new life here.
"I am not yet sure that the war is finished but people are able to move in a way that they have not been before," he adds, referring to the migration of thousands of villagers to towns like Senna. Aid to rural areas
The partial cease-fire, which allows the rebel Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo) to retain control of large areas of the country, has allowed humanitarian aid to reach remote rural areas formally cut off by the war and thus raised hopes that the country can be spared a famine on the scale of the one that is devastating Somalia.
But the tentative accord, signed in Rome Oct. 4 after two years of talks mediated by the Italian government and officials of the Roman Catholic Church, has been dealt a harsh blow by the eruption of violence in Angola - also a former Portuguese colony - after that country's first democratic election Sept. 29-30.
The Angolan ballot followed a 16-month cease-fire that has been used as a model for the peace and democracy process in Mozambique, where free elections are planned for October next year.
"The harsh reality is that it is going to be much tougher in Mozambique," says a senior Western diplomat in the Mozambican capital of Maputo.
"In Angola, you didn't have the drought. Also, there was a far bigger commitment of international resources and Angola has its own resources to draw from."
The diplomat says that it would be far more difficult to send demobilized soldiers back to drought-ravaged villages.
The peace accord got off to a shaky start when Renamo seized four towns in the Zambezia and Nampula provinces within days of the Rome accord in an apparent bid to consolidate its territory.
But the towns have since been retaken by government soldiers and the general atmosphere appears to have improved. Both acts were in defiance of the peace accord prior to the arrival of 25 United Nations monitors Oct. 15.
Renamo's political representative in Maputo, Anselmo Victor, said that the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) began the violations by entering Renamo areas. But he said the cease-fire was big enough to withstand such minor violations and would not be adversely affected.
Despite the early violations, international aid workers have reported a significant reduction in hostilities in the Beira corridor - the road, pipeline, and rail link that is landlocked Zimbabwe's lifeline to the coast - is functioning under the watch of roughly 5,000 Zimbabwean soldiers.
The Zimbabwean Army undertook to withdraw its soldiers by Nov. 15, but the withdrawal is likely to be delayed until a UN peacekeeping force is available to replace them, according to Western diplomats.
"There has been a great improvement in the security situation countrywide," says Mercedes Sayagues, regional information director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
"Several routes are now accessible without military escort, and the provinces are reporting peaceful contacts between Renamo and government officials."
In recent weeks, some of the 1 million Mozambican refugees in neighboring Malawi have begun returning spontaneously to their villages in the Tete province.
The WFP has recently begun airlifts to Renamo-held towns like Inhaminga and road convoys into rebel-held areas.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was the only humanitarian group running food to Renamo before the cease-fire, has recently made several exploratory missions to Renamo bases by road that have been cleared of mines. Question of control
But diplomats warn that the security improvements are still fragile. Renamo's autocratic control seems to break down beyond its stronghold in the central Manica and Sofala provinces. On the government side, several instances have been recorded recently of Frelimo soldiers who have not been paid for up to a year blocking runways used by food aid flights and holding hostage planes with relief food.
But the UN and international diplomats have taken steps to ensure that the mistakes of Angola are not repeated in Mozambique.
"There has to be a thorough demobilization of forces and there needs to be a period of international administration," says another Western diplomat.
"The mistake we made in Angola was to neglect the thorny demobilization issue and place all our hopes in the electoral process."
UN special envoy Aldo Ajello, who arrived in the country with the UN monitors, is in New York to request a UN peacekeeping force and additional monitors.
Unlike his counterpart in Angola, Mr. Ajello will chair the joint Frelimo/Renamo commissions which will monitor the cease-fire and demobilization process.
In a recent interview Ajello also stressed that he would resist proceeding with the electoral process until the demobilization, integration, and rehabilitation of the armed forces on both sides had been concluded.