Mozambicans Flee Rebel Territory for Food

Southern Africa's drought could have been disastrous in one of the region's poorest countries, devastated by a 17-year civil war. With widespread famine a grave possibility, a massive relief effort was undertaken that helped curb hunger - and wind down the conflict.

THE first thing Celestino Mishone Chipende did when he arrived here on the banks of the Zambezi, after a 16-hour walk through the night, was to sell the few chickens that he had brought with him.

His other worldly possessions consisted of a few grass mats, some worn cooking utensils, and the clothes he was wearing.

A former school headmaster and inspector of education, Mr. Chipende had just walked 30 miles with his two wives and 10 children from an isolated village in a stronghold of the former rebel Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo).

He hopes to start a new life in this government-held town, where he had heard that food and water were abundant.

"I sold the chickens because I want to save enough money to build a house here," Chipende says.

Chipende and his 12 dependents are among the 200 or so people who emerge each day from the Renamo-held bush to join the food lines next to the airstrip at Vila de Sena.

The severity of the drought sparked a major exodus of villagers from Renamo-held areas to towns controlled by the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), where food is being distributed.

"In Renamo-held areas the villagers had to feed the chief and the Renamo leaders. Now the food has run out, but the people hear they can get food in government-held towns like this one," says Caetano de Aranjo Jasse, a government administrator. "In this way, the control of Renamo has been broken."

"People are surprised when they arrive here and find that the war has ended," he says. "Some get food and take it back to their villages. But others decide to stay and start a new life."

Airlifts by World Vision and other international aid agencies are providing a lifeline of basic food supplies to Sena and many war-torn towns and villages in Renamo-held Sofala Province.

But the magnet of airlifted food relief creates a new set of problems, as thousands of villagers stream in from the surrounding areas.

In the past eight months, the population of Sena has increased threefold, from about 4,000 people to more than 13,000. Many of the people who arrive are thin and weak, and every month a dozen or so people die on the long walk to Sena.

Some of the villagers, like Chipende, come to settle. Others come to fetch food to take back to the elderly and those who cannot make the journey. Those who stay face the threat of diseases related to malnutrition and an over-concentration of people.

"The health situation is very alarming," Mr. De Aranjo Jasse says. "But we have virtually no medicines and only one paramedic for 13,000 people."

Many villagers travel at night to avoid the unbearable heat of day, which was more than 40 degrees C. (104 degrees F.) when this reporter visited Sena.

"It is very difficult to control the numbers coming into this town," De Aranjo Jasse says. "But the fact is that we have too many people for this area. Renamo is letting people leave now because there is no food."

Most of the buildings in Sena are a shambles, destroyed in attacks and counterattacks by Renamo and Frelimo during the 1980s. Those that still stand are peppered with shells and mortars.

The bridge that spans the Zambezi at Sena, one of the longest bridges in Africa, was sabotaged by Renamo in the mid-1980s. The rail-line that skirts the town has not seen a train since the early 1980s, and the Frelimo sentry boxes are empty by day.

Maj. Moises Jorge Chirinza, the Frelimo commander here, seems happy that the villagers from the Renamo-held areas are streaming to Sena.

"The situation is a bit calmer now," he says. "Renamo still moves around at night, but they are coming to steal food rather than to make war."

Major Chirinza says that Frelimo soldiers had stopped patrolling the area now but still keep a watch on the outskirts of the town.

When the newcomers arrive, they are taken to a transit center inside the ruins of a bombed-out house. Frelimo officers screen them to ensure that none of them are Renamo fighters and to ensure that they receive only their allotted rations.

Then they are allocated a space in the sprawling village of grass huts on the river bank, where they can build a hut and cultivate a small patch of land.

Chipende sold the chickens for 500 meticais each - the equivalent of 15 cents in the United States. In Beira, the nearest city, a chicken would have earned him at least 2,000 meticais. He will need about 15,000 meticais ($5) to erect a grass hut in the mushrooming settlement on the banks of the Zambezi.

He says he had been persuaded to make the long journey to Sena by assurances from other villagers who had been there and come back.

In his village, "the nearest river dried up months ago," he says. "Now one has to dig so deep in the river bed to find water that it is very dangerous. Sometimes the sides of the hole collapse, and people are buried alive."

"We came [to Sena] for food and water," Chipende says, glancing nervously at the Frelimo commander standing nearby. "We had wanted to come for a long time, but we were told that Frelimo would treat us badly."

"I know about the peace accord, but I am not sure that the war has finished. I heard on the radio that the war ended and I want to start a new life here," he says.

Less than 2 percent of Mozambique's population of 16 million read newspapers, but about 30 percent listen to the radio.

Chipende was speaking amid a hive of activity. Sheltered from the relentless African sun by the shade of several mango trees, the new arrivals were making the best of what they had.

Mothers were slicing green mangos for their children while fanning the embers under blackened cooking pots containing corn and whatever vegetables they could bring with them.

"We have come here to stay. We have brought everything," Chipende says.

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