First View of an Isolated Renamo Village

The reporter and photographer traveled on one of the first airlifts with the UN World Food Programme after it was granted access by the former rebels.

THE huge Antonov transport plane carrying humanitarian aid bounced and shuddered as it touched down on the corrogated runway.

The only sign of civilization was the remains of a small concrete structure which had been partially destroyed by a mortar shell. On the wall was the date the Mozambican National Resistance Movement (Renamo) took control of the town from the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo): June 18, 1985.

The two-mile walk from the airstrip to the town of Inhaminga - once a thriving rail junction in the days of Portuguese colonial rule - was like going backward in a time-machine. First one passed the seven-year-old remains of the trenches where Frelimo soldiers tried in vain to thwart the Renamo attack.

Then came the deserted Frelimo headquarters, rusted armored vehicles, and an abandoned basketball court. Faded revolutionary slogans adorned the walls of the shelled and crumbling Frelimo building. Farther down the narrow path, a wrecked Soviet tank lay in the bush, a relic from the era of Soviet military support for the formerly Marxist government.

From a distance, Inhaminga's wide tree-lined streets, an imposing Catholic church, and rows of houses with gardens gave the impression of normality. But, as one got closer, one could see that the streets were also lined with the wrecks of mangled trucks and the houses had no windows and few doors. The tarred roads were crumbling and villagers stared out from gaping holes in the walls of stucco colonial houses.

In one of these houses, which serves as the administrative headquarters of the former rebel movement, top Renamo officials were meeting United Nations and aid officials to discuss the logistics of food relief.

Crude victory slogans adorned the walls. The sound of a creaking swing-door laced the discussion as the visiting officials mopped their brows in the searing midday heat. When the meeting was over the UN aid officials mounted all-terrain bicycles to return to the airstrip.

Villagers in rags wandered aimlessly in the streets. When the photographer wanted to shoot a group of men sitting on the side of the road, they stood to attention.

The strategic town of Inhaminga is situated on the railway line between the port of Beira and Malawi in the heart of Renamo-held central Sofala Province. It has been almost totally isolated for the past seven years. The railway line, which runs through the center of the town, has been silent since 1985.

Under the Mozambican peace accord, Renamo is entitled to hold all the territory it controlled before the Dec. 1, 1990, cease-fire.

"I was captured by Renamo close to Beira in 1982," said Carlos Jozef, a thin man with wide eyes, patchwork shorts, and cracked plastic shoes. His English was broken, fragments that he picked up while visiting relatives in Johannesburg more than a decade ago. "I know about the cease-fire, but nothing seems to have changed here."

He confirmed what was immediately apparent from his appearance: It was a long time since he had last eaten a square meal.

Mr. Jozef said he had come to Inhaminga six months ago to look for food. He said he had lived in various Renamo bases and had been studying agriculture. His story was typical of civilians captured and put to work by Renamo. They would be moved around as the rebels changed bases or carried out missions.

The Inhaminga food distribution point appeared low on stocks but Renamo officials would not discuss food inventories. In fact, they would not discuss anything as they said the visit had not been cleared with Renamo headquarters, about 50 miles away in Maringue. The only communication was a primitive radio link.

Manuel Joao, the local Renamo administrator, said he would radio headquarters and apply for permission to talk to this reporter. He expected to know the answer within 24 hours.

We returned the following day on the Antonov operated by the UN World Food Programme to be met by two senior Renamo officials. Both made it clear we were not welcome.

UN Disaster Relief Programme delegate Jean-Luc Friedrich, who was holding talks with Renamo for the second day, also expressed irritation at our presence as he regained his breath from the bike ride from town. He arranged to have us flown out with him on a private charter flight.

It was a brief glimpse at a remote stronghold of a movement that does not take kindly to unannounced visitors.

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