ADRIANO ASSANE stands out in the milling crowd of displaced people who have gathered at one of many refugee settlements along the 180-mile road between the coastal port of Beira and Mozambique's western border with Zimbabwe.
In the past few years, millions of rural Mozambicans have fled their villages to escape rebel fighters and to seek food on the busy Beira corridor under the watchful eye of Zimbabwean soldiers, who guard their landlocked country's main route through Mozambique to ocean ports.
More than most, Mr. Assane's life has mirrored the turmoil in his country: In the past 17 years he has been a reluctant soldier in three armies in Mozambique's civil unrest, now winding down.
A peace accord was signed in Rome Oct. 4, opening the way for greater access by relief agencies to rebel-held areas. But the flow of refugees to the Beira corridor has continued as villagers flee the severe drought.
In the next year or two, a new upheaval is expected as more than a million refugees (the biggest concentration is in Malawi) return to their villages in rural Mozambique.
But there is a spirit of hope here - even among the most destitute - that the peace accord and the involvement of a United Nations peacekeeping force, expected to begin arriving Jan. 31, signal a new dawn.
Assane's hopes are tinged with a cynicism born of nearly two decades of war and disappointment: "I have heard the war has ended," he says, "but I don't think it's finished. People are still not free to move where they want and there is the danger of mines. A tale of two colonies
"I agree that the war should end," he continues. The government of Joaquim Chissano, head of the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), must reach an understanding with rebel leader Gen. Afonso Dhlakama, he says, and the two must "move forward together."
Despite the badly tarnished image of the rebel Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), which has been compared to Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge, the war-weary people of Mozambique are enthusiastic at the prospect of peace between Frelimo and Renamo. Urban and rural marketplaces are adorned with colorful panels of cloth depicting President Chissano and General Dhlakama sitting at the negotiating table.
This is a far cry from Angola, southern Africa's other former Portuguese colony, where the violent aftermath of that country's first democratic elections in September has brought the parties to the brink of renewed civil war - despite a 16-month-old peace accord that led up to the balloting.
The conflict in Mozambique was not internationalized to the extent of the Angolan civil war, which became a grim theater for confrontation between the former Soviet Union (backing the Marxist regime in Luanda) and the United States (backing the "anti-communist" Unita rebels). Angola's peace initiative was the product of US-Soviet detente.
In Mozambique, the peace accord was the product of two years of painstaking negotiations in Rome brokered by the Vatican and the Italian government.
One encounters less bitterness here than in Angola, and a greater readiness to forgive.
"Until now, things have been terrible in Mozambique," Assane says. "Maybe if Dhlakama and Chissano join together, things will be better."
Assane, who is an embodiment of that spirit of reconciliation, has the rare distinction of having served in all three Mozambican armies. In all three cases he was forced to join.
"In 1961, when I was 21 years old, I was taken from my house by the Portuguese Army and served with them until 1974 - the year before the Portuguese left and Moazmbique became independent," Assane says.
After that, "I had a job with the railways painting ships in Maputo harbor," he continues. "I was captured by Frelimo," the victorious army, "and forced to join their army." Exiled by government
Stories abound in Mozambique about Frelimo's forced recruitment of Mozambican youths.
"I left Frelimo the following year and continued working in the port. But in mid-1983 they caught up with me and I was sent to a government farm in the northern province of Niassa, which was the fate of deserters and the unemployed and those who fell out with Frelimo."
Assane was given a small piece of land to farm and lived with his family for five years.
In 1988, he was captured by the Renamo rebels and served in the rebel army until he escaped later that year.
"I was out looking for food and I was captured by Renamo soldiers. I didn'tt know whether they were Frelimo or Renamo at the time. The villagers didn't really know the difference, either. They just did what they were told by the people who had the guns."
While he was with Renamo he saw children wielding AK-47 assault rifles and heard rumors of civilian massacres but never saw any. His wife and children were sent to a camp for displaced people in Dondo. Rebels made him a soldier
"I was held by Renamo for five months. We had to do what we were told - like fetching water," Assane says. "I also served as a soldier in Renamo's army. There was a lot of anger amongst people because there was always a lack of food and clothing," he says. "Now I am here in this place and I am still looking for food."
[Many of Mozambique's present and former government soldiers are upset because they have not been paid or received promised benefits. The Associated Press reported that police fired on ex-soldiers protesting in Chimoio on Jan. 11.]
Under the Rome peace accord, a united national army will be formed and the Renamo and Frelimo armies will be disbanded under the supervision of a UN peacekeeping and verification force of about 7,500 personnel.
"I wouldn't mind serving in the new national army as long as I get fed and have clothes," he says.
Assane believes that the political leaders of today must take responsibility for the actions of their predecessors.
"Chissano is responsible for the things that happened under [Samora] Machel," Assane says, referring to the first President of Mozambique who was killed in a plane crash in 1986.
Machel was responsible for radical socialist reforms that included the controversial policy of creating villages that cut across traditional and religious lines.
These centralized economic policies are widely seen today as the main cause of the collapse of Mozambique's economy and massive unemployment.
Assane, who has skills as a panel-beater and spray-painter, longs for the day when he will be able to work again. But first he needs food and a place to live.
"I long for peace and to start a new life," he says. "I want to see the children growing up and learning to be free. But we also need money for food."