A Renewal of Civil War Ruins an Angolan City
HUAMBO, ANGOLA — BY night, there is an eerie silence in the streets of this devastated city. Only the occasional gunshot or the barking of hungry dogs breaks the uneasy quiet.
The full moon silhouettes burned-out tanks and multiple rocket launchers that lie among glass and rubble in deserted streets.
A solitary naked child - arms folded across his chest in a vain bid to find warmth and comfort - emerges from the darkness into the moonlight. His expression reflects the trauma of a war that has turned this central highlands city into Africa's Sarajevo.
Rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led a small group of reporters to the city, the first to see the city since it fell March 6, leaving UNITA in control of nearly 70 percent of mainly rural Angolan territory, according to Western diplomats.
The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) suffered heavy losses in the battle for Huambo.
Most of their 40 tanks were captured or destroyed and most of their artillery and small arms were captured. In the final days of the battle, thousands of MPLA soldiers were killed.
The battle pitted their Russian-made bombers, tanks, heavy artillery, mortars, and heavy machine-guns against UNITA's US- and South African-made artillery, anti-aircraft, and antitank weaponry.
The fighting involved a bizarre combination of conventional warfare: on the side of government, infantry supported by tanks, bombers, mortars, and small arms; on the UNITA side, infantry armed with antitank weapons, small-arms and anti-aircraft artillery that inflicted heavy damage on the government's clumsy military hardware.
But many battles were fought man-to-man in the street and on rooftops as soldiers defended houses in neighborhoods sympathetic to UNITA.
UNITA claims that more than 12,000 MPLA soldiers perished in the battle but refuses to disclose its own losses for "security reasons." Aid workers and Western diplomats estimate that between 12,000 and 15,000 people - at least 5,000 of them civilians - died in the battle.
UNITA officials admit that it was a grueling war in which few prisoners were taken and most of the wounded - soldiers and civilians - died lying in the streets.
A pall of death still hangs over this city.
By day, human scavengers sift through the piles of rubble and war debris, singling out items they can use. Teams of elderly women with make-shift brooms battle with mounds of garbage and rubble containing spent and live cartridges of all shapes and sizes.
The streets are indelibly imprinted with the tracks of Russian-made tanks, and unexploded antipersonnel mines still lurk between cracks in the asphalt.
There is hardly an unbroken pane of glass to be found; they have all been shattered either by the relentless bombing or shot out by looting soldiers.
Children scavenge through the rubble outside the once majestic governor's palace, symbol of power of the MPLA in the town's central square and scene of one of the most intense battles of the 55-day war.
The classic Portuguese colonial architecture of the palace is disfigured by gaping holes created by mortars and tankfire, and the once smooth plaster is peppered with machine-gun fire.
Thousands of rounds of hastily abandoned live ammunition litter the courtyards amid collapsed pillars and statues and overturned potted plants.
Among the rubble are hundreds of ballot papers, signs of the disputed election that precipitated the strife.
Several blue patrol cars of the Spanish-trained riot police, seen by UNITA as the main tool of repression, lie destroyed and pillaged in front of the palace.
Banks, hotels, and government buildings have been bombed and ransacked and bank vaults blown open with explosives.
MPLA murals are being painted over in white paint in an attempt to obliterate the memory of the former Soviet and Cuban-backed one-party state of the Angolan middle-class.
UNITA critics say the rebels are bent on imposing a one-party state of the Angolan peasantry. UNITA leaders deny this charge.
But even amid the destruction of Huambo, life continues.
Children play war games with home-made toys.
A group of young boys kicks a soccer ball in a tree-lined square and hawkers display their wares - guavas, bananas, peanuts, and popcorn.
But there is little money left in circulation to support the proliferation of sidewalk businesses.
"I do not know the reasons for the war," says Josephine Vapor, a mother of seven who lost her husband in the fighting and now sells children's clothes at the Kanata market in the town.
Mrs. Vapor's husband, a teacher, was killed as he went to visit a friend in the San Pedro township in the opening day of the war, Jan. 9.
"All I know is that wars destroy and wars bring misery. I would like to see the problems solved by negotiations."
But Vapor is not hopeful about the future.
"It is difficult to see an end to the fighting," she said.