`IT'S difficult to get to Huambo," my French colleague remarked sarcastically as our four-wheel drive vehicle embedded itself ever deeper in the mud of a swamp in central Angola.
It was our second night of driving from the northwestern corner of the country to the highlands city of Huambo, which was taken last month from government troops by the rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The rebels have been battling the government intensely since civil war broke out here anew last year.
We were not far from the battle front near Kuito. It was about 5 a.m. and there was a full moon. A few mud-brick and grass huts, standing on higher ground, were silhouetted against the silver sky.
Our convoy - a motley assortment of eight four-wheel-drive vehicles with armed rebels at front and rear - had been battling its way through the mud since before midnight. The journey began after two days of waiting in a neighboring country.
Time soon takes on a different meaning in the extraordinary world of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels. Drums a welcome sight
Refueling stops - always at night and amid a conglomeration of derelict buildings and an array of abandoned trucks on the outskirts of ghost towns - become adventures in themselves.
The sight of a kerosene lamp illuminating a cluster of 44-gallon drums in the corner of a tumble-down shed is always welcome. It means that you won't have to spend the night at the refueling spot - trying to catch some sleep sitting upright in a Land Rover.
When meals have been eaten and late-night chatter has subsided, a huge vehicle emerges out of the darkness. It is a large truck with two metal shipping containers on the back. We wonder what supplies could be lurking in there.
Then the doors open and scores of UNITA soldiers stare into the night as the omnipresent drums of diesel fuel are maneuvered into place for refueling.
When the convoy finally rattles into Huambo on a silent moonlit night - after three days of quagmires and bone-rattling roads - the first sign of a battle is a burnt-out Katyusha multiple rocket-launcher at the side of the road.
The city is in darkness and there is an eerie silence. We begin to realize that time has come to a halt. There is no electricity and there is no communication with the outside world - save a radio relay system used by UNITA.
There are no functional shops, no running water, no newspapers, no information other than that which our hosts dish out from time to time and the welcome voice of the BBC World Service. At least we know the world is still there - even if we cannot communicate with it.
Gradually, it becomes clear that UNITA leaders are able to program their supporters and officials with almost clockwork efficiency, because there is no life to speak of here beyond UNITA.
A typical UNITA recruit may be sent to the Jamba bush headquarters before he turns 10. He gets a reasonable schooling in the communal atmosphere of Jamba, and UNITA provides food and clothing.
He is dependent on UNITA for everything, and no money ever changes hands. There is none. If he were ever reminded that there was life beyond UNITA, he would have no means of getting there. It is a five-day drive from Huambo to Jamba, and by foot it takes three or four weeks. Protesters for hire
The concept of rent-a-mob acquired a new meaning in Huambo. It became apparent that the purpose in inviting a small group of Western journalists to UNITA's latest urban acquisition was to show that Huambo is not as inaccessible as the world might think and that it is ready to receive humanitarian aid.
To demonstrate the overwhelming support UNITA enjoys in the bombed-out city, our hosts orchestrated no less than four public demonstrations.
The demonstrations were arranged so that we had to pass through them and - on one occasion - had to march with them through the center of the city. The faces of the chant-leaders became familiar and the posters were all the same - in Portuguese, English, and French for the benefit of the three main language-groups of the journalists.
The theme chant, denouncing Mr. Savimbi's rival, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, was: "Dos Santos is a thief, he's stolen all our votes."
Journalists get accustomed to demonstrators playing to the cameras. In Huambo, there is nothing else to play to.