Long Rebel Siege of Isolated City Reflects Woes of Angola's Civil War

Survivors recount intense shelling and hunger at hands of UNITA

SURVIVORS of the nine-month rebel siege of Cuito, known to be the bloodiest fighting in Angola's renewed civil war, have described atrocities and constant shelling at the hands of rebels led by Jonas Savimbi. United Nations planes evacuated 121 Portuguese nationals and other foreigners late last month.

The witnesses, interviewed in this port, paint a horrific picture of daily life under fire and document the suffering wrought by the resumption of Angola's civil war.

Until UN flights resumed to Cuito last month, details of the suffering - and of the remarkable spirit of Angolans during the worst of the siege - remained a mystery. Some 25,000 people are believed to have died, their bodies buried in mass graves or, when shelling made it impossible to venture into the streets, gingerly covered with sticks and stones on terraces and roofs or deposited in shallow garden graves.

Witnesses and UN officials say that the situation in Cuito surpasses that of Sarajevo because of the difficulty of delivering aid. The capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina receives 35 relief flights a day, while only a handful have landed in Cuito, all recently.

Alioune Blondin Beye, UN special envoy to Angola, has called Angola's renewed conflict ``the worst war in the world.''

Over a year ago, on Sept. 29-30, 1992, Angolans lined up expectantly at polling stations to elect a new government in the country's first-ever democratic elections. The ballots were supposed to mark the end of 16 years of fighting between the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

UNITA lost heavily in the parliamentary poll, but a runoff was required in the presidential ballot, as neither President Jose Eduardo dos Santos nor Mr. Savimbi won a simple majority.

The election was judged free and fair by international observers, but Savimbi cried foul and returned to the bush. Gathering its supporters and opening sealed weapons caches, UNITA plunged Angola back into war.

Front lines have opened up across the country. At one point, UNITA was said to have claimed 70 percent of the countryside. An estimated 100,000 people are believed to have been killed in the renewed fighting, and one-fifth of the country's 10 million population have been displaced.

The siege on Cuito has been particularly intense. Witnesses and an Angolan radio journalist in Cuito say the city has survived only with the help of occasional UN and government air drops.

There are no more leaves on the trees. People ``at the hospital would crawl on their knees to the veranda and eat grass, leaves, and ants,'' said one witness, who asked not to be named for fear of UNITA retribution against those still in the city. The last doctor fled the city and ``defected'' to UNITA in August, driven by hunger. Since then, untrained attendants have administered medical care with few resources.

Government forces control only the city center and the airport. UNITA guerrillas hold the surrounding hills and control the corridor that gives access to the airport. Only one UN relief flight has been permitted each day.

One witness described seeing a young boy caught in the middle of a firefight between UNITA and armed townspeople (every male, in uniform or not, has become a combatant). Frozen with fear, the boy hopped around on one leg (he had already lost his other), but he could not be pulled off the street because the fighting was so intense. The child died.

At the beginning of the siege from January to June, before artillery bombardments intensified during the summer, UNITA deployed snipers to fire at anything that moved on the streets.

Cuito residents smashed holes in the walls between houses to provide for sheltered paths through the city, but they were still forced outside to cross the streets. If UNITA snipers missed when residents went to fetch water on the edge of town, they often hit their targets when they returned, laden with heavy buckets of water on their heads.

Survivors often crowd together, sometimes jamming more than 150 people in a single house, sharing rooms with 30 others.

The civilians set up a system of first aid posts throughout the government-controlled areas, at which anyone with knowledge of first aid or medicine was deployed. Witnesses said the shelling has been so heavy and frequent that some 80 percent of the 50,000 people still alive have some kind of injury.

Intense hunger has driven survivors to launch charges against UNITA lines, shooting their way through to collect whatever food they can from the UNITA side, the witnesses say.

The UN had threatened to slap stiffer sanctions on UNITA on Nov. 1, but backed off when the rebels agreed to withdraw their forces from vast territories they have captured. In response, the MPLA announced a unilateral cease-fire. But both sides have announced such measures before, and the government still refuses to talk directly with the rebels. UN officials now hope indirect peace negotiations will resume on Nov. 15 in Zambia.

UNITA currently is subject to an arms and oil embargo. But neighboring Zaire continues to allow UNITA officials to buy what they need with handfuls of rough Angolan diamonds.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no shortage of ordnance in Cuito.

And civilians are tired. Reeling off the names of his father, mother, sisters, brothers, and other relatives who have died in the siege, one Angolan reportedly said that his suffering was now beyond feeling: ``We have no more tears.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.