One Family's Tale of War, Separation, Repression, and Then Reunion

JACINTO Ngueve and his family could serve as an allegory for Angola's civil war - first divided on either side of the front line and now brought back together under an emerging peace.

Like the shattered city of Cuito from whence they came, the Ngueves are rising out of the ashes of conflict into a climate of reconciliation and reconstruction.

A Nov. 20 pact between the government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels has not completely halted the 20-year war. But the Ngueves are happy enough to be reunited - though not under the same roof, as their house was shelled to bits.

``The joy of the reunion was intensified by relief,'' said the patriarch, standing in a United Nations-sponsored refugee camp on the outskirts of Cuito.

Violence, rather than ideology, separated the family in 1993, sending the grandfather, two children, and six grandchildren to the UNITA-held village of Chipeta some 30 miles away to escape the worst battles.

A daughter, Susana Carlota, remained behind, barely surviving a UNITA siege of Cuito.

It is hard to say now who suffered more on each side of the divide. Susana Carlota refers euphemistically to the siege of Cuito as the ``nine months,'' searching for words to describe her trauma. ``The shooting, the hunger,'' she says, her gaze vacant.

Cuito, in the central highlands, became the most potent symbol of the war, which resumed in late 1992 after UNITA chief Jonas Savimbi rejected his electoral defeat. Fighting since the 1975 independence from Portugal had already caused much damage, but the ferocity of the renewed conflict was unprecedented. Savimbi's strategy was to lay siege to cities like Cuito.

For nine months, Susana Carlota and thousands others did not venture outside their homes because of relentless artillery attacks. Many of the dead were buried in the gardens of apartment buildings. Countless nearly starved. About 30,000 people died.

MEANWHILE, in Chipeta, patriarch Jacinto and his children and grandchildren found, instead of refuge, a nightmare of a different sort.

``UNITA treated us badly,'' Jacinto's son, Jose Faustino, recalls. ``They stole clothes, beat us, intimidated us. They maintained strict control of the people, forbidding free movement. They stole food and medicine.''

Armed rebels went door to door, taking away dissidents and gang-pressing able-bodied youths to fight. The Ngueve menfolk were spared from conscription only because of Justino's advanced age and Jose Faustino's lame leg.

They had no idea whether Carlota Susana was alive.

In September, confident that the siege was lifted, they returned to Cuito and located her via word-of-mouth at the market and in refugee camps.

Now Cuito is slowly going back to normal. Aid agencies have come in with tons of food, erasing the chronic malnourishment. Orphans are being reunited with their families. The government is earmarking funds to rebuild the city, which, like many others, was devastated.

The Ngueves are not sure whether they will get a new home to replace the splintered old one, or whether the new peace will last. The Ngueves are disturbed by constant reports of skirmishes between the two sides. But, says Jacinto: ``At least we have each other.''

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