Playing with sardine cans in the dust, little boys and girls use scraps of the tin to fashion tanks for war games - one day they play the parts of the army forces, the next day they are the rebels. It's all the same, they repeat, one after another, "One big war."
Like so many confounded pundits, the local Camacupa children don't really understand the ideological difference between the warring parties here.
They only know that their small barren village - in the very heart of this vast oil- and diamond-rich country - serves as one of the many battlegrounds between Jonas Savimbi's National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the ruling government's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
One season UNITA is in control of Camacupa, the next it is taken over by the MPLA. It is a civil war that has dragged on for 26 years, claiming more than 1 million lives, displacing millions more, and does not show any sign of waning.
The Portuguese colonizers ,against whom the war was started, left long ago. So have the Americans, Russians, Cubans, South Africans, and others who backed the different sides and kept the fighting going. Today, the war has a life of its own, fueled on by oil and diamonds.
The vast sums of money from the Angolan oil and diamonds concessions - estimated at $4.5 billion per year -are either poured directly into the government's war effort, or "lost" along the way. UNITA, meanwhile, despite UN sanctions, also bankrolls its war effort from the sale of diamonds, infamously known as "conflict" or "blood diamonds."
The clear losers in this war are 13 million Angolan citizens. Swarms of them are on the move, either running away from villages newly captured by UNITA, or forcibly transferred by a government trying to deprive Mr. Savimbi's troops of civilian bases where they leech for food and shelter.
The displaced people settle into makeshift camps, trying to build straw huts between the dried reeds, and waiting for salvation from the UN and the nongovernmental aid organizations.
Barefoot and chalk-faced children cough incessantly here, as they shoo away flies or scratch their matted hair. Most are malnourished and very ill. Some have had their limbs amputated after setting off land mines.
"We walked for three days. Too many died along the way. Many, many, many," says Bernardo Mussengul, the village elder - or soba - at one of the camps. "And those that made it here are now dying here.... We need help."
Some 14,200 internally displaced people have been registered by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Camacupa since the government re-established control here about two months ago, and aid workers say they expect the number to rise.
In nearby Kuito, a larger village 50 miles southwest of Camacupa, which has been held by the government for several years, the situation is at least as dire, if not more so. In 1998, there were about 9,000 internally displaced people in Kuito, according to WFP. By the end of this past June, 164,000 had been counted.
Since the breakdown of the short-lived Lusaka peace agreement in 1998, and the renewed spate of fighting between the sides, the government has managed to all but win the conventional war. UNITA, having lost much of its territory, has meanwhile transformed itself into a guerrilla movement - embarrassing the government by hitting at targets close to the capital Luanda, launching quick and painful raids throughout the provinces, making almost all transport routes insecure, and generally proving that President Eduardo Dos Santos is not fully in control of this land, nor can he protect the population.
A report put out by the UN's office of humanitarian coordination (OCHA) last week said that "humanitarian conditions in Bie province are worst in accessible areas of Angola," and that "malnutrition and mortality rates exceed emergency thresholds in Kuito and Camacupa."
In 1999, UNICEF declared Angola the worst place in the world to be a child. Not much has changed since then.
Sergio Guimaraes, the UNICEF coordinator for Angola, says 12 children are dying daily from hunger-related diseases in the three feeding and health-care centers in the province. "The province," he concludes, "lies at the edge of a tragedy."
Feeding the people
WFP, which feeds 1 million of Angola's 13 million people, airlifts 3,000 tons of maize, beans, oil, sugar, soy, salt, and dried fish into the Bie province every month, providing close to 200,000 people here their only meals. The WFP transport planes - which have been shot at twice in the past month - fly into the region at 29,000 feet, in order to stay out of the reach of mortars, and spiral down at the last possible moment to land on the potholed runway in Kuito.
The food distribution ability of the organization in the region is greatly curtailed both by the need to fly at such a great height, and the wrecked state of the airport - which together make it impossible to bring in heavier or more planes as needed. In addition, like all other UN and NGO bodies, the WFP is not welcomed by UNITA, and so works only in government-held territories - leaving thousands of Angolans without any aid.
"This war has been going on for so long that we think the situation is normal," says Francisco Vasco, program coordinator for the Christian Children's Fund (CCF) in Kuito. "We need to tell ourselves that someday it should end, and keep a standard of normal in mind for that day."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor