Behind Rebel Lines in Mozambique

Sharon Behn is Lisbon correspondent for the Independent, a London newspaper

In government-controlled areas of this southeast African nation, horror stories abound about deranged "armed bandits" hellbent on a war of pointless destruction, terrorizing, killing and maiming helpless civilians and turning this once-prosperous land into a starvation death-camp of millions.

But near this insurgent base, located deep in the bush of central-northern Zambezia Province, children are trekking to school, women are calmly harvesting and preparing food and a number of mambos , or village elders, are gathering for one of their regular meetings with members of the rebels' so-called Administration Department.

By 4:30 in the morning, the base is alive with the shouts of guerrilla units marching past for their daily 10-hour stretch of training. By the time rebel Gen. Calisto Meque, commander of the province, sits down with his top commanders for a hefty breakfast of cornmeal mush and chicken stew at 8:30 a.m., the base is in full swing.

The ordered life here contrasts with charges that the Mozambican National Resistance rebels--known by their Portuguese acronym, Renamo, and damned as the offspring of the former Rhodesian intelligence organization later backed by South Africa--have no local backing and little internal cohesion.

Afonso Dhlakama, a former seminary student and now, at 33, Renamo's commander-in-chief and president, is emphatic about the insurgents' status: "Renamo is neither a product of Rhodesia nor South Africa. This is a civil war, a popular revolt against a Marxist regime installed by force," he said in an interview.

The rebels, mostly in their late teens to late 20s and said to number roughly 25,000, have fought a decade-long war against the ruling communist Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) Party, which is backed by troops from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Renamo now operates in all 10 provinces of this mineral-rich nation, with a population of more than 14 million in an area nearly twice the size of California.

The United States and Western European nations are increasing economic and humanitarian aid to the government, which they perceive as moderate in contrast to the more hard-line pro-Soviet government in another former Portuguese territory, Angola. Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975.

If the Renamo rebels are receiving significant amounts of external support, it is not immediately visible. I spent four weeks crisscrossing the province on foot and motorbike, and saw soldiers wearing ragged T-shirts and shorts, carrying old models of Soviet-made Kalashnikov rifles; commanders relied on battered motorbikes as their only means of fast transport.

But well-informed observers of the Mozambican scene believe South Africa is supplying the rebels with less obvious--but far more essential--intelligence reports in an effort to keep the country in shambles. With its long coastline and three major ports on the Indian Ocean, a stable Mozambique would serve as alternative transport route for the country's land-locked neighbors, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, thereby eliminating their current dependence on South Africa.

Other independent observers believe what is sustaining the war is the Zimbabwe air force and that country's British-trained ground troops, stationed primarily along the central Beira Corridor--an oil and rail artery that links Zimbabwe to the port of Beira on the Indian Ocean. "If it weren't for the Zimbabweans and other foreigners, Renamo would have won the war by now," said one businessman, who asked anonymity.

While government reports blame Renamo for violence and famine throughout the country, the rebels here, in Mozambique's largest and most populated province, appear well-entrenched and seem to enjoy strong grass-roots support.

Sitting in the shade of his mud-and-thatch home, 20-year-old Azevedo Jackson explained his support of the rebels. "Under Frelimo it was like living in a prison. We were forced to work in communal villages, and we were whipped if we didn't produce enough." Pointing to his corn and manioc crops, then at his family, he said: "Now with Renamo we have our own farms and we're free. I'm all for them, and I know they'll win."

Father Onorino Venturini, 64, an Italian priest, has lived in Mozambique for 37 years and is now in a private rebel camp awaiting evacuation from the country. He repeated stories I heard often in from local men and women, government defectors and refugees.

"The people supported Frelimo when it won the war of independence. But then Frelimo slowly began to squeeze the country, controlling people's movements, taking away their freedom and using forced labor on the communal farms," Venturini said. "The people are suffering, oppressed. They want a change, and that's what they see in Renamo."

Renamo says its most successful program is agriculture, and miles of flourishing corn, manioc, beans and rice farms sweeping across this province were an unexpected sight in a country that international aid organizations have described as a "second Ethiopia."

The Frelimo government and major aid agencies, however, say they fear as many as 2.5 million people in the country are short of food and lack the means to live because of the civil war. Renamo says that hunger is a problem only in government-controlled territory, where thousands are stranded in cities, cut off from all distribution efforts as rebels disrupt major transport routes.

The rebels have their own distribution problems. Lacking any transport other than an aging and collapsing fleet of low-powered motorbikes, their food has to be carried over large distances by bearers.

Food is plentiful at this base, if not greatly varied. Meals basically consist of the staple cornmeal mush called "nsima," platefuls of rice, chicken stew and occasionally beef, liver and vegetable stews. Quantities of food are also captured from government forces.

Dhlakama, who insists Renamo is not waging a war of starvation against the Mozambican people, has appealed to international aid agencies to talk to his forces about the food crisis. "If (food) help is only destined for government areas . . . it will be understood as aid for the regime and not the Mozambican people," he said.

Outright starvation may not be a threat in this rebel-held area, but there is malnutrition--no milk, very little salt and oil. "We desperately need vitamins, especially for the children," said one nurse, and Dhlakama acknowledged a lack of clothes and medications.

Women here wear only simple cloth wraparounds, while men make do with torn shorts or pants and small children run around naked. Basics like soap are scarce. Medical supplies are pathetically low, reduced to a single wooden tray of anti-malaria and anti-diarrhea pills and some antibiotic creams in village-hut clinics. As one Renamo-trained nurse put it, "We lack everything."

Renamo's conditions for negotiations leading to a cease-fire to end this brutal civil war are the withdrawal of all foreign troops and Soviet and Cuban military advisers, and a national reconciliation plan followed by general free elections.

Although the guerrillas say disaffected government officers may join them in a coup attempt, Frelimo seems to be a tightly knit group. This cohesion was particularly apparent in the wake of President Samora Machel's death in a plane crash last year and the appointment of his successor, Joaquim Chissano.

In its "political action program," Renamo promises to make Mozambique an independent and nonaligned multiparty state, based on a system of free enterprise and a market economy, with "good relations with all its neighbors."

But few guerrillas are educated beyond first- or second-year college level; many are politically naive, without the administrative skills necessary to put this war-ravaged and economically crushed nation back on its feet. What Renamo has is military and grass-roots strength, enough to suggest the rebel group will remain a major threat to the survival of the Marxist government.

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