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COLUMN ONE : In Africa, a Nation Withers : Mozambique lives in desperation 15 years after gaining its independence. A rural insurgency has displaced millions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first word of the catastrophe brewing in this former mining town deep in the interior came from a band of 50 naked, starving men.

They emerged from the bush one day at an emergency feeding center at Gile, 40 miles east, unclothed except for strips of tree bark and begging for seeds and farm implements.

There are 20,000 of us in Morrua, they told a stunned worker from World Vision International, the Monrovia, Calif.-based aid group working to feed refugees from the 15-year war between Mozambique’s government and the opposition Mozambique National Resistance, known as Renamo.

One week later, Joseph DeVries, a World Vision supervisor in the provincial capital of Quelimane, touched down with a health coordinator on Morrua’s rocky landing strip, in the shadow of a glowering mound-shaped mountain. His plane was the first to land there in eight years.

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Morrua was filled with the eerie silence of a community too sick for anything but an interminable series of funerals. In a shack near the center of town the visitors found a family of seven just returned from its fifth burial. From a dark corner came the exhausted moaning of a child. She would be dead of starvation by nightfall, they were told.

That night DeVries sent an emergency telex to John Yale, the World Vision chief in Maputo, the Mozambican capital. Another 20,000 people had been liberated from behind rebel lines, he reported. After years living at a bare subsistence level with Renamo rebels, they were now free but more cut off than ever from food, seeds and farming tools. They were in danger of perishing, in effect, from freedom itself.

Mozambique is like that today: a country of 14.5 million people just emerging into the promise of peace and development 15 years after its independence from Portugal, but in peril of wasting away before it has a chance to fulfill that promise. It is a place where calamity lurks with every daybreak.

Rich in land and minerals, Mozambique is in potentially better shape than such other African countries as Sudan and Ethiopia, where poor land and rainfall conditions, exacerbated by civil war, have produced repeated famines. Mozambique could conceivably grow enough food to feed itself and could raise cashews and cotton for export. But virtually no development has occurred here in 15 years of independence, mostly because of the same rural insurgency that made refugees out of Morrua’s people.

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The scanty roads that existed in 1975 to serve the country’s potentially rich farmland are destroyed, the bridges downed or mined. One million Mozambicans live as destitute refugees in neighboring countries, and another 2 million to 3 million are displaced within its borders.

Morrua, once an agricultural and mining center, is a microcosm of Mozambique’s condition: sitting atop wealth but living in desperation.

World Vision obtained government permission to enter Morrua by air three months after it was “liberated” from rebels by an informal army led by a local spiritual leader in July.

By early December, two months after the agency began airlifting food and emergency provisions for the most seriously malnourished, the death toll at the feeding center was down to two or three a day, from 35 at the start. But only half of the 500 tons of food needed to feed the general population had arrived.

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“Nobody here has had a full ration of food yet,” Yale said one day recently during a reconnaissance visit to the district. “There won’t be a harvest until March or April, and the rains are coming, so soon there won’t be any trucks. Until then, they’re totally dependent on aid.”

On Nov. 30 the airlift had stopped: There was no more aviation fuel in Quelimane; a shipment had arrived that week, but it was unusably contaminated. Obtaining more fuel would take another two to three weeks. In the meantime, the toll at Morrua would rise sharply again.

Still, Morrua is in better shape than many other communities of so-called deslocados, a term for the war-displaced that embraces both refugees who have been driven off their land and recuperados, who have spent years in horrific conditions in the hands of the cruel and destructive Renamo rebels. For Morrua has a usable airstrip and, until recently, regular deliveries of food as well as cultivable land in the district.

But for every Morrua there is at least one Mulevala, a district about 40 miles distant, where the scale of the human catastrophe remains unknown because it still cannot be easily reached by outside assistance. There may be 30,000 people in Mulevala, which received one emergency food shipment in November by armed military convoy; a second delivery was not scheduled for another month after that.

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Mulevala cannot be served from the air because Renamo sabotaged its airstrip with a dozen deep, crosswise trenches. In November, two bush pilots tried to land, one of them a Soviet helicopter pilot who said he was fired on and hit from the ground. Both vowed never to go back.

Another side of Mozambique’s relief dilemma is easy to visualize in Pebane, a coastal district about 850 miles north of Maputo that has supported 200,000 war refugees. Pebane is little more than beach and sand spits, unsuitable for growing anything but a few sorry shoots of cassava. And it is at the end of a long relief supply line from the capital, so food deliveries are irregular. This summer, no food arrived for two months, threatening the refugees’ health.

But in late November, 4,000 tons, or eight times the quantity of grain that could be stored in the town or distributed immediately, arrived all at once. There were riots at the tiny quay where two lighters and a barge unloaded sacks of corn from a steamer anchored in a neighboring estuary.

So officials should be relieved that about 50,000 refugees have already left Pebane on their way home to begin cultivating their old land anew. But ironically, as more people return to their old homes and land, the strain on relief agencies becomes greater.

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In that situation, says Nancy Barnes, the United Nations’ emergency officer in Maputo, “You have to penetrate into localities where the roads have been abandoned for years. Operations take longer because most districts have no vehicles. People go (home) by foot, but for supplying them we need trucks. The resettling process will require phenomenal resources.”

Complicating this picture is a new phenomenon afflicting the Third World: donor fatigue. The malady was first visible in Ethiopia, when international agencies a year or two ago began expressing doubts about continuing emergency food donations valued at $350 million a year. Its first major manifestation in Mozambique occurred this year, when donor pledges of food aid fell short of the government’s emergency request by 50%. Only about half of what was pledged, furthermore, arrived on schedule.

Mozambique’s traditional donors have disappeared--literally, in the case of East Germany, once a key provider of technical help. Now its contribution is subsumed in the $25 million a year provided by Germany, one of the smallest European bilateral aid programs.

The Soviet Union provided almost all of Mozambique’s oil under credit terms that amounted to giving it away for free. But that country has turned inward, trying to staunch its own economic wounds, and Mozambique’s oil bill will soar this year from zero to $140 million.

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There are bright spots. The government recently announced a limited cease-fire with Renamo, the first agreement between the two sides on any subject in 15 years. And a new constitution enshrines the principle of multi-party democracy and elements of free-market economy.

So Mozambicans are working more and more on the assumption that the end of the civil war is in sight, if only as a distant glimmer. One priority is to rescue their children from the effects of three decades of war--15 years of anti-colonial insurgency followed by another 15 against Renamo--and underdevelopment.

The last decade and a half has encompassed particularly brutal warfare in which wholesale kidnapings and torture have been commonly practiced by rebels and by armed gangs of “bandits” who may be rebels, army troops or deserters from both sides.

“Whatever the war’s outcome, we’ve emasculated generations in terms of education, and physically by undernourishment,” says Sergio Vieira, director of the African Studies Center at Maputo’s Mondlane University.

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In a small office in Maputo, a team financed by the Save the Children Foundation of the United States is assembling posters pasted with a dozen grainy black-and-white photographs each. They show Mozambique’s orphans, a term that encompasses not only children whose parents have been killed but also a much larger number who have simply been separated from their families by war.

Abubucar Sultan, director of child programs for the Department of Social Welfare, began this family tracing and reunification program in June, 1988, when the U.N. Children’s Fund estimated there might be more than 200,000 orphaned or separated children in Mozambique. But others say that number is scarcely good enough as even a rough guess.

“No one really knows how many there are,” Sultan says. “Day after day people are getting kidnaped and separated.”

In large part the program is designed to address a continuing psychological toll on an entire generation of Mozambican children. Even those granted shelter and food in an institutional setting, Sultan believes, suffer severe deprivation because no such establishment can offer them the stimulation or attention they would get from their families.

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“One orphanage I just visited had a capacity of 35 children but had 76 kids there, and no staffing,” he says. “We don’t know the long-term prognosis for kids subjected to torture. There are kids who are emotionally troubled, but in a school there may be three terms a day, 100 in each class, and the teachers can’t address these problems. Your best first shot is to put the kids back with their families.”

That task is slow and involved. Often the young victims have been dispersed far from their homes, for when rebel bandits arrived, the entire community scattered, the parents escaping on foot and the children, slower, being kidnaped. Found or liberated from the rebels, they often do not know and cannot even describe where they came from.

“If there’s no information, we go with our best hunch as to the kid’s language group, his ethnic background, etc.,” Sultan says. Since the program’s start, the Department of Social Welfare has documented the origins of 8,000 children and reunited 4,000 with family members.

In some districts this amounts to a great victory. One community saw 120 of its children reunited with their parents or close relatives in a period of six weeks. But Sultan’s progress report reflects the feelings of many people like him trying to help their country recover from its multiple plagues.

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“We’ve done far less than needs to be done,” he says.


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