After a nine-month rebel siege that killed thousands in and around this sad city, Maria Fernando and her two daughters are alive. Barely.
They lie with hundreds of others in a hospital with no beds and few drugs. Drinking water comes from a muddy river. Mortars rumble and automatic weapons rattle in the distance. Nearly every building in town is riddled with bullets, nearly every window shattered from shelling.
"For four months, we eat only leaves," whispered the emaciated woman, clutching 2-year-old Judit and month-old Francesca. A doctor says the stick-like children suffer from marasmus--severe malnutrition.
About 500 miles away in the capital, Luanda, 62 women and children pack another hospital's orthopedic ward. There is blood on the walls, and cries fill the air. Most of the patients are victims of land mines and are missing arms or legs.
"I was looking for food," said Uvango Menganga, who lost both her legs to a mine. Three of her children live with her in the ward. The two eldest beg on the streets to buy food and medicine so they and their mother can survive.
And at Luanda's airport, Antonio Lucas Pinto, a tiny 10-year-old orphan, frantically hunts with other boys and men for grains of rice that spill on the oily runway from bags unloaded from U.N. relief planes. He is barefoot, caked with dirt, and his torn sweater and shorts are tied on with bits of string.
"There was a war, so I ran away," he explained.
Across Angola, civilians are bearing the brunt of the worst fighting yet in one of Africa's oldest and bloodiest wars. One year after U.N.-supervised elections were supposed to bring peace to this long-suffering nation, Angola is racked by the deadliest, most destructive conflict in its history.
U.N. officials have said that 1,000 Angolans are dying daily from battle wounds, famine and disease from the war--more than in any other world conflict. While aid officials say that figure is probably too high, they agree that 50,000 to 100,000 people already have died in the last year and that one-third of Angola's 11 million people are at risk in a war the world has largely forgotten.
"You can debate the figures. The fact is the situation is horrendous," said Peter Hawkins, head of the British Save the Children Fund in Angola. One result, he said, is one of the world's worst mortality rates for infants and children--nearly 300 per 1,000.
"This war has been devastating," agreed Philippe Borel, director of the United Nations' World Food Program here. "There has been more damage in the past year than in 16 years of civil war. Bridges are dynamited, roads are mined, cities are shelled."
The U.N. agency flies 12,000 tons of food a month to nine cutoff cities, and Borel hopes to nearly double that load to reach 1.8 million people within months. It all goes by air since the last World Food Program convoy--10 trucks and 30 people--disappeared a year ago. One U.N. cargo plane has been shot down, and others have been fired upon.
The cause of the war is simple. Rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's army of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) has fought the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) to control this oil- and diamond-rich country since the former Portuguese colony won a bitter war of independence in 1975.
Over the next 16 years, UNITA got arms and training from the United States and South Africa while the MPLA was backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. Before the foreign involvement ended, an estimated 320,000 Angolans died in the proxy war. With the end of the Cold War, the two sides signed a peace accord in May, 1991, and agreed to disarm before democratic elections.
There were two problems. The MPLA demobilized. UNITA didn't. And the MPLA, under Jose Eduardo dos Santos, handily won the September, 1992, elections. The United Nations declared the voting free and fair. But Savimbi charged fraud and resumed the war with a vengeance.
UNITA forces quickly seized five provincial capitals, targets they had never won in the last war, and besieged others as they rolled across the country.
"The government was almost defenseless," said a Western diplomat who follows the fighting. "UNITA was able to expand very quickly almost without resistance. . . . So now, instead of guerrilla war in the countryside, they're shelling cities and fighting in the towns.
"You've got a totally different war going on now," he added.
U.N. mediator Alioune Blondin Beye convened another round of talks last week between the government and UNITA in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. But earlier efforts produced no visible progress. The imposition of a U.N. arms and oil embargo against UNITA has had little impact, and several announced cease-fires proved meaningless. A quick peace appears unlikely.
The worst fighting has been in the still-besieged town of Kuito, where an estimated 25,000 people have died. Cemeteries fill the devastated city, and Beye said recently that only dogs are not hungry there "because they had all the dead bodies to eat."
Savimbi, who once was the darling of Ronald Reagan-era conservatives and was welcomed by President George Bush to the White House, is now an embarrassment to Washington. President Clinton has recognized the Dos Santos government, and American officials no longer praise Savimbi's commitment to democracy.
"Will he sign an agreement and accept anything less than complete power?" asks one official who asked not to be named. "We don't know. We're skeptical."
Another official is more reflective. "I don't know that we created a Frankenstein," he said. "We used Savimbi for our own purposes within the context of the Cold War. . . . But he ain't no democrat."
Today, UNITA has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 troops and controls about 75% of the country, including several lucrative diamond fields. The government army is larger but poorly led.
Take mine clearing. "The government's mine-clearing program is very simple," said Hawkins. "They just put three people out in front of a gun and tell them to walk. Sometimes only a head is left."
Other mine victims are in Josina Machel Hospital in Luanda, the nation's largest hospital. The orthopedic wards hold 166 mine victims. Most were evacuated from war zones in eastern Angola. The women and children crowd a ward with only 35 beds, so dozens lie on blankets or thin mattresses on the floor.
The attending nurse, Paula Pedro, has worked at the hospital for 17 years. "This year is the worst I have ever seen it," she said wearily. "I never saw so many children and women blasted as this year."
Nearby, a young girl shrieked as a nurse changed a dressing on the stump where her leg had been. Flies buzzed overhead. Other legless patients lay listlessly in the narrow corridor or jostled for space amid the beds.
With 1,200% annual inflation, the hospital has spent its annual budget, so there is no money to buy food for patients. Doctors also need antibiotics, anti-diarrhea drugs and antiseptics. Gangrene is common.
"Most of the patients have big infections," Pedro said.
Wilson Massango, 10, whimpered softly as another nurse changed dressings on gaping raw wounds that covered his thin legs and buttocks. He was badly malnourished when he was evacuated to Luanda from Menongue, and the hospital was able to feed him only tea and biscuits. "Some people offered milk," said Pedro. "We didn't have any."
In the next room, Artur Nicolau, 5, stood shy and smiling by his grandmother. His left arm is amputated above the elbow, and a broad bandage covers his side. Sharing his bed is Lucas Bartolomeu, 2. He was on his mother's back when she stepped on a mine while searching for food near Luena in eastern Angola. She was killed; his legs were peppered with shrapnel.
Dr. Luis Bernardino, head of the pediatric ward, said starvation cases have increased dramatically this year as the war has cut off cities from farms and families from fields. Malnourished children occupy 100 of his 300 beds.
"The main cause of admission and death is malnutrition," he said.
About 1,350 children died in the hospital between January and June, double last year's rate. The toll has jumped since. On Oct. 16, the worst day yet, 32 children died here of starvation, wounds, infection and disease.
"This year is the worst, without doubt," Bernardino said sadly. "The people are suffering much more than before. . . . And what's happening here is just the tip of the iceberg."
Some of the worst victims came from Menongue, 500 miles southeast. The dusty provincial capital escaped fighting in the last war. This time, UNITA encircled the city of 80,000 for nine months, raining shells on the embattled defenders and civilians.
Government forces slowly pushed the rebels back; the first World Food Program relief flight landed Sept. 26, opening a lifeline to the dying city. It remains surrounded, however, an island of government control in a sea of UNITA guerrillas.
A recent U.N. flight, an Ilyushin cargo plane with a Russian crew and 35 tons of rice and medical supplies, corkscrewed steeply in to avoid groundfire. The Portuguese called this area "Land at the end of the world," and from the air, the countryside is bleak, brown and flat.
The front is 12 miles to the east in Savivanda. Maj. Joao Jose Macanda commands the government's Special Battalion A, 388 men dug into the sandy loam and green brush beside Russian-made tanks and armored vehicles. The troops arrived in March, when UNITA was only a mile outside Menongue.
The post is honeycombed with shallow trenches and cave-like bunkers topped with timber. A mine-laying squad lays out its grim gear, while other soldiers dry blankets in the sun. Macanda says his youngest soldier is 15, but some look younger.
The post was last attacked Oct. 29, when UNITA troops crept behind the lines and struck from the rear. Four men were killed. Now, Macanda's tanks point in all directions. Recalled to active duty this year after being demobilized, Macanda says his politics are simple.
"We hope the war can be finished," he said. "We are tired of war."
Menongue itself is largely deserted. A legless woman crawled slowly down one empty street, using rubber thongs on her hands to pull herself along. She stopped to rest under a tree where two other amputees sat in the shade.
Every shop is closed. The busiest sign of life is beside a junkyard of rusting trucks and tanks. Near women selling tiny dried fish and mounds of salt, 10 makeshift shops in the mud sell penicillin, anti-malaria drugs, syringes, intravenous drips and other medical gear apparently stolen from relief shipments.
"We get them from our comrades," said one of three legless men, each armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, in a tent labeled "Hope Pharmacy."
Dr. Aguiar Vicente, 37 and already going gray, was the only doctor in Menongue during the bitter siege. With no fresh supplies, he amputated limbs without power, clean water or anesthesia. One-fifth of his 2,500 patients died.
"In the beginning, it was victims from the fighting," he said. "Then people were going out looking for food in the countryside and were caught by the mines."
When food stocks gave out, residents ate dogs, cats, rats, roots and bugs. The hospital began to fill with malnourished women and children. About 350 still crowd the grimy floors, amid heaps of ratty blankets and black cooking pots, awaiting daily feeding programs of milk and rice.
The city's Roman Catholic bishop, Alves de Queiros, says the relief flights have saved the city. "If they did not come, soon we will have no children left," he said softly.