Angst Replaces War Atrocities in Angola : Africa: The country is in ruins, land mines are everywhere. And the fighting may not be over.


You can see Angola’s dreams in little dabs of mortar.

In the last few days, here and there, ragged Angolans have started patching the bullet holes that deface every square foot of the remaining buildings in what was once the loveliest inland city in Angola.

Where MIGs once screamed overhead to deliver bombs in one of Africa’s longest and most brutal civil wars, women and children filled streets with song this week.

The gray-haired elders of this province assembled in sun-bleached khaki uniforms. Yes, they said, they had seen much war and now worried that their people were tired and hungry. But yes, they also said, they could see a calm of peace settling in the land.


That is the good news about Angola.

Maybe it is good news, as well, that one can visit the battleground of Kuito--the bloody Beirut of Angola--and hear only a single gunshot in an entire morning. In the last couple of years, 25,000 people died here, a quarter of the civilian population.

But there is bad news here. There always is.

Despite the first signs of reconstruction to emerge from a Nov. 22 peace accord, Kuito is, in truth, a pile of rubble.

Once it had a Mediterranean flavor, with pastel villas and wide boulevards. But the devastation of war is the worst that veteran relief workers say they have seen in modern times, greater than in Vietnam, more horrible than in Afghanistan. Today, almost all the buildings are uninhabitable, and survivors live on dirt. Even the cemetery is destroyed.

And even if everything went right here from today on, and the world poured out its heart to help, a Western explosives expert said it could take 300 years to clear from the lush soil the war’s legacy of land mines. There are ceramic mines in the ground here, and they might last many centuries. There are more of them here than anywhere in the world--perhaps 20 million in a country of 10 million people.

And worse news still: The brutal, 19-year grudge match of a war between rebel Jonas Savimbi and the government now headed by Jose Eduardo dos Santos may not be over at all. It is possible, even likely, that the extended trench warfare that divided this city down the middle only two years ago will mutate into a grinding guerrilla campaign of terror and counter-terror in the cities and villages.

As the holidays approach, the first 50 of a contingent of perhaps 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers have moved into position to try to keep sporadic skirmishes from exploding again into all-out conflict. The United States is providing one-third of the costs. Relief agencies have swarmed into the countryside with food, cooking oil and medicine. Practically everyone has fingers crossed, for lack of anything else to do.


Savimbi recently emerged from hiding to reveal discord within the ranks of his 28-year-old National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, movement. He added that his soldiers will not obey a U.N. plan to end 19 years of civil war, a Paris newspaper reported Wednesday.

And the Dos Santos government’s recent military advances are such that it can all but claim a conventional military victory over UNITA, so why settle for a compromise peace that is at the heart of the United Nations’ goal here? Hard-line militarists are believed to be pushing for continued attacks on UNITA.

However, government officials such as Economics Minister Jose Pedro de Morais Jr. speak reassuringly to the West: “They have no choice, the leaders of this country. They have to follow the path of change--in other words, political and economic democracy.”

Many outside the government are skeptical, or at least uncertain. Western influence here, unlike in many troubled African countries, is limited because the government has its own oil revenue to pursue potential military aims.

“Right now, it’s impossible to say whether to be optimistic or pessimistic,” said U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, who toured Angola on Monday and Tuesday to nudge both sides toward reconciliation.

“If you’re optimistic, you might not work hard enough. If you’re pessimistic, you might give up.”


A reserved man under almost all circumstances, Lake was visibly furious at the sights and stories of a war that had cost so much and gained so little in Angola:

* A green, placid field where 2,000 villagers were caught in cross-fire and killed while foraging for food. Some of the bodies remain there still. No one can get to them for fear of mines.

* Fresh mangoes hanging from trees while people suffer malnutrition. Better to risk hunger than join the 150 to 200 civilians who die each week from buried explosives.

* The memory of a humanitarian cargo plane that was shot down and crash-landed. The pilot lived. He crawled from the burning plane only to find himself in a minefield. He was injured, and a cease-fire could not be arranged before he bled to death.

“It’s a tragedy that a country so rich in resources, in people, should be reduced to this,” Lake said. Privately, he was heard to put his emotions less delicately.

On behalf of President Clinton, Lake met separately with Dos Santos and a delegation of UNITA officials to try to drive home the West’s new message to this oil-rich, politically impoverished nation.


“I stress that this may be the last best chance for peace here,” Lake said. “If two peace efforts failed, I’m not sure the international community will support a third.”

The shaky peace negotiated just a month ago in Lusaka, Zambia, followed a U.N.-supervised Angolan election in September, 1992. No sooner did Savimbi lose the election than he resumed full-scale war which continues today--despite the peace accord--in the form of skirmishes in the nation’s inland areas.

Angola, on the continent’s southwest coast, is one of the few African countries in which Americans have a significant economic stake. Up to 7% of U.S. gasoline imports come from coastal Angolan oil leases, and U.S. exports here are the third highest on the continent, behind South Africa and Nigeria. The country is also blessed with diamonds, a large breadbasket region, reliable rain and healthy fishing grounds.

But for 13 years leading up to independence from Portugal and for 19 years since, the nation has been almost perpetually at war.