Angola’s Defeated Rebels Not Done Yet

Times Staff Writer

The guerrilla life was hard and sometimes brutal, yet it was possible to become accustomed to its nomadic rhythms. Hiding, advancing, fighting, hiding again.

But sitting in this emptying demobilization camp for former rebel soldiers, Commander Victorino LoMessa was looking forward to being still for a while.

“It’s been 28 years since I have been home,” LoMessa said. “I want to till a farm and be around for the harvest.”

Angola’s cease-fire was a year old last month, and the government is tearing down the last vestiges of the once-vaunted army of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA -- 45 relocation camps across the country where 400,000 former insurgents and their families had lived since the end of the war.


There was a time when UNITA, by force of South African and American arms, seemed likely to overcome the Soviet- and Cuban-backed government and seize control of this nation of 10 million people.

Then the Cold War thawed, the United States switched sides, South Africa’s white supremacist regime fell and UNITA’s ally to the east, Zaire, became Congo after a coup d’etat. Angolan troops swept through UNITA’s southern strongholds, laying waste to villages and farms, depriving the fighters of food and respite. The final twist came when the army cornered UNITA founder Jonas Savimbi in an eastern jungle last year, shot him 17 times and broadcast images of the body on television.

His death effectively ended a 27-year war that had killed an estimated 500,000. LoMessa and his former comrades are among the 1.5 million displaced people plying paths pocked with land mines to reach villages they left long ago or have never known.

Disarmed, scattered and often hungry, UNITA fighters depend on the good graces of their former enemy, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. Under last year’s peace deal, the government promised to provide job training, tools to farm and build homes, and small cash grants. So far, few UNITA families have received any assistance.

“It is hard to be free in the belly of your enemy,” said UNITA Col. Juny Antonio, who oversaw Ndele and several other demobilization camps from Kuito, a central Angolan town in what had been one of the most contested areas of the war. He is worried about his future, but like many former insurgents here, Antonio is relieved to be done with war.

“Everyone is tired of fighting. I myself would like to reencounter my family and try to make a farm,” he said.

While many of UNITA’s former soldiers harbor humble aspirations to build thatch homes and plant corn, their leadership intends to reincarnate the former army as a political party to compete with the MPLA.

Two earlier government attempts to disband the demobilization centers failed after the former rebels refused to leave during the rainy season. That organized national protest showed that even a disarmed UNITA could remain a powerful political force. Critics of Angola’s notoriously corrupt and autocratic government say UNITA could provide an outlet for pent-up frustrations and foster constructive debate about the future of the country.


As part of the peace agreement, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos -- who has been in office nearly 24 years -- promised to allow multiparty elections next year. But UNITA leaders are concerned that they haven’t had time to prepare a political campaign and want the voting to take place in 2006.

“We have to rethink and rebuild UNITA,” said Paulo Lukamba, successor to Savimbi. “We have very deep roots. We have never been just an army.”

Lukamba, who is better known in Angola by his nom de guerre, “Gen. Gato,” recently returned from Europe, where he lobbied nations on UNITA’s behalf. Now he styles himself as a bridge between the old and the new UNITA, and is the most likely man to try to dislodge Dos Santos. Where Savimbi often met guests in jungle hide-outs while wearing camouflage uniforms, berets and a sidearm, Lukamba lives in a tiled flat in Luanda, the capital, guarded by unarmed men. He prefers red ties, suspenders and golden cufflinks.

And during a recent interview, he also wore a Band-Aid -- the round kind -- on the back of his hand, where he said a Parisian surgeon had recently removed a bullet. In his well-appointed living room, that tiny wound was the only sign of last year’s war.


“We would like to become the banker of the people,” said Lukamba, reclining in a leather chair. “We would tell the people: ‘Here is a chicken. Here is a cow. Use it to support your family.’ We don’t have much money, but we have the will.”

Ndele, which the government began to close down last month, has been the largest demobilization camp in Angola, housing 11,000 former soldiers and their families. The decommissioned soldiers had set up the camp the same way they set up innumerable guerrilla posts during the war -- officers’ quarters formed the hub, meeting halls were interspersed throughout and civilians lived on the periphery. The entire facility was woven of reeds and tree bark. Ndele’s residents addressed each other by rank and refused to speak to an outsider -- even to say that they declined to comment -- without permission from their superiors.

Lukamba said he will use UNITA’s military discipline to political advantage. But UNITA’s lock-step compliance worried government officials.

“We didn’t want a big group of people in one place doing nothing when we need to rebuild the country,” said Norberto dos Santos, spokesman for the MPLA (he is not related to the president). “And it made people nervous to have them out there like that. We must consolidate the peace.”


But Kanjomba Leite, a former propaganda minister for UNITA, said that although there was nothing to fear from the former guerrillas when they were together in the camps, trouble will mount as they disband.

“Here, we control all the people,” Leite said as he walked around the camp earlier this year. “These soldiers have fought for a very long time. Often they can’t read, and sometimes the only guide in their life is their military commander. Once they leave this place, they will be difficult to control and this may signify a danger to peace.”

Years of war have crippled Angola, once among the richest countries on the African continent. Angola has more land mines per capita than any other country -- more than one for every Angolan -- the highest concentration of amputees and one of the biggest populations of war orphans. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is on the rise, as are such maladies as malaria, tuberculosis and river blindness.

During years of deficit war spending, Angola’s infrastructure was severely neglected. Schools, hospitals and other institutions are sorely lacking. Roads turn to red pudding when it rains.


The town of Kuito is perhaps the most evident monument to the war’s dogged brutality. Once a charming way station for shipments of diamonds, coffee, gold and timber on their way to western ports, now it is a depot for UNITA families on their way home -- and a bleak reminder of violence. Virtually every wall, fence, lamppost and fire hydrant is pocked with bullet holes. At night, sunburst-shaped gaps flicker with the cooking fires of families living amid pulverized office buildings. Roads spill off into great cavities created by some of the land mines that still ring the town.

Recently, a Kuito resident named Sampson drove a visitor around the cratered streets and pointed to places where things used to be.

“This was a courthouse. All destroyed,” he said. “This was a hotel. All destroyed. This was a factory; they made ceramic tiles there. All destroyed. This was the church. All destroyed.”

He went on like that for quite some time.