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Behind Rebel Lines in Mozambique

March 29, 1987|Sharon Behn | Sharon Behn is Lisbon correspondent for the Independent, a London newspaper

MORUMBALA BASE, MOZAMBIQUE — 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."

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