CAXITO, Angola — As this troubled country slides deeper into war, the worst-kept secret of the failed peace process is a bitter topic among people fleeing the bloodshed.
"UNITA played a big trick on everyone, except everyone knew it," said refugee Lazaro Quimbundo, using the Portuguese acronym for the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.
"When it was time for them to hand in their weapons, they buried the good ones and turned in the useless ones," he said from a desperate, dusty refugee camp on the outskirts of this provincial capital. "We all saw it happen."
To the surprise of most military analysts, a recent government offensive aimed at wiping out UNITA's strongholds has run into stiff resistance. The rebels, who were supposed to have demobilized last spring under a 1994 peace accord that purportedly ended one of Africa's longest civil conflicts, are armed to the teeth and giving government troops a thrashing.
Yet the only surprise, it turns out, is the degree of UNITA's strength. Almost everyone--from international peace envoys to Angolan villagers--has known all along that UNITA violated crucial disarmament conditions of the peace agreement, interviews with international officials reveal.
Even as the United Nations and the troika of countries monitoring the peace deal--the United States, Portugal and Russia--officially accepted UNITA's declaration in March that it had demobilized its troops and surrendered all its weapons, top officials knew that the claim was not true, they now acknowledge. Eventually, the U.N. imposed sanctions against UNITA for the violations, but the move came too late.
"As I look at it over time, various things, which in retrospect may have been fools' dreams, at the time seemed to be steps forward in the process," said Paul Hare, who served as U.S. special envoy to Angola from October 1993 until last July. "In the case of UNITA's final statement that its forces had in fact been demilitarized, no one is a total fool and believed that absolutely. But there was a drive . . . to get that statement and move on."
The explanation is the tangled stuff of diplomatic brinkmanship: International officials hoped that, by looking the other way on the issues of arms and troops, the locomotive of peace would be allowed to gain so much speed that it would render transgressions irrelevant.
Instead, the calculated risk backfired, sending a signal to UNITA that it could get away with brazen military violations and, ultimately, thrust this conflict-torn country back into civil war.
"The hope was that these [rebel] troops would slowly melt away as it became clear the path all were following was a peaceful one," said one top official close to the peace process who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But it didn't work. Regrettably, no matter how much confidence was built and how many institutions established, there were people on both sides simply not committed to peace."
The strategy was apparently championed by the late Alioune Blondin Beye, the U.N. special envoy to Angola who was killed in a plane crash last June in the Ivory Coast. Hare said Beye was an "inveterate optimist" determined to make the peace stick by getting UNITA caught up in its momentum.
Another official close to the peace process said Beye argued for patience in dealing with UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi and other hard-liners, saying that if a brittle piece of wood is forced to bend too quickly, it will snap.
"As long as he was alive, that seemed to be a reasonable approach, and we all supported it," the official said. "When he died, unfortunately, it did not create a situation where the parties came together. Instead, they actually started fighting."
Things unraveled so quickly that the strategy was already in disrepute when Issa B. Y. Diallo succeeded Beye as U.N. special envoy in September. Diallo said he was so mystified by the international stance on demilitarization that, while still in New York preparing for the assignment, he sought an explanation. No one could provide a satisfactory answer, he said.
Once in Luanda, the Angolan capital, he put the same query to members of the troika, who explained that they had agreed to focus their efforts on the political, not military, mileposts of the peace accord.
The belief, the troika representatives told Diallo, was that political progress, including the legalizing of UNITA and its integration into a government of national unity, would convince Savimbi that the rebel movement had a direct interest in keeping the peace.
In the end, however, the process only won over a small core of UNITA's followers, who last fall broke with Savimbi and founded UNITA Renovada, a splinter party based in Luanda that has no influence over the rebel combatants in the country's central highlands.