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Angolans See Peace Pact as Last, Best Chance to End Suffering

Africa: Re-integrating rebels and rebuilding after 27 years of fighting are daunting challenges --but the people are ready.

July 22, 2002|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUITO, Angola — When the letter from his brother arrived in May, Jeremias Samalungo knew that the country's long, cruel war was really over.

Samalungo hadn't seen or heard from his brother since 1980, when the 14-year-old was kidnapped by fighters with the UNITA rebel army and forced to join their ranks.

Two years after his brother was stolen from him, Samalungo joined the government army and fought the guerrillas until 1992. He became a civilian, married and had a family. Life was hard. The disappearance of his brother tormented him. His mother died without ever learning the fate of her lost son.

Time and again, cease-fire agreements broke down, crushing expectations that the war that had been ravaging this southwest African nation since 1975 would ever come to an end.

But when Samalungo was finally reunited with his brother last month, nine weeks after Angola's latest cease-fire, the event signaled a new beginning for Samalungo and his family, and better times ahead.

"To me, it means that finally all this suffering has come to an end," said Samalungo, 38, a member of the support staff of an international aid agency in the battle-scarred town of Kuito, 350 miles southeast of the capital, Luanda. His brother is now 36. "I personally believe that peace has now come forever."

The challenges are daunting: rebuilding a country that has been ripped apart by conflict since it gained independence from Portugal 27 years ago, continued suspicion among members of the warring sides, and the specter of renewed violence. All these cast doubt on prospects for lasting peace in Angola.

But many Angolans have been desperately clinging to hope since the April 4 peace agreement was signed by the Angolan government and the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, its Portuguese acronym.

Local political analysts, foreign diplomats and ordinary Angolans herald the pact as the best-ever possibility for a cessation of turmoil in this country.

The expectation for sustainable peace is widely linked to the death of hard-line UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, who was killed in a battle with government forces in February. He was seen as a major obstacle to previous peace efforts and blamed by many for prolonging the war that claimed at least half a million lives and displaced 4 million people--a third of the population.

But while the fighting has stopped and people and goods have started to flow down roads and across provincial borders previously under siege, the difficulties facing Angola's efforts to normalize are so enormous that many fear the hardships may threaten prospects for long-lasting stability.

"If you are talking about fighting, then yes, the war is over," said Justino Pinto de Andrade, director of the faculty of economics at Luanda's Catholic University of Angola. "But social and economic peace have not yet come."

More than 82,000 former rebel fighters have to be demobilized and, along with more than 250,000 of their family members, re-integrated into society.

This will be a major feat in a country where unemployment tops 70%. The peace deal allows for the integration of just 5,500 UNITA fighters into the government armed forces.

Devastated Economy

Angola's economy is in tatters, with the manufacturing industry virtually at a standstill, and commercial agriculture almost nonexistent. Land mines litter landscapes where crops once were planted. For more than a quarter of a century, few children have had access to proper schooling. Hospitals are dilapidated and lack basic supplies. Only some sections of the capital have a consistent supply of electricity--a luxury in other towns. Few in the provinces remember what it was like to have regular running water.

Despite these challenges--and the knowledge that previous cease-fires have failed--most Angolans said they would rather fight for a better quality of life than fight on the battlefield.

People simply need to believe that this time, peace is here to stay.

"The country is really tired of war," said Gen. Geraldo Sachipengo Nunda, deputy chief of the Angolan army. "The Angolan forces as well as UNITA are just exhausted. But the biggest reason of all is the Angolan people feel the country could never tolerate a new war."

For the UNITA forces and their families who have moved into the country's 34 "quartering areas," or demobilization camps, the new fight is just making it through each day.

Food and medicine here are in short supply. Relief workers say malnutrition is widespread, because thousands have been living in isolation for years without sufficient nourishment and shelter.

The plight of the soldiers adds to an already desperate humanitarian situation plaguing this oil- and diamond-rich nation nearly twice the size of Texas.

The U.N. World Food Program estimates that its food stocks will run out by September. The response from international donors has so far been tepid.

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