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Angola's Defeated Rebels Not Done Yet

UNITA's leaders want to take on the government at the ballot box in a nation crippled by war.

May 04, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

NDELE, Angola — 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."

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