Exhausted, devastated Angola faces time to rebuild after decades of war

June 30, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Sun Staff Correspondent

LUANDA, Angola -- A large banner hangs from the front of th Hotel Tourismo in downtown Luanda, heralding a new day for this shattered African country after 16 years of civil war.

"Tempos Novos Em Angola," it proclaims in bold black letters iPortuguese, the official language. "New Times in Angola," the crippled giant of a country on the southwest African coast.

But the names on the guest list of the modest hotel announced the change even more dramatically than the banner outside, erected by the ruling political party. Representatives of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the rebel movement that waged a devastating guerrilla war against the government, returned to the capital city in mid-June, checked into the Hotel Tourismo and began setting the stage for the first free elections in Angola's history.

UNITA's return to this decayed and dilapidated city was part of an agreement signed May 31 to bring peace and multiparty democracy to Angola, which has known mostly war and Marxist-Leninism during the past 16 years. Before the civil war began in 1975, Angolans fought a 14-year struggle for independence against the Portuguese who colonized the country in the 1400s.

"This is the first time the Angolan people will be able to be apeace for 500 years," said President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose one-party government abandoned its Marxist policies in December and accepted multiparty elections as part of the new agreement.

"The people want change," said Elias Salupeto, head of thUNITA delegation in Luanda pending rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's much-heralded arrival later next month. "The struggle

of UNITA has given Angolans the opportunity to think about democracy."

But for most Angolans, the signing of the peace accord also hagiven them a chance to think about repairing their country, which paid a high price for the Cold War struggle waged here between U.S.-backed rebels and Soviet-assisted Angolan troops.

More than 300,000 people died in the war, which also pitteSouth Africans on the rebel side against Cuban soldiers who fought alongside the Marxist government troops. An estimated 80,000 lost arms and legs in land mine explosions, and 1.9 million were forced to flee their homes and seek safety in the cities or outside the country.

More than $25 billion in damage was inflicted on the nation'roads, bridges, power plants and dams. The Benguela Railroad, which once transported minerals from Zaire and Zambia to Angola's busy ports, has been so badly sabotaged by rebels that it hardly exists.

In towns and cities across Angola, municipal services havcollapsed from a combination of overuse, government neglect and rebel sabotage. Private generators provide the only reliable power supply in the cities, which are overcrowded and underdeveloped.

"Luanda was built for 300,000 people, but it has 1.3 milliopeople today," said Otto Essien, the chief United Nations representative in Angola. "There is overcrowding and abuse of the city by people who are not used to being in cities. These people came directly from the countryside. Nobody knows where most of them went."

In Luanda, large families are crammed into small apartments thaseldom have both electricity and running water. Neither toilets nor elevators work in most of the buildings erected by the Portuguese colonists before 1975.

High-rise buildings under construction at the time of the hastPortuguese departure stand exactly as they did 16 years ago, with cranes suspended over skeletons of concrete and steel.

"The war has had a devastating effect on Angola," said GerAugusto, a black American economist who married an Angolan government representative in Tanzania and moved to Luanda in 1979. "Over half the population is under 15. They have known nothing but war. Money that should have been spent on books was spent on war."

The combination of war and failed policies also has left thAngolan economy in ruins and has reduced a country that once exported food to beggar status. There is virtually no formal private sector, except for the oil industry, which earns $1 billion a year and had been the major source of government funds for the war.

Shops along Luanda's wide boulevards are mostly empty. Mosof the population trades on the black market, buying goods stolen from containerships at the port. Instead of traveling with money in their pockets, women walk through the streets with cases of beer on their heads that they use to barter for other goods.

"It has been calculated that 68 percent of the goods in the blacmarket come from the port," said an official of one international agency. "People steal them, which means the government is financing the parallel market while the formal sectors of the economy have collapsed."

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