A hot spot in the Cold War, Angola now sheds blood unnoticed

October 03, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

LUANDA, Angola -- A year after elections that were supposed to set Angola on the path to freedom and prosperity, this country is worse off than ever before -- worse, some believe, than Somalia or Bosnia.

Thousands have died in the last year of renewed warfare in this land that once was the obsession of the rival superpowers but now attracts little international attention. Thousands of others have been wounded -- many by mines planted all over the country. Angola is said to have the world's largest population of amputees.

Between 2 million and 3 million of Angola's 10 million people are war refugees. According to UNICEF, the country now has the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

Most agree that only large amounts of international aid are staving off widespread starvation. The United Nations' World Food Program is feeding 1 million people, and its director in Angola, Phillippe Borel, says he should be feeding twice that number.

The country, torn by 16 years of civil war after independence from Portugal, went to the polls last September to choose between the combatants, Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the formerly Soviet-backed government led by Jose Eduardo Dos Santos' People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

It was an honest election, monitored by the United Nations, and to practically everyone's surprise, the MPLA won. No one, perhaps, was more surprised than Mr. Savimbi. He refused to accept the results and his forces have been ravaging the countryside ever since.

UNITA now occupies 80 percent of the country, including the territory of Angola's diamond and oil resources. And while there have been some gestures toward a settlement, little hope for success exists.

In the days when Angola was a hot battleground of the Cold War, with the United States supporting Mr. Savimbi and Moscow backing the MPLA, the fight was waged mainly in Angola's rural areas. Most of the victims were members of the opposing armies. But the last year's fighting has been all-out, concentrated around besieged cities.

The infrastructure has been a constant target. Land mines have been planted everywhere there is conflict, and not just on battlefields, but around planted fields and fruit trees. Their one-legged victims are a common sight.

Most of the deaths do not come from the weapons of war, but from disease and malnutrition.

Because farmers have been driven from their fields, and the economic and delivery systems have broken down, ample food is not making it to hungry mouths.

The same problem plagues medical supplies. And, with little planting going on now during the spring season, the food shortage is expected to get worse.

Because so much of the country is cut off by the fighting, no one is sure how many are dying. When the war was at its most intense, estimates ranged up to 1,000 deaths a day.

Whatever the number, the Angolan death rate may well exceed those in Bosnia and Somalia, countries whose tragedies have dominated the world stage, pushing Angola's long-running drama into the wings.

Cold War remnant

What Angolans ask is that the world pay the same type of attention now as it did when this once-rich country was a significant Cold War battleground.

"This war is a direct result of the Cold War," said the leader of one of the many aid organizations at work here. "Now that the United States and Russia are having such a hot love affair, they don't want to see the nonsense they left behind."

The acknowledged aggressor in the current conflict is Mr. Savimbi, once a favorite of the Reagan White House, which viewed his fight against MPLA as part of a worldwide anti-Communist movement.

While the United States and South Africa backed UNITA -- the former with weapons, the latter with invasions -- MPLA countered with Russian weapons and Cuban troops.

A 1991 agreement that called for the withdrawal of Cuban troops and the end of South African operations promised Angolans what Mr. Savimbi said he was fighting for all along -- free elections in a multiparty democracy.

The charismatic Mr. Savimbi was widely expected to win the Sept. 29, 1992, vote. But he ran a bellicose campaign in a country yearning for peace.

When the MPLA won, Mr. Savimbi claimed widespread fraud and within a few days, he ordered his highly disciplined UNITA troops back into action.

Those troops were supposed to have been disarmed before the election. But a hopelessly understaffed United Nations observer force did not sufficiently monitor UNITA forces that were spread throughout the countryside. The urban-based government troops were demobilized.

Though UNITA was driven out of the country's seaside capital, Luanda, in three days of fierce fighting last October, with little opposition elsewhere in the country, it immediately put most of Angola -- though only 20 percent of its population -- behind its lines.

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