War-ravaged Mozambique ready to vote

October 23, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMBA, Mozambique -- A strong breeze picked up the sand-like dirt and whipped it across the bleak, flat bush, right through the thickly bunched reeds that form the walls of most of the houses.

The incessant wind blowing beneath a gray sky seemed to accentuate the poverty that grips this country, among the world's poorest. But it could not take the small smile of satisfaction off the face of Natalia Chachaio.

She had come home to this village about 50 miles northwest of the country's capital, Maputo, eight years after the cruelty of war drove her into exile in South Africa.

It was not a job or money that brought her back; it was the fact that one of the world's poorest countries is producing one of Africa's most precious commodities: good news.

"When the war came to this part of Mozambique, the soldiers burned my house," Mrs. Chachaio said. "We had to run away."

She left with six children. She returned with nine and a tenth on the way, traveling in a truck of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, which has helped re-settle many of the 1.1 million who have returned out of the 1.5 million people who fled across Mozambique's borders into South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland.

The United Nations gives returnees like Mrs. Chachaio enough food for two weeks, some seeds, pots and farming implements. Her husband, who works as a gardener at a school in South Africa, will come in December.

"When we heard that things had changed with the war, we decided to come home," said Mrs. Chachaio.

This week, Mozambicans go to the polls for their first free election, the climax of a shaky but seemingly inexorable process that began two years ago with the signing of a peace agreement between the government and rebel forces.

The fight between those two forces -- known by their Portuguese acronyms, the government's FRELIMO, Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, and the rebels' RENAMO, the National Resistance Movement of Mozambique -- had gone on since the country won independence from Portugal in 1975.

It was a brutal war, taking the lives of perhaps a million of the country's 15 million citizens.

In addition to the 1.5 million who left the country, a similar number are thought to have moved within Mozambique.

RENAMO, a right-wing group supported by the government of Rhodesia until that country became black-ruled Zimbabwe, and then by South Africa, was infamous for its tactics of executions and maimings to gain control of the countryside.

It adopted a scorched-earth policy, and today officials repatriating refugees often say that they return to remote villages that have been devastated.

For its part, FRELIMO, while making impressive strides in social services, made many enemies, banning multiparty elections and stubbornly clinging to the Marxist ideology that dictated its unpopular, and sometimes brutal, opposition to the country's traditional tribal leaders and beliefs.

In the end, with this poor country ravaged by war and finally by drought, peace seemed to come as much from exhaustion as any other source.

Perhaps the best news for Mozambique's future came from a part of the peace process that didn't work out as planned. The country's new army was supposed to have had 30,000 soldiers, divided equally between FRELIMO and RENAMO troops.

But when it came time to form that force, no one could find 30,000 people willing to serve. The new army will probably have about a third that number.

More than 70,000 soldiers took a demobilization package of 18 months' pay -- about $300 -- and, like Mrs. Chachaio, headed home. They had had enough of fighting.

"This is a really good sign," Aldo Ajello, head of the United Nations mission in Mozambique, said of the failure to fill the new army's ranks. "It shows that people are really fed up with war. They want to go home."

Democracy does not come cheap in Mozambique. The United Nations is clearly the country's biggest industry. It has about 4,500 troops here and another 1,500 civilian personnel. White U.N. vehicles seem to make up most of the traffic on the roads.

The price tag is $1 million a day, with the United States picking up just under a third of that. Counting other aid programs and embassy costs, American taxpayers alone put about a half-million dollars a day into this country.

The return appears to be the type of stability that has eluded so many African countries, such as Somalia, Rwanda and Angola.

The specter of Angola looms most ominously over Mozambique.

Both were Portuguese colonies granted independence in the mid-1970s and then immediately thrust into years of warfare between leftist governments and right-wing rebels. Though it never attracted the kind of attention from the global superpowers that the fighting in oil- and diamond-rich Angola did, the conflict in Mozambique reflected the regional realities of the global ideological struggle as first Rhodesia and then South Africa financed the rebels' fight against their leftist government.

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