Relief worker narrowly escapes civil war

November 20, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

When Paige Wilhite left for Angola in July, she went to help feed hungry people in the war-torn city of Huambo. But when she was evacuated last week, she came out as a victim.

"It was dangerous, but it could have been a lot worse," said the 28-year-old worker for the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services when she was back here last week.

Her departure came just before Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi signed a cease-fire after the government defeated rebel forces in their stronghold at Huambo.

"The government forces got closer and closer to Huambo and started bombing and shelling around the city, so all of the development groups had to cut off our programs because it wasn't safe," she said, adding that she was close enough to hear noises but not to see any violence.

As Ms. Wilhite described her experiences, the ordeal of Angola went on, with rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) continuing to fight with the Angolan government.

A treaty signed in 1991 had halted fighting temporarily, but it collapsed when UNITA lost Angola's first democratic elections and returned to arms.

Ms. Wilhite got a six-month contract from CRS and flew in July to Huambo, where she sometimes worked 12-hour days distributing corn, beans, vegetable seeds and tools to Angolans. With the use of a car and a hired truck, she also helped give food to about 4,000 malnourished children at 10 feeding centers throughout the mountainous city, where about 250,000 people lived before the upsurge began, and where about 10,000 have been killed since 1993.

Since then, many people have left the area, while those who stayed have suffered. "We were able to fill a real basic need for food, because they were completely cut off," she said.

In the beginning of November, everything was changed.

The Angolan government forces attacked Huambo, and the violence that broke out caused her and about 50 other international relief workers to flee into an International Red Cross compound.

The United Nations requested a flight to bring out the workers in the beginning of the month, but it was denied, so until Nov. 10, she and fellow relief workers were trapped in the compound on the outskirts of town while the offensive went on around her.

On Nov. 7, 8 and 9, retreating UNITA soldiers repeatedly robbed the compound, taking everything they could carry, including all of Ms. Wilhite's belongings.

Then rebels allowed civilians to come in and take whatever leftovers they wanted.

After the robbery, UNITA threatened to use relief workers as shields as they retreated. "But then they changed their mind," said Ms. Wilhite.

Back home in Lexington, Ky., her family was worried.

"We had been hearing the civil war had broken out [and] that many thousands of people were being killed," said her mother, Joanne Wilhite, 58.

Her father called friends, urging them to press for word from the U.S. government. "I was just very, very frustrated -- I didn't leave the telephone for 11 days, when the shooting started," said James Wilhite, 61.

With only the clothes she was wearing, Ms. Wilhite was flown from Huambo to the capital, Luanda, on Nov. 11 on two cargo planes provided by the United Nations and the International Red Cross. Then on Nov. 14, she took a commercial flight from Luanda to Baltimore.

"I was really relieved when we finally got out," she said, laughing self-consciously, adding that she plans to return to Angola after Christmas.

After visiting her sister in Montgomery County, then going through a debriefing at CRS headquarters, she arrived home in Lexington late Thursday night.

Since touching American ground, she has had another shock: "It's hard to come from a place where people have absolutely nothing . . to normalcy and McDonald's."

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