Angolan foes cross the divide to trade food: Mutual need has prompted a practical response from the troops, Karl Maier writes in Cuito

WHEN THE 18-month rebel siege of Cuito takes a break, as it inevitably does, it is time for troops loyal to Jonas Savimbi's Unita movement to begin fraternising with their sworn enemies: the government troops holding half of the central highland city.

At military checkpoints around the city troops of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government and rebel soldiers engage in cheerful banter and sometimes even play cards, gambling salt for firewood.

At sunset they return to their positions in bombed-out buildings along the main avenue, which divides the city and serves as the front line in Angola's civil war, and await their commanders' orders to resume the fight.

So regular has trade between the erstwhile enemies become that units of Mr Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) have set up makeshift breweries to produce cachipembe, a potent maize-based liquor for sale to the government- held section of town. Sometimes the drink is exchanged for salt and clothes, as is firewood, fruit, and vegetables brought in from the rebel-controlled countryside.

Unita territory is the source of much of the goods, such as firewood and potatoes, sold in the markets set up in the remnants of buildings shattered by Unita mortar shells in the government-controlled half of the city. Other items sold, such as maize flour and soap, come courtesy of aid shipments from the United Nations, while still others, like salt and sugar, are delivered by parachute from government cargo drops.

'Once in a while the government decrees a ban on trade with Unita, or Unita issues orders to stop selling to the city, and the business stops,' said Olegario Cardoso, 52, a Cuito businessman. 'But it soon resumes again because we need firewood and vegetables and they need salt and clothes.'

The trade across the battle lines is part of a symbiotic relationship that has developed between Unita and government troops since the siege of Cuito began several months after Mr Savimbi rejected his party's defeat in the September 1992 general elections and restarted Angola's civil war.

Since then at least 15,000 people have died in the fighting which has left the city in ruins. Intense shelling resumed on 26 May and continued this week with reports that hundreds more civilians had been killed or wounded.

The ironic ties that bind the two sides become evident at the government-held Cuito airport where cargo planes sent by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are unloaded on to two lorries, one destined for the MPLA part of town and a second for a warehouse in the Unita zone.

The WFP hands over about 150 tons a week to each side, enough to give 50,000 people a minimum diet. But when there is fighting, as there has been this week,no flights can arrive.

The food aid has worked, with the incidence of starvation and malnutrition falling dramatically since aid agencies gained access to the city last October. Now several groups, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and the WFP are helping people who once survived on grass and leaves.

There are about 30,000 civilians on the government side but virtually none on the Unita side of town. The rebel warehouse where the supplies are delivered is near a Unita logistics base south-west of the city. There is no way to monitor how that food is distributed. To obtain the aid, Unita and the MPLA must co-operate with each other. About one mile from the airport is the first Unita checkpoint, run by Captain Pepe, whose task is to ensure that the rebels get their fair share of the aid. A Unita driver boards one of the lorries to drive towards the rebel warehouse. The other makes its way past a government checkpoint and into town to a WFP warehouse.

At the Unita checkpoint there is a sign that reads 'Savimbi is our man'. The government checkpoint displays posters of President dos Santos with the slogan ' O futuro certo' - the certain future.