Angolans sink back towards year zero

AS SHE prepared lunch for her extended family of 16, Maria Sasfates stood in a patio surrounded by piles of rubble left by two 500lb bombs that had fallen out of the sky one morning, and said: 'We will stay here forever.'

Somehow her apartment block and snack bar on 1 May Avenue survived the bombing raid by Russian-built jets last September, but the buildings on either side were flattened. One of the bombs hit exactly where her parents had been sitting until 30 minutes before the attack, when they went inside to play cards. 'We think it was a miracle that nothing happened to them,' she said.

Ms Sasfates, 22, was serving soup to customers when the warplanes roared overhead. 'We were used to it, so when we heard the sound of the MiG we ran and hid.' None of her family was hurt, but one pedestrian and an elderly shoemaker were killed in the raid.

The attack near Ms Sasfates' home was part of the last round of air raids carried out by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' government against the central highlands city of Huambo, stronghold of the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) movement. That is, the last until yesterday morning, when the jets returned to drop at least six bombs on the city.

The renewed bombing raids came as serious fighting erupted at the weekend in the government-held city of Cuito, about 120 miles east of Huambo. They are expected to disrupt international aid efforts to help feed thousands of starving people in the central highlands, home of the staunchly pro-Unita Ovimbundu people, Angola's biggest ethnic group.

Also in jeopardy are the UN- brokered peace negotiations between Unita and President dos Santos' Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government that have been going on for the past three months in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. They are aimed at ending a civil war that the UN has called the world's worst conflict. Fighting resumed after an 18-month ceasefire when Mr Savimbi refused to accept defeat in September 1992 elections.

Unita forces captured Huambo in March 1993 after a 55-day siege that left much of the town in ruins and smashed the local economy. Fading grafitti on bullet-riddled walls promise Unita supporters 'a new future', but for the 300,000 residents of this once picturesque city, known to the Portuguese colonists as New Lisbon, it has been a nightmare journey back to zero.

The international oil embargo on Unita-controlled territory has left the streets empty of all but a few cars, mostly owned by Unita officials, the Catholic church and a handful of international aid agencies. Urban salary-earners have been devastated, moving from modest lifestyles to the brink of starvation in just a year.

Elizabeth Casilva, 42, lived comfortably with her husband Antonio, a mechanic, and six children in the lower-class neighbourhood of Bom Pastor until the war for Huambo started. Then Mr Casilva's workplace was destroyed in the fighting and they soon exhausted their savings. Last November Mr Casilva and several of the children began to suffer severe malnutrition and Mrs Casilva went to the market to sell off household goods and clothes to buy food. By Christmas there was nothing left to sell, and the youngest child, Erickson, 4, was starving.

'Each morning I made a bit of fuba (maize meal) and stirred it in the water to give it to the children,' Mrs Casilva said. 'I gathered whatever I could find in the house, a chair or a shirt, and went to the market to see if I could sell it for some maize. Usually for a nice shirt I could get one kilo of maize.'

For the past month, Mrs Casilva has taken Erickson to a Save the Children Fund feeding centre. Gone are his distended belly and red hair, and the scabs are fading away.

'It would be a great pleasure if this war would stop. No one understands why the fighting continues,' said Mrs Casilva, thereby echoing a cynicism widespread in Huambo and other Angolan cities, whether government or rebel-controlled. It is a cynicism fostered by a government that bombs its own cities and by an opposition movement willing to sacrifice thousands of civilians to pursue its leader's thirst for power.

(Map omitted)

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