Out of Angola' With Unita, it's best to stick to letter of the law

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The Independent Online
HUAMBO - If you want to cover the worst war in the world, be sure to book ahead. And if the goal is to cross from government-held Angola into zones controlled by Jonas Savimbi's rebels, patience, and plenty of it, is required.

Travel arrangements must begin at the state-run press centre where foreign journalists are registered, press cards issued and a lot of hand-holding is done, especially for those unlucky souls who arrive in the country with little or no knowledge of Portuguese.

Within a few days, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff will send over a fax which typically says a correspondent has the army's blessing to travel in the war zones. But the biggest treasure at the press centre is seeing one's name on 'the list'.

'The list' is a piece of paper the press centre duly sends up to the Luanda office of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, known as Ucah, which is overseeing the Angolan relief effort, the biggest UN aid operation under way in Africa. Being included on 'the list' entitles a journalist to the possibility of an all-expenses paid flight on a UN World Food Programme plane to the sensitive Central Highlands cities of Huambo and Cuito.

Huambo is difficult to reach because it is the effective capital of the other Angola, that 65 per cent of the country occupied by Mr Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, commonly known as Unita. And Cuito is always a bit dicey because every once in a while Unita and the government troops holding part of the besieged town engage in mortar and artillery duels.

The Ucah staff are generally a friendly lot, though encounters with correspondents who do not understand that the aid effort to keep 2 million Angolans from starving is slightly more important than fixing up press visits has left a bitter taste in their mouths.

Back to 'the list'. Once in Ucah's hands, 'the list' of hacks desiring to visit rebel territory is sent down to Huambo for Unita's approval. This too can take some days, but not if you have booked ahead. Once 'the list' receives the necessary approval, a plane is organised and the happy reporters are sent on their way. Until recently all press trips to Huambo were guided trips that lasted several hours and included a young Ucah staffer to smooth the way.

Huambo has opened up recently, however, and the fortunate can actually sleep over if they care to. So used to journalists has Unita become that sometimes they do not even send a vehicle out to meet them at the airport.

It is while sitting at the airport, adorned only with a giant poster bearing Mr Savimbi's grinning face, awaiting Unita transport, that doubts about the value of the visit begin to surge. But in due course, which in Huambo can mean many hours, a vehicle arrives to whiz the journalists off to the only hotel in town for another bout of waiting.

It is important to remember that Unita, like the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the 1980s, is none too comfortable with reporters. So if the wait becomes unbearable, one move is to begin walking through town without the requisite Unita minder. Nothing stirs their juices like a couple of foreign journalists scheduled to be in town for a week striking out on their own after just a couple of hours.

Breaking protocol early has advantages but also carries risks. The main advantage is the chance to engage locals in frank talk free of the watchful eye of a Unita militant. Most of Huambo's residents, who have been cooped up in the city since Unita took control in March last year and have suffered relentless government air bombing, are dying to talk. Discussion of living conditions, food shortages, hopes for the future is free- flowing, but not so in the case of politics. That is a subject only Unita militants are happy to address.

It is the palpable fear of talking about politics that alerts one to the risks of circulating without a Unita minder. A BBC colleague ran smack into trouble when, while interviewing some people in a bombed-out building, he was followed by a young boy. After agreeing to take some letters back to relatives of those interviewed living in Luanda, my colleague was stopped by a couple of young men in fatigue trousers and Savimbi T- shirts who claimed to be immigration police. The little boy had ratted on him. The police said my colleague had 'broken the laws of our country'. The letters and his cassette were confiscated and not returned. In Huambo, it seems, even sending a letter outside approved channels is a crime.