UN toils for peace as Angolan rebels create a capital

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The Independent Online
SPENT mortar shells and bullet casings litter the grounds of the old United Nations military camp in Huambo where the remaining piece of UN military hardware, a Russian-built Mi-8 helicopter, has become a public lavatory.

Where smart prefab houses once stood in neat rows with a canteen and satellite phone, today there are a few trenches where the last group of unarmed UN soldiers huddled in early January last year waiting to be evacuated as Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) launched the final attack in its 55-day siege of the city.

It was only 17 months ago, as the country was about to go to the polls, that the camp was buzzing with activity as idealistic young soldiers and UN personnel from around the world rushed to and fro and helicopters lifted off and landed, to ensure that one of Africa's worst disasters, Angola's civil war, would become an international success story.

It was not to be. On the eve of the vote, UN military personnel under Lieutenant- Colonel Roger Mortlock, a New Zealander, knew trouble was brewing. The demobilisation had failed, and the warring sides had created alternative forces - the government's anti-riot police, and Unita's Special Security Corps - which fell outside UN supervision. 'A guaranteed recipe for conflict,' Colonel Mortlock said then. The UN mandate, to observe the disarmament and election process, was too weak to deal with the catastrophe that followed the 29-30 September 1992 elections when Mr Savimbi rejected his defeat and returned to war.

Two months after the vote, the government and civilian vigilantes had smashed Unita's troops and supporters in the capital, Luanda, and in Malange, and were preparing to finish them off in the other cities of Lubango, Benguela, and Lobito. Colonel Mortlock was locked in mediation efforts to prevent a final showdown in Huambo between Unita and President Eduardos dos Santos's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government.

On 21 November 1992, he stood on the steps of the pink UN command building with the local MPLA commander, Colonel Walter Jorge, and Unita's General Augusto Domingos Wiyo, attempting to keep the peace. All three knew events were overtaking them. General Wiyo's words that day were as depressing as they were prophetic: 'A small number of guerrillas with just 100 rounds of ammunition can set off events that will devastate the whole country,' he said. 'I lost my whole youth to 16 years of war, and the last thing I want to see is for it to start again.'

That showdown came two months later. General Wiyo has now lost nearly 18 years to war. Colonel Jorge, too, is still in the government army. Colonel Mortlock returned to New Zealand a year ago, an emotionally drained man.

The UN is again involved in bringing peace to Angola, this time by brokering negotiations in Lusaka, Zambia, with the countries that mediated the May 1991 peace accords - the United States, Portugal and Russia - sitting in as observers.

This time, if an agreement can be reached, the UN is promising to send in 5,000 to 8,000 peace-keeping troops. After Somalia and Bosnia, however, it is difficult to see which countries would be prepared to provide the manpower.

The crunch will come when Unita is supposed to begin withdrawing from the 65 per cent of the country it has occupied since the civil war resumed. Discussions with Unita military officials here leave a lingering suspicion that they see such a UN force as the perfect buffer for a de facto partition of the country, or at least to provide a respite before continuing their march towards the sea and Luanda. 'We have not been able to reach the Atlantic coast yet, but one day we will,' said Commander Antonio Urbano, whose nom de guerre 'Chasanya' means hot in the Umbundu language.

There is no sign that Unita would be willing to withdraw from Huambo, which has become the rebels' effective capital. Visitors to the airport must fill in an immigration form before proceeding into town. A semblance of a government, complete with ministries of education, health, humanitarian affairs and housing, is in place. In the past month, a Unita police force has appeared on the streets of Huambo.

'The problem is that you have two forces fighting for power, and each one believes that if it lays down its arms, the other will subjugate it,' said Tony Chivukuvuku, a Unita protocol official in Huambo. 'The logic is to keep on fighting.'