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Angolans Try to Rebuild War-Torn Country - 2003-01-10

Angola's civil war ended last year, but the devastation caused by a quarter century of fighting between government forces and UNITA rebels is still very much in evidence. Four million people are displaced and the nation's agricultural land is littered with landmines. In addition, a drought has brought millions of Angolans to the brink of starvation.

The first challenge for Angolans this year will be to ensure that the work begun after the end of the civil war is maintained through the current rainy season. The rains always bring special challenges for Angolans: much of the country becomes inaccessible; landmines migrate in the yielding wet soil so that even demined roads and paths are once again dangerous; and, in those areas where there was no harvest it is a daily struggle to find enough food to sustain life.

Ever since the civil war ended last April, displaced people began streaming back to their original home towns, villages and farms places some had left more than a decade ago.

Lisa Grande, chief of the United Nations office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs in Angola, said there was no infrastructure in those areas.

"By mid September ten thousand people per day, per day, were going home all across the country," she said. "What many people were doing, however, was going back to places where basic preconditions were not in place. What that meant populations were going to locations, there wasn't adequate water, there wasn't adequate land things weren't ready for them."

Even with the combined efforts of the humanitarian community and the government, since the end of the civil war, basic administrative, health, water and education services exist now in only 30 percent of the countryside. Ms. Grande said that during the rainy season it will be difficult to sustain this and almost impossible to extend these basic services to the rest of Angola's rural areas.

"Large parts of our operation may have to be reduced during the coming months because we won't be able to get to those locations," she said. "Either the infrastructure won't be able to sustain us or, as we were talking about earlier, because of mine infestation. We estimate that as many as forty percent of the populations that we are currently helping right now may be cut off during the rainy season, we may not able to get to them."

In addition to people displaced by war, some 86,000 soldiers from the rebel UNITA movement have been quartered in special demobilization centers along with their families, about 340,000 people in all. They must still be reintegrated into society. Joăo Porto of the independent Institute for Security Studies told VOA this is something that needs to be accomplished as soon as possible, for the stability of Angola.

"But I think the short term issues are precisely the reintegration of the UNITA combatants to make sure that the peace which was achieved remains and is sustainable and you don't have a situation of widespread criminality in Angola, which will then undermine development in the short term," Mr. Porto said.

Mr. Porto, a senior researcher at the institute, said that there are indications that UNITA is readying itself to participate as a political party in Angola. UNITA is expected to hold a congress early this year to choose its new leaders.

But Mr. Porto said the joint government-UNITA commission on Angola's future, which met late last year, failed to include any discussions about civil society in its deliberations about future of Angola.

"Basically what that leaves is next year the only institution if you want, that will deal with structural change in Angola, is the constitutional revision commission within the national assembly," he continued.

The members of the assembly were elected in 1992, whose result was rejected by deceased UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, prompting him to end a ceasefire and return to the battlefield.

In addition to all its other problems, Angola is beset by corruption. A leaked report by the International Monetary Fund says as much as $1 billion in state funds is unaccounted for. This is troubling donor countries who fund the assistance given to Angolans by humanitarian organizations. Some observers say donor countries are privately reconsidering whether they should continue their contributions to Angola.

However, the U.N.'s Ms. Grande said that if donor countries withdraw or reduce their funding now it will add to the suffering of the already desperate Angolan people.

"Our point about Angola is that there is still an emergency, there is no doubt about that, but this is an emergency which can be solved," Ms. Grande said. "And it can be solved if we stay with the process for another year, or another two years. And that's why we're really encouraging donors not to divert funding to other parts of the world, but to keep funding coming [into] Angola so that we can help this country get back on its feet.

"So that we can have a real success story," she continued. "Not just a partial success story, but a real one where the population has a chance at a better life. And that means we need to keep humanitarian assistance coming in for another 12 to 24 months."

Angola is rich in natural resources, it has vast oil reserves, diamond deposits, fertile land and water and some analysts say these could help Angola build an economy that in time rivals South Africa's. But they say that to do so, Angola will need to build on the present peace and put into place social and political programs that will entrench stability and bring about a system of open government that benefits all of its citizens. Angolans have been waiting for these benefits for 25 years.