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Hard Homecomings In Vast, Rural Angola

Postwar Returnees Find Conditions Bleak

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page A20

CHIONGO, Angola -- About all Wanga Guerra remembered about this village in eastern Angola was that it was home. And after 19 years as a war refugee in Congo, he said, he had been eager to return, build a house and raise his daughter in their ancestral village, just a few steps from the huts of his siblings and parents.

But one hard and hungry year later, Guerra, 27, who has a boyish face and an easy smile, is considering becoming a refugee of sorts again, driven this time not by the war but by the ruin left in its wake across Angola's vast, impoverished interior. "If I get work, I'd have to leave," said Guerra, standing beside the mud-brick home he was building by hand.

Residents of Chiongo in eastern Angola, most of whom spent the war years in Zambia or Congo, line up to welcome more friends and relatives returning home. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

Guerra is among an estimated 500,000 refugees who have returned to Angola since four decades of war ended in 2002. Many are finding conditions harsh after spending years in refugee camps that had plentiful food and decent schooling and medical care.

In his camp in Congo, Guerra said, "We lived very good," adding that he had even scrounged together enough money there to buy a bicycle.

What Angola offers after two years of peace is cratered roads, collapsed bridges and the crumbling, bullet-scarred shells of buildings that once housed families and businesses. Hundreds of thousands of land mines remain in schoolyards and fields, and on the shoulders of highways. And though open-air markets and a few shops have opened in many towns, there are still shortages of just about everything: clean water, sanitation services, electricity, schools, food and -- as Guerra has discovered -- jobs. More than half of Angolan adults are unemployed.

The United Nations recently ranked living conditions in Angola as the 11th worst in the world, despite the oil and diamond wealth that has given the nation one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. Human rights groups say a politically connected elite along the coast has stolen billions of dollars in oil revenue that could have been used to improve life in the rural interior, where the destruction was greatest.

The conditions, however, are not enough to keep most refugees from returning home, though an estimated 200,000 Angolans remain in camps in other countries, most of them in Congo and Zambia, which both border Angola to the east.

In Luau, a large town a few miles from Chiongo, U.N. convoys rumble in twice a week. Residents -- most of them refugees not long ago -- line the roadways to wave, applaud and sing in celebration. Afterward, they press against the wire fences of the reception center hoping to catch a glimpse of friends and relatives not seen in decades.

The enthusiastic welcome one recent day cheered weary refugees such as John Kaliye, 25, who was born in Zambia and endured three jarring days of travel to return to the country he regarded as his homeland. Though he spoke English, the main language of Zambia but not of Portuguese-speaking Angola, he was confident he could find work and help rebuild.

"I'm going to renovate the country," said Kaliye, as the truck jammed with dozens of refugees bumped along dusty, rutted roads.

Government officials say they, too, have ambitious plans for rebuilding, starting with the road and rail links that are crucial to economic revival.

Some towns have sporadic electricity, and new cellular towers have brought modern telecommunications to the few who can afford it. Several airports, though littered with the hulks of planes and helicopters that crashed during the war, have established semi-regular service by commercial airlines.

Fighting started in Angola with a national liberation movement in the early 1960s. After the Portuguese left in 1975, the battles grew more intense as civil war turned into a proxy conflict for outside powers, with the Soviet Union and Cuba backing the communist government and the United States and South Africa backing rebels.

After the Cold War ended, the government and the rebels continued fighting without international interference. The violence ended only with the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

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