Four years after the high hopes of independence collapsed into civil war, peace remains nothing but a dream for the people of this once prosperous central Angolan City. For them -- like for most Angolans -- the war simply will not go away.
As almost everywhere in this vast nation, conflicts continue to ravage the land, burdening the Marxist government with a political and military crisis it could probably not survive without the continuing presence of the 20,000 Cuban troops who prop it up.
Signs of the continuing struggle are never far away and there are daily reminders that this nation has not known peace since Angolan guerrillas launched their war for independence in 1961 against the Portuguese who had ruled them so long.
Here in Huambo, Cuban troops rumble through the streets in convoys by day on their way to the front. At night, after the curfew has emptied the streets and the outlying areas have become an eerie no-man's land, the stillness is broken only by howling dogs and occassional bursts of gunfire. t
Known as Nova Lisboa in colonial times, Huambo was a beautiful town of 50,000 before the war. For three brief months after independence, it was the capital of two pro-Western guerrilla movements trying to over-throw the Marxists who took over the government in Luanda on the coast. But Huambo fell to Cuban and government forces on Feb. 11, 1976, as the rebels took to the bush.
Today, Huambo is a slum with garbage in the streets, crumbling apartment buildings filled with squatters, blocks of abandoned, boarded-up shops and long lines of women waiting all day for a loaf of bread or a can of Brazilian powered milk.
The Cuban troops who flow in and out of the city, the government insists, are here out of a temporary necessity, which now has lasted more than four years. "We are a big country and on the other side is South Africa, which is making war against us," said the deputy defense minister, Col. Juliao Mateus Paulo.
"At this moment it is necessary for our friends to help us. The Cubans are here as volunteer peace workers. One day maybe the situation will be calm and they can go home. But for now, that would be impossible."
Western intelligence sources say that the former guerrilla group that is now the government -- the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) -- has full control of only one-third to one-half of the country. But the MPLA and the Cubans do not appear to be losing ground in their attempt to extend government influence. They have made gains in the north and the northeast and have succeeded in reaching at worst a military standoff here in central Angola.
Clearly, the MPLA controls more territory -- or at least more people -- than it is given credit for in the West.
In Benguela, Huambo and Bie provinces -- strongholds of the guerrilla group known as UNITA -- the MPLA controls the population centers and has party offices even in small villages. Angolan and Cuban soldiers are highly visible at all strategic locations. Government officials made no attempt to hide the fact that the Cubans were combatants -- not just advisers.
But at night UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) can roam freely, planting mines and setting up ambushes. Its leader, Jonas Savimbi, retains a large measure of support from the Ovimbundu tribe, which makes up about 40 percent of Angola's 6.5 million people. The area be controls, however, is not contiguous, and this makes it difficult for UNITA to have real administrative authority.
Numerous civilians who have fled the combat area for the relative safety of government refugee camps told of UNITA guerrillas maiming or killing people who would not support them. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have been displaced by the war.
UNITA says it has a fighting force of 15,000 regulars and 10,000 militia. Savimbi, 45 and Swiss-educated, claims the covert support of at least 10 African countries, although only one country in black Africa -- Senegal -- has refused to recognize the MPLA (because of its dependence on the Cubans).
The MPLA government in Luanda recently branded Savimbi as a traitor. Government officials dismiss him as a political force and say that in most areas of Angola, UNITA operates only in small bands rather than in large organized units. Savimbi has never apologized for accepting help from South Africa, but few independent observers would consider him an agent for the Pretoria government.
Savimbi wants to force the Cubans to withdraw from Angola and insists that independence in November 1975 only ushered in an era of neocolonialism.
Savimbi presents the government with its biggest military threat, and the 30,000-man, Cuban-supported Angolan Army had had more success against another guerrilla group, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA).
The FNLA's survival has depended on support from -- and sanctuary in -- Zaire. But late in 1978, Angola's then-president Agostinho Neto and President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire agreed to stop supporting guerrilla movements trying to overthrow each other's regimes. Neto died last year but the agreement seems to have held, under his successor, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, diminishing the military effectiveness of the guerrillas on both sides.
Western intelligence sources in Luanda said there appears to be little activity among the Angola-based Zairian rebels who attacked Zaire's Shaba Province in 1977 and 1978. The Angolan government has resettled hundreds of the former Zaire inhabitants and, despite frequent rumors to the contrary, the sources know of no military buildup among the rebels.
In northern Angola, where FNLA leader Holden Roberto found his support among the Kongo tribe, the military situation also has stabilized in the government's favor, and last month a Cuban and Angolan operation through the former FNLA strong-holds met little significant opposition.
Last November, Roberto, who is 57 and was named for a British Baptist missionary, left Zaire at Mobutu's request and moved to France. He has not been seen in West Africa since, and most observers believe that the FNLA has ceased to exist as an organized movement.
In northernmost Angola, the government faces yet another, rebel group, the Liberation Front for the Cabinda Enclave (FLEC). Its European-based president, Francisco Xavier Lubota, said last year that his movement controlled one-third of the area. Western sources consider this to be an exaggeration.
About 1,000 Cubans are providing security in Cabinda, an enclave separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of Zaire. Ironically, the Cubans are also charged with protecting Cabinda's huge Gulf Oil Corp. compound; oil produced there by the U.S. company is Angola's biggest source of foreign exchange. The several hundred Americans there are supplied from Gabon and have virtually no contact with the Angolans or the Cubans, recent visitors to Cabinda said.
Although there are many critics of the Luanda government among Western and African diplomats, most agree that the MPLA is the only organization in Angola that has a national base of support, as opposed to an ethnic or regional base. It is also the most multiracial.
The MPLA was formed in 1956 with the help of the Portuguese Communist Party and was supported during the independence war by the Soviet Union. It was the most ideological of the independence movements and its two principal military bases during the war were known as Hanoi II and Ho Chi Minh. In 1962, Neto, the MPLA leader, visited Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to gain wider sympathy in the West and to diminish his procommunist image. CAPTION: Picture, Some Portuguese Angolan civilians traveled with UNITA troops near Cubango. Copyright (c) Jason Laurel; Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post