The cargo planes that keep this city alive land every few hours, trembling to a halt amid cracked concrete and yawning potholes. With the roads already close to impassable, relief workers worry that the approaching rainy season will shut the airport as well, hobbling their efforts to deliver food to thousands of peasants who pour into Kuito each month, chased from the countryside by an unyielding civil war.

Flush with money from Angola's offshore oil fields, the government in the past year has recaptured all provincial capitals that had been held by the country's rebels, including this town in the central highlands. But Kuito's center remains a wreck of half-demolished colonial-era buildings and homes blistered with bullet holes, its perimeter a dangerous ring of live explosives and unburied corpses.

Refugees have plunged a few sticks into the soft reddish dirt to mark a football-size field of land mines near where they camp in grass huts. With too little food and too few schools, idle, rail-thin children with pot bellies dance barefoot around the minefield. Every few months, a child is blown to bits.

This southern African country--a former Portuguese colony about the size of Texas--is potentially the richest on the continent. Angola produces nearly 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day, more than Kuwait. But the wells may as well be bone dry for all the good they do most of the country's 12 million people. A civil war that is closing in on its 26th year sops up most of the oil windfall, and corruption eats away much of what remains, leaving the bulk of the population with nothing.

Only six countries produce more petroleum than Angola, yet more than three-quarters of its population remains desperately poor. Nearly 2 million people would starve without food shuttled into Angola by the World Food Program and distributed by relief agencies.

"Billions of dollars of oil and yet the people see none of it," said Domingos Jorge, an Angolan aid worker in Kuito. "What gets done here is done by the [aid agencies]--housing, building schools, feeding the hungry, water and sanitation, caring for the sick, de-mining. The government does nothing but wage war and stuff their pockets."

What began largely as an ideological war by proxy between the Cold War superpowers and their allies has disintegrated into a gruesome battle over the country's mineral riches, particularly its relatively untapped oil fields deep in the Atlantic Ocean, according to military analysts, diplomats and an emerging civil society of journalists, clerics and opposition politicians.

Many foreign countries and international organizations accuse the rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) of breaking a 1994 peace treaty two years ago. But analysts, diplomats and this country's exhausted population are increasingly questioning whether the formerly Marxist governing party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), is using the war's resumption as a ruse to skim oil revenues through phony arms deals and other corrupt schemes.

Last year, after international petroleum companies paid Angola $900 million for exploration rights, the government devoted half the money to a military offensive that has pushed UNITA into the bush. It's anyone's guess what happened to the other $450 million since the bonus was not included in the government's published budget. But suspicions are as abundant as oil in Angola, which two years ago spent more on cars for cabinet ministers, legislators and their wives than it did on health and education for its citizens.

An economist here estimated that corruption costs Angola $800 million annually. Global Witness, an international human rights and environmental organization, accused high-ranking government officials last year of using oil revenue to buy arms from Russian mobsters, then selling them to the government through bogus companies at inflated prices.

Oil company officials working in Africa say it's impossible to operate in Angola without bribing top officials. Oil executives in Luanda, the capital, carry not only the cell phone numbers but the Swiss bank account numbers of key government ministers, an oil executive said.

Meanwhile, a war that has cost at least 500,000 lives grinds on, reducing the average life expectancy to just 42 years. One-third of all Angolan children die before the age of 5, and of those who survive to adulthood, more than half are illiterate, partly because there aren't enough schools. The government spends more than a third of its meager education budget on scholarships for relatives of governing party officials to study abroad.

"The government has created a stateless state here in Angola," said Rafael Marques, a journalist who was jailed and convicted of defamation for an article last year in which he characterized President Jose Eduardo dos Santos as a dictator. "Each citizen is responsible for his own health and welfare while the government is accountable to no one. The MPLA and UNITA are like two gangs and the people of Angola are innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting."

A year ago, many Angolans and foreign diplomats were optimistic that the government's surprising military surge might finally defeat Jonas Savimbi's UNITA militia, which was heavily financed by diamonds mined in the Cuango River valley. But while the MPLA forced the rebels to abandon their strongholds and the diamond revenues needed to pay for major ground offensives, UNITA has simply resorted to guerrilla warfare, fighting government soldiers and terrorizing civilians almost daily in attacks on the periphery of Kuito and other towns.

With any chance of an imminent military resolution apparently faded, Angolans have begun to prod the colorless, reclusive and autocratic dos Santos to negotiate a peace settlement with his bitter rival, Savimbi.

The arrest of Marques, and the brutal treatment by police of people who assembled in Luanda earlier this year to protest the government's 1,700 percent increase in gasoline prices, appear to have widened dissent within a war-weary population that in the past has been reluctant to challenge its brutally oppressive government.

In recent months, opposition politicians have publicly demanded that dos Santos be tried for treason, and Roman Catholic clergymen sponsored a four-day conference in July intended to begin a national dialogue of peace and reconciliation. The independent media have countered the pro-government newspaper's version of events with forceful calls for a more accountable government.

"Happy Birthday Chief," read a front page headline in the independent weekly Folha 8, mocking dos Santos's lavish birthday party at his compound. "The generals and the people are starving," the headline concluded, referring to the aging military heroes who led this country's war for independence from Portugal, which ended in 1975.

"This kind of defiance would have been almost unthinkable two years ago," said Imaculada Melo, an attorney and executive director of the Angolan Civic Association, which has lobbied the government for political and economic reforms. "I think there's a transformation taking place. For too long the politicians in this country have ignored the needs of the people, and we see them driving new cars and living in nice homes. Always, their excuse is the war, always the war."

Following its independence, Angola became a Cold War battlefield, with the United States and the white-minority government in South Africa supporting Savimbi's forces against the Marxist ruling party, backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Angola slipped from the West's radar screen in the years immediately after the collapse of Soviet communism, but oil has returned it to center stage, diplomatic officials said. The United States buys 7 percent of its oil from Angola, a figure that U.S. officials say could easily double in a climate of peace and stability. Chevron Corp., BP Amoco PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and nearly two dozen other oil companies plan to invest roughly $20 billion here over the next decade.

The Clinton administration abandoned the traditional U.S. courtship of Savimbi in 1995 and threw its support to dos Santos, a leftist turned free marketer. The United States has been instrumental in brokering a deal between Angola and the International Monetary Fund that would require the government to open its books to outside auditors for the first time and spend more on domestic programs in exchange for donor assistance. And earlier this month the United States joined Russia and Portugal in calling for the international community to toughen its sanctions against UNITA rebels.

Still, some U.S. officials acknowledged that the administration is reluctant to criticize Angola's corruption or woeful human rights record because of American oil interests here.

Rhetorically, at least, the governing party seems responsive to the growing domestic and foreign pressure. Last month, dos Santos said that his government would offer amnesty to the rebels, including Savimbi, if they comply with the 1994 cease-fire agreement. The government also has announced a $250 million program of economic development and infrastructure improvements.

Dos Santos has suggested that he may hold national elections next year. The last time Angolans voted for a government, in 1992, Savimbi rejected the results once it appeared that he faced defeat and quickly went back to war.

"Peace is the first and the main concern," said Manuel Augusto, Angola's minister of social communication. "The main threat by Mr. Savimbi to take power by force is over, and we are very confident in our future. We would like to have the elections in 2001 if we achieve a significant level of stability and peace."

While acute, Angola's problems with corruption are hardly unique in societies in transition. That does not, however, make life any easier for Joao Gregorio, a farmer who fled the fighting near his village 30 miles outside Kuito. The entire village now lives in a crowded, sweltering refugee camp of mud huts, surviving on corn and beans provided by relief agencies.

When a reporter asked Gregorio about Angola's paradox of petroleum and poverty, the slightly built man stared blankly for a moment, then wiped the sweat from his brow as a puzzled look formed on his face.

"What oil?" he asked.