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In Former 'Rio of Africa,' Even Parrots Squawk Peace

After 20 years of war, Angolans bring out paint buckets in capital

ONLY two-thirds of the city's garbage is left to fester in the streets these days. A couple of traffic lights actually work, and hundreds of bullet holes have been plastered over.

Luanda is cleaning up its act.

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Angola's chaotic capital is as overcrowded, anarchic, and squalid as ever. But peace accords signed in November to end 20 years of war between the government and rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) are paying off in the name of tentative urban progress.

Residents who let their buildings decay during the war are now unpacking paint buckets to refurbish peeling buildings. In another new sign of confidence that this peace may last, new cafes and clubs are springing up.

At least two new air-conditioned hotels have been reopened to cater to the foreign businessmen returning to investigate possible investments. United States diplomatic staff are finally moving out of the trailers that make up the Embassy complex into normal houses.

''It's about time people leave the misery behind,'' says Tino, the owner of the latest nightspot in vogue, O Terraco, on a rooftop overlooking the palm-lined bay. At night, with lights shimmering in the port and the darkness obscuring the filth, one can imagine the splendor that once earned Luanda the reputation of the ''Rio of Africa.''

The beaches, too, provide indications of changes. Now water-skiers from European Embassies can frolic undisturbed by MIG warplanes that used to zoom overhead to bomb UNITA rebel positions far away.

A good barometer of the times are a friend's pet parrots in this capital: The old one used to imitate the sound of AK-47 gunfire. This new one mimics the sounds of reconstruction -- the horns of the new flashy jeeps jamming the streets and of the street venders selling a plethora of wares.

The nights still crackle with random shooting, but now that some streets are lit you can see where the bullets are coming from. The police still supplement $2-a-month wages by demanding bribes from drivers for fictitious offenses. But now one can usually dismiss them with a Coca-Cola -- or a stern lecture on ethics.

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This is not to say that all is well. The air is as fetid as ever from sewage. Hundreds of homeless children, many of them refugees from war-torn provinces, roam the streets begging and stealing. With inflation running 100 percent a month and weapons aplenty, the desperate are turning to violent crime to survive.

The city, built for half-a-million people, has been swamped by six times that number, most of whom live without basic amenities. A container is considered prime real estate. Few people use the banks, and the real economy is on the streets -- where one can change money and buy anything from a can opener to a Barbie doll. Having a working telephone is a rarity.

But, for now, the UNITA sabotage of electricity and water seems to have stopped. Those fortunate enough to have light bulbs and indoor plumbing finally have a semblance of normalcy.

''We won't put the candles and generator away just yet,'' said a friend. ''But for the first time in years, we don't have to wash with rainwater.''

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