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The long road back for one Angolan town

Quibaxe, decimated by 27 years of war, prepares for an influx of refugees

Portuguese coffee farmers hewed this town from the rainforest nearly a century ago, in the days when Angola was the gem of Portugal's colonial empire. By all accounts, it was a sleepy little place. Giant houses lined the wide, cobblestone main street and overlooked the lush, mist-covered valley below.

That was before the war. Twenty-seven years of fighting have scattered Quibaxe's residents and reduced the town to rubble.

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The story of Quixabe (pronounced kee-BAHSH) is typical of Angola's civil war. Although it held little strategic importance, the town became a battleground, changing hands between government and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel forces more times than anyone here can remember.

Now, with a cease-fire reached in March, rebuilding it shows just how long the road back to normalcy is.

Father Domingos Salgueiro Mota, the pale, white-haired priest of Quibaxe's one remaining Catholic Church, is the village's living memory.

Mr. Mota came here as a young man in 1965, and stayed when other white Portuguese left at the country's independence in 1975. He stayed when UNITA took over in 1992; and when they fled in 1997, taking with them everything that could be moved. He stayed even when his parishioners began to abandon Quibaxe for larger, safer cities near the coast.

"These last four years were a disaster," says Father Mota sadly, sitting in the neat but faded sitting room of his rectory on a lime green chair that must have been the height of 1960s style. Behind him, two large bookshelves hold volumes of well-thumbed classics, the only link to the outside world this town has had since the war began again in earnest in 1997.

Isolated since that time, the people of Quibaxe survived on what they could grow and make. They lived almost exclusively on a diet of cassava – a root with little nutritional value that is pounded and turned into a sticky gruel – and the few fish they could catch in a nearby river.

Today, there is still no running water or electricity anywhere. The plumbing and clean toilets that were installed in the primary school by nongovernmental organizations five years ago were quickly destroyed. The provincial administrator, Antonio Domingos Joao, says UNITA specifically attacked anything rebuilt by the government or aid groups.

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At the hospital – which, miraculously, is till standing – there are no mattresses, blankets, or medicines. UNITA stripped the hospital bare when they abandoned Quibaxe, taking everything but a surgical chair that was bolted to the floor. The handful of remaining staff – which includes no doctor or nurses – can do little for the ill but offer sympathy and occasionally some food.

A few lonely signs still hanging from battered and bullet-ridden buildings are reminders of better days. Once there were restaurants, bars, a pharmacy, and even a small movie theater. Mr. Joao looks at the signs and sees the future he would like to rebuild.

Much of his job in the coming months will be to work with the central government and international organizations to rebuild the city's infrastructure. The money and expertise must come from Luanda, 75 miles and eight hours by road.

Before anything else, however, must come the basics. "The first thing we need are seeds, tools, clothes, and even roofs for houses," says Manuel Salvador, one of the sobas, or local traditional leaders. "We need a doctor for the hospital and medicines."

Like many here, Mr. Salvador hopes that peace will bring back many of those who have left Quibaxe. The local government administration – which consists primarily of Joao, whose office is a bare room in one of the rebuilt buildings – is bracing for an influx of 20,000 refugees.

Already there are 2,000 filling the few standing buildings. They sleep huddled together, surviving on handouts from the Army. Most, like 18-year-old Escurinha Joao Adao, came here with nothing.

For the past four months, Ms. Adao has slept on the cold concrete floor of one of Quibaxe's run-down buildings with four other women and their children. Her only possessions are a blanket and a pot, and even those were given to her by the Army.

But like many here, she harbors hope for the future. "Life was so bad, there was so much suffering," she says with her head down. Then she smiles. "But things are better here. I think things will be better now."

End of war brings freedom for women

Isabelle Domingos doesn't remember where she comes from or what her mother's name is. She was just a small child, about five years old she thinks, when she was captured by UNITA solders. In the more than 20 years since, she has lived the life of a slave: cooking, cleaning, and even bearing the children of UNITA men.

Two months ago, Ms. Domingos was working in the Angolan rainforest when the government Army attacked. UNITA had always told her that the government took no prisoners, but she ran toward them anyway, thinking that a quick death was better than slow starvation.

To her surprise, the Army brought her, the skeletal infant strapped to her back, and the young toddler at her side, to Quibaxe. A third child, her eldest, is still missing.

Life with UNITA was hard, says Domingos, especially in the last few years when the rebel group returned to the bush to wage a guerrilla war. The rebels lived on what they could steal or forage. Captured men were forced to carry the pillage. Women became the rebels' wives.

"My body suffered so much during that time, so for this reason I don't want to return to my husband," says Natalia Bonacio, who has a baby by a UNITA man. "I was so sad that I cried and cried all these years."

Domingos, however, says she would return to her husband if she could find him. She has nowhere else to go.

"I wish I could find my mother," says Domingos, who thinks she comes from near the town of Huambo. "But I don't know much about her. I've forgotten everything."


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