Kuito, and Angola, move on

Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Colin Murphy, November 2009.

Seven years after the end of the civil war, and one year since the first elections to be held in Angola in 16 years, there is a new sense of stability and optimism. But in the city of Kuito, people are only now starting to deal with the trauma of the war …

… Kuito is in the throes of a hectic, haphazard rebuilding, the product of a combination of long-overdue governmental sponsorship, Chinese investment, and the resolute entrepreneurialism of the town’s people, honed over a decade and more of survival in a war economy. It has a frontier-town energy, underscored by the constant roar of the motorbikes that are now the favoured transport for people and goods, as well as an opportunity for young people to show off a bit of bling and bravado. 

For anyone who knew Kuito during the war, these mark an extraordinary change in the town’s landscape. But more striking still is the impact of peace on its people’s internal landscape. Even as the town’s architecture is transformed, an emotional archaeology is uncovering stories and memories buried since the war years.

With the success of last year’s legislative elections, the first since 1992, and only the second in the country’s history, fears of yet another return to war have gradually been shaken off. People now talk politics, and recall the war, with unprecedented frankness. Not only are people rebuilding, they are remembering. And this makes it possible to tell the story of the siege, and survival, of Kuito, in newly intimate detail.

The Angolan war was a classic proxy for the cold war through the late 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet bloc and Cuba supporting the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) government, and the US and South Africa backing Jonas Savimbi’s Unita. By 1992, the conflict seemed to be exhausted, and the UN supervised elections and — supposedly — demobilisation. But Savimbi returned to war in spectacular fashion, launching an all-out bid for the key cities of the central highlands, Huambo and Kuito. Huambo fell, but Kuito held out …

… “We have to change the type of governance. The country has many riches, but only two or three people benefit.” She warned of serious inter-generational and class tensions if the country’s young people were not given the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the economy. Yet there was great potential in this generation, she said. “During the war, we just lived for the moment; nobody thought of the future. Today the young people are worried about their education.”

Kuito, and Angola with it, has succeeded in leaving the war behind, she said. “The trauma and the intolerance are passing. There is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is the basis for life. The country is changing. People are working; the government is helping. If we maintain this momentum, Angola will be another country, a better country, where people can smile and forget the bad things of the past. There is much to do, but that which has already been done is great.” (full text).

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