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Antara Dev Sen

I scramble out of the car at the gate just as we are leaving on a field trip. "Back in a minute!" Then the clear blue morning sky thunders into the earth. A shell, a few feet from the gate, where the car would have been if I hadnít gone back. In the well-stocked bunker we hear the fireworks. Congratulations on being alive! That was close! Scraps of information fly in with every gust of fresh shelling. The radio gives no information. Just people coming in. The rebels have taken Villa Nova, a few miles from here. Theyíve occupied Caala, barely half an hour away. Two more killed. A truck blown up. The rebels are on their way into Huambo. Remember what it was like in í92? The 55-day war? So many died when the rebels took over. Another beer? There you go. Was no better in í94, was it, when the government took it back? This yearís violence is nothing compared to that. Pass me the Camembert, will you. Do you think theyíre coming? Sure, theyíll probably take over, but they canít keep it. The Roquefort is excellent. Try it with the hard bread. Weíve seen what they do. They are better off in the rural areas. Itís just a game of strength between Savimbi and President Dos Santos. Muscle-flexing, thatís all. Thereís a mother crying outside, someoneís died. You know, the house across the street. A boy, got hit by the shell. Just sitting on the wall of his own garden. A small silence, filled only by the music from the CD in the laptop. This is the endÖ Change the music, canít you? Why, donít you like the Doors? I want a coffee. Hey chief, why donít you put in a coffee machine here?

The locals donít talk. They sit hanging their heads, clutching their fingers, ears straining for the radio news in Portuguese over the English music. They have children out there. Wives, husbands, parents, friends. Out there in the streets, in the houses that buckle under shelling. Unlike us, foreigners with a humanitarian or journalistic agenda and no local ties, they canít take the next flight out to safety. This is their home. This city of majestic flame trees and banana palms, lit up by red oleanders and orange hibiscus, dotted by pink and white temple trees. This city that once was rich, once the pride of Angola. Under the oppressive Portuguese rulers, this was Nova Lisboa, New Lisbon. Now, in an independent country, a broken-down dump of internal refugees and tired locals with no escape route. Stuck in the dilapidating houses that have seen too much violence, in a land-locked, war-locked city with no land routes, with no money to fly out, no place to go except refugee camps on the coast teeming with desperate dislocados clinging on to life by a thread. Trapped in a city of no hope in a country tired of war but too divided to see it stop. Growing old in the labyrinth of death. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The motherís still crying on the road. Died some, pro patria, non dulce, non et decor... He wasnít sitting on the wall, he was on his bicycle, going out. Any news from the military? Not yet. The roadís pretty deserted now, except the family. He was just 15! The shellís taken off a part of their house too. The roadís got a huge hole in it. Gosh, itís sinful, this chocolate. I shouldnít have any more. Did you get it from Switzerland, or Belgium? Mother do you think theyíll drop the bombÖ Canít you change the music?

My time is over. But the plane that is supposed to take me from Huambo to Kuito hasnít arrived. The airport is closed. Phone lines have been cut, two-way radios confiscated. Some of us have managed to keep our handsets. Sitting in a communications vacuum, we soak in imported booze and local rumours. Market prices leap up every day as the uncertainty of the airport opening and supplies coming in increases. Playing darts with an electronic score-board. Hitting ping-pong balls over a respectable TT table. Hoping for the plane.

Walking through the tired, crumbling houses with gaping holes, headless buildings lit up by the blazing African sun. Homes, with people sleeping inside them, cooking, talking, making love, raising children, giving birth, dying, waiting. Dead frames of beautiful homes built for love and longings, now standing over the city in a grotesque parody of civilisation. Imposing their naked, toothless, limbless, fleshless skeletons on a city that could be Daliís nightmare. Unsmiling citizens cluster in front of their shell-shocked, bullet-riddled homes, sporting discoloured clothes, tired faces and aimless stares.

Two soldiers pass by, rifles slung on their shoulder. One with a limp and a crutch, the other with just a limp. He has a combat boot on one foot and a flip-flop on the other. Not exactly the best gear for battle. Are these the soldiers who, crazed by hunger, shot Fernando, killed his friends and looted their harvest? They smile. Bon dia! Todo bem? Yes I am well, thank you, and you? The rifles idly change shoulders. Can you give us cigarettes? Or a dollar, maybe? Walking past the long-deceased fairground. The huge Ferris wheel stares with dead, rusty eyes, and a silent scream: Double Shocker!!

Maria, a tall and statuesque young woman with enchanting eyes and incredible ebony legs, takes me to her hairdresserís house. A beautiful home, green with potted plants, welcoming in the soft glow of candlelight. A home very different from the others, untouched by the war outside. Decorations on the shelves, pretty pictures on the walls, delicate lace doilies on chairs and low tables. On the dining table a long, slim candle spreads its warmth over the blood-red roses waiting for your touch. The spell is broken the next moment, as the generator splutters on. Sylvia needs her generator, though it is prohibitively expensive with fuel prices sky-high. She needs to run hair dryers and curlers and hair irons and other fancy equipment for the few ladies left in the city who still want to look good. And she canít quite ask them to come between 7.30 and 10.30 at night, the only time there is electricity in Huambo. Beautiful Maria gets her crinkly hair straightened out as blond beauties stare seductively from covers of European glossies. It isnít so much a hairdo that Sylvia sells, itís a dream.

Maria feeds on dreams. She and her sisters were born into the war. A single mother, she works for an international humanitarian agency and sends money to her family in Luanda. Her sister, another exquisite young woman with a million braids, who also earned a good dollar salary from this agency, had quit and fled to the capital. With her Maria had sent her two little children and her mother. It wasnít possible to leave all together. Flying out was expensive, and one did need money. Once upon a time, when her father was alive, they believed things would improve. He was a teacher, and they lived comfortably in their large house with gardens front and back. Till their house got shelled. Their father died, their family split up and Maria and her youngest sister moved into what was earlier their servantsí quarters, at the back of their ruined house. She would love to run away. But can they afford to live the rest of their lives in refugee camps? She was saving money now, to buy a small house in Luanda, and maybe have a little shop of her own. That was her dream. A dream only she and her boyfriend Hans, a sensitive European aid worker, believed in. Dreams hardly ever come true in Angola. Nightmares do.

Vittoria is proudly decorating her new home with lavish plants and knick-knacks. She had lost her house in í92, when the rebels took Huambo. Almost all her family members who survived the attack have fled the city and now live in refugee colonies. Vittoria stays on, clinging to the hope of a decent life. She has finally managed to get a flat she can afford, at $200 a month. Not a mean sum in a country where the average monthly salary is between $3 and $30. But Vittoria and her husband are computer professionals and have well-paying jobs with international agencies. She has bought new furniture, new household goods, a new refrigerator. The freshly-painted walls of her flat radiate her hopes and joy as she rebuilds her life. She takes you down the crumbling, dark staircase out to the front of the house to proudly show the well in the corner. Thatís where all the residents draw water from and lug it up the pitch-dark stairs. Not every house has its own well. She was very lucky. Of course there is no running water in Huambo. And electricity, naturally, is limited to three hours at night except when there is a big football match in Angola. Then, people are allowed to watch it on TV and thereís electricity for that period. Standing in front of her wonderful new house, Vittoria glows with happiness. To me, just another peeling-off building with a mosaic of bullet holes. Shattered windows, broken doors. But the million bullet holes have each been carefully, patiently filled in with cement. A new coat of paint, in the midst of the fresh shelling, would be an extravagance.


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

 
Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. In her last assignment
in mainstream media, she was Senior Editor of The Hindustan Times