Hardly anyone in Mozambique sleeps soundly at night. A third of its 15 million people are on the move, running from rebels who attack after dark, kidnapping children, mutilating adults or just stealing crops to put in their own mouths. Almost every family has lost someone in the war, which started more than 15 years ago and has engulfed the whole country in a waking nightmare of fear and famine.
Mozambicans creep through the bush surrounded by potentially hostile strangers, looking for at least an illusion of safety, clustering in places where they think they will be protected. Morrua, in the fertile northern province of Zambezia, has become one of these havens since the rebels were chased out of it last August.
I went for a walk through Morrua one evening in November. The main dirt track, which once led to the provincial capital Quelimane, was still studded with knee-high piles of dusty, glinting crystal. They are the only relic of the place’s past as a Portuguese colonial mining town, in the days before independence in 1975, but all the old buildings have been destroyed. Most of the new ones have been put up in a hurry since August.
Lopsided square mud huts huddled together for miles on each side of the track, and as the sun nudged the horizon women came out and stood in front of each hut grinding their evening meal up with big poles in flat or hollow stones. Children stoked tiny transparent fires which sent plumes of shimmering smoke into the settling heat haze, or darted back without laughing to avoid the sparks.
For the first time, I caught the quiet drone of far-off conversations. The thousands of silent barefoot people who tramp anxiously all day across the dry tracks criss-crossing Morrua had vanished into their new huts. The soldiers had disappeared into their barracks.
The food store and clothes warehouse were shut and barred and padlocked for the night, after a brawl in the burning afternoon when a group of people wearing only rags refused to believe there were no new supplies of clothes from aid agencies and milled around for an hour or so trying to break down the door. Now the tension had evaporated.
As soon as the settlement had got out of guerrilla hands, about 50,000 of the hungry and haunted people of northern Mozanbique poured into Morrua, wearing scraps of fibrous bark over their scraggy, scarred, patient bodies and looking for food and armed protection. As the shadows lengthened, I began to feel they were finding some of the peace they craved.
But I wasn’t. My plane had not come back to take me away. Foreigners like myself are not allowed to stay in the treacherous countryside by night, but it was beginning to look as though I was stuck in Morrua.
The quiet crowds that wait at the airstrip all day for the next consignment of food stocks had melted into the dusk. It was quarter past five, too late for the old cargo carrier that had dropped us off in the morning to come back. Planes are not allowed to fly in the dark in Mozambique, for fear the rebels will shoot them down, and the journey to Quelimane takes just over an hour.
Quelimane airport shuts its control tower at 4.30, but the pilots flying food aid around the province can land a little later as long as they can see their own way down from the air. John and Nick, the pilots who had flown five tonnes of food aid sacks – and me – to Morrua at six in the morning, had said they would take off for Quelimane after dropping their last load at three o’clock. But something had evidently gone wrong, and after a midday delivery they had stayed away.
The district administrator and his assistant were arguing in quick, fierce whispers with my official guide, Luciano. Foreigners who make daytime visits to rural areas must be accompanied by an official of the Mozambican organization which dispenses emergency aid in tandem with international agencies. In the villages, its unwieldy name of DPCCN is shortened to Calamidades, or Calamities.
“It’s all right for you to stay. You’re national. But something should be done about her. She’s foreign, she’s a woman,” the skinny assistant said, waving a hand towards me and then replacing it on the throttle of his motorbike. The bike growled, and they suddenly all looked towards me as if realizing I was listening to their conversation.
A mock-tragic smile crossed Luciano’s broad, good-tempered face. “Even if I am national, I don’t want to meet the armed bandits either,” he said. We shrugged and smiled at each other.
“The plane will come tomorrow, and there’s fish from the river to eat,” the district administrator said encouragingly, obviously keen to make the best of a bad job. “Anyway, there are no bandits here any more.”
He and I carried on down the road, while Luciano hopped on the back of the motorbike and roared off towards the Calamities warehouse to make an end-of-the-day inspection.
Two motorbikes were part of the aid package dumped by plane at Morrua after the guerrillas fled and the refugees started arriving. By the time I visited Morrua, the settlement stretched over five kilometers from the airstrip to the hospital tents. The motorbikes covered the parched, rocky ground in only a few minutes, but walking in heat of over 35 degrees took a good hour each way.
We strolled in silence for a few minutes. Blank-faced children stared as I passed. The sun sank lower.
Suddenly the district administrator spoke. “There’s your plane,” he said. There was no sound. I smiled disbelievingly. But I shaded my eyes to look up into the red sky, and there it was, still only the size of a distant bird and still silent.
As I turned towards him, the district administrator grinned hugely, clapped me on the back and said: “Come on, we must run!” We started back down the track at a jog. Luciano, clinging on to the back of one of the bikers, careered out from behind a bush whooping like a cowboy. The second biker was close behind, and pulled up by me so I could haul myself, my bag and camera on the back.
The plane had already lowered the door into its pot belly when we tumbled off at the airstrip, and a few destitute people sleeping on ragged bundles beside the pebbly track looked up, bewildered, before settling back down when they saw the hold was empty.
The two pilots hustled us on board the plane. “We’ll tell you what happened when we’re in the air,” John, the South African co-pilot, said. “It was a hellova difficult to get back, but we didn’t want to leave you out here.”
We took off with a roar into the twilight, as Luciano and I arranged ourselves in two small passenger seats at the front of the hold, suddenly full of nervous laughter and wringing each other’s damp hands as we fumbled with our old-fashioned safety harnesses.
I wanted to see a village in the north which was coming back under government control. There were rumours that a peasant vigilante army had sprung up in Zambezia province, sweeping insurgents out of their positions and then handing over to the tattered government army. Aid agencies said thousands of people were coming into newly liberated areas, looking for food and protection from the Mozambique National Resistance rebels, known by their Portuguese acronym Renamo, or simply as “armed bandits” by the government press. The government of one of the world’s poorest countries could not afford this military success. There was not enough food for the displaced people. Because large tracts of the country are under guerrilla sway, the government only asks the international community for enough emergency food aid for the people in its own territory, the “accessible populations”. A sudden extension of government territory in Zambezia and an influx of new mouths to feed meant a serious extra strain on already tight resources. The Mozambican countryside is so dangerous that most sacks of grain for the starving have to be transported by air – the rebels ambush armed convoys which set out down the province’s few roads, and blow up bridges to make the routes impassible. In the second half of last year, petrol prices spiraled and Mozambique’s fuel supplies became very erratic. Aid airlifts were being started and stopped as aviation gas appeared and disappeared. To make matters worse, the grounded planes were supposed to be carrying seed packs to help refugees start planting their own crops, and the seeds had to be in the earth by the time the rainy season started in a couple of weeks.
When I arrived in Quelimane, the capital of Zambezia province, to start the trip, no one was expecting me. The Mozambican information ministry in the national capital, Maputo, had said they were trying to contact the Quelimane authorities, but that links were difficult.
I got off a local plane from the central port city of Beira in the late afternoon. The airport was awash with people meeting the plane and carrying off parcels from the conveyor belt of the red-brick 1960s building. There is always a sprinkling of sunburned white aid workers at Mozambican airports, and they have cars. I found a group of talkative Scandinavians who said they would give me a lift into town, and reverted to English so I would understand their chat.
“People here are always very confused when we talk Danish together,” one red-haired woman said in the cramped back of the white pickup truck which has become the hallmark of the foreigner. “But we say that we’re talking our local language, and that we use English to communicate with other people, like they use Portuguese. That goes down very well, everyone can relate to it.”
They dropped me off in the sudden darkness at the Hotel Chuabo, an eight-storey block by the sea with a mosaic mermaid sprawled across the inner walls of its glass-fronted lobby. The Chuabo, designed for the rich holidaymaking public of the colonial 1970s, was owned by a family of Portuguese settlers before independence. After 1975, when everything was nationalised and the civil war started, the family stayed on to manage it for the government. Their mother is still running it today, and has become the terror of the aid workers and casual visitors who have to submit to her iron rule if they want lodgings during their visit. When I asked for a room at the reception desk, the young Mozambican man sitting behind it asked warily: “Do you have a reservation?” “Maybe. The information ministry promised to send a telex asking for a room for me,” I answered.
There was no telex, so the young man told me to take a seat on one of the black sofas covered with imitation leather dotted round the lobby. “But are there any rooms free?” I asked. “There’s no point in my waiting if you’re full.” “You have to wait for the senhora to take your booking,” he answered with a broad smile, but without making it clear whether the rooms were all taken. “We are not allowed to accept bookings without her.”
I sat down. A trio of Mozambican men sat on the opposite sofa, followed by a pair of businessmen from Maputo in jackets and ties. We waited for just over an hour and a half, and the three young men promised to take me to see all the clubs and restaurants and bars in town, as well as a basketball match. “That senhora wants to do everything here. None of the others can breathe without her permission,” one of them said with a furtive giggle, stubbing out a cigarette in the tall ashtray on a steel stalk beside his sofa. “The only thing to do is wait, and if there are no rooms then we’ll all stay out all night, so it doesn’t matter. Paciencia.”
Finally, a flurry went through the lobby and the white senhora appeared, small and fierce, behind the heavy wooden desk. The three young men rushed up to her, elbowing me aside, and began petitioning her for rooms. I stood behind them as she raked them with a steely look from above pointed glasses. Then she looked over their heads at me, and creased her face into a saccharine smile. “Do you have a reservation?” she asked. “I was supposed to have one, but it seems it wasn’t made,” I answered. “I don’t know anyone in Quelimane, so I hope it will be possible to find me a room without a reservation.” She fiddled around in the desk, pulled out a key and barked an order to a porter to take my bags upstairs. “As a foreigner, you have to pay in US dollars, cash,” was her parting shot, delivered in honeyed tones. Although I only had travellers’ cheques and fat bricks of hundreds of thousands of crumbling local meticais, I nodded reassuringly.
The old-fashioned lift still bears a metal plate advertising its maker in Lourenco Marques, the pre-independence name of Maputo. It whisked up to my room on the fifth floor. The cringing porter smiled nervously as he opened cupboards, picked up a heavy telephone, turned back the bed and ventured in to the bathroom to check the taps. Brown water came out, and beads of sweat broke on his brow as he smiled even wider. “You can take a bath,” he said as I pressed a few pink meticais bills into his hand.
Rebel attacks outside Quelimane often interrupt the water supply in town. When the taps dry up, porters have to carry buckets drawn from a well over the orad up to the rooms. There are not enough buckets to go around, and when your water comes you have to use it within 15 minutes or the porter will take it away again.
You can see the well from every room in the Chuabo. The view from the big picture windows takes in a broad stretch of river meetin the sea, tiny palm trees and a crumbling pink and blue Mediterranean church. The well is in front of the church, and you can hear a dry day without getting out of bed in the morning. A cluster of solemn children surround the well, clanking the handle up and down as they pump water into paint tins, buckets, pails, hipbathts and metal boxes. Then they hoist the makeshift containers on to their heads and sway down the road, slopping a few drops with each step. Next to the church is a modern block of flats, with a café on the corner of the ground floor and a long flat roof from where children wave at the staring hotel residents and dole out the water from their buckets into tin mugs.
Finding drink in the scorched grid of Quelimane streets is something you think about all day. Early in the morning, before the heat begins, you go up the spiral staircase of the Chuabo, past a sheet of grand wall hangings, to the top floor restaurant and drink a breakfast of coffee, iced water, orange and soda. You also ask for bottles of water and extra tins of soda to take outside with you, and put four or five containers of whatever they have into your bag. Then you set out into the streets, trying to hold off your thirst as long as possible as the sun rises and the tarmac bubbles. When the tins are finished and your throat dries to sandpaper, you have to retrace your steps to the hotel and the few seaside cafes.
I left the hotel early the next day, after my liquid breakfast among silent white couples starting aid assignments in Zambezia, crumbling rusks on to the heavy plates and white linen tablecloths and stumbling over their words to the glassy-eyed waiters. In the white city outside, the sun was already glittering on shop fronts and car windows. Two men were setting up rows of carved hardwood palm trees and tortoises and unfurling giant palm-leaf spiral fans on the pavement outside the Chuabo. Cheeky urchins in shorts were sitting by the wlel, waving at passers-by. Their hair had the gingery tinge of malnutrition. Two old, wrinkled Portuguese men in pork-pie hats, holding walking sticks, were stiting motionless on a municipal bench, staring out to sea with pale eyes.
At the Mozambican emergency aid distribution centre, the DPCCN, a meeting was in progress which lasted through two tins of soda and two cigarettes. The voices wafting out on cold gusts from the air-conditioned boardroom sounded angry. I sat on the white veranda waiting for Senhor Ventura, the DPCCN boss, to finish. It was nine months since my previous visit, and I didn’t think he would remember me. But when he finally came out, wearning a dapper safari suit stretched tight over his front, he smiled in welcome.
“I want to go to Morrua, if you’ll give me permission,” I said.
“Ah well. As far as my permission goes, there’s no problem. But you won’t be able to find a plane that’s going, because we have a shortage of aviation fuel,” he said. “You’ll have to talk to the charity people about it.”
He drove me across town and dropped me off at another restored colonial building, where two white American men were standing in the shade of the doorway, talking and gesturing.
When I introduced myself, I was grabbed by the shoulders and rushed inside. “Just what we need, a member of the world press,” said the broader of the two men, flashing a perfect set of white teeth at me, as his thin blond friend vanished down a corridor. “They say we can’t have any more avgas, except for emergencies. We’re saying Morrua is an emergency and they must give us that gas. With the world press here, it’s even more urgent that we get out there and show the world what’s going on.”
He bustled into a room leading off the corridor and sat us both down on hard chairs by the door. “We’ve got 50,000 litres of avgas somewhere that we bought in August, but no one knows where it is. I think someone has quietly taken it back. We need enough fuel to get on with flying agpacks out there so the populations can start planting before the rains come. I told Ventura we must be flying again tomorrow.”
An hour went by, and Leland, as the man’s name turned out to be, gradually unfolded the story of Morrua as the office pulsed with phone calls about the missing fuel.
Leland Brendeman landed at Morrua airstrip on October 8, with a doctor and an agricultural extension worker, and encountered a desperate situation. There were reports that 50,000 people had gathered there, but later it seemed that the figures were exaggerated. Still, there were a lot of people. Now, a month later, it was starting to empty out, he said.
The starving thousands started walking in from the bush as soon as the rebels left Morrua on July 12. Renamo had been in control since November 6, 1986, and had made Morrua a major base for insurgent activity. Frelimo government troops were now stationed there, but the base was actually taken back by a vigilante army called Naparama.
Naparama was a homegrown army from the north, of traditional warriors using spears, mysticism, amulets and religious protection against Renamo, he said. It started with a young faith healer called Manuel Antonio who was left for dead after an attack in the bush and reappeared several months later, gathering supporters to fight off the rebels.
“They literally move in and run Renamo off,” Leland said, sipping at a frosted glass of iced water. “At this point they are somewhat in collusion with the government. They go in, liberate a place and call in the Frelimo government troops. Frelimo came into Morrua in August.”
By October 13, Leland had got funding and his American charity, World Vision, ahd started airlifting in a 15-day supply of food for 16,000 people. There were 1,500 very malnourished people who were getting special food mixtures, but the normal supplies were 10.5 kilos of maize flour, 1.2 kilos of beans and half a litre of oil. They were also taking plants, seeds and tools because the planting season was fast approaching. Five thousand agricultural packs specially designed for Upper Zambezia had started moving a couple of days before. But now there was no fuel.
Within an hour, though, the fuel problem seemed to be at least temporarily solved. Leland’s thin blond colleague, Joe, stuck a taut military head round the door to announce the flights would resume from one o’clock. They had been given enough fuel for three or four days, flying five planeloads a day. I was to go back to the hotel and wait for a call to get on the plane. I was to go back to the hotel and wait for a call to get on the plane.
My DPCCN guide, Luciano, turned up at one to bring my official pass to visit Morrua. We wandered round the streets and came back to check at the hotel lobby for calls – the senhora’s rules did not stretch to letting outsiders come in for drinks in guests’ rooms.
There was no call from World Vision. At about three we telephoned Joe, and were told we would leave early the next morning. The pilots and technicians were also staying at the Chuabo, so I would certainly meet them in the restaurant that evening and could fix up meeting places with them for the morning.
The newsletter Africa Confidential, four crackling sheets of pale blue airmail paper filled with the rumours from a whole continent’s corridors of power, published an account of Naparama at the end of October.
Since April, it said, a potent strike force had been operating in the north: a spear-carrying militia following a 25-year-old traditional healer named Manuel Antonio who claimed inspiration from Jesus Christ and knowledge of a magic plant which made modern weapons of war useless.
The militia scored victories against Renamo in Nampula province in 1989, and in March 1990 moved south to Zambezia. Since then, it hasd spread rapidly to the districts of Alto Molocue, Alto Ligonia, Pebane, Ile, Gile and Mocuba, recruiting several thousand militiamen, many of them young boys.
While Frelimo has been happy to receive any help it can get, the charismatic Antonio, a member of the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Macua, could represent a long-term threat to the ruling party, Africa Confidential said.
All day, everywhere, everyone in Quelimane wanted to tell me the whispers they had heard about Naparama.
Naparama! You should try to find Manuel Naparama! I heard he was in Morrua. I heard he was here in Quelimane. I’ve heard he’s in Muelevala. He’s in the hills, he’s on the coast. No one ever knows where he is, but he’s a great man. A great healer. A great soldier. He’s the spirit of all Mozambicans who want the war to end.
What do you think is in his magic drug? Can it really turn back bullets? Is he a healer? Did he rise from the dead? Is he just a young boy?
Did you know that Naparama are not allowed to kill? They’ve driven out the rebels without shedding a drop of blood. They just have their amulets and their drug. The bandits are so scared of them they run when they hear Naparama coming. Naparama don’t need guns to chase off the bandits.
The BBC have interviewed him. CNN has interviewed him, or was it ITN? American jouranlists have found him, Dutch reporters have seen him, he’s been on the radio.
And all the time, most insistently of all, the talk came back to one idea, one phrase: Naparama’s saving the populations.
The populations are the silent victims of Mozambique, who wander the country shedding hteir possessions and their families, who speak little Portuguese and often fail to understand the local language of the areas they pass through, whose eyes are blank with shock. They are always treated as a many-headed herd, never as individuals, families, or tribal groups. The “populacoes” are Mozambique’s lost sheep.
Although most Mozambicans were enthralled by the idea of Naparama, many of the aid workers I met, hanging round town in patches of shade during the afternoon, were not so sure Manuel Antonio was a savior of the people.
We don’t like Naparama much. They make our job difficult. They take the food intended for the starving. I’ve heard they’ve started to force people to be porters. They move people around the countryside away from our feeding programmes.
Militarily, Naparama is doing what Frelimo has failed to do for years. Frelimo is cooperating with them because it has little choice, but in days to come I wonder fi the Frelimo leadership won’t regret that it’s succoured a beast that could turn out to be more voracious than Renamo.
They drove 30,000 hungry people out of Morrua. Naparama captured the next town along, Muelevala, in September, Suddenly more than half of those 50,000 people who were in Morrua just upped and waled to Muelevala. It doesn’t make sense. They were starving and they walked away from a place where there was food to go to a place where there was none. Nearly half those people had severee malnutrition and they left their next meal behind.
People have been protesting strongly to the Mozambicans about this, but the authorities are very reserved about what’s going on up there.
I don’t think any of these people know what to do any more. They’ve been tortured with pain and hunger for all these years. Naparama are starting to behave just like Renamo. They’re herding the populations round the liberated zones for reasons of their own. You should try to find out why.
They government assessment is that people brought in from the bush are coming in under their own steam because they want protection. There’s a measure of truth in that. They are afforded some protection.
The populations are going where they can be protected – or controlled.
I looked round the restuarnat that evening but couldn’t see anyone who looked like a pilot. Too excited and too tired by the heat to eat more than soup and fruit, I sat at a table with a tall Tanzanian businessman who was selling rice in Quelimane, sheltering behind a book I didn’t read and watching the other diners. At the only other table being served, five or six gnarled white men in khaki shorts were sprawled back in their chairs, smoking and drinking beer with a straight-backed Mozambican teenager in dayglo colours. They looked like South African businessmen.
The Tanzanian, whose name was David, asked gentle questions in between huge mouthfuls of steaming meat and fried potatoes and told me in indistinct English about his travels. David had also heard of Naparama. He had big, yellowish, round eyes which watered a little, and he wiped them regularly with a corner of the tablecloth, hitching it up into long furrows between the plates. “Perhaps I could come with you, my friend,” he said with a wistful smile as the waiter sleepwalked towards him with a large ice cream. “Perhaps,” I answered.
David and I asked the waiter where I might find the food aid pilots. “That’s them,” he said, with a look at the South Africans.
I excused myself from David and went up to their table. Yes, they said, they worked for Interocean which went to Morrua. Yes, I could fix up with them to be on the plane in the morning. It was going at five and we had to get to the airport by four to load up. They would give me a lift if I was up early enough. “Come and have a drink with us,” said a thickset young man with shaggy blond hair and a Viking moustache. But it was half past eight, and the restaurant had shut.
We went to the sports café, down the road and down an alley past a basketball court surrounded by tall wire fences. We sat in front of an empty children’s swimming pool by artificial light and watched tall boys in shiny clotehs sweat and twist and cheer on the court. We drank beer.
The South Africans weren’t pilots but engineers and technicials. A journalist, they said in astonishment. What does your boyfriend think of your coming to Mozambique? I don’t have one and I love Mozambique. No boyfriend! You love Mozambique! What are the young chaps in Rhodesia, sorry, Zimbabwe, thinking of? How can you like this shithole? How did you get to be a journalist? Aren’t you too young for a job like this? Don’t you worry about what Renamo would do if they saw a nice young blonde girl in the bush? I wouldn’t be in your shoes if they caught you.
The technicians lived in Quelimane for three weeks out of every four, keeping the two ancient planes that Mozambique airlines had rented to Interocean in the air. They went back to South Africa for the fourth week. Every time they returned to Quelimane, they moved into a new room at the Chuabo. They had one bag of possessions each. None of them spoke any Portuguese, so Alfredo, the Mozambican translator I’d taken for a teenager, worked with them. None of them had families, except the oldest man who had left his wife and three married sons in South Africa. “I don’t think they needed me around much, in fact I think my wife though it was far better for me to come here,” he said with a long laugh. The others all laughed too. They were all applying to work for Air Mauritius, hoping for a life of peace and snazzy planes and girls in designer bikinis and resort hotels by white beaches.
“People don’t stay that long in Mozambique,” they said. “This bloody country, it grinds you down. At least the moneys’ right. But the planes are no good.”
“Those planes have no right to fly,” the oldest man said. His staccato voice sounded like a radio broadcast where the background noise is almost breaking up the sound. “they’re crocks of shit. I wonder they don’t fall right out of the sky sometimes, but I think they’re held up by willpower.” He laughed uproariously again, but stole quick peeps at me when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. His washed-out eyes had a lost look in a tough, leathery face.
I was leaning forward to light a cigarette, and he pushed his face up next to mine and said: “I notice you smoke a lot, and you should watch out for what happened to me.” He prodded his neck, where a big lump stuck out on the side nearest me like a misshapen Adam’s apple. “It’s cancer. Luckily they caught the bloody thing – excuse my language – in time. So you carry on if you like, but if you feel anything pressing on your throat, make sure you go and see a doctor quickly. You don’t want that kind of trouble.”
He cleared his throat and I looked down. “What were we saying? Those planes,” he went on. “We’ve been trying to fit a new engine on to one fo them today. It packed up right when the fuel came through. The other one had problems yesterday but that should be OK by the morning. Don’t you worry, we’ll get you to Morrua.”
Alfredo watched them with a sardonic expression on his handsome mulatto face. He ordered more beers for them, and held out his glass for a toast. “To you South Africans. You got in the way in the past, but now you’re our future,” he said. They drank noisily. “Don’t know what we’d do without Alfie,” one of them said.
But when I asked Alfredo who he would vote for in the first Mozambican multiparty elections, which were to be held the next year, in 1991, they guffawed and slapped him on the back. “You don’t want to talk politics with him,” one said.
“I do! I’d really like to know what he things,” I answered. “She’s going to write an article about you, Alfie,” the moustachioed Viking snickered.
Alfredo wrinkled his nose, smiled rather disdainfully and said: “I will vote for Frelimo. At least, I’ll vote for President Chissano. A lot of people don’t like Frelimo much because of the big mistakes with Socialism in the past, but since Chissano came in our lives have really improved. Ask anyone, they’ll say they’re going to vote for him. He put food back in the shops, even if no one can afford it, and he’s making peace possible.”
Who would vote for Renamo? “I think that is one of the reasons they don’t want to make peace,” Alfredo said. “There aren’t very many people who would, except of course in places where Frelimo forced collectivisation of the farms and brought severe hardship in the past. Those people have long memories and Renamo has been strongest where Frelimo made its worst slips.”
And the new parties springing up in Maputo? He shrugged.
“What power do they have? And who knows what they represent? They won’t get anywhere. No, it’s Chissano who’s going to win – that is, if there are any elections.”
“Yah, quite right, the silly buggers will never be able to have elections here while the war’s still on,” one of the South Africans interrupted. “Just look at this place. You can’t get food down the road without an aeroplane. How are you going to get everyone registered to vote when they’re all running round the country like rabbits and a million of them have sneaked off to Malawi and Zimbabwe anyway? The place is a shambles. There’s not going to be any election for a long, long time.”
I left the, sitting at a table glittering with South African beer cans and glasses, and slipped back to the hotel. In the street, a group of children, some hardly more than toddlers and the oldest about 15, surrounded me and walked down the road with me. “Senhora, we need money for bread,” they said. A liquid-eyed little boy put a grubby paw in mine and smiled up at me.
But if you give money to the tots in Mozambican city streets, they get cuffed into handing it over to their gang leader. You have to give it to the leader yourself, and hope he will decide to share it out. “Who is the boss?” I said, and handed over some meticais notes to the biggest boy. They escorted me back to the dark hotel door, grinning and cheering as I went past the mermaid. They were still waving outside when I got into the lift.
A full moon shone over beautiful, disconsolate Quelimane. I opened the window wide and let in a scented breeze. The well was silent and only one old man stood motionless in the street below, silhouetted against the baroque curlicues of the Catholic church. Tiny palm trees shivered against a glimmering, murmuring sea, and my papers blew around the room in the faint lamplight.
Until Naparama started beating them back, Renamo had been planning to take Quelimane, people said.
Renamo is like the violent child of this pretty and fertile country whose own instinct for overt rebellion was suppressed over centuries of passive subjugation to a clutch of brutal masters.
People who have watched Renamo guerrillas enter villages talk of the psychotic anger behind the destruction they wreak, smashing every pane of glass or every painted tile in a building, setting every house ablaze and shooting bullets crazily up and down empty streets.
Who are the guerrillas? No one really knows. Gunfire and bloodshed are their hallmarks, but not self-justifying slogans. Renamo’s pudgy leader, Afonso Dhlakama, keeps well out of the public eye. The group’s bush headquarters is in the middle of what was once an isolated game park. It has no visible bases, but attacks in the far-flung rural areas. It controls no towns or cities where it can be approached, but has paralysed the national transport system by bombing roads and railways. It has turned Mozambique into an archipelago of isolated land parcels which have to be hopped across by aeroplane. It has no overt support, nor any visible voluntary recruitment. In the rural fastnesses, it does not try to convert the peasants it kidnaps or takes under its control to any political point of view. It just takes their food, their children and sometimes their ears and lips.
There are probably also thousands of people with guns roaming Mozambique, robbing and killing, who have nothing to do with the Renamo leadership. But their banditry is attributed to the rebel group’s following. Would they put their guns down and return to their hungry villages if the rebel chiefs made peace? Are they fighting the government, or just the miserable circumstances imposed on them? Again, no one knows.
But what is well documented is Renamo’s historical links with the hostile states dominating or surrounding Mozambique. The history of Mozambique’s oppressors is the family tree of Renamo – a broad and violent coalition of the government’s enemies.
Unlike many Third World guerrilla groups, Renamo was never an independence or separatist movement. It was born at the same time as independent Mozambique, out of the remnants of the Portuguese colonial secret police, and was nurtured by later white governments in enemy states nearer at hand.
The fascist government in Lisbon collapsed in 1974, marking the end of the Portuguese empire. Renamo was created by the white Rhodesian secret service during the late 1970s. Control shifted to the white South African government in the early 1980s, after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The Portuguese used black Mozambicans to help them stamp out mushrooming independence movements. The Rhodesians, engaged in a power struggle against black Zimbabwean guerrillas hiding over the border with Mozambique, used the Mozambican agents as a counterforce to spread violence in the areas where “their” guerrillas were hiding out. They wanted to persuade Mozambique to stop sheltering rebels. South Africa wanted a weak, divided hinterland, and no trade competition from Mozambique’s Indian Ocean ports.
The government says now it believes the new South African government’s hands are clean. No country admits to supporting Renamo any more, although the government’s old enemies – former Portuguese settlers who live in South Africa and elsewhere, right-wing Americans, South African businessmen – probably still supply Renamo with guns and money.
Inside the country, Renamo has had the shifting sympathies of ill-assorted groups alienated from the government, especially the post-independence government of President Samora Machel.
Machel’s attempt to impose instant Marxism caused suffering to everyone from traditional healers and chiefs, northerners who felt excluded by the southern-dominated administration, and those herded on to collective farms in the early 1980s, to the ranks of hungry and displaced peasants.
Since Machel’s mysterious death in 1986, when his plane crashed over South African territory, Maputo has been in the hands of the foxier and more pragmatic President Joaquim Chissano and Renamo’s constituency has dwindled.
This arch-pragmatist is wooing back the disaffected inside Mozambique with the chance to protest legally and within the system. The right to strike, a noisy press, and the creation of opposition parties are important safety valves. He is also wooing back old enemies outside Mozambique with a market economy and constitutional reform and an enticing foreign investment programme of quick, exportable profit which South African, Portuguese, Zimbabwean, British, American and multinational businesses are being drawn to.
Renamo’s political leadership, which used to make the vague claim it wanted the freedoms Chissano has introduced, has had to think aain. Its erratic behaviour at peace talks this eyar have not given any clear sign that it wants peace. The fighting is still going on.
Despite a growing confidence among Mozambicans that their President can tiptoe through international politics and win friends and money, Chissano is still a pawn to the powerful new allies who all want something for nothing.
The United States wants diplomatic influence in a former Soviet sphere. The new greed of multinational businessmen run profitable farms behind fences patrolled by private armies, using refugees and displaced people as cheap or unpaid labour. Outside, people are starving. The old Portuguese and South Africans who have started reappearing inside Mozambique for the first time since independence want their abandoned assets back.
But this time the Mozambican attitude to them all is different. The government wants a leg-up out of the legover. It wants the foreigners to help its own economy prosper.
In Portugal’s sleazy empire, Mozambique was a satellite which serviced richer and more sophisticated colonies and Lisbon. Large tracts of the country were administered by foreign trading companies. Its industry was never developed and its economy was already failing before the Portuguese left. Its people were never trained. Its children were not educated.
When the last Portuguese taxi drivers, cooks and policemen slipped over borders or on to ships in 1975, the country’s stock of technical expertise vanished with them. For good measure, they smashed hospital equipment and supplies, crashed their cars and drank cellars of wine in wild farewells before fleeing the outbreak of revenge violence they expected.
More than most other colonies, Mozambique was called into political existence as a victim. Even now, her tactics for survival are those of a wary victim with an eye to the main chance. She is selling herself back to the one-time violators who represent her best chance to escape more battering by Renamo.
It’s a deal everyone would be content with if they could only think of some way of strangling the monstrous offspring of the country’s rapists. But Renamo has not responded to government attempts to encourage it to turn itself into a normal political party. No one can work out how either to kill it off or bring it in from the wilderness.
Dawn broke over the Chuabo when I was waiting downstairs with the Viking for a truck to take us to the airport. “If only there was something to drink,” he said pensively, as he stubbed a cigarette out in a potted plant. The hotel breakfast only started at 7.30, and we had been unable to get supplies of tinned drinks for the day.
“Did you know, when we first saw you I made a bet about you?” the Viking said with more animation. “I said I bet you’d come over to our table and have a drink with us last night, but I never expected you to.”
He tugged at his moustache in embarrassment, a bashful smile on his face. But surely I’d seen them for the first time when I did go and introduce myself to them? How did he have time to place any bets, I wondered?
“No,” he answered. “We came through here the night before, when you were sitting here with those three black guys waiting to check in. What I actually said to the guys was, ‘mmm, I like the look of that, that is a tasty piece.’ That’s when I made the bet,” he tailed off, clearing his throat and blushing.
“Oh,” I answered uncertainly, and shrugged. The Viking was wriggling with embarrassment, and scuffing his feet against each other in stout suede veldskuner boots. “Why don’t you ask the boy at reception if he can get us some drinks?” he added loudly and hurriedly, as the rest of the engineers trooped down the spiral staircase, clattering bags and tools against the metal banisters.
There were no drinks. Luciano appeared and climbed on to the pickup truck. I went outside with the technicians and their translator, Alfredo, and got up beside him.
“No, no, you’re a lady. You get inside, go in the cab,” the old man said, screwing up his eyes to the sun. “Man, my head is killing me.”
But I stayed outside and we set off at a stately pace through the empty streets, stopping to pick up two Mozambicans who worked loading the aid planes at the airport.
“You too been out all night drinking? NO CERVEZA!” the old man said to them through his headache, turning to wink and grimace carefully at me. “We understand each other fine, see,” he said. “They drink at night, I drink at night, but we all say we don’t. These chaps are really good-hearted, you know. Even if I walloped them for drinking they’d still like me, that’s the kind of chaps they are. No harm in them at all.”
Alfredo smirked provocatively at him. “And how would you feel if they hit you for drinking?” he said.
The old man paused to think, puffing up his pigeon chest, and slapped it with his right arm. “I’d hit them back!” he said. “But that’s the kind of guy I am, and that’s how I was brought up. It doesn’t mean anything.” He laughed, and clapped the nearest Mozambican labourer on the back. “These chaps and me, we understsand each other.”
We drove over the airfield to the aid corner, where two planes trailing wires and masking tape were parked side by side. The technicians all jumped off and climbed into the nearest plane. One of its engines, and a propeller, were still dismantled on the ground.
“This is the one we’re going to work on today,” the old man said. “The engine packed up yesterday but we’ll get it going again.”
They set to work, and I felt a little lost. Alfredo said it would take some time to load the second plane, and took me into the airport building, where he knocked on the door of the closed café. A pretty teenage girl came scampering up, smiled meltingly at him and let us in, then barred the door again after us. There was no bottled water for sale, but we drank powdered coffee at the bar, and I bought four tiny tins of soda to carry in my bag.
Fifteen minutes later, when we emerged on to the airstrip, the heat was already beginning and the tarmac was puffy underfoot.
The plane was nearly loaded, and a spare, balding man in a pilot’s uniform was holding a clipboard and counting the bags in the hold. Nearby a small group of scruffy Mozambicans had gathered to watch him, standing in silence on the empty runway by a heap of wicker baskets, cardboard boxes and plastic sacks all together with twine.
A few of the technicians waved at me, and one of them came up with a second man in pilot’s uniform, a big, shambling, gentle young man with floppy dark hair. He held out a large bottle of mineral water to me. “You could need this, you’re going to have a hot day,” he said in a low South African voice. His face was unexpectedly delicate, perched on its thickset body, with slanting cheekbones and dark-lashed blue eyes.
“Thank you,” I said, surprised and grateful. He was called John, and the first pilot was called Nick, he said. They were going to leave me at Morrua to do my work, but I should come back to Morrua airstrip by three and wait for them to pick me up when they landed for the last flight of the day.
“We’ve got enough fuel to fly a full five flights for the next couple of days. At five tonnes a flight, we should be able to get a lot of stuff there,” he said. “Then it’s a question of battling for the next lot of fuel again.”
Taking me and Luciano meant carrying a little less food to Morrua, but no one seemed to mind. Nick beckoned us on board, and we perched on the grain sacks in the semi-darkness of the hold, like children in a barn, looking out through the door at the huddle of Mozambicans waiting outside. When they saw us inside, the Mozambicans moved purposefully up to the plane, each one plucking at Nick’s sleeve and murmuring slow Portuguese at him.
“No. I’m sorry. There’s no room. You can’t come today,” Nick said over and over again, but three of the thin Mozambicans oozed on to the plane anyway, taking shelter in the darkest corners of the hold.
“We can’t take off with you in there. You’ll have to get out,” Nick said in clipped, annoyed, British tones. His face was expressionless. Finally he agreed to one man coming with us, and oversaw the loading of the man’s five assorted pieces of luggage on top of the grain bags. The rest of the group, blank-faced, moved back to their belongings and watched as the doors closed on us.
After we took off, Luciano and I settled back and stared out of a tiny round window at the silent emptiness below. Steep-sided hills of purplish rock rose abruptly out of the dry plains, where you could see occasional squares of cultivated soil and clusters of huts in the pale ground.
Luciano was a plump young man in his twenties, dressed in smart and well-pressed trousers and a bright, tight cotton shirt. His wide feet were encased in Zimbabwean suede bush boots, known as veldskuners to Afrikaners, and he rubbed them absentmindedly with the side of his hand to get off the yellow dust.
The co-pilot let me take his place in the cockpit, and Nick talked to me through headphones as I watched the hills rise up in front and the clouds dance below.
Nick had got his pilot’s license as soon as he was old enough to take the test. He did not mention a family. He had flown all over the world, all over Africa, moving steadily south as airlines merged, set up and went broke. “But I’ve never flown in planes like these,” he said.
They were gifts of rich governments to poor governments, finally passed on for a last stint of work to the most distant parts of the poorest countries. “Every day, we take off on planes that break the most basic safety rules. But we get by,” he added. One plane usually worked and the technicians were quick at repairing the other.
When you see the big conical rock on the horizon ahead, you can almost see Morrua in the haze beyond it. We landed before an audience of hundreds of people, all waiting to see if there would be any aid for them and ready to unpack whatever the plane held. Leaving them and the pilots, Luciano and I set off on foot with two young men for the district administrator’s office.
The name of Morrua’s administrator was Adriano Castro Julio. He lived in a new mud hut only half a kilometer from the airstrip, at the very edge of town. It had only just been completed and its uneven walls looked hardly dry. It had three small rooms and we sat with him in the twilit central room, around a wooden table. His wife served Luciano and me brown water from a glass jug and slipped back into the other room, where we could hear her move about. There were no doors and the sun was blazing through the doorways and windows.
Adriano Castro Julio had to count the flock that had hurriedly been assigned to him a month before, and ensure the emergency supplies that were flown in were distributed properly and the sick were cared for. He had gathered a lot of statistics.
He said Morrua consisted of four areas – Chiraco, Nacalame, Namigonha and Micalane. There were 22,310 people in Morrua that day and another 32,811 had been there but had returned to their original homes in Muelevala when Naparama liberated it.
The flow of new arrivals had dropped to between 10 and 15 people a day, he said. Most of them were coming home after fleeing to Gile or Pebane when Renamo took Morrua. All the houses I could see, stretching over miles, were new. They had all been built since Renamo were chased out again.
Newcomers were registered when they presented themselves to the party although he said there was not yet a formal refugee centre to take them in.
Teachers were giving lessons to children, although they had no books or materials. He was not sure how many teachers had started work. The sick were cared for at the World Vision health post through five kilometers of huts, he said.
“The sickness is mostly caused by hunger,” he said. “Originally between 30 and 40 people a day were dying, but now it’s been reduced to 10 or 15 a day. Most of them are children with anaemia.” Morrua’s dead are buried, not cremated.
“Certainly there are problems with planting the fields, because most people are sick,” he added.
Castro Julio said no land was yet ready for planting, but that 327 half-hectare plots, or mashambas, had been marked out. He said the soil was fertile and suitable for corn, peanuts, pumpkins and beans.
The future mashambas were outside a four to five kilometer security zone around Morrua, but there were no security problems any more and the people did not leave Morrua at night to sleep in hiding in the bush, as many of them had in their former refuges.
He did not know how many Naparama soldiers had captured Morrua, and how many were still left.
“How many Frelimo soldiers are based here?” I asked, but an eddy of embarrassment ran through the two men. “I couldn’t say. You would have to ask the garrison commander that,” Castro Julio said. Luciano shook his head at me, and later whispered that I should never ask in Mozambique how many soldiers were stationed anywhere. It was the kind of question that would make people feel bad about me and wonder if I was a spy, he said.
“Come and see Morrua,” Castro Julio said, and we went for a walk.
We walked five kilometers to the green tents of the health post, down a broad stony track to the river and up the other side, then left past thousands more huts cramped together in the gentle sweels of ground. It was eleven o’clock when we set out. We rested under a droughty tree half-way there, and the walk took more than an hour.
As I lifted foot after foot, trying not to lag behind and not to reach for the water bottle at the bottom of my bag, a stream of thin people were walking the other way towards me. Some were wearing only bark fibre, which looks like coarse brown matting. Some were in aid agency clothes, newish shirts and skirts and trousers in the wrong size. Some wore dusty capulanas, the brightly-patterned squares of cotton which Mozambican wrap round their bodies or heads.
Many of them smiled curiously at me, many others stared blankly ahead.
None of them looked strained by the heat, although they were all bony and undernourished. All of them walked faster than Luciano and me. Several frail-bodied girls swayed along carrying water buckets effortlessly on their heads. One young man stopped to show me a four-inch terrapin he had just caught in the river, tied by a string round its neck which was looped over his wrist.
But Luciano’s face glowed dark with sweat, and I felt trickles of damp gather on my forehead and slide down into my eyes. My clothes were sticking to my body.
“They have to go to the river every day to wash and get water,” Castrol Julio said when we asked him why so many people were tramping this path. “Some people walk eight kilometers every day, each way, for water.”
Children sat in small groups outside the hospital tents, most of them with the gingery hair of hunger and many of them coughing. An open-sided hut served two young medical agents, Lucas Andre and Goncalvews Amisi, as an office. It had a table and several chairs placed on a raised platform under a shady roof, and patients and passers-by stopped to lean on its elbow-high railing and chat with the agents.
“Doctor Hector has gone back to Quelimane,” Lucas Andre said, beckoning me to a chair. Doctor Hector had been almost constantly at Morrua since the tents went up, steadfastly ignoring the government rule that foreigners should not spend nights in the bush.
Lizzie Cumbi, a pretty young nurse from Maputo whose face was caked with whitish mud to keep the sun off, came to join us. Whenever she smiled, the mud cracked open, leaving little fissures down her face. She showed me the open fire round which several women stood, stirring a huge vat of stew with giant ladles. It would feed all the people coming in to the hospital that day who were not on emergency rations.
In the tents, dozens of wizened babies lay flat out on their backs, waiting for their next feed of a mixture of milk, sugar and oil. They were given seven feeds a day.
There was enough food for the moment, Lucas said, but he did not know how long the emergency programme would last. There were 450 people being treated, all but 12 of them children. “The problem is quite simply one of hunger,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
“Have you seen Naparama yet?” all three asked at the first opportunity, all glowing with sleek good health and eagerness. “They’re all around here. There’ll be some of them along soon.”
Parama was the name of the drug vaccinated into the vigilantes by their curandeiro, or healer, the health workers said.
“They have to obey certain rules and norms,” Goncalves said. “For instance, it’s forbidden to maltreat the populations, or to kill civilians, or to eat before battle.”
Bathed in smiles and sweat, Goncalves and Lucas said the vigilantes got on well with local people. Were there no problems? “Well, there are always problems,” Goncalves conceded as we walked out of the white sunshine into the hut.
“We had one woman who was bringing her child here for the emergency feeding programme. One day the Naparama men wanted her to work for them and she couldn’t come to the health post. Her child died and she was very angry,” he added. “But on the whole, relations are good and the people are satisfied that they have been freed from the bandits.”
We dawdled over a tin of Fanta I found in the bottom of my bag. I asked Lizzie about the exodus of 30,000 people from Morrua.
“Yes,” she said, the corners of her mouth drawing down in puzzlement. “Two or three weeks ago, they just went away, I think most of them came from Muelevala, and were captured and brought here by Renamo, so they wanted to go home when it was freed. But conditions are worse there than here. I don’t know why they went all at once. Even mothers went whose children were ill. They say there were bodies left on the road.”
Did anyone encourage them to go? “I think there were some soldiers with them,” she said with a little frown playing on her forehead.
Suddenly, the two men stiffened and turned towards me, beckoning into a swell of approaching people. “That man is Naparama,” they both said at once.
Pushing a bicycle along beside him, the man was short and bespectacled and stooped slightly. He wore beads and hairy amulets over his clean white shirt and trousers, but still looked more like a postman than a guerrilla fighter. Slightly behind him walked two loping young giants, also in new, smart clothes, with severe faces.
They were reticent when I first approached them. They did not speak Portuguese, but one of the medical assistants agreed to translate for them. Once they got going, the unlikely vigilantes described their battles with gusto.
“We move in groups, thirty here, thirty there,” Commander Silvestre Anlauene said, peering at me from behind his spectacles. “We split up and surround them. Then we move in for hand-to-hand conflict. When we took Morrua we came in singing and dancing and blowing trumpets. Most of the bandits just ran away.”
He paused and sighed with deep satisfaction, a tight little smile on his bearded face.
“We don’t kill those who surrender, but if they fight we are allowed to kill them in self-defence,” he added.
He said he and his 49 men, part of a force of just over 300 Naparamas in Morrua, were vaccinated once a month with Manuel Antonio’s drug. If they kept faith and were not afraid of the enemy’s bullets, they could not be hit.
“But if you go into battle and your wife is sleeping with another man, even a bullet that isn’t fired at you will turn around and hit you,” he said.
None of the Naparamas knew how long it would be before they got the word to move on, or where they would be going. “We want to chase the bandits out wherever they go,” one of the young warriors said.
They were full of scorn for the government army. “We’ve got our tactics for responding to fire,” Anlauene said, “but government soldiers just vanish when they hear shots. So there’s no point in going together into battle.”
It was midday, three hours before my plane was due to come back, but all at once one of the two bikers of Morrua chugged down the dirt track and screeched to a halt beside me.
“Get on. Your plane’s going now,” he said. “The pilots told me to fetch you at once.”
“Why is it going three hours early?” I asked, getting on as the Naparams continued a noisy discussion among themselves. “Don’t know,” he answered gruffly. We set off back to the airstrip.
But the plane had gone.
Luciano and I, each mounted on one of the bikes, met at the district administrator’s house. He shook his head, the district administrator shook his, and we put three chairs out in front of the hunt and settled down to wait. After an hour or so, the administrator’s wife fed us fish stew and we swapped stories.
Luciano had only returned to Mozambique a few months before, after spending a couple of years studying and working in the sleepy eastern Zimbabwean town of Mutare.
His job at Calamities gave him the chance to meet a lot of foreigners, but they always moved away again very quickly, he said. “I remember the Australians I took on my first assignment. They were very nice,” he said wistfully. “Did you know Robert? He worked for one of the aid agencies. He was going back to Zimbabwe, and he promised to write to me and send me a new pair of farmer-shoes. We were great friends.”
“But I never heard from him again, and that was six months ago now. I don’t know if he’ll come back.”
Luciano learned English in Zimbabwe, but had not completed his studies because he had no money. Nor had the Mozambican aunt he was living with. He worked as a labourer on a sugar estate. He stocked up with Zimbabwean clothes. And he came home, although he was deeply nostalgic for his foreign past. It was so quiet there, he said longingly. You could sleep sound in your bed.
Some of his family had not been so lucky. Luciano had brothers and sisters who had fled to Malawi in the north, to escape from Renamo attacks. He had traced them, and wanted to go and see them if he could raise the money. He said they would only come home once there was peace.
Every now and then we went for a walk around the huts. Once we came across a group of lithe young Naparamas dozing in the shade. Luciano woke them up and asked if I could photograph them.
They smiled hugely, nodded and glanced at each other – and suddenly snatched the spears and knives waiting at their sides. One grabbed Luciano and wrestled him, struggling, to the ground. The others closed in and raised their spears, whooping boisterously and laughing at podgy Luciano’s discomfiture.
I took my picture and they let Luciano go. He brushed the dust off his rumpled shirt and reassembled his dignity before slowly standing up. “They move fast, don’t they?” he said in a slightly shaky voice as we walked on.
She was slim and elegant. She carried a clay pot on her head. She wore nothing but a mat of brown bark fibre.
She stopped and turned towards me to let me take a photograph. Perhaps she was the same age as me, perhaps 10 years younger of older. Her eyes were distant.
When I was through, she came closer and spoke into my ear in a soft voice and unexpectedly fluent Portuguese.
“I have nothing,” she said. “We feel bad with no clothes. If you have anything, a spare teeshirt, please give it to me.”
All I had in my bag was a capulana cloth, so I fished it out and handed it to her.
She stood in front of the warehouse and shed the ugly, prickly bark skin. Then she wrapped the green printed cloth around her slender hips. “Thank you,” she said with dignity as she turned to move back into the busy crowd of walkers.
“Were you born here?” I asked curiously. “Did you come back home when Renamo went?”
“Oh, no. I’m not from here,” she answered. She could not remember where she had been born, but she had married a man from Gile, not far away. He had been killed in fighting one night, she said. She did not know which side had killed him. Was it Renamo? It was bandits, she said without emotion.
Her name was Paula, and she was 21.
And then our plane flew in, using up a big part of its fuel ration and without even a load of food for the destitute, and took us out of Morrua. I felt guilty later, but at the time I was too delighted to even think of the empty hold.
After the take-off, the copilot offered Luciano a turn in front and came to talk to me in the hold. It was John, who had given me a bottle of water in the morning. He had two tins of soda in his pocket and he offered me one.
“You were very lucky,” he said softly as he lowered himself into Luciano’s seat. “We had a hell of a time trying to get back here for you. We were trying to charter a plane to pick you up, we were doing everything. Hell, we were running round. I can’t believe we’re here now.”
It was the worst a plane had been since he came here, he said. “We made our next flight to Morrua at midday, but the plane was still making funny noises and we didn’t know if we’d be able to get back again. When we got back to Quelimane, we opened up the cowling to see what was wrong with the engine. We thought we’d better check.”
“The whole engine fell out on to the runway. It just bloody fell out, man.”
“They got the second plane going in the end. This one’s got a new engine in so we should be OK for now, eh?”
He paused, and turned gentle eyes away to look through the round window into the prickly dark. There were no lights anywhere. In the whole hour of flying I counted only three tiny fires burning on the ground, separated by miles of emptiness.
“People don’t light fires,” he said thoughtfully. “No one wants to draw attention to themselves in this bit of the world, unless it’s Renamo. When I was fighting in Angola people weren’t afraid to light a fire because there was a real war going on. There was your territory and the other guy’s, and there were the parts in between, but you weren’t scared of everything, everywhere, like people are here. This is more like a nightmare, eh? Hell with pretty scenery.”
South Africa invaded Angola, a west African country that like Mozambique had been under Portuguese colonial rule, right after independence in 1975. South African troops were in and out of the southern provinces of Angola until 1988, attacking the Cubans who were helping the Marxist government, or joining forces with Angolan rebels based in the south.
“Oh,” I said, trying to suppress a shiver of disappointment. White South African men are brought up to fight, I told myself. Even the ones with poet’s eyes are soldiers in the wrong wars. “You were in Angola? What was it like fighting there?” I asked.
He turned back towards me. His face was sad as a clown’s. “We should never have been there,” he said, and shrugged giant shoulders. “But at least it’s all done with now.”
The airport was hot and empty and echoing with the noise of our plane. There were three cars drawn up on the tarmac, filled with the engineers and aid workers who had been waiting for is.
Luciano vanished in the Calamities car, and I drove back in the corner of the engineers’ pickup. “We couldn’t leave a wha-aat girl out in that place,” the old man said clumsily, patting my back. “It damn near killed us to get that plane up but we did it. Damn nice to see you back. We were worried.”
I went out to supper with John and Nick, the pilots. We sat on the veranda of a restaurant and ate lobster and salad and drank too much thin Portuguese wine. An tape recorder played chirpy marrabenta dance music.
We talked until late, trying to decide whether we thought the government army and Naparama were herding the populations around the country, as the aid workers said, or whether the people on the move were really peasants happy to go home after the rebels were chased away, as the government said. But none of us could tell whether the movement was the authentic voice of people tired of oppression, or just another oppressor.
“And do you believe in the Naparama vaccine?” I asked, with a smile.
“You can’t believe in it,” John said. “Except that it works.”
Our fotosteps echoed unsteadily as we walked back to the Chuabo through empty streets. Nick got out on the second floor. I got out on the fifth. John put a hand out, and held the lift door as I stepped into the corridor. He blushed, but all he said was “goodnight.” The door shut and the lift whirred upwards again.
I flew out of Quelimane the next morning, going back to the commercial hall of the airport and jostling a huge queue of people who were all trying to get their cardboard boxes, chickens and bulging suitcases on to the plane.
The flight was four hours late, and a kindly pair of nuns guarded my bag while I went back to Alfredo’s café and sat over my first tinned drink of the day. Outside, at the corner of the runway, I could see the old man working on the plane whose engine had dropped out of its cowling. He was mopping his forehead with a big red spotted handkerchief. His leave in South Africa began the next Monday.
The commercial flight hall got steadily more packed, until you could not take a step without walking on a bag or the hot body of a slumped passenger squatting over a box.
John came in at about ten o’clock, after his first flight to Morrua and back. He shouldered through the crowd, and took my bag as I started to head for the departure lobby.
“I thought,” he started hesitantly, looking down. “We’re all off back to Joburg next week. I don’t know if you ever go there, but if you do, please get in touch.”
I found a piece of paper to write down his address, and he produced a pen from his breast pocket. Then he looked at the paper again, raised his eyes to mine, and smiled ruefully.
“I’m trying to think of what address I should give you. I’ve moved out of my flat and I don’t have a new one yet. I don’t have an address at all at the moment,” he said. He looked at the paper, scribbled furiously, and handed it back to me.
“It’s not my address, but he’s a good friend who will know where to find me,” he said. “If you come to Johannesburg. I know it’s a difficult city to find your way round in.”
We pushed our way to the departure room. He put my bag down and waved goodbye, then started muscling his way back through the crowd. As he passed me, I felt a touch on my hand, but I wasn’t sure if it was John or someone else in the crush. I waved back, and he disappeared on to the tarmac. I caught sight of him one more time through the window, shading his eyes as he looked over his shoulder. He didn’t see me.
I did go to Johannesburg soon after that trip, but I could never find the piece of paper and couldn’t contact John. He was probably not there when I was, anyway. Two months later, in a different Mozambican city, I met another pilot who had left Interocean and said it was likely to close down soon. I haven’t heard whether its two Quelimane planes are still operating, or whether all its staff have really left for Air Mauritius. I did buy Luciano some new Zimbabwean shoes. Seven months later they are sitting in a box in my office, waiting for the next person I meet who’s going to Quelimane. He doesn’t know, and there’s no postal system that would let me tell him they’ll be coming. The photographs I took of the Naparama boys pretending to stab Luciano in the Morrua dust came out blank, and taking the Morrua dust out of the camera cost a lot of money. I wrote two stories about Morrua. The civil war continues, the peace talks continue, and there are still vigilantes and bandits and thousands of other lost people, black, mestico and white alike, in every possible walk of life, in Zambezia province and everywhere else in Mozambique too, looking for a home.