Mozambique's ex-guerrillas regather arms
13 November 2012, 16:53
Gorongosa - The marching begins before dawn at a revived Cold War-era guerrilla base nestled at the foot of Mozambique's remote Gorongosa mountain range.
Former anti-communist fighters who laid down arms 20 years ago at the end of a devastating civil war are again preparing to fight.
They are angry, believing the peace dividend that has swept Mozambique has passed them by.
Straining, they kick up the dust as their former commanders bark orders to run faster.
In the years since the war, both Mozambique and the fighters have changed markedly.
The average age in the camp is around 40, but many are considerably older.
"A soldier cannot go three days without running or we would get fat and lazy," explains sweating ex-fighter Armindo Milaco.
When the war began in 1977 Milaco was barely 17 years old when Renamo came to his village and forcibly conscripted him.
He was a victim of the rebels' infamous system of "Gandira", which saw civilians in Renamo-controlled zones forced to produce food and courier goods and ammunition.
Women were press-ganged to become sex-slaves. An estimated one-third of Renamo forces were child soldiers.
"Some didn't understand the objectives at first but, after receiving lessons the person ends up understanding there was a reason for this war," said the 44-year-old, who is now Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama's right-hand man, and in charge of recruiting new members nationwide.
He is also the only person at the base other than Dhlakama authorised to speak directly to the press.
Given the passage of time it is not surprising the fighters need a refresher on how to assemble a gun.
Itching to rekindle hostilities
"We have had to do a mini-review of everything we used to do during the war," says Milaco. But, he says, "it is easy to remember. It is in the blood".
Several hundred men and women are at the camp, but he says he can easily summon more if needed to force their former enemies, now in government, to cede money and power.
Some appear to be itching to rekindle hostilities - perhaps as much out of nostalgia as political fervour.
"All of us miss it. We have to wait a little but we are waiting for the moment we can finish what we started," Milaco said.
The way the Renamo rebels see it, their 16-year war against the leftists of Frelimo was aimed at installing multi-party democracy, but they never reaped the benefits of that system.
Frelimo agreed to hold multi-party elections in 1994, but Renamo has lost every election since. While still the official opposition party, their support has dwindled.
Eerie sense of expectation
Renamo's frustration at what they see as their exclusion from the country's wealth and discrimination against them on the part of the powerful ruling party is palpable.
"I have had it up to here!" spits senior Renamo member Pedro Chichione, who complains his children have lost out on job opportunities because he is a Renamo lawmaker.
There is an eerie sense of expectation in the camp. Even the chickens perched on makeshift wooden benches appear to be waiting for action.
A few kilometres down the dirt track that leads to the camp, a single vehicle belonging to the government's elite "Rapid Response Force" is parked, evidence that authorities are keeping an eye on Renamo's activities.
The ex-guerrillas said they thought about 60 special police were in the area.
The would-be born-again-fighters see the elite police squad as Frelimo's military wing and their sworn enemies.
When they are not doing military drills, the former fighters vanish into the thick bush where they patrol in circles tens of kilometres wide.
At the perimeter there is a constant line of people, waving mobile phones in the air. The majestic Mount Gorongosa looming above them cuts out all but the faintest signal.
The sound of children's laughter rings through the groves of mango trees that overhang the camp. Huts belonging to the local community are barely 300m away.
Renamo claims local people are happy to see them and voluntarily donate food. However, their presence next door is an uncomfortable reminder of the price civilians paid during the civil war.
Although Renamo agreed to enter civilian life 20 years ago, and became the country's official opposition party, the movement is still run in a military-style, top-down manner.
The rebels idolise Dhlakama, and armed guards watch him around the clock, fearing Frelimo is plotting to hire mercenaries to assassinate him.
Not short of arms
As the country celebrated twenty years of peace on 4 October this year, Dhlakama began distributing new uniforms to his former fighters and talking war once again.
Despite agreeing to demobilise and hand in its weapons in 1992, Renamo says it is not short of arms today.
Besides Dhlakama's armed guards, the only weapons brandished at the camp for now are used for training. The rest are hidden away somewhere, the movement says.
Renamo claims it has plenty of bazookas, mortars and even landmines left over from the war.
"As soon as the shooting starts, everyone knows where to grab them," Milaco said.