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War-scarred Angolan city reborn as university centre

On the drive from the airport into Huambo city centre lies the burnt-out shell of the former house of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

The crumbling structure is a stark reminder of Huambo's dark past as a battleground for Savimbi's Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

But seven years since Savimbi's death and the end of three decades of conflict, the city in Angola's lush central highlands is getting a new start.

Bullet-marked buildings are slowly being replaced, giant billboards advertise luxury apartments and hotels, and expatriates lunching at pavement cafes are more likely real estate investors than aid workers.

Gregorio de Jesus Tchikola grew up in Huambo but left in 1993 as the violence flared. Now he's back home teaching English.

"After a lot of turmoil with colonisation and the civil war, Huambo is starting to have a new chance," the 30-year-old told AFP.

"There's a lot of development here, it's starting to look like a very attractive city again. It's like a phoenix rising from the ashes ready for a new beginning."

Improved transport links are pushing the change. A new road has cut the driving time from the capital Luanda down to five hours, from 12.

The railway that once ran through Huambo to the port of Lobito is also being renovated, with a plan for it to stretch across the border into Zambia.

In colonial times, Huambo was called Nova Lisboa by the Portuguese, a sign of the city's importance, said Tiago Patricio, board member of Portuguese construction company Monte Adriano, which is building hotels and apartment blocks.

"We are investing in Huambo because we believe it has a lot of potential and that it is going to be as important as it was to the Portuguese. It was a very important industrial town then," he said.

Huambo enjoys a Mediterranean climate in lush green surroundings. The city was designed with open public squares and parks, while quirky 1950s Portuguese villas give it a strong European flavour.

Angola's only faculty of agriculture is housed here, and a boom in environment projects, including a campaign for sustainable land management and the Casa Ecologia study centre, are turning it into an ecology hub.

The Medical School recently re-opened and a new Polytechnic is to follow, meaning Huambo will have five universities by the end of the year.

"A lot of young people are coming here to the universities and that gives it a good atmosphere. Things have changed a lot here, even since I've been here in the last two years," said Carlos Tomas, 24, who moved here to study economics.

Industry-wise, the rural population still depends on subsistence farming, but thousands of new construction jobs are expected, with plans for a dry port next to the railway and an industrial park at Caala, 20 kilometres (12 miles) away.

The downtown Cidade Baixa district has a brightly-coloured new market where produce and goods are arranged in neat rows on spotlessly clean and numbered concrete stalls.

The vendors said they liked their new premises, but complained about a lack of customers.

"It's nice and clean," Rosalia Chipuco, 24, said. "But where are the clients? It used to be full here and now we don't make as much money."

A few streets away a young girl with a bucket of fruit on her head paused in the shade to rest on the dusty pavement under an advertisement for new apartments.

"All these houses, they will be nice for the rich people, but what about people like me?" she said. "They did a lot of the redevelopment here just for the election so people would vote for the government."

As for the political conflicts that tore the city apart, Tchikola said: "People don't really discuss politics here anymore. Those things belong to the past. We have gone through too much."

"We are seeing the fruits of peace and we feel more confident trying to live together and share the city."

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Publication:AFP Global Edition
Date:Apr 16, 2009
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