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One Man’s Struggle in Guinea-Bissau

June 27, 1998

CUMERE, Guinea-Bissau (AP) _ It’s quiet in this shady little hamlet, abandoned but for a lone figure shuffling from empty house to empty house in search of scraps of food. It’s the kind of quiet that hums in your ears and heightens a queasy sense of dread.

His shirt in tatters, eyes wide open and desperate, G’badne Quade is alone in Cumere, a village a few miles from Guinea-Bissau’s embattled capital. Too old to run, gaunt and frail, hunger overcomes his fear of the daily onslaught of rockets and artillery.

The barrage is aimed at a nearby rebel army base, but day by day, shell by shell, it’s destroying a little more of Quade’s world.

``It’s because of hunger that I stay,″ Quade said. ``Yes, I’m afraid, but the only thing I’m feeling is hunger.″

For almost three weeks, this little community of farmers has been in the direct line of fire in a blundering war of inaccurate shelling between loyalist army troops and this West African nation’s breakaway military factions.

Most everyone fled from Cumere and the capital, Bissau, at the start of the conflict June 7, when army Brig. Ansumane Mane tried to oust President Joao Bernardo Vieira in a coup attempt. As many as 300,000 people driven from their homes have converged on the nearby towns of Mansoa, Bafata and Canchungo.

Aid workers say without food and medical assistance, it’s a humanitarian crisis in the making.

For Quade, the crisis is here and now.

Quade, somewhere in his 70s, knows terror. Here, he has seen the moment of death, when a person just stops.

His world torn apart, his family gone, he is in solitude as he struggles to stay alive. He takes no sides in the fighting. He is caught in the middle.

``I’m here at my house. I’m in my country. I can’t move,″ he says. ``I’m just here to pick my apples.″

A cashew tree in the center of the hamlet, with its apple-like fruit, is his only source of food, save for the handful of rice he found in a neighbor’s house.

The war arrived with an abrupt burst of gunfire. Senegalese troops in the first few days of fighting tried to wrest control of Cumere and the base from Mane’s rebels. Machine-gun fire shattered the quiet for hours.

The Senegalese driven back, six of this community’s 200 villagers lay dead in their homes or on the dirt paths. After that, everyone else fled, leaving Quade to fend for himself.

Walk down the dusty lane that leads from the rebel base and you pass Cumere’s only restaurant, the Bolama. A month ago, Quade says, music and lively chatter from the Bolama filled the air, as villagers swapped stories at the end of the day.

Now, its doors are torn away and its weaved-grass roof has collapsed. A slight breeze rustles through the abandoned building. A pig forages just outside amid a clutter of overturned chairs.

Every day since that first battle, rebel forces have launched artillery strikes at Bissau from the Cumere base.

The response, from nearby patrol ships and heavy guns across the water, is eating away at Cumere.

A land mine, its trigger in full view, rests menacingly in the center of the road in front of the base _ about 200 yards from the hamlet.

Little more than a mile away, the tail fins of an unexploded rocket jut out from the road, its nose bored into the pavement. Refugees fleeing another nearby town plod past the waiting bomb that landed just hours earlier.

The war here comes in spurts, usually in the morning and late afternoon. The lull in between seems fleeting.

A soldier from the base warns that a patrol boat loyal to the government has navigated to within firing range. So close is the boat that its engines can be heard whining in the distance.

Quade continues his search for food, despite mounting tension and the soldier’s warning.

Within 15 minutes, the roar of a cannon, muffled by distance, echoes in Cumere. It takes about two minutes for the shell to arrive.

For the next 20 minutes, the area is showered with deadly artillery rounds that explode with a gust of dirt, fire and a hail of shrapnel.

Somewhere in the chaos, Quade struggles to live.

``The bombs come and shake the ground,″ he said. ``I just lie down behind a house or a tree.″

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