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Once it was a pretty little town in the Portuguese style, its houses painted in pink and blue. Now it's crumbling and silent. Trees and flowering creepers have taken over, and the main road is just a series of huge potholes in the red earth.

On a hill above this government-held town in areas of northern Angola controlled by UNITA - the rebel forces originally sponsored by South Africa's former apartheid regime - stands the old Portuguese hospital and, just below it, a large tent. Food is being prepared on dozens of small wood fires.This is the emergency center for the treatment of the deadly sleeping sickness disease, which was virtually eradicated here 20 years ago but has returned with a vengeance.

With the illness has come the country's gravest political crisis. Last week President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos fired the government and the governor of the central bank. He then called on the leader of the National Assembly, Franca Van Dunen, to form a new government.

Dos Santos is fighting for survival and needs a miracle from Van Dunen. Angola is living through a new version of the war which has gone on for more than 20 years, and now UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi is threatening to turn one of the richest countries in Africa into "another Somalia."

In the three years since UNITA restarted the war, the state's infrastructure has virtually disappeared. A ceasefire at the beginning of this year, while political negotiations continue, has left UNITA in control of most of the north and the east - though in many places the population fled to zones controlled by the government, despite its inability to look after them.

Dondo is only 90 miles from Luanda, the capital, but could be in another country, its people apparently forgotten. The road from Luanda degenerates rapidly. For the last two hours the four-wheel-drive creeps slowly through deep forest. The tsetse flies that settle round the windows carry sleeping sickness, fatal if untreated.

Deep in the forest along the Kwanza river are villages where 80 percent of the people now have the disease. "These villages will simply disappear by the end of the century," says one doctor who has visited them.

In one military camp of 400 men, 150 had the disease but had not been treated, she said.

The government's lack of access to vast areas of the country controlled by UNITA has ended programs to wipe out the flies. In Dondo the national health care system is not functioning and the gap is only partly filled by international aid agencies.

There is one Angolan doctor, but Ministry of Health salaries are derisory and often come three or more months late. He makes his living in private practice and is rarely at the hospital.

Ada Merolle, the doctor in charge of the patients with sleeping sickness is an Italian who works for Norwegian People's Aid. The numbers of cases at the hospital tripled between 1994 and 1995, and now there are more than 100 new cases every month.

Every morning the patients from the tent, mostly women and children who have come with their families from many miles away, wait on the veranda for treatment. Their clothes are in tatters, and none has shoes.

Most show the characteristic swollen faces of the disease, some walk about raving and a handful lie rigid - no amount of shaking will rouse them. Some also have malaria, others tuberculosis.

Norwegian People's Aid has built and equipped a small laboratory and pays the worker who can do a simple blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

Last year, as the epidemic grew, Merolle had to choose which patients to treat and which to leave to die, as there were not enough drugs for all of them. "It was very, very hard," she says.

The drugs come from France, the only country which makes the sole known treatment for the disease. But production is to be phased out in four years. In addition, a course of treatment is very expensive, $97.50 per patient.

For the people of Dondo and other remote provinces where the tstste fly is back, neither aid donors nor the Angolan government are likely to have the resources to be commercial customers for new lines of production.

"Our only hope is that some new antidote will suddenly be discovered,' says Merolle.

Meanwhile, the internationl aid agencies, who are the only people who can work in both UNITA and government areas, are planning a new war on the tsetse flies.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)