The Quartering Areas themselves were established in broadly the same locations as under the Lusaka Protocol, with houses, meeting centres, schools and hospitals built by the ex-combatants themselves. Initially 27 were planned, increasing to 35, with an extra 7 satellite areas. They were generally divided into three sections: the Quartering Area, where ex-combatants were located; a separate though usually adjoining Family Area for women and dependents; and a further area housing primarily disabled ex-combatants and older people. Initially conditions were poor and levels of malnutrition frequently critical and even reaching famine levels in some areas. Assistance to combatants was the sole responsibility of the FAA and Angolan government, with the UN humanitarian agencies able to assist only families and dependents. Before providing any relief, however, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) went through a long process of negotiating access to the QFAs, leading to accusations of negligence against both OCHA and the government. Presence was eventually established as near as possible to the QFAs and in most places conditions soon stabilised. Indeed, visitors to the QFAs were frequently surprised by the level of order and tidiness, reflecting UNITA's renowned military discipline. Although rarely reported to the outside world, tensions within the QFAs were certainly present, fuelled by long delays between arrivals of food and supplies, confusions and irregularities in registration and demobilisation, frequent 'false alarms' of camp closure and general feelings of insecurity. Similarly there were reports of resentment from surrounding communities in some areas at the level of support that UNITA ex-combatants were perceived to be receiving.
The QFAs were renamed Gathering Areas in October 2002, to reflect the completion of the demobilisation process and the civilian status of inhabitants. Although in some GAs management of the military and non-military areas was separate, in practice the areas were not closely delineated and movement between them was common. Increasingly, they became settlements in their own right, with functioning markets, schools, (very basic) hospitals, and new arrivals as UNITA ex-combatants from other areas sought to locate their family members. This process was also encouraged by the distribution of seeds and tools for subsistence agriculture by some agencies and churches, a policy heavily debated for this very reason, with some focusing on short-term emergency needs, while others looked to the longer-term political and social reintegration of the country. It was feared that ex-combatants would be less motivated to return to their areas of origin and that mini 'UNITA enclaves' would be created. This, largely speaking, has not proved to be the case, although the continued cultivation of crops has slowed the return of ex-combatants and internally displaced people (IDPs) in some areas.
This was also a major fear of the government, and dates were set for the closure of the GAs, from October 2002 onwards. Persistent administrative delays made these deadlines impossible to meet, with the effect, if not the intention, of demoralising camp residents, who reported their frustration and powerlessness "in the hands of the government". Those who had received seeds and tools did not know whether to plant them in the GAs or wait until they had returned home. Those without identity documents could not leave even if they wanted to attempt the journey independently, and even short journeys to local markets could result in police harassment.
By mid 2003, the majority of the GAs were emptied. The first stage in the journey was generally to transit areas, which were often IDP camps that had sometimes been recently vacated or still had IDP populations living in them. Problems recurred here as ex-combatants were frequently forced to abandon belongings and goods they could not fit into the badly overcrowded planes and trucks. By early 2004, the majority were believed to have left these transit areas and returned to their 'areas of origin', or moved on to other destinations. Concentrations may exist around certain urban centres, and in temporary locations, either because of ongoing crop cultivation or the wait to rejoin family members once they are re-established. The number is uncertain however, and there may be future population movements following agricultural cycles. Furthermore, there may also be a partial reversal of this trend if ex-combatants perceive greater economic incentives and opportunities such as training programmes around urban areas.