The Horror Behind The Front Line
The Horror Behind The Front Line
In February this year, Jonas Savimbi,
Children are the first casualties of every war, too weak to survive when food is scarce or, as in parts of
No outsiders had been here for years until, with the ceasefire signed by Unita in early April, MSF, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and photographer Sebastiao Salgado came to some of the newly accessible towns and found "the worst malnutrition crisis in
Only now, as the country slowly reopens, can the outside world begin to see the true cost of the last phases of the war. These are pictures of a man-made disaster, unrelated to drought, floods or other natural calamities that strike
These are pictures of the aftermath of a war that has gone on since the 1960s, starting with a colonial liberation struggle against
This new war ebbed and flowed through the 1990s. Savimbi seized control of the diamond mines and thus financed his new war, besieging the government-held cities and taking over more and more of the countryside. None of the diamond resources went into the welfare of the people in the areas he held. One thousand people were dying of hunger and disease every day in 1994 - and those were the ones the UN could see. The population has been displaced over and over again by fighting. Unita soldiers would enter villages, kidnap the young men to fight and steal young girls as porters and sex slaves. Villages would be forced to hand over all food as the troops passed through. Those left behind would have neither the resources nor the manpower to seed or plant for a new season.
The strong would simply leave the interior and walk for days and weeks westwards towards the coast, and might end up in UN camps or MSF feeding centres. With them they'd bring children with malaria, measles or the stick-like limbs and swollen bellies of marasmus and kwashiorkor, the diseases of malnutrition. One look at the mothers' faces above their faded and worn cotton wraps showed that the very people who, perforce, had voted for Unita in 1992 were now suffering acute hunger and deprivation. The very lucky, and strongest, might make it to
By the mid-1990s, as peace talks spluttered on inconclusively, the war had swung from a power struggle between competing ideologies to a mere power struggle for Savimbi's future. A war he began to lose in 1999. Conditions in Savimbi's areas grew worse, and hunger and desperation took over as the population fled the war.
By the early weeks of this year, Unita defectors were reporting that even those around the leader himself were living mainly on wild mushrooms. Many of his own generals knew he was defeated and begged him to accept the government's long-offered peace plan and enter the Government of National Unity. When he refused yet again, they, like many Unita politicians and military leaders since 1992, changed sides. Now we can see what they were seeing every day, the price paid by ordinary people too powerless to change sides.
In Damba, in the northeast of Malange province, MSF found 200 malnourished people out of a population of 2,000, and a daily mortality rate of seven per 10,000. In the Central Highland towns of Bunjei, Chilembo, Chipindo and Chitembo, conditions were scarcely better. In Chipindo, MSF found an entire hillside dotted with graves, where in less than six months, 4,000 people out of a population of 18,000 had died. "We saw very few children under the age of five," says Dr Mercedes Tatai. "Many of them had already died." The malnutrition rate here is 57%. The youngest are the first to die, but older children, women and the elderly are also desperate for food.
In Bunjei, in Huila province, earlier this month, a "frantic crowd" of 10,000 people greeted the arrival of 15 WFP trucks carrying food rations, the first aid to reach them for many years. The trucks - carrying salt, sugar, maize, vegetable oil - had travelled 130km from Huambo, once Savimbi's capital. In Bie and Huila provinces, from the air there is almost nothing to see but oceans of tall pink grass.
WFP's country director, Ronald Sibanda, warns that WFP is already feeding one million displaced people in
With the hundreds of thousands of people who fled from the interior, either as refugees into neighbouring countries or to government-held areas, no one can be sure how many were left in Unita's areas at the bitter end. Eric de Mul of the UN says, "We were estimating around 500,000. . . we keep accumulating. We already have an existing internally displaced caseload, add to that the people from the now accessible areas, and add to that the soldiers that are demobilising, and the numbers become rather frightening. Add to that a group of donors that are still fairly reluctant to increase their contributions, and we're looking at a situation that - to say difficult is an understatement - could be extremely difficult." The demobilisation of 50,000 Unita soldiers, who are expected to bring 300,000 family members with them - with no jobs and very likely no homes to go to - is alone expected to cost between pounds 47m and pounds 51m.
The west owes an incalculable debt to Angola's people. They have paid a price of unbelievable suffering for the myopia of those who allowed Jonas Savimbi to pursue his futile war. The future for these people remains uncertain. Savimbi's death has brought a new political situation and a new chance of life in places where hope had died. But with so much infrastructure destroyed throughout the whole country, so much of the rural areas inaccessible because of landmines, levels of energy, health, and education so low, one- third of the population displaced and alienated from their homes, a rebirth of the optimism of the independence years of the 1970s is still a dream
Medecins Sans Frontieres' Angola action line is 0800 200222; enquiries 020-7713 5600, or go to www.msf.org.