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Angola Crisis: Peace Reveals Horrors of War
Peace on Top, Three Crises Underneath
June 11, 2002
Looking at Angola broadly, now is a time of great hope for the country and its people, as 27 years of civil war recede and positive steps are taken towards a lasting peace. Looking at the situation on the ground, however, is far more disturbing. Since the decrease of hostilities leading to the April 4th cease-fire, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has become increasingly alarmed by the extent of the nutritional crisis in Angola. Throughout the country, high levels of severe malnutrition and mortality far exceed emergency thresholds and confirm pockets of famine. Immediate, widespread action is imperative—hundreds of thousands of Angolans face starvation; thousands have died in recent months—yet the crisis in Angola remains largely unaddressed.
In fact, there are three separate crises in Angola: (a) the continuation of the ongoing crisis, (b) pockets of starvation among newly-accessible populations in former war zones, and (c) pockets of starvation among UNITA populations reporting to the quartering and family areas (QFAs). MSF draws no distinction between these suffering groups—children being the most severely affected—and MSF is attempting to deliver life-saving assistance to all three of these populations in urgent need. But this crisis has elicited very different responses by the Government of Angola, the United Nations, and the international community (donors and NGOs), and some are condemned to continue starving while others find assistance.
Regardless of how one analyzes the situation, it is clear that the suffering is not the logical consequence of war, but of how this war was waged. It is the direct consequence of the military strategies of both parties to the conflict: residents were forcibly displaced and their villages and fields burned to the ground, as the main objective of the belligerents was control over the civilian population. Both sides kept tens of thousands of people within certain areas of control, and failed to deliver any assistance in the face of widespread death from starvation. In many cases, people have not been free to leave these starvation zones in search of food or medical assistance, and must obtain permission from the authorities to flee for survival. Looking further, beneath the current crisis, we must deal with the fact that these people have endured or witnessed unspeakable atrocities—killing, rape, mutilation, abduction, beating, life on the constant run, and death upon death.1
Says Candida, of Huambo Province, "I saw a woman refuse to carry guns because she was already carrying her child on her back. They killed the child: now, you can carry the guns."
Continuation of the Ongoing Crisis
Since the resumption of the war in 1998, the number of internally displaced Angolans (IDPs) has soared to an estimated four million. At the beginning of 2001, over one million people depended on humanitarian assistance for food and healthcare, with the Government of Angola contributing very little in the war-torn provinces. As the year progressed and 2002 began, the Government created hundreds of thousands of additional IDPs, often pushing humanitarian organizations beyond their ability to cope with the mounting needs. For example, during the first two months of 2002, the Armed Forces of Angola (FAA) stepped up its limpeza strategy of removing the people from their land in several provinces, resulting in at least 98,000 new IDPs. Since the ceasefire, still more people have been able to make their way to locations (for example, Camacupa, Luena, and Matala) where humanitarian organizations have been operating, thus multiplying the needs in these central areas.
As the security situation in Angola improves, MSF has been able to reach newly accessible areas and populations, cut off from humanitarian assistance since at least 1998 and provided with nothing by either the Government or UNITA. The situation is often catastrophic. For instance, although a proper nutritional survey could not be conducted, MSF teams estimated the level of severe malnutrition to be 17 percent in Chipindo (Huila province), 9 percent in Bunjei (Huila province), and 9 percent in Chitembo (Bie). In Cuemba, MSF estimated the number of deaths at over 9/10,000 people/day for children under five, in Chipindo 6/10,000/day for the same group.2
The appalling story of Chipindo perfectly illustrates the direct culpability of the parties to the war in the deaths of thousands of people. Chipindo's traditional leaders report that almost 4000 people have died, from an initial population of roughly 18,000. These people were forcibly displaced to Chipindo by the FAA, and then found themselves trapped by UNITA forces, who would punish anyone trying to return to their fields for food. After a while, they began starving to death, especially the children. FAA maintained a base next to Chipindo, but the population received no assistance, nor was any humanitarian alert sounded by the authorities. "We have seen hardly any little children under five," says Mercedes Tatai, MSF's medical emergency coordinator. "Lots of them had already died. A whole hill has been covered with fresh graves since September."3
UNITA Families Emerge from Years of Escalating Hardship
Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, UNITA soldiers and their families began reporting to the 35 designated demobilization areas (the QFAs). In mid April, MSF first became aware of these populations and their extreme vulnerability. They have suffered high levels of severe malnutrition and death, especially over the last six months. Since that time, MSF has been able to assess 14 QFAs. While some of these QFA populations are fairly stable, the majority are in urgent need of assistance, yet receiving almost none. In Sanza Pombo/Uamba QFA (Uige Province), MSF estimated 50% global and 23% severe malnutrition; in Ngangassol QFA (Malange), 32% global and over 9% severe malnutrition; in M'Dele QFA (Bie) 32% global and over 12% severe malnutrition. Many children are dying, and MSF has been forced to evacuate thousands of people to its therapeutic feeding centers.
In short, the weak have already died and the strong are now weak. Many are reportedly too sick to reach the QFAs. Since returning to the forests in 1997, and especially over this last period of the war, the people describe lives of constant hardship, many living on the run in the bush to escape from FAA. Peace brought safety, but not relief: almost everybody in the quartering areas reports that high numbers of children have been dying since the end of the war. It is common to talk with mothers who have lost two, three or even more children in the last months. For example, a rapid survey of 197 UNITA mothers caring for children in MSF's TFCs in Malange revealed that out of a total of 668 children at the beginning of the year, they had lost 116 (17%) since that time. Counting their entire lives, a shocking 41% of their children have died. Most importantly, despite estimating that almost 300,000 UNITA family members would go to the QFAs, they provided absolutely no food for civilian arrivals. Even now, six weeks later, the distribution of food in the QFAs is far from sufficient. Hence, the state of the people continues to deteriorate.
Three Crises, One Response, One Partial Response, One Lack of Response
Last year, at the same time that humanitarian organizations struggled to address the needs of the ongoing crisis, many voices in the international community called on the Government to do more. Among donors and the UN, there was a general feeling that the Government would have to "earn" increased assistance from them, by demonstrating a real commitment to addressing the needs of the crisis it was largely responsible for creating. The Government continues to neglect the needs of the people. From the US $57 million it declared to have set aside for the needs of the mounting IDP emergency, the Government has reportedly spent nothing. In spite of commitments to deliver food to the QFAs, its response lagged for weeks; many of the relevant ministries lack the necessary resources to address even normal needs, let alone emergency ones.
When in early April MSF first sounded the alarm about pockets of starvation among newly accessible populations, there was little reaction from the international community. It seemed that they did not want to hear about another emergency in Angola, and they insulated themselves from life-saving action with the logic of wanting to see the Government meet its obligations. For its part, the UN has conducted an extensive assessment of 36 newly accessible areas,4 and is in the process of compiling the results, but has with few exceptions been unable to mobilize immediate assistance to address the everyday situation of people dying now. To make matters worse, the government authorities have not been forthcoming with information on the locations or numbers involved. Finally, few NGOs beside MSF have shifted programming resources in order to respond to this new emergency, and remain largely focused on their ongoing programs.
The people in the QFAs remain trapped in their suffering by the refusal of the majority of humanitarian actors to respond. For the first month of the emergency, the UN would not provide any assistance to the QFAs without reaching agreement with the Government as to a terms of intervention.5 And in spite of the call from provincial and ministerial authorities, the highest levels refused to agree to the UN entering the QFAs. While both parties have recently openly declared that there is no longer an obstacle to UN assistance in the QFAs, this purported willingness has yet to be translated into food in the QFAs. WFP has said it is ready to distribute food in QFAs, but continues to sit in the planning stage, and has not yet begun to deliver.
While the populations of the QFAs and the newly accessible areas were in desperate need of life-saving assistance, the Government, UN, and members of the diplomatic (donor) community remained locked into their respective political agendas, and unwilling to make any exception, not even for immediate life-saving assistance.6 Government food has begun to arrive in the QFAs, and some newly accessible areas are already receiving WFP food distributions, but the overall response to the emergency, to these two crises, has been one of neglect.
The nutritional crisis in Angola has been going on for several years now, and MSF has responded with feeding programs in many provinces. The current explosion of numbers, however, has required the rapid expansion of the capacity of MSF's therapeutic feeding centres (TFCs), and the teams in the field fear that we are only just starting to see the full picture. Presently, MSF has 3,631 beneficiaries in its TFCs, a dramatic increase from roughly 1200 at the beginning of the year. For example, since mid-March, MSF has admitted over 1500 severely malnourished in Caala (mostly from Bunjei) and around 400 children since mid-April in Malange (mostly from the nearby QFAs). In many of these locations, MSF is also operating supplemental feeding centres, serving a total of 10, 365 beneficiaries, to prevent others from becoming severely malnourished. With additional volunteers set to arrive shortly, MSF will soon have 160 international staff present in Angola.
Currently, MSF is assessing and responding to the nutritional crisis in ten provinces. Large as it is for one organization, this response falls short, and misses those people still inaccessible to humanitarian relief. It also points directly to an enormous unaddressed situation, and is an act of protest against the intransigence of others. Moreover, these specialized feeding programs must be complemented by measures such as general food distribution. Otherwise, the nutritional level of the population continues to spiral downward as we struggle to chase the tail of the problem.