Angola: As Peace Is Discussed, The Horrors of War Are Revealed

A Statement for the Record For the Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa

A Statement for the Record For the Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa.

As the Committee on International Relations discusses prospects for a durable peace and economic reconstruction in Angola, a catastrophic nutritional emergency on a vast scale is taking place in that country. Thousands of Angolans have died, and hundreds of thousands more face starvation. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) strongly urges members of the Committee to consider the enormous medical and humanitarian emergency currently taking place in Angola today and to press the Government of Angola and the United Nations to respond urgently and effectively to the crisis, while supporting continued US assistance for relief efforts in that country. Discussions of political prospects and future economic development must take into consideration the disastrous reality for hundreds of thousands of Angolans at risk of starvation.

Since the cessation of hostilities and the April 4th cease-fire, Médecins Sans Frontières has been able to reach previously inaccessible locations in Angola. The medical situation of people in these areas is catastrophic. Wherever our teams have conducted assessments, they uncover thousands in a state of severe malnutrition (including adults) and appalling health. We are recording mortality and malnutrition rates that exceed by far emergency thresholds and suggest pockets of famine. These malnutrition and mortality rates are higher than any seen in Africa since the horrific 1998 famine in South Sudan. The response from both the Government of Angola and the United Nations has been shockingly slow and insufficient in the face of this calamity. Increased response by NGO's in Angola is also essential.

The humanitarian calamity that is taking place in Angola is not a new emergency. What we are witnessing today has been the hidden reality for tens of thousands for over three years who were trapped without access to health or nutritional assistance. These people were virtual prisoners in areas that became inaccessible when the war resumed in November 1998, areas that represented nearly 90% of the country and are today characterized by complete destitution and starvation. Untold numbers have already died, and it is the survivors who are now emerging in such pitiful condition.

The famine that is being discovered in Angola today is not the result of a natural disaster. It was caused by the deliberate strategies of the warring parties. UNITA kept entire populations captive, using them as porters, forced recruits and human shields. The Armed Forces of Angola (FAA) forcibly moved people to deprive UNITA of support, razing villages, burning crops and carrying out arbitrary killings in the process. Confined to the main government held towns, humanitarian groups were blocked from assisting those most in need located in contested "grey zones" or in UNITA-controlled areas. Neither the Government of Angola nor UNITA were willing to facilitate access for humanitarian organizations to reach these populations.

MSF's present concern is on the extent and urgency of the medical and nutritional crisis faced by populations in the quartering areas (QFAs) for demobilized UNITA soldiers and their families, as well as in the rest of the country and our alarm at the delayed and inadequate response by the UN and the Government of Angola.

MSF teams are currently treating some 14,000 people in 44 feeding centers for the moderate and severely malnourished in 10 of the country's 18 provinces. This past week, although proper nutritional surveys could not be conducted, MSF teams carrying out a rapid nutritional survey in Galangue 2 (pop. 5347) quartering area found estimated rates of 28 percent severe and 52 percent global malnutrition, with many cases of edema. In one week alone, MSF began treating 350 severely malnourished children and adults in a newly opened therapeutic feeding center in Bailundo. In Chipindo, traditional leaders report that since September of last year, nearly 4000 people have died from an initial population of roughly 18,000. A rapid survey of 197 mothers caring for children in one of MSF's therapeutic feeding center in Malange, revealed that 116 of their children had died since the beginning of the year. Many previously inaccessible former war zone areas have yet to be assessed and the condition of the population in these areas remains unknown.

The Angolan government not only played a large role in creating the current nutritional emergency, it has shown little urgency in responding to it. War tactics pursued by both UNITA and the Angolan government during the conflict have left hundreds of thousands of Angolans in a precarious situation. Cut off from humanitarian assistance for years, these populations are now being left to fend for themselves when they have no crops, no homes, and no means of survival. While some food is being provided to families in the UNITA quartering areas in accordance with the ceasefire agreement, the government response is close to non-existent for civilians in the former war zones. Slow visa and customs procedures in Angola have seriously blocked the work of aid agencies trying to assist these populations.

The United Nations has failed to step up relief efforts in Angola in line with the current crisis. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), despite private declarations that Angola is facing the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa today, has allowed political wrangling over the demobilization process to take precedence over the urgent needs of the Angolan population. In the first weeks following the cease-fire accord, OCHA expressly requested NGO's not to respond to the emergency inside the quartering areas - placing its bureaucratic requirements over the urgent nutritional and medical needs of thousands of malnourished persons. This request was not heeded by MSF. Even today, the UN has not actively appealed for mobilization of more donor attention for Angola, allowing instead for inclusion of Angola in appeals for the broader southern Africa food emergency - a situation that has very different causes and requires a separate response.

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been astoundingly slow to increase its operations, and has yet to implement desperately needed wide-scale food distribution programs for many of the newly accessible populations or in the quartering areas. WFP has even drastically cut back rations for displaced persons assisted prior to the April 4 agreement, leaving 335,000 people without needed aid. In Huila province, for example, WFP cut rations from existing displaced populations while increasing them in a newly accessible area, rather than maintaining adequate levels of food assistance to all in need. Assistance to newly- identified populations must not come at the expense of existing food programs for vulnerable displaced populations. In addition, WFP general food distribution has barely started in the QFAs despite identification of an emergency over one month ago. General food distribution remains severely lacking in large parts of Bie, Moxico, Huambo, and other provinces, and is being cut back in Malange, Huila, and elsewhere. Increased response by NGO's in Angola is also essential.

As peace and reconstruction are being deliberated, a catastrophic man-made nutritional crisis is taking place in Angola. Already, thousands of Angolans have died, and hundreds of thousands more face starvation. Forcibly displaced, pillaged, attacked, and deprived of humanitarian assistance, Angolan civilians were failed during war-time. Now at the moment that peace is discussed and access is possible, these desperate populations are greeted with lethargy and bureaucracy, instead of the massive humanitarian response required to stabilize their urgent medical and nutritional needs.

  1. The Angolan government and the United Nations must drastically increase their efforts to meet the needs of the civilian population if a human calamity is to be averted.
  2. The United States must continue its support for relief efforts in the country, but also pressure the Government of Angola and the United Nations to meet their obligations to vulnerable populations at this critical time.