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Angola: A catastrophe in the making

by Cesar Chelala

One of the consequences of the Balkan conflict has been the distraction of international attention from other equally serious conflicts worldwide. Such is the case of Angola, a country that for the last several years has been plagued by a ruthless civil war. While world nations and international aid organizations have pledged over $2 billion to rebuild Kosovo, famine threatens vast sectors of the Angolan population. Also, as Johannes Linn, the World Bank’s vice president for Europe and Central Asia, has remarked, the amount pledged for Kosovo far exceeds the amount needed for immediate repairs and to restore order in that ravaged region.

Angola has been at war for most of the last 30 years. Following its independence from Portugal in 1975, a civil war soon began. The two parties in conflict were the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, now headed by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s current president. The other was UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), lead by Jonas Savimbi. In 1994, the United Nations brokered the Lusaka Protocol peace accords, which held a fragile state of peace until last December, when hostilities resumed.

One of the consequences of the war is the increase in the number of internally displaced people from 4,000 in April of 1998 to over 950,000 in June of 1999. Renewed fighting has also adversely affected the delivery of relief aid. In addition, the situation of both the residents and the internally displaced is expected to deteriorate even further due to the impossibility of carrying out normal agricultural tasks because of the fighting, the limited resources carried by the refugees and the persistent threat posed by mined areas throughout the country.

Although the situation is serious throughout the country, the areas most affected are the besieged cities of Malange, Huambo, Kuito and Luena, which have the largest concentration of refugees. The lack or inaccessibility of arable land, the lack of jobs and the almost non-existent social services have made the local population almost totally dependent on humanitarian assistance for their needs. At the same time, however, most humanitarian programs have been seriously affected due to constant interruptions and lack of security for the delivery of resources to certain areas.

Children’s health has been particularly affected. Aid workers demand that the malnourished children be fed at the distribution stations because some parents are so desperate for food that they steal it from their own children. The World Food Program recently found that almost 17 percent of refugees in the besieged city of Huambo are malnourished. Most of the admissions at Huambo’s hospital are for malnourishment. According to a UNICEF report, Angola is among the riskiest places for children to live. To complicate the situation even further, there was an outbreak of polio this year that afflicted 1,000 children, most of whom have become paralyzed.

Currently, infant mortality rates in Angola are among the highest in the world. According to UNICEF’s 1998 State of the World’s Children report, infant mortality rates in Angola are 170 per 1,000 live births, and the under-five mortality rate is 292 per 1,000 live births. In neighboring Namibia, those rates are 60 and 77 respectively. About 20 percent of Angolan children are born with low birth weight. Almost 1.5 million children live in a state of absolute poverty, and over 100,000 have lost touch with their parents. Many Angolan girls are forced into prostitution, exposing themselves to sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

Angolan children also suffer from the lack of education activities, raising the concern that children will remain without normal schooling for the duration of the conflict, which could be several more months or even years. The situation has become even more unpredictable after the withdrawal last February of the United Nations Angola Observation Mission, following a U.N. Security Council resolution to terminate its mandate.

As things stand now, there are no serious efforts to reach an accord between both parties. Although UNITA has suggested the resumption of peace talks, the Angolan government has refused. It seems that only international pressure can bring an end to this conflict. Angola’s external debt is presently 232 percent of its GNP. Debt relief could be conditioned on the Angolan government’s serious decision to enter again into negotiations to end to the conflict. UNITA, which reportedly has stocks and bonds worth $4 billion, could be limited in its capacity to make use of those funds and to conduct further transactions. The alternative is a continuous drainage of resources and the misery of the population. As Francesco Strippoli, the head of the World Food Program in Angola, declared recently, “Today what is happening here is a tragedy. Tomorrow, it can be a catastrophe.”