The Horror Behind The Front Line

In February this year, Jonas Savimbi, Angola‘s rebel leader, was killed. Within weeks, a civil war that had lasted for nearly 30 years ended. Sebastiao Salgado, one of the world’s greatest photographers, was the first to witness the misery of those who had been trapped in the no-go areas of the country’s Central Highlands, long held by Savimbi’s Unita troops. His pictures show the children and their families who, desperately hungry and sick, are finally finding food and succour, and the tenderness and care for each other that survived the ravages of war. Victoria Brittain reports


Children are the first casualties of every war, too weak to survive when food is scarce or, as in parts of Angola today, nonexistent. Two truckloads of young children close to death are brought over jolting, unmade roads with their families every day to Medecins Sans Frontieres’ (MSF) new emergency feeding centres in the Central Highland towns of Caala and Chipindo. A month of a specialised feeding programme will save most of the children’s lives, MSF will feed up their weakened families, too, and they’ll go back to the bush with a chance of making a life. These feeding stations, and the chance of life for these children, are the result of the death in battle on February 22 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Unita rebels for more than 30 years, and the end of a devastating civil war. These vast remote areas were his fief.


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 Africa in the past decade”. The death rates and malnutrition levels they found are “far beyond emergency levels”.


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 Africa with such relentless frequency. Eric de Mul, UN humanitarian coordinator, with a diplomat’s understatement, describes the situation in the former Unita areas as “pretty grim. . . people are extremely weak, especially the children. . . and the total lack of medicines, drugs and medical attention has taken its toll”.


These are pictures of the aftermath of a war that has gone on since the 1960s, starting with a colonial liberation struggle against Portugal, in which Savimbi sided with the Portuguese against the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). They are pictures of a country ruined despite being a major oil producer and rich in diamonds. Twenty-seven years ago, at independence, Angola under the MPLA was a byword for ambitious education programmes; a massive new health programme was launched by thousands of Cuban and Soviet doctors. But Washington‘s cold war ideologues decided to overthrow the leftist government, then backed by thousands of Cuban troops. The army of apartheid South Africa and Jonas Savimbi, then one of several Angolan opposition leaders, were the tools they chose. For years, Savimbi, charismatic, multilingual, was received at the White House and in the corridors of power across the west, where he was lauded as the democrat leader Africa needed. His army was built and supplied by the CIA. Unita controlled vast areas of the Central Highlands, and launched sabotage attacks deep inside government-controlled areas. Nowhere was safe. In 1992, when the two exhausted protagonists finally agreed to a ceasefire and an election, under UN auspices, Savimbi expected to win. When he did not, he started a new war, even more wide-ranging.


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 Angola‘s swollen city slums, where half the country’s people now live, scraping a precarious living. Angola has an estimated 4.5 million people displaced – one-third of the population.


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 Angola and stocks are running low. “We have no choice but to reduce rations for some people to make sure we can feed others who are more desperate.” WFP needs pounds 35m in order to cope with the current and extra caseloads for the next six months.


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.



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