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30 August 1999

Not such a fashionable war

Aid workers in Angola claim it is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. So why is the w

By Antara Dev Sen

Fernando drags himself across the dusty, blood-spattered hospital floor and pulls his crutches along. With one leg amputated and the other fractured, the young farmer has just lost his livelihood. But not his life. They were harvesting their crops when the soldiers walked up, sprayed the farmers with bullets and looted their produce. “We fell to the ground and screamed for mercy,” recalls Fernando. “They took our crops. Fifteen of us died that morning. Others survived, but like this!” He taps his stump with his crutch. Then holds the crutches up: “These are no good now. I am too hungry and my body is too weak.” The bandaged stump looks distinctly healthy compared to the skinny stick of a leg in its soiled bandage. “I haven’t worked for days,” he says softly. “Tenho fome.

Tenho fome” is the refrain in this sub-Saharan country ravaged by a quarter-century of civil war: “I am hungry.” The sprawling government hospital in Huambo, with the stench of a slaughterhouse hanging in its dark, airless corridors, can hardly feed its patients. Every day they make a thin gruel out of seven kilograms of rice and some salt and dish it out to the 500 patients they treat for amputations, explosion-induced injuries, cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, complicated pregnancies and severe malnutrition. It comes to a little over ten grams of rice per head. Per day. There’s nothing else. But then, in Angola the masses have learnt to live with hunger.

This is a country overflowing with oil and diamonds, where, on average, each family has at least one member slowly dying of hunger; where one in three children dies before the age of five; where life expectancy is just 47 years and only 14 per cent of the population are over 45. It’s a country that has seen too much war.

It began when Angola snatched freedom from its Portuguese rulers, and the South African army and US-backed Unita and FNLA rebels tried to prevent the Marxist MPLA from assuming power. Cuban troops stepped in, and the proxy conflict triggered off in 1975 continued till the cold war ended. In 1985 the US began openly supplying sophisticated arms and training to the rebels; Unita also had an expensive public relations firm in Washington promoting its cause. And although in the 1990s the US finally acknowledged the MPLA government as legitimate, by then their Frankenstein’s monster had become too powerful to control and the roots of violence had spread too deep.

“There has been so much war that we have forgotten how to think,” says Paolo, 25. “Children don’t study, they can’t develop their minds. What will happen to our country?” Like most of his fellow citizens, this young radio operator in Huambo has never seen his country at peace. Born into the independence war, he lost his father to Unita when he was barely a year old. The rebels needed professionals, his father was a nurse, so they took him away. What they didn’t know was that Paolo’s mother, too, was a nurse. It saved her and the baby. She brought up Paolo, put dreams in his eyes and a pre-university education in his mind.

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Not a mean feat in Angola, where 66 per cent of children have fewer than five years of education. With a monthly salary of about $5, paid rather irregularly, primary schoolteachers often prefer to sell handfuls of peanuts or ounces of fuel in little tumblers on the street.

Higher education is out of bounds to all but the elite. Out of bounds to Paolo, for instance, who is saving up desperately for the privilege. There is no university or college in Angola except in the capital, Luanda. And there the charge for a private university education is between $250 and $350 a month, in a country where the average pay is $5-30 a month. The government university is practically defunct, with teachers refusing to teach unless paid up front by individual students.

“What else can they do?” retorts Faustino, an assistant professor who works full-time for an overseas agency. “I get $10 at the end of the month. I have three children. Their school fees alone are more than $400 a month. Where is the money supposed to come from?”

So corruption is rampant, especially in the government. Industries have shut down, agriculture has been devastated and hope is dying fast. There are close to two million displaced people in the country – chased from their land and homes by bombs, shells and bullets (the unofficial estimate is three million). Since 1998, in the latest wave of violence, there have been one million newly displaced people. And there are about 300,000 Angolan refugees elsewhere in Africa.

Almost a million people have been killed in the war – a war that won’t stop as long as the rebels have their diamonds and the government its oil. Angola ranks among the world’s five richest diamond reserves and produces 800,000 barrels of oil a day. Unita controls two-thirds of the country’s diamonds, making, until recently, about $500 million a year. Not surprisingly, in spite of recent international sanctions, their arms and equipment are more than adequate for a guerrilla war: Stinger missiles, howitzers, heavy armour, rockets and truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers. Earlier this year they are said to have acquired six MiG-23 fighter-bombers and six Mi-25 attack helicopters. They number about 67,000 armed men.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s government is at a disadvantage, despite having legitimate sources of revenue and weapons. Following the Lusaka peace agreement in 1994, it had started demobilising and disarming, while the rebels had continued to increase their firepower. But it is now in the process of raising $1.5 billion from a Swiss loan and oil reserve mortgages, the bulk of which will go towards acquiring arms. The war eats up Angola’s revenue, and very little is spent on welfare, education, health or development. And even with 126,000 military personnel, almost twice Unita’s strength, the government is unable to defeat the rebels.

This is not surprising, given the low morale of the army. The soldiers are seldom paid even their meagre $17 a month; they don’t have food, adequate gear, training, proper weapons or the will to fight. Most of these young men, rounded up by forced conscription, are cannon fodder. An “unfit” certificate allegedly costs $300-500, more than a lifetime’s earning for the starving masses but just over a month’s university fees for the urban elite. So the rich kids of Luanda escape the brutality of the battlefront while the poor kids across the country are picked up, given two weeks of training and sent off to face the music.

“I wouldn’t go back there for the world,” says Antonio, 23, an ex-soldier from a village near Huambo. He was picked up by the army when he was 18. Last year he stepped on a landmine which blew off a leg. He was discharged and hobbled back home.

There are 15 to 20 million landmines in this country of 12 million people. Angola has the highest number of mine victims in the world. Large tracts of agricultural land are mined, as are roads, railway tracks and bridges. The loss of farmland causes widespread hunger and malnutrition. Loss of safe drinking water spreads preventable but fatal diseases. And loss of the road and rail network has caused a breakdown of infrastructure, lack of electricity and water supply and the slow strangulation of the countryside as supplies are cut off and prices spiral skyward. Yet the government, a signatory of the Ottawa convention against landmines, and the rebels continue to lay mines.

The camps for the displaced burgeon, unemployment has reached epidemic proportions and people have learnt to live with one meal a day. After August even that may be a problem.

Humanitarian agencies that have been helping the Angolan government to cope with hunger and disease are now pulling out because of drying funds and increased insecurity. Several western agencies have closed shop in Angola and shifted their attention to Kosovo. Donors such as USAid are said to have lost interest following the renewed violence since last December. And of the international agencies that still remain, most are downsizing dramatically, leaving just a token staff of locals behind. Organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children Fund (UK), which have played a very constructive role in keeping the country from the edge, are among them. As food aid, health assistance and employment options dry up, Angola is sliding towards utter disaster.

The UN appeal last December for $67 million has not been met; indeed the spiralling crisis since then has hiked the requirement to $115 million. “Because of lack of funding, our capacity to respond to emergencies is reduced,” says Francesco Strippoli, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Angola. “To rebuild this capacity would take much more effort. If we can help these people now to rebuild their lives, grow their own food, the world community will pay a lower price in the future.” Though sympathetic to the crisis in Kosovo, Strippoli is confident about Angola’s greater need: “I don’t like to compare miseries, but I have to alert the international community that this situation is worse.”

But Angola cannot approximate to Kosovo. A chronic war in a warring continent that has sputtered on for decades has little attraction, compared with the new, improved push-button war in the developed world. And the hidden misery of starving millions in sub-Saharan Africa cannot compare with the televised suffering of white Europeans. But, as world leaders sweat over rebuilding Kosovo and pledge billions of dollars, maybe we could spare a thought for Angola. Twenty-five years ago such leaders helped light the fire that still blazes across the country and has leapt into the bellies of its citizens. For decades they fanned it. With every weapon they sell to the warring factions they continue to snatch food from the starving and drugs from the sick. Maybe it’s time the political conscience that prompts a hasty reconstruction following a violent “just war” in the Balkans turned to more constructive “humanitarian intervention” in this African country.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi