Angola Diary: A Voice from the Field

At locations across the country, hundreds of thousands of displaced people began to emerge from the bush where they had been trapped by the conflict, starving and isolated from health care. The following is drawn from a personal diary kept by Els Adams, MSF Project Coordinator in Malange, Angola. Monday, May 20th Not a very good start to the day. Alice, the critically ill ten-year-old girl who was brought in by her father yesterday, has died. The father had walked through the bush for four days with Alice on his back. She was in an advanced stage of malnutrition, her whole body swollen with edema. Last night he looked at Marjan, one of our nurses, and pleaded, "Please do everything to save Alice. She's all I have left." From his rags he pulled out a photo of his family - a young, healthy woman and six radiant children in their Sunday best. His wife and five of the children had already lost their lives. This morning Marjan and I are devastated when we hear that Alice hasn't made it. Now that rebel leader Jonas Savimbi is dead and the peace process has started, more and more people are emerging from UNITA army bases in the bush. Our feeding center is being swamped with severely malnourished children. I notice Marjan is looking tired. Tuesday, May 21st A sleepless night. I can feel the effects of the increased workload. Our feeding center is becoming overcrowded. I've been communicating to the MSF headquarters in Luanda the need for another feeding center. Fortunately, they give me the go-ahead today and Luis, my Angolan logistician, and I start looking for suitable premises. We find an old warehouse, strike a deal with the owner and start planning the preparations. We reckon we need around three days. Wednesday, May 22nd In the middle of the widespread euphoria about the peace process, we are starting to realize what went on in the bush during the years of war. The demobilization of the UNITA troops is part of the peace process. They are being concentrated with their families in special areas. There are two demobilization camps in Malange province. None of the aid organizations have been allowed in so far. At 3pm I receive a radio message asking me to go to the hospital right away. It sounds urgent, so I jump into the car. At the entrance to the feeding center I find a large group of seriously malnourished children, often with a mother who looks just as bad. We have to open the new center right away. The whole team, including the national staff, works throughout the evening. I am sure all of us collapse totally exhausted into bed, plagued by dreams full of malnourished children. But we have our new feeding center and I am proud of my team. Thursday, May 23rd Nobody slept well. Everybody is shaken by the stories and the suffering. Again it is confirmed that just as many people are still in the bush, and in an even worse state. Help will come too late for them. And again, it transpires that almost all the mothers we speak to have recently lost one or more children. One woman tells me she lost four children in the month of April. Her two remaining children are in bad shape and I doubt if they will make it. Another woman buried her eighth and last child a few days ago. There are just no words for the suffering of these people. Friday, May 24th Getting access to the demobilization camps becomes more and more of a priority. But this could be awkward, as they are in military territory. However, when I am invited to a meeting [with commanders from both sides] at the military headquarters, we get the green light at all levels. The UN is as yet refusing to enter the demobilization camps because the national government has not submitted a formal request for aid. I drop by the feeding center this afternoon. I see children, whose eyes only a few days ago were closed by edema, starting to look around again. We can't save them all, but most of them will change gradually from sad, apathetic, sick children into lively and happy ones. I am sure this is what is giving the team such energy. Saturday, May 25th At 9am we leave for the demobilization zone, about 50km away, driving past the burnt-out remains of trucks. Only a few months ago it was impossible to drive here because of the risk of mines and ambushes. We are officially welcomed [to the demobilization camps] by a delegation who say they are in desperate need of our help. Children are dying every day. The army sends food for the troops but no one cares for the women and children. The children are waiting in a long row. I can't believe my eyes - so many children, each one in a worse state than the next. Our lorry filled to overflowing, we radio ahead that we are on our way, so the team is ready to take charge of the children. The new feeding center is already filling up. Tonight I tune in to Radio Netherlands. I hear reports of political wrangling surrounding the upcoming elections and a general sense of dissatisfaction in the Netherlands. Sometimes home seems very far away.