End of the war, beginning of hunger

Taking advantage of the new opportunity to move around, MSF has led evaluation missions in certain areas where these people, who are literally dying, have been living. Five extremely urgent situations were identified during five evaluation missions.

A dying population

While the peace - that everyone says they want - settles over Luanda, thanks to the truce between the belligerents that has existed since March, MSF staff has discovered horrifying conditions: 'grey zones', containing thousands of people in a state of severe malnutrition and appalling health. These people were virtual prisoners in areas that became inaccessible when the war resumed in November 1998. These areas represent nearly 90% of the country and are today characterized by complete destitution and starvation.

Bunjei, a three-hour drive south of Caala. It is 7am and it is still cold despite the sun. A crowd is gathering up against the orange plastic barriers at the MSF centre. Government soldiers have already marched down the long dirt road that cuts across the camp at a brisk pace, singing and accompanied by a scattering of children. Today is a day like any other day in Bunjei, although a bit calmer than usual.

Registration, a requirement for the scheduled May 4 general food distribution, is almost finished. This is, one hopes, a first step toward the general distribution of food to this population of 14,000 on the verge of death.

The green truck bearing an MSF sticker stands there, ready to load the most seriously malnourished people, who will soon leave for a feeding centre opened by MSF in Caala, four hours away over a bad road. At least 20 children have been transferred, like this, every day over the past month.

These are children able to travel the distance despite their extreme malnutrition. These severe cases spent the night waiting in a tent; here, one only travels in the daytime.

Men hoist skeletal children into the back of the truck. One mother awkwardly settles herself next to her children who are too big to be so thin. These children are being referred to the MSF hospital in Caala. With more than 900 children, the hospital is almost the size of a village.

Dead and malnourished people by the thousands

Taking advantage of the new opportunity to move around, MSF has led evaluation missions in certain areas where these people, who are literally dying, have been living. Five extremely urgent situations were identified during five evaluation missions.

  • Bunjei: 1,050 graves counted in less than six months out of a population of 14,000
  • Chilembo, a one-and-a-half hour drive from Huambo: 42% overall malnutrition, of which 10% is severe. A daily crude mortality rate (CMR) of 4.5 to 5.5 per 10,000 people in the general population.
  • Chipindo, four to five hours by car from Bunjei: a CMR of 4.5 in the general population and a malnutrition rate of 57%.
  • Chitembo, southern Bié province: a daily CMR of 5 per 10,000 people in the general population.

Two days ago, during an evaluation mission in Damba, in the northeast part of Malange, a team from the Dutch section of MSF counted more than 200 malnourished people out of a population of 2,000. The daily mortality is around 7 per 10,000 people in the general population. Seven times worse that of an emergency situation.

Judging from the graves dotting an entire hillside some 70 km south of Bunjei in the town of Chipindo, the death rate has been immense. There have been four thousands graves in less than six months out of a population of 18,000.

How many high-risk areas?

How many people have fled the 'grey zones' after being held hostage for three years during the last phase of the war? 300,000? 500,000? There is talk of about 30 'high-risk' sites.

What happened in areas inaccessible to any type of aid or commerce for three years? Judging from the graves dotting an entire hillside some 70 km south of Bunjei in the town of Chipindo, the death rate has been immense. There have been four thousands graves in less than six months out of a population of 18,000.

MSF doctors have intepreted the figures to show a mortality rate of 6.1 deaths per 10,000 people per day among children under five. This death toll has decimated the youngest who, weaker and more vulnerable, are the first to succumb. But the young children are not the only people to die from hunger. Older children, adolescents, women and the elderly also require emergency food aid.

And there is the procession of death from malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria and respiratory infections.

A population held hostage to the war strategy since 1998

The war in Angola has been ongoing for over 20 years. Its latest phase has been three years - since the lasst peace accord was broken in 1998. Since then, these people have been used as both resources and labour - an essential strategy of the warring parties. They suffered regular assaults and predatory acts, surviving through constant flight.

"Too much suffering," they keep repeating when asked about this period: so much violence against a population held hostage alternately by one side or the other, forced to flee into the 'mata', the bush.

UNITA troops regularly preyed upon them, stealing their possessions and crops. Not to be outdone, government troops took everything - their crops, shirts and shoes.

As if this was not enough, those who were captured also served as 'labour' after being reduced to slavery: the men to make war, the women to carry weapons and serve the military leaders. Today, they are starting to recount their horrible sufferings, with great difficulty, to the occasional, but always shocked, witness. Out of about 30 people interviewed in Bunjei and Chipindo, all had lost children and other members of their families over the past three years.

A population under government control without any means of survival

"We sleep more peacefully here, but we're dying of hunger". This sentence is repeated over and over. They have been assembled in new areas, under strong government pressure, placing them in a situation where they cannot ensure their own survival. More than half the people questioned have lost children since their arrival six months ago.

Many arrived between September 2001 and April 2002. All had wandered in the 'mata' for three years and they all know their houses have been destroyed - in most cases burned down by government forces who practiced a systematic scorched earth policy in the villages. They are all awaiting the government's order to return to their land ("it's not good to disobey", they repeat). Only single women, no doubt victims of sexual violence, say they have no desire to return.

Defeated and utterly destitute

The displaced have become worn down and fatalistic, waiting for government orders to return to their land. They have no idea when this order will come. While waiting, they have not received any assistance, any food aid, with the exception of handouts that are as symbolic as they are insufficient during visits by government representatives (three food distributions are recorded in Bunjei, for example). The displaced in Bunjei, Chipindo, Chilembo and Chitembo must walk farther and farther to find a few meagre crops: first one day, then two days of walking to find food. Solidarity has been reduced to helping only their closest relations.

A phenomenon whose scope is still unknown

In the provinces where MSF works, the teams are sounding warnings about identical situations. In each of these places, medical care and food aid were immediately set up. But the nutritional status of the displaced is declining in the absence of general food distributions. MSF teams are seeing children deteriorate from moderate to severe malnutrition.

To this day the government has not called for any international aid and the major UN agencies have yet to mobilize. If there is no immediate and massive mobilization by the authorities concerned and international humanitarian organizations, this already deadly catastrophe will lead to tens of thousands of deaths.