Rich and at peace, there's crying poverty in Luanda, Angola

This article first appeared in Le Soir

Angola

Capital: Luanda
Area: 1,246,700 k - (40 times larger than Belgium)
Type of State: Unitary Republic
Type of Government: Semi-presidential
Population: 13.5 million
Infant mortality: 126.2 per 1000
Life expectancy: 44.6 years
Illiteracy: 44% for men; 72% for women

Context: Since it gained independence in 1975, Angola has been almost continually at war, devastated by a conflict between the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), formerly supported by Moscow and Cuba, and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) backed by certain Western countries and South Africa during the apartheid era. Despite several ceasefires, this bloody conflict only really ended in February 2002 after the death of Jonas Savimbi, historic leader of UNITA. On 4 April 2002, a peace agreement marked the real end of the war. But in this country that is too rich, where oil and diamonds abound, a staggering majority of the population live in dire poverty. (V.K.)

Miguel is nine years old. When he was born, Angola was at war, and, like hundreds of thousands of other children, Miguel was not vaccinated. He was just three when he caught polio. Today, he has trouble walking, bending double over his twisted left leg.

Miguel has some luck with his affliction: although he lives in the centre of Angola, his mother has just taken him to the orthopaedic centre in Benguela, a large town on the coast. The physical therapists who examined him say categorically that he needs a prosthesis. With this custom-made splint, Miguel will be able to walk almost normally and most importantly he will escape the scoliosis and deformations that could cause paralysis in a few years.

Children with club feet, men and women whose legs have been amputated after stepping on a land mine: the orthopaedic centre sponsored by Handicap International Belgium is a gathering point of troubles caused directly or indirectly by the war that ravaged Angola for nearly thirty years.

But the war officially ended in April 2002 and Angola is trying to come back to life. "Since the end of the war, we can finally travel in the country. We've stopped feeling like we are in prison. We've stopped being afraid of being killed", says David, 23, who lost part of his right leg 12 years ago in a mine blast. With a new prosthesis, David is learning to walk again in the grounds of the centre, first holding on to two rails, and then climbing and going down the stairs.

The patients at the centre get the care they need, but this is not the case for millions of other Angolans who are still waiting for some improvement in their lives more than one year after the end of the war. The very serious nutritional crisis that struck several places a year ago has fortunately been solved, but there are still many problems.

As the war years took their toll, nearly 3 million people fled their villages to more peaceful areas. Most of them stayed in Angola. Several tens of thousands took refuge in neighbouring countries, so a gigantesque operation had to be organized to bring the displaced and refugees back home. Current estimates put the number of people who have been permanently reinstated at 1.8 million. But this operation directed by the Angolan government was not carried out without imperfection. Only some of the families received the promised aid and most of them were brought to areas lacking the most elementary basic structures: administrations, health facilities or schools.

"Where the infrastructures do exist, they do not function very well", explains an Angolan. "Health care is free of charge in principle, but since the personnel is paid very badly, you still have to put your hand into your pocket, and if you want to be sure of the quality, you have to go to the private sector. As for education … classes opened on a large scale in February, but students had to buy their own materials, come with a chair, as well as pay backhanders. Not everyone is accepted. In any case, the children of the elite all want to study outside the country … "

The job of humanitarian organizations is obviously complicated by the presence of land mines on many secondary roads. Consequently, a large part of the population remains out of reach.

"All these years, the government was able to justify its neglect of health and education by the best of pretexts: the war," explains a humanitarian agency. "It is obvious that a country like Angola cannot recover in a few months' time, but in many sectors, we have the impression that there is a lack of political determination. Although assistance to the disabled seems fairly effective, basic care and education are truly neglected. And we don't see why it is up to foreign humanitarian agencies to do the job of a government that has a phenomenal income thanks to oil and diamonds."

"The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) has been in power since Independence, and it has just won an armed victory over its perpetual rival UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola)," another foreign observer explains. "This does not mean it is a military dictatorship, though. Elections will be held, but we don't know when. In any case, the authorities have so much money at hand that they can buy members of parliament and the opposition. Until the international community puts pressure to get good governance, I'm afraid that nothing will change."

Report compiled with the help of Médecins Sans Frontiers MSF Belgium.

This artice does not necessarily represent the opinions of MSF.