As the weeks have passed since Angola's ceasefire was signed between Unita and the MPLA government on April 4, it has become clear that a grim situation lies behind Unita lines. As people stumble out of the bush into reception centers, they are telling of intense suffering, of people dying of hunger.
Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict has been traveling in Angola during the past week, visiting the eastern and central provinces of Bie, Moxico and Benguela.
He talked to allAfrica.com by telephone from the Angolan capital, Luanda, about what he'd encountered.
Excerpts of Interview
Can you say what you found when you visited these provinces?
Almost uniformly, all the children suffer from some disease or other - malaria usually, pneumonia, measles, skin diseases - preventable diseases, the result of lack of medication, of water and soap, basically. So the conditions are very serious.
Now, I have not been to the quartering areas where the Unita military are gathering, but I've spoken with people in the provinces who have been there and they describe the situation as very grave. And that really is the immediate humanitarian emergency.
And then of course, there are people who are still in the previously Unita-controlled areas. Those who are emerging are in terrible condition.
What kind of numbers are we talking about?
I'll give you one example, I went to the province of Moxico. There, right now, they have got 250,000 people displaced and they are expecting 350,000 others to emerge from the zone previously controlled by Unita. So that gives you a sense of the magnitude, in just one province. It is true that Moxico in the centre was among the three or four provinces worst affected by war, but the magnitude of the problem is enormous.
Generally, there are more than 4.5m people who have been displaced throughout the war in Angola. Some of these have resettled, but more than one million are still depending on humanitarian assistance from UN agencies and NGOS; and then, of course, you've got the very fresh load of displaced people who are emerging from the Unita areas.
Why was it so bad in those areas?
There was systematic and massive displacement of the population because of the war, so people were moved from their areas and congregated in places where they couldn't really grow food, so famine and isolation set in.
And then, of course, remember there was also the sanctions regime against Unita which had its own impact. Nothing could be flown in - so food, medicine, transport, communications, all those things dried up. And many people are said to have died from sheer famine, including military officers.
How are local officials coping with the crisis in these provinces?
Well they are deeply preoccupied by the prospect of a humanitarian disaster and they stress, over and over again, the gravity of the situation in the camps, the quartering areas.
It is more than anything that they had expected or foreseen, so they are appealing to the international humanitarian community.
That is why I have launched an urgent appeal for the government and the international community to join hands and immediately mobilize food and medicine for the populations which are endangered by these conditions.
And are you hopeful that you'll get a good response from the international community? Do you know how much is needed?
I think the response for the immediate humanitarian phase will be very good. For one thing, they realize this is a matter of saving lives, that's what we're talking about.
But for another, if a humanitarian disaster breaks out, this clearly will compromise the peace process, stability and the reconciliation process which has started. You don't want destabilizing elements and banditry to break out - when people can't get food and they take out the arms that they may have hidden and begin to help themselves in local villages.
Does the government share your view of the situation?
Yes they do. In my discussions with ministers and various senior officials they share this preoccupation.
If it wasn't clear earlier, certainly it is clear now and certainly I impressed upon them what I have heard from the ground, from the provinces and I think they have a clear sense, a clear picture of the situation and the magnitude of the challenge - and the possibility of this descending into a tragedy of major proportions.
While one does not want to distract any attention from mobilising support, you are surely going to hear people saying, "but hang on a minute, this isn't Sierra Leone, this is Angola where they have phenomenal oil reserves and riches, and where a respected NGO has said that up to a third of the national revenues - $1.4bn - were stolen through corruption last year; a lot of people will be concerned that the government will not do their share.
Well please do not forget that up until now, the entire operation has been managed exclusively by the government itself. The peace process, the ending of the war, the ceasefire, the inviting of the ex-Unita soldiers to come and be quartered, all this has been managed exclusively by the Angolan government, and its gone remarkably well, considering that we're talking about thirty years of war.
The fact that Angola today has put war behind it is an earth-shaking development. Given the history of the country, given more than 40 years of warfare (if you include the war of liberation as well) that to me is very good news for children.
It's not a question of the will, the will isn't lacking, it is the capacity and the experience which is not up to the magnitude of the task and also, the fact that the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis could not have been foreseen.
This is where the international community comes in; they have the experience, they have the expertise, they know how to do this and do it quickly and that is the kind of support that the government needs to be able to get on top of the crisis.
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