Angola: Aid trucks reach the end of the earth

Rory Carroll, Mavinga

By dawn, the convoy is ploughing through the bush, rolling east into a rising sun with 58 tonnes of emergency food for a settlement camp cut off without aid deep in Angola's famine territory.

From the airstrip in Mavinga, the journey is just 46 kilometres, but the dirt road is so bad it can be attempted only with specialised, ex-military trucks which churn through mud and smash aside trees.

If these vehicles cannot make it, there is little chance of feeding the tens of thousands of people stranded in the province of Cuando Cubango, a wilderness so desolate it is known as "the land at the end of the earth".

Over the next 10 hours, one obstacle after another impedes and delays the convoy of five Samil trucks; a tortuous series of stops and starts, but by the end all the sacks of maize and flour reach the Matungo settlement camp. Proof that even in its remotest parts, Africa's food crisis need not be a catastrophe.

According to the UN world food programme (WFP), more than 16-million people in seven southern African countries risk starvation. The reasons are complex, as are the long-term solutions, but averting large numbers of deaths in the next few months boils down to logistics: getting enough food to those who need it.

The vast operation under way could yet falter, but it probably will not. Donors have stumped up cash, and the food pipeline is working.

It is a success story for now, and one kept largely from the headlines. Aid agencies do not want to tempt donor complacency, since drought and malnutrition are expected to continue, accelerating death for those with HIV/Aids.

So closely is famine tied to Aids that the result is dubbed the New Variant Famine.

It is no longer enough to fill bellies only with staples like maize, because people are less resilient. Those infected with HIV need extra protein for their immune systems to function.

The media do not want to drain the drama by announcing that Africa's doomsday famine will probably be averted; but privately, aid workers say some television and newspaper reports have exaggerated the intensity of the crisis.

The situation in Cuando Cubango, Angola's worst-hit province, has been depicted as catastrophic when in reality the situation is easing. Aid workers worry that inaccessible areas may contain pockets of starvation, but overall they are relieved.

"The danger of famine here has passed," said Jon Tellum, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is the main food distributor in the province. "Enough food is being distributed, and soon we'll have the harvest."

More than 1 600 tons per month is needed for 110 000 people, and thanks to Mavinga's dirt airstrip it is arriving, said local WFP staff -- stressing that aid would be needed for at least three years. The field medical officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said the number of severely malnourished people was decreasing.

Similar reports are emerging from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi, but Zimbabwe and Zambia are feared to be worsening. Recent donations totalling more than $25-million meant that 62% of the WFP's appeal target was met, which was above average.

"These donations have come just in time to keep the food pipeline flowing, but we are not out of danger yet," said Judith Lewis, WFP's southern Africa regional coordinator. "Food is running out fast and millions of people can simply not make it through the next several months without continued food aid."

Thanks to the planes and lorries crisscrossing the continent, aid is getting through. In few countries can the logistics be as challenging as Angola: it is twice the size of France, has a shattered infrastructure, and is littered with landmines.

When the 27-year civil war petered out last August, many people were exhausted, displaced and destitute, with almost 2-million needing food aid and 200 000 said to be in "critical distress".

Among the latter were the 27 000 demobilised rebel fighters and families of the Matungo settlement camp, cut off from aid since November for want of suitable vehicles.

That changed last week with the arrival from Namibia of the 22-ton, six-wheeled Samil trucks.

Operated by a private company, EmerLog, and paid for by Britain's Department for International Development, over the next few weeks they will move hundreds of tonnes of WFP food into the bush. The first trip to Matungo showed it is difficult but feasible.

Twenty minutes into the journey comes the first delay: seven soldiers wanting a lift refuse to take no for an answer and clamber aboard the lead truck. It is deemed wiser to let them.

It is the rainy season, and metre-deep mud snags one vehicle. Another tries to pull it out, but the chain snaps. The last truck returns to Mavinga for a specialised tow rope, and two and a half hours later the convoy is moving again.

Some trees blocking the road cannot be removed, forcing the trucks into fields which are known to be mined. Seven people died in November when an MSF vehicle hit an anti-tank mine -- but the only alternative is to turn back.

After four hours, a tree stump punctures a tyre. After ninety minutes of digging and sweating the wheel is replaced, but then we have another puncture and there is no other spare. The other trucks continue to Matungo to unload, and one doubles back to pick up the load from the stricken vehicle, returning to the settlement camp with the final load at 3.30pm, more than 10 hours after we set out.

The drivers are exhausted but not surprised. "Extreme transport is what we do. You expect problems in these conditions and we learned today that this job can be done," said EmerLog's John Grobler.

There are infants with stick-limbs and pot-bellies in the camp, but they join their parents in an orderly queue, grinning and waving as the food is unloaded. "We are hungry and weak and totally dependent on the trucks, so today you could say we are very relieved, very happy," said the camp doctor, Wilson Sidonio. - Guardian Unlimited

=A9 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001