LUANDA, 11 March (IRIN) - In a converted double-story house in downtown Luanda a group of twentysomethings playfully tease each other. The air is light and the repartee spirited. To the observer the gathering is unremarkable, the conversation often peppered with the hopes and dreams of most young people around the world.
But, unlike most young people, the eight young men and women have lived to bear witness to what is arguably the darkest chapter in Angola's recent history.
Felizardo Epalanga speaks in whispers. Born into the civil war, the strapping 27 year-old recounts the trauma of his experience with a serenity that is disarming.
"I have seen and lived through horrible things in my life. The war tore my family apart and took away most of my youth. I am here to share my experience. For the first time I am able to externalise what I feel and it feels good," he said.
Felizardo is part of a pioneering project initiated by Angola 2000, a local human rights NGO and the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP), a South African-based peace group. The workshop held over a week encourages participants to confront the past through dialogue and seek new ways of dealing with conflict.
"The aim is to create a safe space to explore issues that are often very intimate and painful. The process is holistic. It is a two-way process where trainers also share their own experience of pain with people in the workshop. In this way it is a very gentle process which avoids intrusion," AVP trainer Julie Machin told IRIN.
The project is one of the few attempts to tackle the psychological scars of the civil war which claimed almost a million lives. The UN Children's Fund has estimated that 66 percent of Angolan children have seen people being murdered, and 67 percent have witnessed some form of torture.
In mid-January 1993 UNITA started its assault on Huambo, Angola's second largest city. It was estimated that some 10,000 people were killed during the 55-day siege, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee when the UNITA rebels occupied the city. Felizardo turned 16 that year.
"The government gave me a gun to protect myself," Felizardo told IRIN.
"I didn't even know how to use it and it was too heavy. But they told me that without a gun I would be unable to protect myself. At that time everybody believed what the government said. They told me, if caught, UNITA would cut off my hands. So I took the gun and did everything to protect myself from UNITA. There were times I was even shooting at my cousins. That just shows you how afraid I was," he said.
When UNITA took the city later in the year, the government forces retreated to Benguela, on the east coast. Thousands of Huambo residents fled the city in the coming weeks.
"We walked for weeks trying to cover the 300km to Benguela. I saw many people dying along the way. Some were very sick but most were hungry. But we continued. I ended up in a refugee camp in Benguela with UNITA supporters. At first I was reluctant to talk to them because I believed they were like animals out of the bush. But I soon realised that they were just like me. They were told the same lies. That is what we had in common. The government and [Jonas] Savimbi had built a wall of ignorance between us. It was then that I made a promise to myself that I would never support anybody but myself."
Disillusion is almost tangible among these young people as they speak of a series of broken promises. However, none appeared to be resigned to a bleak future despite the overwhelming odds.
Kidnapped by UNITA when he was four years old, Guido Siolengue remembers everything.
"It is good to remember so that you don't make the same mistakes. Without memory we are lost," he told IRIN.
"Although I was very young when it happened it was as if it was yesterday. In 1976 my mother, brother, sister and myself were kidnapped by UNITA. For nine months we lived with the soldiers at the Bailundo base. I can remember how badly they treated us. At times we ate out of the empty shells of radio speakers.
"Fortunately at the time there was still some trade between areas controlled by UNITA and those where the government ruled. This was their mistake. One day my mother pretended that she was going to sell some bananas in the market. She gathered all of us and we set off, never to return. But my life has been difficult. Humabo was terrible place to grow up. We were constantly afraid of air aids. It was as if the government didn't care who they were bombing. The schools were closed. There was no medicine. Today I am 30 years old and I haven't even finished my first degree."
Both Felizardo and Guido agree that healing and reconciliation does not happen overnight. That it is a long and arduous journey. They count themselves fortunate to be part of a process which allows them, for the first time, to acknowledge the pain and suffering shared by millions of Angolans.
"It is important that we move on. It is more important that we take what we have learnt into our communities and show them that there are other ways to deal with conflict. But I am not sure that if elections were held tomorrow I would vote. I feel betrayed. Forgiveness is one thing, forgetting is something else," Felizardo said.
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