Angola: Misery for the displaced in a slum settlement called "Iraq"

Originally published
The eight story concrete skeleton of the Maria Pia abandoned hospital wing rises in architectural wonder over the cardboard hovels that make up a slum settlement of over 200 families in downtown Luanda. For reasons that no one there can remember, the settlement is called Iraq.
Iraq is settled by internally displaced people (IDPs) representing the various waves of displacement from nearly every province of Angola over the past 15 years. Some arrived in 1992 during renewed fighting between resistance UNITA forces and the Government's FAA army. Others arrived later, fleeing the surrounding provinces as the war escalated until the death of UNITA's leader, Jonas Savimbi, in February 2002.

Iraq is a city slum of horrific living conditions. Cardboard shelters, each housing families of up to 10, cover the hillside next to the abandoned high-rise. Trash fills the basement of the building, causing a permanent stench. There are no latrines. There are no government-sponsored water points. People beg water from surrounding houses. During the six months of rainy season, water pours into and under the shacks.

Many of those squatting in this slum settlement were brought to the nearby hospital from provinces as remote as Moxico to treat war related injuries. But following their treatment, the government did not transport these people back home, leaving them stranded in the city without having fully recovered. Since roads are still mined, traveling back to the province is only possible by plane. People therefore depend on the government because they cannot afford to go home. Many disabled and vulnerable people are left to eke out an uncertain future in the Iraq slum.

One such person is Emanuela, age 39. Emanuela and her husband, Alberto, and four children fled fighting in Malanje province and escaped over 300 kilometers to a suburb of Luanda. In April 1994 a military truck attempted to cross a bridge that Emanuela, then four months pregnant, and her husband were also crossing. The drunk truck driver lost control of the vehicle, sending the truck along with Emanuela and Alfonso into the river below. Emanuela's right arm and leg were crushed under the weight of the truck and her baby aborted. She was brought to the hospital for treatment, but was sent home after only partial recovery, leaving her with a dangling arm that swings in all directions and an amputated leg with an ill-fitted prosthesis. "She can't manage by herself," her husband explained, swinging an embarrassed Emanuela's arm in a 360-degree circle as proof. To survive, Emanuela sells liquor in 5-cent shots to local people. This gives her enough income to buy bread and corn flour to feed her family.

Also living in the slum is Juan, 22, a handsome man with lively brown eyes and a bright smile. He sits in a clean, red and white button down shirt in his wheel chair. One leg is amputated, the other deformed and useless. At age 11 he stepped on a mine in Moxico province and was flown to Luanda for treatment. He has not heard from his family since. He would like to go home, but he is not sure if they are alive, or even want him back. Like the others, he cannot afford to fly back. Meanwhile, he still hopes for the special medical care in South Africa that the government promised him, so that he can learn to use crutches. "I don't want to spend all my life in this wheel chair," he says, as his two-year-old daughter climbs onto his lap to get a ride.

Others like Isabela, 28, ended up in Iraq because they fled the fighting and had nowhere else to go. Isabela wears a bright flowered dress and colorful sandals that were donated to her. But her face is pained as she tells us that she has no family, no husband and three children to support. "We have nothing here," she says. "I am thinking about how to get one kilo of cornmeal to feed my children tonight. Look at his house," she says gesturing to her cardboard and plastic 5 by 6 foot house. "Is this a place to live?" She holds out her arm to show that her skin is covered in scabies. Isabela pauses as she recalls her life before the slum. "In my house back home in Kwanza Sul Province, I had everything, nothing was missing, but I had to run because of the war. My house was robbed and destroyed like everybody's. When it rains here," she goes on, "it rains right into the house so we all go and stand under the building. We try to sleep standing up."

In order to care for her family, Isabela cleans, washes or cooks for others. "When there is work, I have food; otherwise we go hungry. Sometimes, the only thing to do is to drink and sleep and forget." The others convey the same desperation. Emanuela's husband Alberto explains, "The most difficult thing about living here is that we have no house and no job. If I could have those two things, life would be easy."

Iraq is but one of numerous slum settlements around Luanda where IDPs struggle to eke out a living following years of war and displacement. They receive no services from the Government of Angola or the humanitarian community. Settlements like these will only grow in size as hundreds of thousands of IDPs look to start a new life in the city now that peace has come to Angola after 27 years of war.

The Government of Angola, with its billions in wealth from oil revenues alone, is not responding to its people's desperate but modest pleas for the opportunity to live a dignified and peaceful life. In Iraq, there is only misery.