This pathetic place called Angola

Originally published
Angola today stands as a real testimony to what happens when you just don't give a damn

January 25, 2000 - The dos Santos government has been boasting of victory after victory, it has told the world it has nearly completely destroyed the UNITA rebel capacity to fight -- the figure used by General de Matos was 80 percent of UNITA's warfighting capacity destroyed --- Savimbi's arrest was said to be imminent, and most of Angola was said to be successfully reclaimed.

Yet, the reports continue streaming in that describe a far different picture, one of continued refugee flows caused by intense fighting in Moxico and Cuando Cabango provinces, mounting humanitarian problems in Zambia, criminal attacks into northern Namibia, artillery bombardments from Namibia into southern Angola, supposedly striking at UNITA targets, and considerable fighting in Bie province, in the general area of Kuito, in the country's center. Perhaps the Angolan government and its international allies will argue that these are the final stages of the military defeat of UNITA. Skeptics will argue the final stages have been in train now for 25 years and there still is no end. Cynics will argue that both the dos Santos government and the Savimbi-led UNITA rebels simply love war, that they hold war dear, that they adore the splendor of the spoils of war they exact from the population and the nation's resources to continue fighting.

No matter which argument you make, at the end of the day it is the Angolan people who have suffered and continue to suffer, in ways that are virtually indescribable, victims of battles being fought by both sides for nearly three decades.

UN refugee agency chief Sadako Ogata said on January 24 that Angolan refugees fleeing the war were in a desperate situation, escaping from their homes, without their belongings, mired in floods and disease-ridden camps, desperate, depressed, malnourished, and, in all candor, living in a world where no one gives a damn other than those few humanitarian workers and agencies willing to step out on the limb to respond. Fully one tenth of the population has been displaced since just December 1998; others say the figure is more like one sixth. The conflict in Angola, Africa's longest-running war, has killed more than a million people, or 10 percent of Angola's population of 12 million, and dislocated a further 50 percent. Many of these Angolans are afflicted with malaria and diarrhea, they live amidst the stench of human waste, and they have had their human dignity stolen from them, perhaps never to regain it again.

Underlining how pathetic a place this Angola is, Mrs. Ogata wants to run airlifts to move the refugees to better ground, but, in one of the world's most prolific oil regions, there is not enough fuel to service the aircraft.

While the government boasts of imminent and total victory over UNITA, Buchizya Mseteka reports for Reuters on January 21 that UNITA's leadership has said it has implemented a military restructuring at the leadership level, it is "recovering as a military machine," it has "revived important military structures." and it is "almost ready for war." In sum, according to Alcides Sakala of UNITA, who is said to be hiding in the bush with Savimbi, "We will fight for a very, very long time."

In the meantime, Luanda is besieged by reports that UNITA's leader, Dr. Jonas Savimbi, is either dead, or is critically wounded. PM News reported that Savimbi might have been critically wounded in the battle for the central highlands, and it is possible he has passed. Some of the Luanda press is said to be celebrating the news. Other reports say he was wounded, but is being treated inside Angola, at a hidden location. Moses Uchendu reported for PM News that his hideout is actually near Bailundo, which the government said it had destroyed and captured. An UNITA spokesman has said Savimbi is alive.

With all this said, Alcides Sakala of UNITA has repeated earlier and persistent urgings from Savimbi that UNITA wants to deal, it wants to negotiate. Sakala was quoted by Mseteka of Reuters saying, "The results of our military re-organization are going to be felt very soon. Our presence across Angola is going to be visible through our actions. But we are also ready to talk, to find a solution to the root causes of the war."

UNITA's problem is no one wants to talk to it. Diplomats in the major Western capitals and at the UN are spinning their demands to say that UNITA must comply with the Lusaka Peace Accords of 1994, but no one has the means, the mechanism, or even the inclination to make that happen --- the diplomatic spin is disingenuous and wholly deceptive. There is no credibility any longer in the words of Western and UN diplomats when it comes to Angola. Like little children in the schoolyard, these diplomats only know how to play the blame-game, blaming UNITA for the entire war, blaming UNITA soldiers for every robbery and mugging in Angola, western Zambia and northern Namibia, and underlining in every paragraph that the current suffering is all the fault of UNITA. The die is cast for UNITA. The outside world is employing the "Who-shot-John" rhetoric of blame, and there is no longer a way for that to be turned around, with some of the world's most respected statesmen and statewomen having marshaled the world's most formidable public relations and global telecommunications mechanisms against UNITA in an information blitzkrieg UNITA has no chance of competing against.

Most recently, Zambia has charged that UNITA has attacked at least eight villages in the Chavuma district along the border region. Zambian officials maintain that UNITA has been laying minefields as its forces retreat back into Angola. President Chiluba has warned that he will "act firmly" if the attacks continue, and has threatened to "hit back," though no one really knows what that means since Zambia's military is hardly capable of taking a military offensive into Angola.

For their part, UNITA officials have denied that UNITA forces are attacking Zambia, saying, "UNITA can never attack Zambia. We have always been grateful to Zambia for sheltering Angolan refugees in their hundreds of thousands. We cannot repudiate that hospitality." With regard to Namibia, Alcides Sakala was quoted saying, "On Namibia, it is stupid that they decided to join the war but we still cannot launch attacks on them on that basis. It is Angolan government troops who are causing insecurity on both the Namibian and Zambian borders."

The real problem for Zambia is not so much these attacks, which have been, in the main, more armed robberies than well coordinated military assaults to achieve any important military objectives. Instead, Zambia's big problem is that tens of thousands of Angolan refugees have been streaming into Zambia from eastern Angola creating a humanitarian nightmare. Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister Walubita has said the Kalabo and Chavuma districts have been hard hit by the influx. The UN's High Commission for Refugees has said that in many of the areas where Angolan refugees are settling, there are no clean water and no facilities. The region is hard to access, the rains are falling, the roads are terrible, and there is generally no infrastructure to care for large numbers of refugees.

Colin McClelland reported for Reuters on January 21 that continued fighting between the Angolan army and UNITA has kept ordinary citizens in Angola pinned down in a deep humanitarian crisis. Mark Hammond of Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) Belgium told Reuters, "We have a serious malnutrition problem. Considering the amount of food being sent (to the city of Kuito), the mortality rate is very high." What is startling about this statement is that Hammond is not talking about the southern border or the eastern border, but the central region of Bie province, in and around Kuito, a region the dos Santos government has insisted it now controls.

A report issued by MSF Belgium recently said 12 children under five die each day in refugee camps outside of Kuito, and 15 a day die in the city itself. UN Secretary General Annan has said the human suffering throughout Angola is "extremely alarming," with more than two million people -- fully a sixth of the population -- displaced by recent fighting and 40 percent of children under five either severely or moderately underweight. Hammond of MSF was quoted saying, "It is clear that the military situation in Bie province is quite active. The arrival of newly displaced people has increased the burden."

So Angolans are fleeing eastern Angola into Zambia in high numbers, fighting has broken out again in the central region, and all is not really all that fine on the southern border either. Xinhua reported on January 20 that the Namibian Defense Force (NDF) announced that travelers taking the trans-Caprivi highway in Namibia's northeast bordering Angola will be escorted by Namibia's military in the future. UN IRIN reported on January 24 that Angolan forces are now based at a location in Namibia near Rundu. The Angolans are using Namibia as a location from which to fire artillery rounds at suspected UNITA targets in southern Angola. Angolan forces are also based in the Congo Republic, and the DR Congo, and have shown an interest in moving in to Zambia as well.

The Sunday Times of South Africa reported that hundreds of Namibian civilians, including women and children, are being illegally recruited into the Angolan army to fight the rebels. The Times was validating reports from a Namibian human rights group. It said the increased tensions and a recruitment drive among Namibians had created an atmosphere of fear in northern Namibia's border zone: "With the Namibian government's continued silence comes uncertainty and fear," the newspaper said. "Businesses have closed, tourism has been badly hit and jobs have been lost. Some locals have moved their families further south, while others are wondering if they should start clearing bomb shelters in their gardens - relics from the 1970s..."

At the UN, this is the "Month of Africa," President dos Santos remains one of Washington's favorite sons, and UNITA has been completely isolated from any prospect of a negotiated settlement. Does that help you sleep better at night?