A race against time - Oxfam relief worker's report from Angola

Angola remains in the grip of a civil war which has forced two million Angolans to flee their homes. The front lines have moved dramatically over recent months but an enduring peace is still far away. Meanwhile Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, has appealed to the international community to respond generously to this year's US $258 million consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for Angola.
Oxfam is working with the internally displaced to improve hygiene and ensure clean water. Jean McCluskey, Oxfam's Emergency Programme Co-ordinator in Angola, sent this report in November 1999.

It's the start of the rainy season and a race against time; the rains have already started and many of the internally displaced families are living in the smallest of grass houses you can possibly imagine, with almost no protection from the elements. As the rains get heavier, the weak structures which were erected will most likely be washed away - in some other areas of Angola, that is exactly what has already happened.

At the start of the rainy season, some of the worst public health conditions prevail. Water supplies are still at their very lowest. The rain which has fallen gathers all the dirt and excreta which is covering the ground, into the wells which the displaced have dug in order to have nearby access to water supply. The stench in some areas describes very well the open defecation which the rains are transporting to the same areas of the camp each time. Access to soap has been limited, if at all in some areas. The torn rags which act as clothing for many people probably don't see such luxuries as soap very often - on reflection neither do many of their bodies. For the newer arrivals - that means almost two months for many families - no registration means no access to food. This fact is obvious when walking around some of the newly settled areas - the sunken, old looking faces of children, one of the signs of the huge malnutrition problem for in Kuito. One man lies wrapped in a sheet outside his grass shelter, unable to gather energy to move, no access to food - his sheet almost acts as shroud, he is only barely able to dust his face to keep the flies away.

In amongst some of the over crowded camps tripods are erected and concrete rings are being put into place in the hand dug wells. In others which don't have such luxuries as a high water table, a portable drilling rig is in operation, drilling into the geology in search of a much needed supply of clean water. At the site of a newly constructed well and hand pump, a theatre group is dramatising the need for communities to construct their own latrine, another on protecting their water supply and the perils of diarrhoea. Indirectly, the water will be directly feeding the population as an essential contribution to the health of the population. Diarrhoeas and other diseases related to a lack of access to clean water often can claim the little strength which people have, negating the potential effects of the food which is distributed. However, getting the programme underway has not been easy, and compounding problems continue to hamper the operations. Commitment from donors for resources needed to provide the basic needs have been very slow in coming through. Poor site planning has meant that houses are very close together with little room to plan sanitation not to mention the 40 shelters last week which burned down because there was no breaks between them. Our visit to the camp stirs some interest in the residents of the camp. People smile and come to talk - pleased to see faces of the international community - maybe they haven't been forgotten after all? In the camp, many people are absent for much of the daylight hours. Those who have been allocated seeds and tools are keen to get out and plant - it doesn't however feed those who are hungry now. Others are out collecting firewood - the main way to access food for those without access to the basic distributions being made by the international community. With both activities comes risk. Just outside many camps are minefields, laid by both sides - the reports on new mine victims at the central hospital tell exactly the same stories of why they were out in the areas in the first place.

It's true that never before in my experience of working in emergencies around the world have I ever seen such poor levels of assistance. Basic rights which are described in minimum standards seem a distant luxury to the displaced of Angola. In Kosovo we talked of hygiene packages for families; in Angola there is a brief and distant mention of soap. In Zaire we talked about ratios of 1 latrine for every 3 to 4 families; figures in areas of the displaced camps in Angola would not equate to even a tenth of that. In Bosnia, we talked of housing reconstruction; in Angola, we will be counting the numbers of families whose grass shelter will have been washed away with the rains. Access to food for some will be characterised by the bundles of people who run out into the street to collect the grains of corn which fall from the food trucks which trundle through the town from the airport. Where is the Humanitarian Ombudsman in Angola who can talk about assistance and partnership with dignity?