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Angolan Refugees Challenge Aid Agencies - 2000-10-15

The United Nations says that in the past 10 days, more than 6000 people have fled to the central Angolan city of Kuito to escape fighting between the government and UNITA rebels. The influx is stretching aid agencies to the limit. Kuito has repeatedly been a major battlefield during Angola's long-standing civil war. The city has found itself under siege again - this time not by rebel troops, but by civilians seeking food and shelter.

Camps for the internally displaced stretch out in all directions around Kuito, now housing more people than the city itself. The original population of roughly 100,000 has more than doubled since hostilities resumed in December of 1998. The World Food Program says it is feeding 134,000 people in Kuito, and hundreds more arrive every day.

They come to escape the war, and they are lucky if they make it this far. One man, who says he is a village elder, but did not give his name, says he had to leave a number of his townspeople behind along the road to Kuito. He says we came here from Matumbo because many people died in the village when it was attacked. He says many people did not manage to reach Kuito because they were so weak, and nobody knows what happened to them.

Kuito itself, like most major cities in Angola, is securely in government hands and relatively stable at the moment. But much of the surrounding province of Bie remains seriously insecure. Residents say there are almost daily attacks by UNITA rebels.

Ana Catihe, an elderly woman living in the camp, says she, her husband, and three children fled to Kuito last month. She says that for last two months, before we came here, we lived in the bush, because there was too much instability in the village. She says she does not yet have a ration card to obtain aid from the World Food Program. She supports herself by selling firewood by the side of the road.

In other parts of Angola, aid agencies are helping people grow their own food and build semi-permanent new homes. But that is not happening in Kuito. Humanitarian workers here say they are busy just trying to keep up with the steady influx of the newly displaced.

Peter Rodrigues is the base manager for the World Food Program in Kuito. "There is just no way anybody can sustain this place completely because the need is enormous, (as are) the logistical constraints in this place," said Rodrigues. "Everything still has to be flown in. The state of the airstrip is still not very good, we cannot fly in the number of planes we would like to, and once the rainy season starts, it is going to be even worse."

People in Kuito get larger WFP rations than most other areas of Angola. Mr. Rodrigues says the conditions here are particularly harsh, the land particularly infertile and the security situation particularly bad.

UNITA forces have laid siege to Kuito three times in the last two years. As recently as June, residents scrambled for cover as artillery shells rained down on them from the outlying areas. The city still bears the scars of earlier phases of Angola's civil war, especially from the vicious battles that took place here in 1993.

For a first time visitor, Kuito appears to be a solid wall of devastation. It is hard to tell what was destroyed when. Half the buildings in town have no roofs. Churches, government buildings, and private homes lie partially collapsed and riddled with bullet holes. People still live inside many of the buildings, but others are too far gone.

The governor of the province of Bie, Luis Paulino dos Santos, says it has been in a near-constant state of war since 1975. He says no city in Africa has been as completely devastated as Kuito. He says he is asking the United Nations to declare this town, or at least some of its buildings, to be a world heritage site. He says Kuito can stand as an example to the whole world of the misery and the destruction that war can bring.