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Angola / Man-Made Famine - 2002-05-30

The Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders says a “man-made famine is ravaging Angola.” It warns that thousands of people will starve unless there is immediate assistance. VOA’s Joe De Capua has the story.

Doctors Without Borders says as many as a half-million people are at risk of dying of malnutrition, even though a cease-fire was signed about two months ago.

Erwin van der Borght, the group’s head of mission in Luanda, says the way the war was waged often prevented or disrupted the delivery of food aid.

He says, "Both the government and UNITA (rebels) used military strategies where their main objective was control over the civilian population. They forced populations to be displaced, to move with them. They burned villages. They burned houses. And people basically were constantly on the run, not able to settle or to cultivate. They had no food reserves anymore. And humanitarian organizations were not in a position to assist them because they did not have access."

He says the situation was made worse by lengthy and unproductive negotiations between the United Nations and the Angolan government over how the UN would operate in the country. He says the failure to reach agreement delayed the delivery of emergency aid for two months. Mr. van der Borght says UN officials have switched tactics and are now negotiating with more success on the provincial level, rather than with the Luanda government.

"To access the population throughout the country is one of the cornerstones of international humanitarian law. And over the last years in Angola it has been completely put aside and neglected."

He says adding to the access problem are poor roads, broken bridges and landmines. Bureaucratic problems with visas and customs are blamed for slowing the dispersal of aid workers.

Registered nurse Marilyn McHarg is operational director of Doctors Without Borders. She relates – what she calls – a “typical” story in Angola:

"Recently, a man came to our unit and he was carrying his daughter on his back. She was ten years old. And she was very badly off. That’s why he was carrying her. He had walked for days and at one point he even had to cross a river. And when he brought her to the clinic, he asked the doctors and the nurses to save her because she was his last remaining child. He had just lost his wife and he had lost all of his other children as well. Unfortunately, she had been so far on that despite the efforts of the team they were unable to save her and she died that night."

She says many parents are grieving for their children.

She says, "Recently, we did a survey in a therapeutic feeding center. And among the mothers interviewed they had lost 17 percent of their children since January."

She says the food crisis in Angola differs from that in much of southern Africa in that it is mostly man made. Ms. McHarg says there’s a need for greater and faster food distribution by donor countries and UN organizations, such as the World Food Program.

"Overall there is a need for the emergency to be separated from the political agenda and from the more developmentalist approaches. And for everyone in a concerted way to act urgently."

She says the war may be over, but its effects continue.