Thousands of Angolans left to starve

11 Jun 2002

LUANDA – Thousands of Angolans have died, and hundreds of thousands more face starvation from a catastrophic man-made nutritional crisis unless the Angolan government and the United Nations drastically increase their efforts to meet the needs of the civilian population of the country, said Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at a press conference today in Luanda.

Since an April 4 ceasefire agreement, MSF has gained access to populations cut off from humanitarian assistance for over three years, finding levels of severe malnutrition and mortality far exceeding emergency thresholds and confirming pockets of famine.

The Angolan government and the United Nations, particularly the World Food Program (WFP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), have been unacceptably slow to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of at least half a million Angolans, according to MSF.

“Every day we move into additional areas of the country and find appalling malnutrition and mortality rates,” said Dr Morten Rostrup, MSF International Council President. “We have been sharing our information with the United Nations, the Angolan government, and other aid organizations since early April, but the response has been shamefully slow and shockingly insufficient.

Failing to see the urgency of the current crisis, UN agencies have yet to implement general food distributions in many places where we are working. The Angolan authorities have shown little regard for the catastrophic scope of the crisis and continue to pursue a policy of chronic criminal neglect of their own people. I am appalled to witness the outright disregard for such a desperate situation. The world is knowingly allowing Angolans to die of starvation, their number already totaling in the thousands.”

MSF teams are currently treating some 14,000 people in 44 feeding centers for the moderate and severely malnourished in 10 of the country’s 18 provinces. This past week, although proper nutritional surveys could not be conducted, MSF teams carrying out a rapid nutritional survey in Galangue 2 (pop. 5347) quartering area for demobilized UNITA soldiers and their families found estimated rates of 28 percent severe and 52 percent global malnutrition, with many cases of oedema.

In one week alone, MSF began treating 350 severely malnourished children and adults in a newly opened therapeutic feeding center in Bailundo. In Chipindo, traditional leaders report that since September of last year, nearly 4000 people have died from an initial population of roughly 18,000.

A rapid survey of 197 mothers caring for children in one of MSF’s therapeutic feeding center in Malange, revealed that 116 of their children had died since the beginning of the year. Many previously inaccessible former war zone areas have yet to be assessed and the condition of the population in these areas remains unknown.

The Angolan government not only played a large role in creating the current nutritional emergency, it has shown little urgency in responding to it. War tactics pursued by both UNITA and the Angolan government during the conflict, including forced displacement, indiscriminate violence, and the burning of villages and fields, have left hundreds of thousands of Angolans in a precarious situation. Cut off from humanitarian assistance for years, these populations are now being left to fend for themselves when they have no crops, no homes, and no means of survival.

While some food is being provided to families in the UNITA quartering areas in accordance with the ceasefire agreement, the government response is close to non-existent for civilians in the former war zones. Slow visa and customs procedures in Angola have seriously blocked the work of aid agencies trying to assist these populations.

The United Nations has failed to step up relief efforts in Angola in proportion to the current crisis. OCHA, despite private declarations that Angola is facing the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa today, has allowed political wrangling over the demobilization process to take precedence over the urgent needs of the Angolan population.

The UN has not actively appealed for mobilization of more donor attention for Angola, allowing instead for inclusion of Angola in appeals for the broader southern Africa food emergency – a situation that has very different causes and requires a separate response.

The WFP has been astoundingly slow to increase its operations, and has yet to implement desperately needed wide-scale food distribution programs for many of the newly accessible populations or in the quartering areas (QFAs) for demobilized UNITA soldiers and their families. WFP has even drastically cut back rations for displaced persons assisted prior to the April 4 agreement, leaving 335,000 people without needed aid. In Huila province, for example, WFP cut rations from existing displaced populations while increasing them in a newly accessible area, rather than maintaining adequate levels of food assistance to all in need, including newly accessible populations, UNITA families in the quartering areas, as well as those previously displaced persons still in need of assistance. WFP general food distribution has barely started in the QFAs despite identification of an emergency over one month ago.

General food distribution remains severely lacking in large parts of Bie, Moxico, Huambo, and other provinces, and is being cut back in Malange, Huila, and elsewhere.

“After 27 years of war, Angolans should be focused on the future, not desperately fighting starvation and death. Earlier this week, I screened and helped to load truckloads of the most malnourished children to bring to our feeding center in Bailundo. It is impossible to witness this and not realize the urgency of the crisis Angola is facing.

One outbreak of an epidemic like measles or shigella could wipe out huge numbers of those already weakened by malnourishment,” adds Dr Rostrup, who traveled to Caala, Bunjei, and Bailundo this past week. “It is shocking to witness the needs, and yet see that food distribution in the newly accessible areas of the country is erratic and in many places completely absent.

If the Angolan authorities, the United Nations agencies, and especially the WFP, as well as the donor and diplomatic community, do not immediately pull together to increase assistance programs, hundreds of thousands are at risk of dying of starvation or disease. We have failed the Angolan people in the past, we must not fail them again now that peace has given us the opportunity to assist them.”

MSF has been working in Angola since 1983, and presently has over 160 international and more than 2,000 Angolan national staff working in 11 of the 18 provinces of the country. MSF’s current relief operations in Angola are the largest the organization is undertaking worldwide.