Thousands seek refuge in Zambia in effort to flee Angola fighting
MONGU, Zambia, Oct. 19, (UNHCR) - A flare-up in pre-rainy season fighting between government and UNITA rebel forces has led thousands of Angolans to flee the country's Cuando Cubango Province and seek refuge in neighbouring Zambia, the U.N. refugee agency reported Friday.
The agency said it was organizing urgent assistance for the Angolan refugees making their way into Zambia's Western Province. At least 3,500 refugees arrived in the past five days, a figure well above the average of 1,000 per month, raising fears of a sustained influx as fighting rages in Angolan towns on the other side of the border.
Relief workers described the general state of the arriving refugees as deplorable.
According to interviews conducted with the new arrivals, the refugees came from the Angolan towns of Kavaleka and Cilenga, which have a combined population of 26,000. Additional arrivals were expected in coming weeks, though travel to the border was expected to become more difficult.
The 25-year-long conflict in Angola has traditionally flared up in the last months of the year, when the warring parties try to consolidate their positions before the onset of the rainy season. Last month more than 15,000 arrivals were recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following fighting in Angola's northern Uíge province.
Zambia has received an average of 1,000 Angolan refugees per month this year, according to UNHCR. The country is already hosting more than 200,000 Angolan refugees, some of whom have been in Zambia for over thirty years. Half of the refugees live in four UNHCR-assisted camps and settlements along Zambia's western and northern borders.
Angolans make up the largest refugee population in southern Africa, with 435,000 exiles in at least a half-dozen countries in the region.
Border authorities first alerted UNHCR's office in Mongu last weekend, reporting that groups of refugees were crossing the border. They were picked up by UNHCR trucks and transferred to the Nangweshi refugee camp in the far south-western corner of Zambia.
The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that a total of 1,240 persons were transferred over the past several days. During a subsequent field mission to the border areas last Monday, agency staff members found more than 2,100 new Angolan refugees in several villages in the Shangombo district.
About 1,000 other refugees arrived in the village of Mambolomoka, 32 kilometres north of the town of Shangombo, according to the refugee agency. UNHCR estimates that 60 percent of the group are children with severe malnutrition problems. Other groups of several hundred people arrived in the Zambian border town of Lilondo and in the town of Shangombo itself.
UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) dispatched food and water to Mambolomoka. A UNHCR partner, MSF Holland, has begun dispensing medical care to refugees in Mambolomoka, while a transit centre is being built in Shangombo to house refugees awaiting transportation to the camp. In addition, UNHCR's partner African Humanitarian Action is running a health care centre in Shangombo.
UNHCR's Zambia representative, who travelled to the area on Wednesday, outlined the need to rapidly transfer people away from the border for security reasons. Five additional trucks have been hired in Mongu to make the 140-kilometre trip, together with two CARE trucks already available.
The new arrivals are being housed in a transit centre in the Nangweshi refugee camp. UNHCR has initiated discussions with the Zambian authorities to obtain the allocation of land for the construction of a new camp for the Angolan refugees since Nangweshi has reached its full of capacity of 15,000 refugees.