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A voice for Angola's forgotten people

A voice for Angola's forgotten people

Nangweshi camp in Zambia holds up a mirror to Angola's recent murderous past.
23 May 2002
Refugee children in a supplementary feeding centre in Zambia's Nangweshi camp.

NANGWESHI CAMP, Zambia (UNHCR) - They are the forgotten people, tucked away on one bank of the magnificent Zambesi River, separated from the rest of Zambia on the other side of the river.

Here, some 15,000 Angolan refugees live in Nangweshi camp, "new refugees" who have fled their country since January 2000 as fighting intensified between government forces and the rebels of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Another estimated 10,000 people who arrived more recently have been settled in an adjacent area devoid of any facilities, a transit centre forcedly transformed into a final destination. These latest arrivals have not been met with new resources. The food that was meant to feed 15,000 people now has to feed 25,000. The same holds true for drinking water, medicine and everything else.

Spending a day in Nangweshi is tantamount to revisiting the various phases of a war that has lasted too long. Many of the refugees here are at their third or fourth flight. Almost all of them have lost some family members and all their meagre possessions during the many years of the conflict. Among the broken down tents in Nangweshi, the prevailing feeling is one of resignation to endless suffering.

Things are not easy even for those who work here. UNHCR workers speak of the camp as a "logistical nightmare". During several months of the year, the delivery of aid is almost impossible because the roads become impassable with the rains, and the barge that connects the two banks of the Zambesi ceases to function altogether. When it does work, the old raft is totally undependable and involves long waiting periods and high operational costs.

Nangweshi is only one fallout of the war in Angola - one of the world's longest-running, deadliest and most neglected conflicts. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in 27 years of almost continuous fighting that broke out shortly after Angola became independent from Portugal in 1975.

Even though a cease-fire agreement was signed in April this year, the refugees in Nangweshi are not rushing to go home. They know that what awaits them in Angola is certainly not alluring.

UNHCR's offices in Lusaka share their cautious attitude. Since 1977, the refugee agency has had to repeatedly suspend refugee repatriation and resettlement operations due to the recurring conflict. It does not want to act with haste, even though it has stated its willingness to organise the repatriation as soon as the Angolan government asks it to.

In recent years, Angola has fallen into a humanitarian abyss that has produced more than 450,000 refugees, mostly hosted in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As many as 4.5 million have been displaced inside Angola, and thousands of people have been maimed by landmines.

Despite the alarming situation, humanitarian agencies have been forced to cut back their efforts. This is due to a lack of funds resulting from "donor fatigue", a sense of tiredness increasingly being felt by donor countries when they have to face long-lasting crises that apparently have no solution in sight. UNHCR provides assistance for up to 200,000 internally displaced Angolans and its limited 2001 budget, amounting to only $4.2 million, called for a drastic cutback of aid efforts.

Today, according to many analysts, Angola has finally reached the real conditions that are required to attain a long-lasting peace settlement. The military weakening of UNITA and the death of its historical leader, Jonas Savimbi, are viewed as key elements in this context. Paulo Lukamba Gato, a high-ranking UNITA representative, has repeatedly declared that in Angola, there now exists no other alternative to peace and that halting the fighting through the cease-fire is only a first step towards reconciliation.

Reconciliation represents the most difficult step in Angola, as in all other countries that have been devastated by decades of civil war. It entails engaging in a long and painful process, full of potential pitfalls. It requires re-launching a dialogue, bringing together opposing communities, offering a concrete alternative to war. And it requires monetary investment.

Gato has pointed out that "peace is less expensive than war, but it still has a price". The international community can and must play a crucial role in sharing these costs.

The "Pavarotti & Friends for Angola" concert on May 28 aims to play a role in these solidarity and reconciliation efforts by conveying, through music, a message of peace directed to all Angolans.

Nangweshi's refugees decided to contribute something of their own to the initiative led by maestro Pavarotti, sending 30 of their children to sing at the concert in Modena, Italy. On the day of their departure, they held a big celebration complete with songs, music, speeches and a large banner with the words, "Thank you for having remembered us".

By Laura Boldrini