Food crisis in the land of orphans

CARLOS LOST his father and all four uncles to the war. "I don't want to go like them. I told myself I would never die like them, in this stupid war. Never." Carlos, 21, like many young men his age, lives in fear of being rounded up by government police and sent to the front line of Angola's never-ending civil war.

His fears are well founded. Fighting between the Angolan government, led by the former Marxist Popular Movement (MPLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence for Angola (Unita) is getting more widespread. Parliament is debating whether to pass the law banning all boys and men between the age of 18 and 35 from leaving the country.

In addition there are rumours of the rebel group Unita taking boys from families and training them as child-soldiers. Girls as young as 13 have reportedly been kidnapped and abused by the rebels.

Since Angola won independence from Portugal in 1975 the war has claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, displacing many more, and has left a large part of the country's young population orphaned and homeless. Forty-two per cent of Angola's 11 million are now under the age of 15.

Today the cities of Kuito, Huambo and Malanje are under siege. The Humanitarian Assistance Co-ordination Unit (UCAH) estimates the number of displaced people in all three regions has risen from 350,000 in December to 470,000. It was reported that displaced children of Malanje were suffering from serious food shortages and UCAH described the situation as "catastrophic".

According to Gillian Forest of Save the Children Fund (SCF), within the first week of the fighting in December the number of Kuito's orphans in the care of SCF houses more than doubled. The central office in Luanda has collected 350 unaccompanied children from the airport over the last month, mostly from Huambo and Malanje. The last plane to leave Kuito on 15 December reportedly had people hanging on to the wings as it took off.

Aid workers who remain in the combat regions say the situation is dire with high risk of starvation and disease as aid cannot get through. Aid operations remain virtually at a standstill with all flights suspended after two UN aircraft were shot down near Huambo, killing 22 UN personnel.

In this oil- and diamond-rich country, illiteracy rates are estimated to be as high as 60 per cent and the education system is in tatters, barely reaching beyond primary school level.

The streets of Angola's capital, Luanda, are busy with small children scavenging in the garbage bins for food, sometimes carrying even smaller ones on their backs. They hardly look like warriors in waiting, but without a change of direction in the grotesque modern story of modern Angola, that is precisely what many will become.