A lifetime of horror, squalor and pain

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The Independent Online
JOAO BINGA eyes me suspiciously through a haze of pain, hunger and malaria. Seven years old and he's already seen more than most people will in a lifetime. He sits now in a decrepit, soiled cot, in a pungent ward of the paediatric wing of Huambo's central hospital. Shocked into silence by the horrors he has lived through, it is not Joao, but his grandmother who tells me his story.

Joao used to live, with his family, in a small farming village in the fertile hills south of Huambo. In May of this year guerrillas from the Unita rebel movement attacked his village at dawn. They killed many people, and forced the rest, including Joao and his family, to abandon their homes and run for their lives. Joao's parents sought refuge in a nearby town. They set about building a makeshift shelter from sticks and grass, but before they could finish it, Unita's soldiers struck again.

Joao was shot in the right leg, his mother was hit in the stomach. "The boy's father got the two of them into a car and tried to bring them to the hospital," his grandmother explained, "But his mother died soon after they set off and they had to stop to bury her. Joao reached the hospital on 18 May."

Joao has been in the fetid hospital ever since. His grandmother has slept every night on the tiled floor beside his bed. Doctors removed the bullet from his leg and sewed up the wound, leaving a livid scar. However, they did not manage to reset the bones correctly - a simple operation with the right equipment. Joao can no longer stand on his injured leg, his foot is beginning to atrophy and it seems likely that he will be crippled for life.

In the short term, though, he has other, more serious problems. While he was in the orthopaedic ward Joao became seriously malnourished, because neither the hospital nor his grandmother have enough money to feed him properly.

This may sound like an uncommonly grim story, but tragically for Angola, it is not remarkable at all. After 25 years of civil war, life expectancy in Angola is so low - just 42 years - that over half the population is under 18.

Pick virtually any of these children, and they will have a horror story, like Joao's to relate. They have never known anything but war and instability. Their country is crumbling around them as they grow up.

The physical effects of this war on children are everywhere to be seen. More worrying though, are the invisible, psychological wounds inflicted by this protracted and brutal conflict on Angola's children, and through them, on the country's future.

"All Angolans are traumatised by the war," said Dr Carlinda Monteiro, an Ango- lan child psychologist working with the Christian Children's Fund (CCF).

"For us, war is normality. It is built into our lives. Many of our children have lost their natural sense of fear because they have lived through totally unnatural situations like shelling, which, for them, have become normal. So confrontation with violence, death, and danger no longer scare them. In order to cope they have become desensitised, which has terrible implications for the future of Angola."

CCF is the only organisation attempting to assess and address the psychological impact of the war on Angola's children. It has a mammoth task ahead.

In a survey of 200 Angolan children chosen at random, CCF found that 20 per cent had been separated from their families because of the war, 55 per cent had been internally displaced, 10 per cent had fought in the war, 42 per cent had witnessed a landmine explosion, 88 per cent had survived artillery bombing, 85 per cent had seen dead bodies and 54 per cent had witnessed torture.

"Because our children have never known anything but violence, there is a serious risk that they will grow up to be violent themselves." Dr Monteiro said. "If we cannot heal the emotional wounds, we may never break out of this cycle of violence."

Eurico Malungo, aged 13, embodies this problem. Eurico comes from Huambo, which was once Angola's grand second city, a monument to all that was best of Portuguese colonial architecture. Now Huambo is a monument to 25 years' war. Every single building is pockmarked inside and out with the scars of bullets and shrapnel.

Eurico lived through the legendary "55 days", the worst period in Huambo's history, when most of those scars were inflicted. In 1993, Unita held one half of Huambo while the government's forces held the other. For 55 days the two sides bombarded each other relentlessly. Finally the government surrendered the city to Unita.

Throughout the bombardment Eurico and his parents cowered on the floor of their house. One day a bullet came through the window and killed his father. His mother, half mad with fear and grief, walked out the door and never came back. "She just disappeared," Eurico tells me, "I never found out what happened to her." He was seven at the time.

Eurico was later taken in by a shelter for orphans in Benguela, 200 miles away on the Atlantic coast. I ask Eurico what he would say if he could send a message to Unita's veteran leader, Jonas Savimbi. "I'd tell him to come here, and stop making trouble and killing people. And if he refused I would kill him by putting him in a big pot full of boiling tar. When I grow up I want to be a soldier so I can kill Savimbi."

This from a thoughtful child who has tenderly cultivated a collection of flowering plants in Coke and beer cans since arriving in Benguela.

Eurico thinks that Angola's president of the past 20 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is no better. "He just steals everything from the people and keeps it all for himself while we starve. One of them steals and the other one kills."


t Up to 200 people a day are dying as a direct result of the civil war in Angola.

About 1.7 million people have been forced by the fighting to flee their homes.

An estimated five million Angolans are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance but aid agencies are unable to reach many of them.

Unita rebels have reportedly abducted hundreds of civilians, including children, and carried out countless killings and mutilations.

Both Unita and government forces have tortured, raped and arbitrarily killed unarmed civilians and executed captured combatants.

Unita is besieging and shelling cities, causing unimaginable suffering.

Freedom of expression is severely limited; journalists critical of the Government have received death threats; some have been physically assaulted, some killed.

Amnesty International