In foreign parts: Angola starved its rebels into submission but now the people are dying

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The Independent Online

Mavinga is remote. For hundreds of miles there is nothing to distract the eye except endless fields of brown grass littered with landmines. The town consists of a row of collapsed buildings, lining one dirt road.

Mavinga is remote. For hundreds of miles there is nothing to distract the eye except endless fields of brown grass littered with landmines. The town consists of a row of collapsed buildings, lining one dirt road.

But from all over the surrounding area people have been trekking here because Mavinga has a clinic. They have camped outside the clinic in their hundreds, huddled over fires, surrounded by their meagre belongings.

The clinic is a grimy building, with canvas stretched over its broken walls to form a ceiling. It has three rooms, and a table with some medicine.

In one room, which may once have been a lavatory, a man aged 56 lay stretched on the floor. His body was withered by starvation, his ribs clung to his skin. Tubes came from his nostrils, and he was shifting from side to side in pain.

Outside the clinic the starving awaited treatment. Adults lay on the doorstep without the strength to stand, children moved slowly, deformed with hunger. Starvation is slow and excruciating, and it happens quietly. The only noise at Mavinga, for all its people, was the low hum of murmuring. Infection and disease were feeding on weakness. On most days here someone dies.

"So far we have only been able to give emergency food to the children under five. We need food for the adults too," Fred Maylan of the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières said. "The worst is yet to come if we don't act quickly here."

A little girl walked by, hobbling and holding her arms in an unnatural position. Her mouth and teeth looked enormous compared to the rest of her tiny body, and she sat down with her head bowed. Her name was Antonia. The workers at the clinic decided she was about 12. She had been found wandering in the bush, on her own, with no parents and no coherent tale of where she had come from.

The scene at Mavinga is echoed across Angola. Many places have food aid, but often it is not enough. Other places, too remote, have no help at all.

The irony of this tragedy is enormous. Driving through Angola you see greenery, lush fields, wild coffee and gushing rivers. In Mavinga there is no food, but there are illegal diamonds for sale on the street.

Angola has great riches – it supplies more oil to the United States than Kuwait. Yet it's people are starving. Why? The reason is war and human error. This is a man-made crisis.

The village of Banga in the province of Cuanza Sol has been destroyed. None of the houses has a roof and there is no food to harvest anywhere near by. Banga's fate is the fate of much of Angola. "There was heavy fighting all around," said Aghostino Manuel, standing in the ruins of his house. "Then the government troops burnt all of our houses and destroyed our crops."

In the last few months of the war, early this year, Angolan government troops embarked on a scorched earth policy. Across the frontline areas, civilians' fields and crops were burnt in an attempt to stop civilians feeding the Unita rebels.

The policy worked, and the war ended in April. But the consequence was the starvation of the people too. Now an estimated quarter of a million Angolans have left their homes in a search for sustenance.

Another four million were displaced from their homes even before the hunger struck. A third of Angola's population are now living as refugees in their own country. Individual tales of survival defy belief. People have been eating rats and leaves, camping in the mountains for months without shelter, trekking hundreds of miles by following rivers.

In the village of Chipindo, Médecins Sans Frontières counted 3,900 new graves, assumed to be victims of the hunger. In other areas deaths were being recorded at a rate of more than three times the "emergency threshold". The picture is of starvation on a catastrophic scale. Aid agencies agree that that this is the worst starvation seen in southern Africa in more than a decade.

Martine Tchi-Soca, 75, who had fled with his family because his crops were destroyed, said this was by far the worst of all of the tortures he had experienced living in Angola.

He and his two sons aged eight 8 were dangerously malnourished. "I am too old and ill myself now to even walk to town to beg for help for my children," he said. "So now it's come to the point where I have lost my hope ... I am resigned to whatever happens to us".

Mr Tchi-Soca and his children are victims of one of the first mass starvations of the 21st century, and they are proof that not much has changed.

Hilary Andersson is the BBC's Africa correspondent