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Aid puts Angola famine on hold: Food flights are saving lives in Malange despite the war, reports Karl Maier

TENS of thousands of emaciated Angolans shuffle into makeshift feeding centres in Malange city each morning in what ironically, given the people's pitiful physical state, has become a success story.

People in the worst shape are given three meals a day, others in slightly better condition queue for bags of maize. A massive international aid effort spearheaded by the UN World Food Programme has thwarted a famine that was killing more than 100 people a day just a month ago in this besieged central town of 400,000 200 miles east of Luanda.

Aid workers say the daily death toll has fallen dramatically in the past month, although anaemia and kwashiorkor, the protein deficiency disease, are still widespread. Many are worried the international community will soon run out of patience if the three-month-old negotiations between President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's government and Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebel movement fail to produce a peace agreement.

Up to 140 tons of food reaches Malange each day, all by air because the shattered town is surrounded by soldiers loyal to Mr Savimbi. The cost of transporting the food from the West appears astronomical at about pounds 28,000 a day, but since nearly everyone in town depends on the handouts, it comes to a bargain price of about 7 pence per head daily.

'There is no comparison with the situation late last year,' said Maria Jose Fernandes, a worker for the religious relief agency Caritas. 'But the war continues, the landmines still encircle the city, and the farmers cannot plant their crops. So if the food stops coming, the famine will return.'

Malange became a focal point of Angola's off-again, on-again civil war, which began at independence from Portugal in 1975, was suspended for 18 months with a ceasefire in May 1991, and resumed with greater intensity after Mr Savimbi refused to accept his defeat in UN-backed general elections in September 1992.

By last August, the forces of President dos Santos's MPLA government maintained a tenuous hold on Malange , while hundreds of starving civilians were killed or mutilated when they ventured out into the belt of landmines surrounding the town in search of food.

Malange's fortunes have improved sharply thanks to the work of Caritas, the World Food Programme and an influx of international relief workers from Concern, an Irish aid agency, World Vision and Medecins sans Frontieres.

Fighting around the city is sporadic. Early this month four members of the US congress, which once heartily backed Unita with millions of dollars in arms, were forced to abort a visit after Unita began shelling the town. Last Sunday, Unita gunners opened up again, wounding dozens of people and killing as she slept an Angolan nurse who worked for Concern. But the increased food supplies have meant that fewer civilians have been dying by stepping on landmines while searching for manioc.

Abuses and robberies by government soldiers continue, according to Angolan civilians and aid workers. On Monday, a group of soldiers carjacked a truck hired by Concern by threatening to shoot the driver unless he handed over the keys. They later returned it. On another recent occasion, a drunk police officer sprayed a feeding centre with AK-47 fire.

The provincial government has had its problems, too. The governor of Malange, Flavio Fernandes, has been accused by a senior local official of selling food aid on the open market for profit. Mr Fernan des, who was dogged by allegations of selling donated medicines on the black market when he was Minister of Health, dismissed Conceicao Araujo as the Malange director of the government relief agency, Minars, after she levelled the charges. The confrontation prompted personal intervention by the Prime Minister, Marcelino Moco, to settle the dispute.

Angolan aid workers say food aid that arrives very early in the morning or late at night is routinely looted at the airport. 'The level of theft by the soldiers is just terrible. They rob and rob,' said Miss Fernandes, the Caritas worker. 'The only way to end these abuses is to stop the war.'