Angolan fighting is a 'war of the family': Karl Maier visits the Cuando Catholic Mission and hears a one-legged orphan boy's plea for peace and 'some shoes'

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The Independent Online
A ONE-LEGGED boy with a stern face propelled himself forward on crutches from a group of orphans and declared he had something to say. His message was simple: 'The people are suffering. I want peace,' he said, and after considering a moment, added, 'and some shoes too'.

The little boy, Lourenco Figueiredo, 10, was one of 140 children orphaned by Angola's civil war who live at the Cuando Catholic Mission about 20 miles east of the central highlands city of Huambo. Lourenco lost his leg in late 1992 in mortar bombing by Unita rebels on the town of Caconda, about 130 miles south of here. They launched the attack after their leader, Jonas Savimbi, had refused to accept his defeat in the general elections held that September.

'We heard the explosions and I was hiding under my bed. When I woke up I was like this,' he said, pointing to the stump that once was his left leg. 'I have not seen my parents since then.'

Workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross found Lourenco and brought him to the mission on 8 January last year. A few days later they were evacuated as Unita began a siege of Huambo which, after 55 days, and together with government aerial bombardments, left much of the city centre in ruins. Government warplanes bombed the city again on Monday, killing at least three people and wounding 17.

Lourenco happened to be a victim of an attack by Mr Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) rebels, but other children were orphaned by government-inspired violence. Seventy-seven of the orphans came last July from Unita-controlled areas in Bie province, scene of the Unita siege of the provincial capital Cuito, where intense fighting resumed on 5 February.

Foreign aid workers attached to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Irish relief group Concern, and the International Committee of the Red Cross were evacuated from Cuito yesterday after several days of negotiations with both Unita and government troops.

Invalids from outlying areas, the hungry, the blind and amputees, have flocked to Cuando Mission, formed in 1911, in search of solace and food. Outside the mission offices a queue of up to 100 people wait each day for blankets, which they can exchange for food. 'It is the work of a mission to be an asylum,' said Cornelius Kok, 55, the Dutch priest who runs the church.

The Catholic relief agency, Caritas, provides the food, medicine and blankets needed to care for those fleeing the war. A new feeding centre behind the orphanage is serving those from neighbouring villages who face starvation. Maria Mamunga brought her three children from the village of Nanghenya, because, she said, 'We would have died if we did not come here.'

Last year, government jets attempted to bomb a dam which provides the area with clean water and potentially could furnish electricity to the Unita-controlled Huambo. One of the bombs landed a mere 300 yards from the orphanage. 'If they were meant for the dam, it would have been in the other direction,' said Father Kok. 'It does not give me a very good interpretation.'

The mission has largely stayed aloof from the civil war, which originally erupted in 1975 as Angola gained independence from Portugal.

If the current round of UN-brokered peace negotiations in Lusaka, Zambia, succeed, said Father Kok, 'everyone has to be pardoned because many bad things were carried out by all sides. They were practically equal, and the people felt this.'

The immediate future is grim, with severe food shortages claiming hundreds of victims of starvation in the area.

Claims by both warring parties to be fighting in the name of the people are nonsense, said Father Kok, who has served in Angola since 1959 and at the Cuando Mission for the past 14 years. 'All the people are cynical. All what we are seeing is impossible to believe. We hear about Somalia, the Hutu-Tutsi (in Burundi), and we think that cannot happen here, but it is here,' he said.

What makes Angola's civil war particularly unfathomable to missionaries like Father Kok is the fact that many of the current leaders of Unita and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) got on well when they were studying at mission schools.

'We have to remember that many leaders of all sides were students of the missions,' he said. 'This war is incomprehensible because everyone has family on both sides. It is a war of the family, because they are the same people.'