Battle over aid adds to Angola refugee plight

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The Independent Online
LIFTING a spoonful of maize porridge to the lips of his son Tomas, aged two, Eduardo Gopia kept looking over his shoulder to plead, 'the boy wants more beans'.

Tomas was one of several hundred dirty, scrawny children who had queued outside an evangelical church in the central Angolan town of Ganda to receive one of two daily meals provided at a makeshift feeding centre by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tomas's sickly blond hair and stick limbs indicated his plight. Eduardo's thighs were as thick as a normal man's forearm.

Everyone in Ganda - up to 40,000 people - depended on food provided by the Red Cross. The crowds gathered around made the kitchens and food distribution centres easy to spot from the air. It was once a prosperous town on the strategic Benguela railroad which linked the mineral resources of Zambia and Zaire to the Atlantic and the site of a now destroyed fruit-juice factory and paper mill.

Ganda's story is repeated throughout the country, a quarter of whose 10 million people rely on international food relief for their survival, beneficiaries of one of the UN World Food Programme's biggest emergency food-aid operations. Assistance for more than 1 million Angolans was cut off this week when Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) withdrew security clearances for UN and Red Cross planes airlifting food to areas controlled or surrounded by the rebels.

Until last week, the Red Cross was bringing in 30 tons of food on 14 flights a day to Ganda, but up to 40 people were still dying every day. Most of the emaciated people in the town were once prosperous like Mr Gopia, who was forced to leave his homestead in Catenga, about five miles east of Ganda, when soldiers loyal to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos recaptured the city from Unita last year.

Three of his eight children starved to death in the eight months between the army's arrival in Ganda and the beginning of Red Cross food assistance last month. Food was so short that people had to eat boiled unripe papayas. Until aid was cut off, Tomas had a chance of survival.

The suspension of aid shows how Mr Gopia and his family, like millions of Angolan civilians, are pawns in the 19-year civil war between Unita and the Mr dos Santos' Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA.

When it suits their political and military goals, either side can halt international aid to civilians by threatening the UN and Red Cross planes. Unita gunners shelled the airport at the central city of Malange when aid planes approached, while the air force has bombed the rebel stronghold at Huambo, about 80 miles east of Ganda.

Today, war victims like Mr Gopia are caught between the two armies. 'I wanted to go back home but it was dangerous because of the enemy,' he said, referring to Unita troops surrounding Ganda. 'It is also dangerous to go to the outskirts of town to look for food, because it will be stolen by the bandidos,' he said in reference to the government troops stationed at the end of the dirt airstrip.