Starvation grips Angolan rebel area: Fighting around Huambo destroys crops and hampers aid efforts

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The Independent Online
HIS EMACIATED frame carried by his neighbours, Nascimento Massambo slowly emerged from his mud-brick home to explain why he and his six children were starving to death.

'When the illness came, it was just slowly, slowly,' he said. 'I can't cope and until now there is no food in the house to the point where the illness is affecting the children. I have sold off everything and have no way to make ends meet.'

His parents succumbed last year, and Mr Massambo, 45, a farmer, has spent the last three months fighting a losing battle against starvation that has made little stick creatures dressed in rags of his six children.

Mr Massambo's story is repeated in hundreds of homes in villages and neighbourhoods around the central highlands city of Huambo, where Angola's renewed civil war and drought last year have brought severe food shortages to a region once regarded as the country's breadbasket. Thousands of children wander around the area dressed in rags and bedevilled by kwashiorkor.

Mariano Ndelefy, the senior soba, or elder, of Nanghenya village, about 15 miles (24km) east of Huambo, said one-tenth of his 675 villagers had starved to death since November. 'It began in November, and the children were the first to begin dying,' he said. 'We are eating some leaves, but the people do not have the strength to look for food anymore.'

Fierce clashes around Huambo in the past year between troops loyal to Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels and soldiers of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government, and aerial bombardments, have destroyed a once vibrant agricultural economy. The war resumed after Mr Savimbi refused to accept his defeat in UN-backed general elections in September 1992 and, after a 55-day siege, Unita captured Huambo in March last year.

Since then, efforts by international aid agencies to rush in food supplies have been hampered by bombing raids by government jets and by fears that the fighting, which had been at a low ebb during the past three months of UN-brokered peace talks in Lusaka, Zambia, would flare afresh.

Those fears were proved correct on Saturday as intense battles erupted around another important central highlands town, Cuito, about 120 miles east of Huambo. Radio reports from the area said at least 48 people had been killed at the weekend and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sought to negotiate the evacuation of foreign aid workers from the rebel-besieged city.

The food shortages in the central highlands, home of the staunchly pro-Unita Ovimbundu people, were expected to worsen between now and the end of March, the usual time for harvesting the region's vast maize fields, according to aid workers and Catholic Church officials in the area. Food available on the open market is too expensive for most residents of Huambo, where the destruction of industries and government offices has meant unemployment is nearly 100 per cent.

Even the harvest could be jeopardised by the lack of rains in recent weeks. 'We are praying, hoping every day for the rain,' said Cornelius Kok, a Dutch Catholic priest who has been at the Cuando mission, about five miles from Nanghenya, for the past 14 years. 'I have never seen people dying here because they had nothing to eat. A lot of people are going to the city, but there is nothing to eat there. People are selling off everything they have: clothes, shoes, tables.'

As they have in similarly distressed government-controlled areas, aid agencies such as Caritas, the ICRC, the Save the Children Fund, Medecins sans Frontieres and the UN World Food Programme have been setting up feeding kitchens in Huambo and sending in food for the past month, but supplies have fallen well short of needs.

Roger Ruffy, the ICRC delegate in Huambo, estimated that more than 200,000 people in and around Huambo were in immediate danger. 'It is quite a grim situation that we face now because we know that we do not really attend the needs of the very malnourished children who make up two-fifths of the children . . . in our kitchens,' said Mr Ruffy.

One such victim was Fornuto Sapara, 2, whose survival chances were rated poor by the chief nurse at Huambo's central hospital's paediatric ward, which cares for 90 severely malnourished children.

(Photograph omitted)