The worst place to be a child

Angola will pay dearly in the future for leaving its young people destitute, writes Peter Moszynski

"NELSON Mandela" cannot remember his real name, age, or where he comes from. Among scores of other beaming children, he is smiling, singing and dancing. All are impossibly well-scrubbed and wearing matching printed shirts and baseball caps. After a few months at Palanca Street Children's Rehabilitation Centre, there is little outward sign of the horrors Nelson has endured.

Tens of thousands of children roam the streets in Angola as a result of war, displacement, disease and other terrors. Nelson ran away because his family tortured him, accusing him of sorcery. Bacongo people from north-east Angola harbour tremendous fear of witchcraft. Last-born sons are often suspects. Horrifically abused young boys are sometimes tortured to death.

Nelson was held down by his parents, while a local witchfinder beat him and branded him with a hot iron. As in Medieval Europe, survival of such rituals is taken as evidence of guilt, and he was lucky to escape.

Many at the centre faced such ordeals; some were picked up half-dead. Like child soldiers, these children are harder to rehabilitate and reintegrate into their families than those who ended up on the streets because they were orphaned or displaced by war.

Fr Horacio Renaldo, a charismatic Argentine missionary, complains: "The worst thing is that the children start believing these accusations. Because of all the psychological pressure and beatings, they start believing they really are involved in witchcraft." Currently caring for some 250 boys, Fr Renaldo worked with street kids in Latin America before coming to Luanda in 1993. He established the current centre three years ago, financed by BP-Amoco.

Nelson described his rehabilitation, starting with an exorcism helped by a care worker: "I took some bread and put my sorcery inside it. I made a sandwich and put it in the ground. I told Sister she could leave it there, give it away, do what she liked with it. It was now hers. It didn't belong to me anymore."

He is one of the lucky few to graduate from street urchin to registered "displaced minor" and to be cared for in such a well-run centre. Thousands more destitute children wander the streets, living in sewers and rubbish dumps, constantly threatened by violence, drug addiction and vice, illiteracy, malnutrition and disease. Around one in three Angolan children die before their fifth birthday.

Across the city, at the prosperous island beach resort, the atmosphere is somewhat different. The country's elite have had a good war and have held on to their spoils, paying $200 (pounds 127) a head to attend the 1999 Miss Luanda competition.

Well-heeled Luandans were careful not to appear too enthusiastic as they delicately consumed fresh lobster while a succession of beautiful women strutted across the stage. Distracted from the filth and squalor around them, few noticed Angola being nominated the worst place in the world to grow up.

The Child Risk Measure in Unicef's Progress of Nations report traces five indicators: under-five mortality rate; malnutrition; school attendance; HIV prevalence, and conflict. Angola ranks worst in most categories, ahead of Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, vast oil and mineral reserves were squandered on decades of conflict. Civil war followed the anti-colonial struggle and the departure of the Portuguese in 1975. South Africa became involved, then came Cuba and covert American support for Jonas Savimbi's Unita (Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola) rebels.

A relic of the Cold War and apartheid, Savimbi never really stopped fighting the victorious Movimento Popular par Liberacao de Angola (MPLA), despite several peace deals and the offer of the vice-presidency. Comprehensively defeated at the ballot box, he still believes the presidency is rightfully his, and is using control of the diamond fields to buy sufficient weapons to fight his way there.

A 1994 peace accord was supposed to end the conflict with a power-sharing agreement. Unita's failure to observe its provisions, and the deepening involvement of both sides in the Congo war, led to last December's full- scale resumption of hostilities. Savimbi controls most of the countryside; the government, most of the population.

The UN plans to embargo Unita's weapons supplies and annual $500m illicit diamond trade, but it will take time to break its stranglehold on the cities. With aid donors focused on Kosovo, relief agencies struggle with huge funding deficits.

Many believe the government also bears responsibility for the mess, and is only too willing to use Savimbi's intransigence to avoid meaningful political and economic accountability and reform. Most locals view the conflict as rival elites fighting for the spoils of office. While politicians battle for power, the masses are left to fend for themselves.

Unicef's Anthony Bloomberg regards the Child Risk Measure as "more an advocacy device than a scientific tool. The purpose is to send out alarm signals. We would like the government to sit up and pay more attention. We need to prevent children's lives being mortgaged into the future. Otherwise, the structural damage of so many children severely malnourished, badly educated and living in squalor will affect lives for generations."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'