Trucks relieve Angola's saddest city, where children fight for ears of corn

WITH THE sun hovering just above the horizon, five heavily laden, dusty trucks, limp into Angola's saddest city, Malanje.Their drivers receive a hero's welcome, as well they should. They have just spent four days traversing perhaps the most dangerous 250 miles of road in the world to deliver desperately needed emergency food aid to the starving people of Malanje.

Since December, and the resumption of Angola's 25-year-old civil war, Malanje has been subjected to virtually non-stop bombardment by the soldiers of the Unita rebel movement, who have surrounded the city. Until two weeks ago the airport was closed by the shells which fell on to the runway.

The only way in or out was overland, yet those desperate enough to run the gauntlet of the main road to Luanda, the capital, risked freshly laid land-mines and bloody rebel ambushes. Hundreds have been slaughtered, and the charred skeletons of trucks and cars now line the sides of the road.

The truck drivers, transporting food donated by the UN's World Food Programme, the WFP, continued to brave this graveyard of a road right up until June. Then, a spate of especially atrocious attacks, including one on a food aid convoy, which destroyed a dozen trucks and killed 30 people, closed even the road. For two months Malanje, its population swelled by 130,000 refugees driven into the city from the surrounding countryside, was cut off from the world. Starvation set in.

"Ten to 15 people are dying of starvation every day now," explains the Bishop of Malanje, Luis Maria de Onraita.

"Local food stocks are exhausted. People cannot get out of the city to their fields. If international donors do not help these people they are all condemned to death." A slight lull in the fighting around Malanje permitted the first WFP trucks, carrying 245 tons of food, to reach the city on 4 August.

The organisation estimates that another 2,200 tons of food will be needed in Malanje before the end of August, if mass starvation is to be averted. Yet the UN food agency does not have enough food, or enough money, to meet these needs.

Angola has been eclipsed by Kosovo. Its disaster is too complicated, too long-running, and too far away. The WFP has managed to raise less than half of the $61m (pounds 39m) that it needs to keep starvation in Angola at bay. First World governments have lost interest and no longer respond to urgent appeals to help save the innocent victims of Angola's conflict.

In Malanje, desperation hangs in the air. As the newly arrived WFP trucks start to offload their cargoes at recently opened emergency feeding centres around the city, crowds of scavenging civilians spring from nowhere. Children with shrunken faces and stick legs fight each other to scratch up individual maize kernels which have fallen into the dust at the road side. In a nearby feeding centre set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres a week ago, mute children too weak to move lie in their mothers' arms.

In a UN survey released last month, Angola won the dubious honour of being "the worst place in the world to be a child". The MSF estimates that half of Malanje's 100,000 children are malnourished, with one quarter suffering from severe malnutrition.

"Every morning when we arrive here, we have to fight through crowds of children who are all malnourished. We have to select the very worst cases, and turn all the others away," said Jenny Thompson, a British doctor with MSF.

Eight hundred thousand Angolans are already dependent on food aid for their survival. And that food aid can only be delivered sporadically, when the fighting permits. Unita's guerrillas continue to hold the upper hand on the battle field, using starvation as one of their key weapons.

By driving virtually the entire population into the government-controlled cities, and then denying them access to food, the rebels hope to overwhelm the government's capacity to cope, thereby provoking a popular uprising.

The government has dubbed this "the last war for peace", and is investing all of its money, and manpower, in trying to crush Unita once and for all. But that could take years.

For his part the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi seems interested only in winning power, regardless of the cost to his reputation, or his people. On Monday the rebel leader gave his first media interview in over two years, to the BBC World Service's Portuguese for Africa Service. His principal message? "There is no humanitarian catastrophe in Angola, it has all been invented by the Luanda government to extort food out of the international community."

Conflict Without End

ANGOLA GAINED independence from Portugal in 1975. Since then, apart from a fragile peace between 1994 and December 1998, a civil war between the Unita forces of Jonas Savimbi and the MPLA government of Eduardo dos Santos has blighted the country.

The main official export is oil, profits from which are either salted away in foreign bank accounts by government ministers, or used to fuel the war.

The government controls Luanda and has nominal control of some besieged cities, including Malanje. At least 70 per cent of the countryside, however, is ruled by Mr Savimbi. The main unofficial export is diamonds, proceeds from which fuel Unita's war effort. The fighting has left 800,000 dead, millions homeless, and is now bringing hundreds of thousands to the edge of starvation.

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