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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 19:57 GMT 20:57 UK
Famine preys in Angola's fertile land
Woman with rat for the pot
People have got used to eating whatever they can find

Help came to Cuemba at least a year too late.

No one knows how many people have died in and around this central Angolan town, where the World Food Programme started distributing emergency rations in the past week.


We ate what food we had on the trees

Domingos, refugee
Every day, a WFP cargo flight kicks up clouds of red dirt on the earth runway - broken bridges mean that road access to Cuemba is still impossible.

Across town, people queue to register for assistance.

Many of them fled their homes because of the war, and have only recently returned to their villages after spending months or years fending for themselves in the bush.

"There was a lot of suffering," said a man who gave his name as Domingos. "We ate what food we had on the trees."

Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), one of the first humanitarian organisations to reach Cuemba, recently found that more than 5% of the population of Cuemba was severely malnourished.

Erwin van der Borgt of MSF argues that the reason for the starvation here and elsewhere in Angola was not just the conflict itself, but the particular way in which the war was fought.

Malnourished boy
More than 5% of the people around Cuemba are severely malnourished

"Civilian populations were the target of both parties to the conflict - the government troops had an interest to force civilians to leave rural areas and take them to areas under their control," Mr van der Borgt says.

"Unita rebels from their side had an interest to keep control over those populations as well, but they were continuously on the run in the bush and they often forced those people to follow them.

"They were not able to settle, they were not able to cultivate."

The crisis in Cuemba first came to the attention of aid agencies last year, when thousands of malnourished people began arriving in Camacupa, the next main town along the road to the west, where the agencies were distributing food.

Cut off

"Last year, people were leaving Cuemba because of the suffering here - we needed food, oil, soap everything," says Alberto Marco, one of the residents who stayed on in Cuemba.

Patient in Cuemba hospital
The hospital in Cuemba has no treatment facilities
"There were no trucks, no bridges, that's why there was no food. Unita destroyed everything."

Getting to Camacupa involved a 75km walk - it is thought that many did not survive the journey. Humanitarian organisations, who for security reasons could not go to Cuemba at that stage urged the government to provide emergency assistance in Cuemba, but this never materialised.

"Although the area has been under control of the government, hardly any assistance was being provided to the population," Mr van der Borgt says.

Little change

In Cuemba's hospital, the neglect is evident. There are a few iron bed frames, but no mattresses, so the children lie curled up on the concrete floor, too malnourished to move, to smile, or even to focus their eyes.

One girl coughs violently under a blanket - otherwise there is no bedding. There are now a few basic medicines in its store cupboard, but they only arrived in the last few weeks, flown in by MSF.

Faustino Joćo is another Cuemba resident who stayed on in the town, but found that life was hardly any better than it had been for people living on the run.

Angolans receiving food hand-outs
Food distribution only began recently

"We ate fruit, things from the bush," he says. "Many people died here."

He says though that "things are better already" now that food distribution has started.

This part of Angola is immensely fertile, and the humanitarian community is fairly confident that crop production will start again in the planting season later this year, and reduce dependence on outside assistance relatively fast.

Yet until then, food is in short supply - WFP fears that without more donations being made soon, it could run out in the coming months.


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16 May 02 | Africa
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