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EDITIONS
Saturday, 20 July, 2002, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Angola's nightmare hunger camps
Woman holds a rat in Angola
Starving Angolans have been eating rats

We were with an Australian aid worker, and her face was becoming contorted, the impact of the vision before us starting to show.

"We have to lend them a car, otherwise they'll take the body out in a wheelbarrow.. a wheelbarrow," she blurted out, shaking slightly.

There was an edge of desperation in her voice.

Boy in Angola
There is simply no food in some areas of Angola
A man stood before us; it was his wife who had died.

He was moaning, and weaving from side to side, swaying his upper body and his head in a rocking motion.

She was 25. And her body was stretched just metres from us, covered with a cloth.

No food at all

We went next to a little clinic, the only one for miles - and in it were the starving and emaciated.

There were children who had been borne on their mothers' backs for miles to get here.

The mothers too were thin, unwell, unfed.

They had come from areas of Angola where there simply is no food.


Abscesses, pneumonia, measles, meningitis... they are all there in the starvation camps of Angola

No food. It is hard to imagine. How can there be no food at all?

I kept trying to imagine what it would be like to wake up in the morning, and know that all that day, there would be nothing.

You would pass through the early morning alright I suppose, but by mid-afternoon it would be different.

Launch new window : Southern Africa famine
In pictures: Southern Africa famine

Then you would go to bed on an empty stomach and wake up the next day and do the same.

And so for weeks or longer.

Camps of hell

Angolans have been eating wild leaves, rats whatever they can get.

But it has not really helped. They are weak and exhausted.

There are two forms of starvation.

Woman in Angola
Infection and disease prey on the malnourished
One is Kwashiorkor, where the belly swells and - in the cruellest irony makes you look fat.

The swelling can be very painful. Fluid builds up in the limbs too.

Sometimes the pressure is too much, and the skin cracks and forms lesions.

Even more distressing to see is Mirasmus.

Here the body wastes away until the skin hangs off the bone, and the very shape of the person's skeleton becomes apparent.

In both cases infection and disease start to feed on the weakness.

Abscesses, pneumonia, measles, meningitis... they are all there in the starvation camps of Angola.

And they are camps of hell - places that should not exist except in our nightmares.

If there was one such camp in Europe we would end it, erase it, change it - make it go away, and quickly.

Desolation

But it is in Africa, so the camps are there. And they will be for a while.

The worst camp we visited was in a town called Mavinga, in an extremely remote part of Angola.


Perhaps her parents died on the way here, perhaps she had seen terrible fighting, perhaps she was raped, perhaps all three, who knows?

To get there you fly for hours over stunningly beautiful country - there is something about visiting places man has destroyed that makes the natural beauty stand out.

This is a country of immense swathes of dry bush - of waterfalls, jungles, mountains, and a glistening coastline.

Angola has a small population and is given to gigantic plentiful harvests.

There would be such harvests this year, except for the war.

Mavinga, like most of the country, has been almost totally inaccessible to the outside world for three decades because of the war.

It was not always so, but nowadays Mavinga has nothing but one road, a short battered dirt airstrip, and a clinic. The rest is desolation.

Antonia

Some food is being flown in - not enough for the adults, but for the children.

Boy in Angola
Some people had walked miles in the hope of food
So people had flocked to Mavinga in their thousands from far away, and were camped out on the ground, with nothing but the rags they walked here in, and sometimes a pot or blanket.

The whole area near the clinic was smoky, and crowded.

It smelt of cooking fires and of infection and disease.

Through this a little girl walked by, her hand held by an aid worker.

She walked strangely, awkwardly - her legs protruding from her dirty skirt like sticks.

Her teeth were big. She kept looking up and around in total confusion. This was Antonia.

Traumatised

Antonia was found nearby wandering in the bush alone.

No parents, no guardian, just alone.

She was half the weight she should be and would have starved to death had she not ended up here.


Her body may recover - but what a torture to live

No one knew how old she was - but they guessed she was 12.

She sat down and stared at her feet, moving her head from side to side a little.

If you watched closely you could see the character of whoever she was before coming through, but it was hard.

Whatever she had seen - or whatever had happened to her had traumatised her, damaged her mind probably permanently.

Perhaps her parents died on the way here, perhaps she had seen terrible fighting, perhaps she was raped, perhaps all three, who knows?

Alone

She could speak a little Portuguese, the language of the former colonists, so she had been educated I suppose - amazing in a remote place like this.

Only a few words came out, and very quietly after coaxing.

Malnourished girl in hospital, Angola
Clinics may help the body, but few will get psychiatric help
This is how we know her name.

An old man in the camp had once or twice taken it upon himself to attend to her, but he was nowhere to be seen for the many hours we were there.

He was probably fighting his own battles - his own illness - lying on the ground somewhere.

So all day and night, she was basically alone.

She is getting food from the aid workers, but no one puts her to bed at night.

No grown up tells her it is all going to be alright.

And it isn't. It is not going to be alright.

What will become of her? She will never get psychiatric help in a place like Mavinga.

Her body may recover, but what a torture to live.

I wish her well.


Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help

CLICKABLE MAP

IN DEPTH

TALKING POINT
See also:

11 Jul 02 | Africa
06 Jul 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
23 Jun 02 | Africa
21 Jun 02 | Africa
23 May 02 | Africa
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