Report from Angola

 As we approached customs my eyes scanned the list of forbidden articles that should not be taken into Angola. I just hoped that the official would not go through my six pieces of luggage filled with pens, pencils, childrens' clothes, aspirins and pain killers. I had been given these by my parishioners in Pimlico, London and the irony suddenly struck me: 'what on earth was I doing taking pens and pencils into a country that was rich in oil and diamonds? I was arriving as part of an ecumenical delegation from the UK - a Scottish Quaker, a Congregational Minister from Wales, an Anglican Priest from London, and myself, a Catholic Priest from the diocese of Westminster. The trip was arranged jointly by CAFOD and Christian Aid. We went at the invitation of COIEPA to express solidarity with them and other civil organisations in Angola in their calls for alternative solutions to the 40 year old conflict and to raise the profile of Angola in the UK. COIEPA is church-based and is made up of the Catholic Bishops Conference, The Alliance of Evangelical Churches, and the Council of Churches in Angola. Our visit was timely. Two days before our arrival, the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, had been killed and this brought Angola back into the headlines. At the same time the Angolan President was visiting George Bush in the USA. The question on everyone's mind was - 'is this a new opportunity for peace?' - n the day we left, the government announced a ceasefire. But there are huge problems to be addressed. 4.1 million people - almost a third of the country's population has been displaced by the war and are living in temporary camps. The ideal may be to send them back to the provinces from which they have come, but many of these are still swamped by mines. There are reports daily of people being blown up by mines; mostly children who play in the fields and women collecting firewood. What do you do with the huge numbers of soldiers from both sides who are no longer needed for fighting. How do you reprogramme their mindset from one of violence to one of reconciliation and forgiveness? Huge numbers of people have never had a job. The land is fertile. Indeed Bengo one of the eighteen provinces could, we were told, feed the whole of Angola and everything else grown by the rest of the country could be exported. But first the land must be de-mined and then the people given the seeds and tools needed to work the land again. There is no infrastructure worth talking about. We stayed in two cities. Luanda is the capital and looks like it is built on a rubbish dump. Waste is rarely if ever collected and children and adults scavenge through it for something to eat. It is said 70% of the population is living on a dollar a day. Health care is minimal. Apart from the war, malaria, malnutrition and Aids are among the worst killers. Overall life expectancy is a mere 44 years and more than one in four children dies before the age of five. The other city we visited was Huambo. The only way in is by air and then the plane has to stay at its highest altitude till it is right over the city. From that position it makes a spiral descent into the airport; which makes you feel you are descending on a giant helter-skelter. This is to prevent anyone shooting the plane down from their position in the surrounding countryside. They used to call the city the New Lisbon. You can see why. There are the remains of wide tree-lined boulevards alongside which old colonial mansions testify to the presence and wealth of their Portuguese occupiers in the years before the war. Now the roads are a mass of huge potholes, making the journey of the few aid vehicles that exist in the city tortuous and slow. Hardly a house is not bearing the marks of bombs and bullets and many are in ruins. There are only a few shops and every factory - and there were many of them in the old days - now lies derelict; just an empty shell. We visited what was once a five star hotel which, once the war started was used as the officers mess for the army. It too is an empty shell. This is where the government department for humanitarian works (MINAR) puts the people who come into the city to escape the war. One hundred and forty five of them were sleeping in one big room on the ground floor and there were about the same number in another room - men, women and children. Some of them are very traumatised. It is a stopover place till the government finds them somewhere else. Most of them had only just arrived. Many of their children had been killed. Many of them did not know where the rest of their family was. There was no food for them and the task at hand was to get them registered.They were starving. That was about 11.00am. We went back at 5.00pm to find there would be no food coming that day. Before I left the parish, a woman had given me a cheque for two hundred and fifty pounds, and others had given me ten and twenty pound notes. So we spoke to the government official in charge and she gave permission for us to go and get food - six bags of maize and four boxes of dried fish - enough for one day. But it was good to have had the money to do it. Many of them were sick and some of the children had malnutrition. One young man aged 26 told me the rebels came to his village and took him away when he was 11 and made him fight for them. Another one was part of a group that was being held captive by the rebels. The government soldiers had fought a battle with them the day before and won. They then let the prisoners go free and took them to this place. They told us about these things with expressionless faces staring blankly ahead. They were traumatized and those faces stay with me night and day. It was tragic. The UN brokered a peace deal in 1994 - the Lusaka Protocol, but as one man told us they came to the table with the meal already cooked and they hadn't asked the people concerned what they would like to eat. They came from outside. They imposed a deal. They did not listen to the voice of Angolans. No wonder it did not work. As a result, the UN has little credibility in the country at present. But that is not to say it does not have a role. Along with many other agencies, the World Food Programme is what is keeping most people alive. Back in Luanda we met with the Catholic Bishops Conference, who were gathered for their annual meeting; the UN representative for humanitarian aid in Angola; various diplomats including the British and American Ambassadors; the Executive Committee of COIEPA and the director of MINAR, the government ministry that deals with the humanitarian crisis in the country. The death of Savimbi in itself does not guarantee peace. However there is a desire for peace on the part of most Angolans now and among the leaders in civil society there is a new hope based on the idea that 'people working for the right cause and doing it in an organised manner, can never be defeated'. Does one hear echoes here of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi? 'Information leaking out of the Angolan oil diagnostic study suggests that US$1.4 billion - almost a third of state revenue - went missing in 2001. Meanwhile the UN was left to scrape together $200 million to feed the displaced people who depend on emergency food aid in Angola. Although oil revenues constitute between 80-90% of Angola's income, international oil companies such as ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil refuse to publish what they pay to the country, meaning that ordinary Angolan citizens have no information to call their government to account. Working alongside these companies and the government, we hope international NGOs will continue to support humanitarian initiatives that observe the economic, social and cultural rights of all Angolans and that those invited by Angolans from the international community to facilitate peace will only make their suggestions after listening to all members of society there. "The International community must ask us what our agenda is; not impose what they think our agenda should be" - one leader told us. "And what should the UN do?" we asked one diplomat. "Wait to be asked" was the reply. Fr Pat is Vocations Director for the Diocese of Westminster and parish priest of Holy Apostles Parish in Pimlico, Central London. He arrived back from Angola yesterday.

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