LUANDA, ANGOLA--Of the many thousands of victims of Africa's longest war, perhaps none struggle harder or live rougher than the children set adrift to fend for themselves on this overcrowded capital city's streets.
Although poverty has been the rule here for decades--first because of Portuguese colonial rule, then because the economy was ruined by a civil war that followed independence--the aftermath of the conflict has produced a new class of street children in Luanda who spend not only their days on the streets, but their nights as well.
You can see them on any day, dusty from head to toe, clad in torn, too-large or too-small clothing, and barefoot. They scoot amid traffic, begging at the windows of motorists, or rubbing their stomachs as they approach pedestrians. They forage among garbage heaps for food to eat or material to build a dwelling. They commit acts of petty thievery.
Late at night, you can see the children at rest. Beneath plastic sheeting or anything else that can provide cover, they sleep on sidewalks. Or they sleep on the balmy beach.
Some are orphans, while others are separated from their parents by cirucmstance or design. Many of them made it through the war by sheer force of will, managing--sometimes with their parents' guidance--to muscle or hustle their way onto relief supply flights between the city and the interior during the war.
"They are the ones who have survived," says Peter Hawkins, field director here for Save the Children-United Kingdom. "They're the ones who have found a way of living."
Hawkins's organization is working with the government to devise programs to count the street children and begin to cope with their problems, including reuniting them with family where possible.
In this city of about 2 million, no one really knows how many street children there are--maybe as few as a thousand. Hawkins says, maybe many more. Since Spetember, a UNICEF ambulance that traverses the city streets at night has treated nearly 2,800 children as young as 7 for various wounds and illnesses.
About 400 juvenile war refugeees live in a camp in the Palanca section ont the outskirts of the city, where they get tent shelter, regular meals, educational instruction and a sense of community. There also are street children in other coastal cities, such as Lobito and Benguela to the south.
The situation for the children has become more dire, Hawkins says, because the economy is so ravaged, the currency so devalued, that even middle-income Angolans--of whom there are but a few--aren't able to help. The children used to go door to door asking for leftovers or scraps. "Now you're starting to see the quite acute phenomenon of children scavenging through rubbish."
Twelve-year-old Honorio Jos Joao's case is typical. Honorio, his younger brother and an uncle boarded a U.N. flight out of Malanje, a town in north-central Angola, two years ago. But at the airport in Luanda, Honorio got separated from his family. He roamed around the airport's vicinity. A stranger gave him some food.
He discovered other children like him, stranded at the airport, and fell in with them. Through the street kids grapevine, he learned of a place called the Ilha--the Isle of Luanda. "There were also some children there," Honorio says. So he went.
On the Ilha, a spiut of land with wide beahces, Honorio met the Rev. Horatio Cabellero, a Roman Catholic priest who ahd begun a program to feed the homeless children. That program mushroomed and garnered other supporters, including the charities Oxfam and Africare, and last year it spawned the Palanca camp where Honorio lives.
Honorio has found his brother there and is closer to his goal of returning to Malanje to search for his parents and other relatives. He will go, he syas. But when? "It depends," he says through an interpreter. "Any day...I'm not sure, but I think there will be no war anymore."
The ar officially eneded last November, when the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos signed a peace accord after a 20-year struggle with the National Union for the Total Independence of ANgola, a rebel movement led by Jonas Savimbi. Fighting in Angola actually started in the early 1960s, when a trio of liberation movements began their struggle against Portuguese colonialism. They ended up, however, at war with each other in what ultimately became a Cold War battleground. Covert U.S. and overt South African aid went to Savimbi's forces, and Soviet and Cuban aid helped the formerly Marxist government.
On top of the estimated half-million dead, the wr displaced hundreds of thousands mopre. Much of the suffering came in fighting that began in 1992, when an earlier peace accord was in effect and elections were held. The elections were inconclusive, however. Savimbi rejected them, and war broke out yet again, ending only with November's peace accord and U.N. supervision.
Virtually none of the children who clamber into the UNICEF ambulance come from Luanda. They hail from Huambo, Luena, Malanje, N'dalatando--towns in the interior where fighting was harshest. But in the midst of all the turmoil, the children have found a way to live here, albeit tenuously. Djibril Beye, the UNICEF doctor who treats children from the ambulance, fears that the children will fall through the cracks as preace unfolds.
A 10-year-old girl named Cecilia climbs into the ambulance that night. The nurse unwraps her firties leg bandage to reveal a deep, open gash where infection had eaten nearly to the bone. She also has chickenpox.
Cecilia cries as the nurse cleans the wound, and Beye tells the firl what he had told her five nights before: that she is quite close to catastrophe. To her older brother, who anxiously looks on, Beye warns that without regular treatment, amputation may be the next step.
Her brother helps her down from the ambulance and she limps off into a nearby shanty. Beye can only wonder what the leg will be like when he sees this child of the streets yet again.
SIDEBAR: Africa's Children (Sources: UNICEF, The Guardian, Associated Press)
o Africa is the only continent where the number of chldren dying every year continues to increase.
o Africa has more civil conflicts and refugees than any other continent.
o It has the world's highest infant mortality rate.
o More than 45 percent of African children receive no formal education.
o One in every 10 people infected with AIDS in East and Central Africa is a child under 5.
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