- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

BAILUNDO, Angola Uprooted from her tiny vegetable plot during Angola's civil war, Belvinda Kandida watched her 8-month-old son wither from malnutrition.

The infant barely could raise his spiderlike arms and was 30 percent below normal weight by the time foreign doctors found him last month. His chances are good, doctors say. But his 3-year-old sister died of starvation in May.

Across the fertile heartland of central Angola, desperate civilians are trekking to towns and emergency feeding centers set up after the government's cease-fire in April with rebels from the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Aid groups say a half-million Angolans could starve, and that up to 4 million people a third of the population are homeless. Some have been dragged from home and forced to work for rebels in the bush or corralled into government-run towns. Others have fled for lack of food.

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The United Nations calls it one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, and unlike the drought-driven disasters in neighboring Malawi and Zambia, this one is entirely man-made.

UNITA fighters battled government forces for 27 years to dominate this vast southwestern African nation, three times the size of California, along with its oil and diamonds. The conflict cost a half-million lives, destroyed roads and bridges, and seeded the countryside with land mines. Farming families went hungry, forced from their land by the scorched-earth tactics used by both sides with increasing savagery during the war's final months.

But in the capital, Luanda, a visitor gets little sense of it. Bread sells for pennies a loaf. Businessmen play squash and pump iron at the Hotel Tropico, then line up for lobster tails at the $39 dinner buffet.

Petroleum lubricates Luanda's economy. Oil generates nearly all the country's hard currency, and Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's biggest crude exporter after Nigeria. The United States, a major buyer, imports more oil from Angola than from Kuwait.

Business interest should increase after the official declaration early this month by the government and UNITA that their war is over. The national oil company, Sonangol, anticipates $20 billion in investment for its deep-water drilling projects.

"This is the only southern African country I've dealt with that's got money," said Mark Lindner, a building contractor from Johannesburg.

Yet precious little seems to have reached those most in need. The United Nations ranks Angola 161st on its human development index of 173 countries.

Angolans accuse the government of apathy and incompetence in its failure to start rebuilding the country after the war. Foreigners agree.

"Everything is bribery," Mr. Lindner said. "There's no business without it."

The scale of the food crisis became evident only after the April 4 cease-fire, when starving Angolans began to emerge from hinterlands where they had been cut off by fighting.

Doctors Without Borders, an aid organization, estimates mortality rates in some areas are eight times what they should be. Things may be worse in regions not yet accessible.

"Honestly, we don't know how many people are out there how bad it is," said pediatrician Nils Hennig.

Dr. Hennig, a German, quit his job at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital to work for Doctors Without Borders. He helps care for 700 children and their families at a feeding center in Bailundo, a town in central Huambo province.

The worst may be over, Dr. Hennig said, but for a grim reason: "In some villages, many of the most at-risk children have already died. They can't die anymore."

Angolans hike, sometimes for days, to reach aid stations like this one. Those who are able carry relatives too old, weak or tiny to walk.

"A lot of these people were hiding in the bush for years. They were eating, but they were eating leaves, roots and wild fruit," said Marcelo Spina of the U.N. World Food Program in Angola.

The tent village in Bailundo is a temporary home to some of the most severely malnourished children from surrounding districts. Doctors Without Borders teams distribute enriched cornmeal in nearby villages and send the sickest children age 5 and younger here.

Mrs. Kandida clutched her 8-month-old son, Jose Venancio, and dribbled vitamin-enriched milk into his mouth from a syringe. What future does she hope her son can have? "I want him to have a better life," she said, "to go to school and not have the same life I have, working as a hired hand in the field."

Many mothers, like Mrs. Kandida, lost at least one child before arriving here. Doctors said the women can tell when a starving child is close to death and often will stop feeding the child to save food for healthier brothers and sisters.

"We have to fight with the child because he doesn't have the strength to eat anymore, and we have to fight with the mother because there is hope to save her child," said toxicologist Chiara Lepora.

Dr. Lepora, of Alice Castello, Italy, said 10 children died during her first week at the camp. A month later, the weekly toll had fallen to six.

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