Angola’s lost children

Young boy in search of his family
Young boy in search of his family (© Eric Beauchemin)

Over 100,000 children were separated from their families during Angola’s long civil war. Tens of thousands of adults have also lost contact with their loved ones. The cease-fire agreed in April 2002 offered hope that Angolans would finally be re-united. But nothing has been easy in this vast southern African country that was at war for over a quarter of a century. Even when families are reunited, the authorities often had to step in to take the children away again because the parents, aunts, uncles or cousins were simply too poor to take care of them. Eric Beauchemin reported on the difficulties involved in tracing and reuniting families in Angola.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: July 7, 2003

This programme is part of a dossier wide-ranging dossier – Angola: Picking up the Pieces – that won the One World Broadcasting Trust New Media Award in 2003.


In April, the Angolan government and the UNITA rebels signed a cease-fire, bringing an end to one of the longest running wars in Africa. It began in 1975 when Angola achieved independence from Portugal. Over 1½ million people were killed during the quarter of a century of fighting, and up to 1 in 4 Angolans had to flee their homes. During the war, tens of thousands of families were separated. Now that peace has returned, reports Eric Beauchemin, there are rising hopes across the country that people will finally be able to find their lost relatives.

Families gather every week at Independence Square in search of their relatives
Families gather every week at Independence Square in search of their relatives (© Eric Beauchemin)

Independence Square, one of the main intersections in the Angolan capital, Luanda. Since the signing of the cease-fire three months ago, hundreds of people have been coming here every Friday afternoon in search of their lost relatives. At the foot of a statue honouring Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, people crowd around tables. Half a dozen people are on hand to help the relatives fill out forms to track down missing family members. Eugenia Dongo is sitting on a bench away from the crowd.

I’m looking for my daughter who was abducted by the UNITA rebels. It happened 20 years ago. My daughter was only 7. I haven’t heard from her since then. They told us to come here every Friday because maybe our relatives will appear. That’s why I’m here again today, but I still haven’t found my daughter.

Eugenia lost her daughter 2 decades ago in a province hundreds of kilometres away. A few years later, Eugenia, like millions of other Angolans, had to flee to Luanda to escape the fighting. But, despite the time and distance, Eugenia still talks of her daughter in the present tense. In this country, where hope seemed to have died, people now want to believe in miracles. Aid agencies estimate that up to 100,000 children have been separated from their parents. Some are living with their extended families, others with foster parents. Some have wound up as household helps. Yet others are living on the street.

Some of Angola’s lost children wind up in orphanages. Evangelista Chamale is the head of children’s affairs in the central province of Bié. Her office is located in one of the orphanages in the provincial capital, Kuito, which is currently home to 103 children.

The children here are all fruits of the war, our long war. Some are brought from the hospital here in Kuito because they were there with their mother and then she died. Other children are brought here by the military, and yet others come here on their own, usually in groups, because they got separated from their families because of the fighting. Many of the children who arrive at orphanages like this one are deeply traumatised. Most have seen the horrors of war. Often, they had to spend days or weeks in the bush on their own. An international relief agency has given the orphanage staff some training to help the children deal with their traumas. But there are almost no toys or other things to keep the kids from remembering. Our programme is a joint co-operation programme with the Angolan Red Cross where we try to establish a network all over Angola.

Bulletin board with the names and pictures of separated children
Bulletin board with the names and pictures of separated children (© Eric Beauchemin)

Agatha Stricker is the head of the International Red Cross in the central Angolan city of Huambo.

That means we put out joint teams, ICRC, and Angolan Red Cross teams in all municipalities of all provinces of Angola. That means for Huambo province, we have 11 municipalities, and we will have 11 teams going out to the field together and following up this establishment of Red Cross message network. We try to reach as many people as possible with Red Cross messages, with the possibility for them to write Red Cross messages and to receive messages. There are many messages from abroad for these people in Angola and there are many messages that are to be distributed in between the provinces. The second aim of these joint teams is to register unaccompanied children. Unaccompanied children, there are a lot in Angola. Due to the conflict, many families split up, and many children are found in orphanages or feeding centres or in host families. So we try to find these children, to already see in what circumstances they are living, and to try to find out where and when they have been separated and then to try to find the according family and to bring these children back to their parents.

The Red Cross, says Joaquim Chingoto Sond, finds the children, for example, when it distributes food in camps for internally displaced people or IDPs.

We have forms where we make a registration. Afterwards we take a picture and this picture we will just send to Luanda. Just the camera, there is a small diskette, a digital camera yes, of course. Then we send to Luanda and afterwards Luanda will send us the photos just to stick outside of our delegation, to stick in the church, to stick in the places where there are many people. So the idea is that you would have these things posted in front of your office, churches, places where a lot of people go. They would go by and people who are missing children would look at the pictures. If they find somebody that they recognise, they would then contact you. Affirmative. That is true. There is cases where we found children in Huambo but they don’t belong to Huambo. They belong to another province. OK. That means when we took this kind of photos, we send to Luanda. Luanda will print and then will send to the province where the children is coming from, and then they will also proceed in the same way.

Separated child
Separated child (© Eric Beauchemin)

Tracing is both time-consuming and labour intensive.

It is extremely difficult, especially in Angola, as the country is very big, because people are on the move. Families move more than once in the last 25 years of war. So it is very difficult to find these families and many people have already died in the meantime. As an example of how difficult it is, we have registered three children in an IDP camp who were living with a lady who had her own children. We registered these three children. We sent the file to Luanda. We had a very precise address of where the family of these children were living and our colleagues did find the family. So two weeks after we registered, we wanted to go back to the camp and say, yeah we found your family and we can reunify you. And in the meantime, the lady has left with her children plus the three children she accepted in her family. Now the family on the other side was informed that we find the children, and now we don’t find the children any more because in this transit centre where this other lady was, she left it and she didn’t tell anyone where she was going, in spite of our telling if she is moving, please to leave behind her address, etc. She did not and now we cannot make this family reunification. We were extremely frustrated. It was… It must be heart-breaking for the parents. For the parents, it’s very, very difficult emotionally. First to know the children are found and then to know that now OK, we don’t know where they are anymore. But there is a positive aspect to it. The parents know that the children are alive, and they know that the children are well, and they know the person the children are with. And in that case, the parents know this person. So we hope that these two families concerned will get into contact eventually, yeah.

Even when children are reunited with their parents, things can still go wrong. 16-year-old Esperança or Hope was separated from the rest of her family 6 years ago during fighting in the province of Malanje. She wound up on the streets.

A woman found me in the street. She felt sorry for me and she brought me here to Luanda. I stayed with her for some time, but I didn’t feel good there. She was trying to teach me to be a good maid, but I thought she was treating me badly. I was too young to understand, so I ran away. That same day, I was sitting down on a street corner, and another woman stopped to talk to me. I explained what had happened, and she took me in. Then after about 6 weeks, I met an old friend of mine. She told me that she had seen my father. So I went on the radio to tell my father where I was. He came, but he couldn’t take care of me. He doesn’t have enough money to feed me or clothe me or send me to school, so he brought me to this centre. It’s very sad. I feel sorry for him that he can’t be with me, that he can’t take care of me.

The problem, says Evangelista Chamale, is that many of these lost children come from extremely poor families.

After we reunify children with their families, we visit them three times, once every month. During the first visit, we can already see a change in the children’s appearance. Often, they aren’t wearing the clothes we gave them. They’re dressed in rags. The parents’ only source of income is from selling firewood or charcoal. If they don’t sell anything, the child will go to bed hungry. So instead, the parents sell their child’s clothes. But they can only do that once. Sometimes, we have to take children back to the orphanage to make sure they don’t die of hunger. Other children run away from home and come back here to the institution.

For many in Angola, life is full of stark choices. 12-year-old Eugenia’s father abandoned her family when she was a toddler. Then her mother died in the war. So she went to live with her grandmother. But she was too poor to take care of Eugenia.

My grandmother sent me from Benguela to live with a woman in Luanda. She was supposed to send me to school, but she didn’t. She made me work in her house. And then, one day last year, she threw all my clothes out of the house. So I left and came here, but I want to go back and live with my grandmother.

The reunification would appear to be simple, but the director of the orphanage where Eugenia is staying, says nothing is quite that simple in Angola.

She says her grandmother is in Benguela, but she hasn’t told us where she lives in the city. Besides we have guidelines. When a child knows where they come from, we send a form and a picture to the local branch of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Re-integration. Once the family has been found, then we have an adult accompany the child back home. We don’t put a child in a plane unless we’re sure that the family is actually alive.

The caution may seem excessive, but Angolans remember all too well a case that was recently shown on television. A TV crew had heard that a child’s mother was living in the interior. They filmed the child in Luanda and then took her to the province. But when they arrived, they discovered that the mother had died three months earlier.

"Come find your relatives"
Meeting point in Independence Square in Luanda: “Come find your relatives” (© Eric Beauchemin)

The cease-fire agreed in April offers the first real hope of peace in over a quarter of a century. According to Abubacar Sultan of UNICEF – the United Nations Children’s Fund – it’s also making it more likely that families will be re-united.

Now with access becoming possible, with IDP communities returning home, we believe that there is a need for an extra strength put into the programme so that in the most effective ways, these communities will have access to information. We are also encouraging that the tracing process be reversed, that families that lost their children provide information so that we can do some type of matching of this information.

Thousands of children have been reunited since the family tracing programme was set up in 1994. Evangelista Chamale of the children’s affairs department in Bié Province carefully kept all the records on separations and reunifications, but she explains ruefully that everything was lost when the war flared up again in 1998.

The figures show that about 60 to 70% of the children eventually return to their parents or some other family members. Given the chaos Angola – a country twice as big as France – has experienced over the past quarter of a century, it’s an impressive figure. But Evangelista Chamale worries what happens when the children go back to their families.

Our programme is very good, but I think we have to do something more to ensure that the children stay at home. I’m talking about small things. At night it gets very cold here. We give the children a blanket when we take them back. But the other people in the family are facing the same problem: they’re cold too. You have to understand that many of these children’s parents were killed in the war. They’re now being taken in by uncles or aunts or cousins. But these people have their own children and they’re struggling to feed them. That’s why the reunification process often takes a long time. Many of these people simply reject the children because they know they can’t take care of them.

In Angola, you have to be happy with small things. It’s something Correa learned long ago.

I came here because of the war, Correa tells me. Then his mother died and his father disappeared. At 17, he’s known nothing more than orphanages all his life. But he says if it hadn’t been for the orphanages, he’d be dead. He’s studying now and wants to do…he can’t remember the word…computers.

Half an hour later, Correa comes back to see me. He tells me there’s something more he needs to say.

In the future, I want to become a big man, Correa says. I want to have a nice house. I want to have children. I want them to have a good life. I want to have a family.