Angola’s scarred generation

Boy in Luanda
Boy in Luanda (© Eric Beauchemin)

In Angola, more than one generation of children has known nothing more than war all their lives. This is a nation where people in their 30s can get furious at you for asking about their dreams as children. As one man told me bitterly: “My entire life has been shaped by the war. I never had an opportunity to dream.”

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: March 26, 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.


War is difficult. War destroys things. It’s something you can’t forget. War is war. Suffering is suffering. The future scares us. There are no certainties here.

In Angola, more than one generation of children has known nothing more than war all their lives. This is a nation where people in their 30s can get furious at you for asking about their dreams as children. As one man told me bitterly: “my entire life has been shaped by the war. I never had an opportunity to dream.”

The fighting began in the early 1960’s when nationalists launched a liberation war against the Portuguese colonisers. Independence came in 1975, but then an even more vicious war broke out between the MPLA, with the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the UNITA rebels, who were backed by the United States and South Africa. Over a quarter of a century later, in April 2002, the war finally came to an end with the death of the UNITA leader, Dr. Jonas Savimbi. It’s estimated that 500,000 children were killed and millions more were directly affected in one way or another by the years of fighting. One of them is Francisco, who was born shortly after independence. His father was Portuguese. He abandoned Francisco’s mother during pregnancy or shortly after Francisco was born.

This is the story of my life. When I was 5, my mother went to farm. I stayed at home waiting for her. Three hours later, a woman who was also working in the fields came to our hut. She told me that my mother had been kidnapped by the UNITA rebels. I never saw her again. I don’t know whether she’s alive or not. I waited for another hour and then this woman took me to my aunt’s home. I lived with her for five years, but she barely had enough money to feed herself and her 8 children. So I decided to go live on the streets. I spent a long time on the streets. I made friends with other street children. There were four of us: I was 10, Zé was 14. Kito was 9, and Moisés was 7. We rummaged through garbage and sometimes people would give us odd jobs to do. As time went by, we got more and more work, and we didn’t need to pick up trash any more. We earned enough to eat. That was all I needed. We slept in the street in a place where it didn’t rain or get cold.

It’s mostly boys. If you walk around main towns in Angola, you will see easily that they are there for survival. They wash cars. They watch the cars. They do all sorts of things, sell small goods. There is already networks of people, business people, you know, using the children for this kind of activities.

Abubacar Sultan is the child protection officer for UNICEF. According to a recent survey carried out by the United Nations Children’s Fund, over 5-thousand children are living on the streets of the capital Luanda alone. Many of them arrived on military cargo planes and trucks in a desperate attempt to flee the fighting in the interior. Others wound up on the streets for very different reasons, says Father Horacio, who runs a children’s shelter in Luanda.

About half the children in this shelter are accused of sorcery. When there is a problem in a family – whether it be illness, an accident or bad luck in business – a child is blamed. The reason is that in the Bakongo culture, it’s believed that elders can pass on their powers to the youngest, and they can then use those powers to ruin the lives of adults. According to tradition, these children have to be tortured to stop them from hurting the family. They’re tied up, beaten, burnt…a wide range of torture. We often rescue children who are half dead. The culture offers ways of dealing with the problem of witchcraft. We bring the family together to discover where the problem originated. The boy is also present as well as an adult who represents him. Everything is analysed extensively, and the participants cannot leave until the problem is resolved. Often it takes an entire day…sometimes up to three days. We remain for the entire process to ensure that the child is not killed. Often times, it’s the boy’s own mother or father who wants to kill him. But we have found that the culture always provides a solution that will help save the child.

At another children’s shelter in Luanda, a couple of dozen former street girls dance to the beat of a popular Angolan song blaring from a ghetto blaster. Yolanda de Fátima Gonçalves Sebastião works at the shelter that’s run by the Association to Support Abandoned Children.

They’re underprivileged children. They were abandoned or became orphans because of the war. Some of them do have parents, but they don’t have the means to take care of them. Many of these girls spent several months or even years on the street. Some of them worked as servants, but most got involved in prostitution. We have unbelievable cases here: girls who were only 8 years old and who were working as prostitutes. We wonder how it’s possible, but it is.

Fato (© Eric Beauchemin)

The youngest girl at the shelter is 5. Fato is only 3 years older. It’s not easy to get Fato to tell me about her life, but slowly her story emerges.

I don’t have a mother or father. I don’t remember when they died. I lived for a while with my aunt, but she wasn’t nice to me. So I ran away and went to live on the streets. I’d pick through garbage and eat it. I didn’t like being on the streets. Life was really hard. One day, someone picked me up and brought me to this shelter. I like it here because I can play and paint, and people often come to visit. I’m happy because I’m going to school now. When I’m older, I want to become a nurse so I can take care of people, especially children.

When I was about 14, I made friends with a woman. We would sleep in her house, all four of us. Later, I met another Angolan woman who worked for the International Red Cross. She took me in, and after some time, the Red Cross sent me to school. But later, she lost her job and she couldn’t take care of me anymore. That’s when the war started here. The war was difficult. War destroys things. It’s something you can’t forget. War is war. Suffering is suffering. It’s true. I found the friends who I had been living with on the streets and we took refuge in a place where the bombs couldn’t hit us. There were more than 300 of us there. It was very hard because the war was very intense. We had to struggle every day to get food and water. Every day, more people would come. Some of them were wounded. We saw lots of dead people. When there’s fighting, people always die. War is horrible. We were hungry all the time. We had to eat things that people shouldn’t have to eat. I was very sad because I was thinking that I didn’t have a mother. I didn’t have a father. I was alone. I was wondering when my day would come. I thought it’d be better to be dead because I couldn’t take the suffering any longer. But I know there are people who suffered even more than me.

Manuel (© Eric Beauchemin)

It’s a refrain you hear often in Angola: that others suffered even more. It’s testimony to the cruelty of the long war that even children repeat this refrain. 16-year-old Manuel lost his father in the fighting five years ago. His mother could not take care of him. As he puts it, it was everyone for himself in those days. Manuel spent two years on the streets before being taken in by an organisation in Huambo.

We suffered a lot when we lived on the streets, but that was nothing compared to some people I met recently in Chilembo, a village 25 kilometres from Huambo. I saw people dying of hunger there. They had no medicine. It was really painful to see what those people were going through.

Manuel was rescued by Sonia Ferreira, the director of Okutiuka, a group helping street children in the Central Highlands of Angola. Okutiuka is based in a former dairy factory that was abandoned by the Portuguese at independence. Sonia teaches the children and teenagers here a variety of traditional dances.

Learning these dances also helps the children come to terms with the war, the abuse they faced on the streets and the violence they experienced in their families.

Less than 9 months after Sonia started working with Huambo’s street children, the fighting broke out again.

We thought it wouldn’t be good to leave the children behind and simply say, ‘sorry, we’re going to spend Christmas on the coast’. So with our remaining funds, we hired a plane in Luanda. It came here to Huambo to pick us and 50 children up, and then we flew to Benguela.

She took us to the coast, to Benguela. We spent a year there. It was really nice because I got to see the ocean for the first time and I discovered a lot of other new things. The thing I liked the most about being there though was that Sonia taught me how to film. Here at the centre, I also film the other kids, and I’m also an actor in our theatre group. I’m also learning how to be a carpenter. That’s what I’d like to be when I’m older.

It was a really good experience for the children because it was the first time they travelled by plane and the first time they saw the ocean. They got to know new cities, new people, a different climate. They still talk about the beach and the fresh fish. It made them calmer, more confident. They even fought less amongst themselves during that year, and they began to see life differently.

The children take part in a wide variety of activities. They also stage a play, which is based on their own experiences when they lived on the streets. The idea is to make other street children and the general public aware of children’s rights.

Okutiuka children acting in a play about children’s rights
Okutiuka children acting in a play about children’s rights (© Eric Beauchemin)

Okutiuka is now providing assistance to 250 children: 60 of them are street children and live at the former dairy factory; the rest are children from very poor families who come during the day to attend classes, get food and medical treatment if they need it. The number of street children continues to increase, says Sonia Ferreira, but her programme is helping to make a big difference in the lives of some young people.

We have a baby here who we consider a grandchild. His father spent two years in our centre. He learned how to become a carpenter here, and he married one of the girls who was a dancer in our group. They recently had a child. They have their own house now, and he now works as a carpenter, thanks to the training he got from us.

In war, people get wounded, people die. You have to take refuge in a safe place so you don’t get shot and killed. After the government withdrew, UNITA took control of the city. You were never safe with UNITA. If they suspected that you were a government soldier, they would kill you. They killed a lot of civilians. Some people had to flee to escape. Others had to stay because they had no way of getting out of the city. I survived for two months because I had some supplies. Me and my friends took refuge at a neighbour’s house. But then UNITA starting rounding up boys and young men like us to fight for them.

The majority of boys participated directly in the fighting and of course carrying guns, food, everything that was necessary to do. We have some cases of the use of drugs to give them, this is something that frequently happens in all countries to convince them to do what they want to do. You know, that is easier to convince a child than to convince an adult.

Carlinda Monteiro works for the Christian Children’s Fund. In 1996, she and her team helped re-integrate a third of Angola’s 9000 child soldiers. Ralf Syringe of German Agro Action was also involved in the programme.

Children of about 16 and 17 years old, who had been for several years in the UNITA army, told me that they had been captured from their village. So the UNITA people came in the evening and said to the sobas, the traditional leaders: “until tomorrow morning you have to deliver 20 young people”. So that’s how they were taken. And then they went away and the first thing they had to do without any training, they had to attack that village, their own village. The first thing they said when they told us: “but we didn’t kill anybody from our village”, which is to say, of course they did. But they didn’t want to accept that, they didn’t want to tell it and they were afraid of possible consequences. Then they told us for example how they had to… We were asking questions like: “why didn’t you go away, why did you accept that, wasn’t there any possibility to flee? And they said “no”. And then they told us how they were forced to be present when young people, children like themselves, were tortured to death because they had tried to flee. I remember one young man who was telling that somebody who had tried to flee was bound to a tree and then really tortured until he was dead.

One of the problems that child soldiers face, the first is the fact that as a child they didn’t have a childhood. They spent their childhood fighting and this is of course, when you spent the time that you have to play and to be with your friends and to enjoy life, you spend your life fighting. So you can see which are the needs of a boy that came from the war, which are the needs they leave the school, they lose the possibility to benefit from health service. They lose the possibility to receive care, attention and love from their parents, from their community, from their friends.

Many of the former child soldiers were deeply traumatised by their years of fighting. They suffered from nightmares, flashbacks, and had trouble picking up the pieces of their lives. These symptoms are typical of people suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of applying a Western approach to help these children get over their traumas, Carlinda Monteiro and Ralf Syringe decided to use traditions and rituals that are part of Angolan culture.

Carlinda Monteiro, Christian Children’s Fund (© Eric Beauchemin)

When you leave your village and you join the army, whatever is the army, you are considered polluted and it means that you were mixed with blood and with death. So when you return home you cannot enter in your village. Before you enter your village you should be clean because people believe that everybody, all the wrongs that you did to other people during the war, the spirits of these people will come with you to your village. So people do not want these ex-soldiers to come with all this bad spirits with him to enter the community. So he should be clean first before he enters in the community and there is a ritual before he enters into the community. This ritual is also a ritual to welcome and to give thanks to the ancestors because he protects the soldier and he returns home.

They had to go with an older man from the village, they had to go to a river and had to undress and all the clothes had to be put into the river and they were not allowed to look back. Other forms were that they went into a little hut out of wood and grass and while they were inside, this hut was burnt and only on the last moment they were allowed to escape from that, always accompanied by somebody of the older people. When they had done that ritual, had passed through that, they were accepted as normal people from the village.

In other areas of the country, they have different rituals. For instance, the soldier’s face is covered with ashes and then the family dances around him. Or water from a jug is thrown at the fighter’s legs. These rituals can be even much more effective than Western counselling.

For instance, one of the child soldiers….. Every time when the sister was cooking beans…. Every time when he saw this, it was like blood and he became very aggressive and he says, so I need to drink blood, I need to drink blood and it was very, very aggressive at that time. There are different kinds of symptoms that you can observe and the family knows. If you have symptoms you should pass through a ritual of purification and this ritual of purification there are always in all the communities, people knows how to do them. Normally there are the healers. It was amazing because one of the cases was treated during 2 years in the psychiatry and nothing happened, it was really very, very bad. The mother came and said: “look we have to go home”. They went home, after one week, he was really fine.

Some young people were going to other municipalities to get supplies because with UNITA, it was difficult to get salt, oil, or even soap. The situation was becoming impossible. So me and my friends decided to go to Benguela. That’s a city on the coast, around 300 kilometres away. It took us 2 weeks to get there because we didn’t know the way. We’d start at 7 in the morning and we’d walk until 6 in the evening. We weren’t carrying anything with us, so we had to steal maize from fields along the way. 15 of us left Huambo. Only 7 of us arrived. The rest died along the way of hungry and dysentery. When we arrived in Benguela, our legs and feet were all swollen. Those who had family went to stay with them. But me and some others had to go to a camp for displaced persons in Benguela. I lived in the camp for 9 months. Then I met someone who was willing to help me. I went to Luanda and I stayed there for two years. Finally I came back to Huambo. Slowly, I began to find my way here. I rented a room. My street friends who had survived the war came to live with me. We stayed together for a while, but then each of us went our separate ways and we lost touch.

With girls, the majority of them were used also for logistics and it’s quite amazing because some of the girls, and this is what is bad when you are living in a situation where you do not have the possibility to know what is right, what is wrong. Because some of the girls that we talked with they saw these as normal to be kidnapped and to be used to carry loads and to cook for the army and to do all these things. For them it was quite normal because they said: “look in the government you have people to do this, but UNITA they don’t”. You see how easy it is to convince people that this is the normal way of life. It is the reason why I used to say that let’s see what will happen with peace because people saw all these things as normal.

Elena (© Eric Beauchemin)

UNITA kidnapped me when I was 12, and they took me to one of their bases in the bush. I spent some time there and was forced to join UNITA’s youth wing, the jura. That’s the Revolutionary Youth of Angola. There was never any time to rest. They would order us out into the fields to gather food for them. We had to walk up to 10 or 20 kilometres. We also had to look for wood to build fires to cook the cassava. Others would have to fetch water. They would always eat first. Only then could we eat. I was often very tired. When we weren’t cooking or washing, we had to sing and dance for them. They said that was their entertainment.

This was one of the most difficult things to create this atmosphere to make people talk. And I think that’s a condition, at least that’s our understanding that this is a condition to allow them to pass to another period of their life. If they do not allow themselves and others to talk about that, to recognize that this is his part of the history, if they keep being ashamed and so on, this will never be past, this will always be present. This will accompany them their whole life. And the idea that people are saying: “well children are able to forget”. You know this famous word of resilience of children. Of course children are able to go on living, but they are not able to go on living as if what has happened would not have happened. They are influenced by that experience and I think they only can try to handle that experience if they accept it.

I started to fall in love with a girl. We began a relationship, and I found a job, first in a transport company. When my contract ran out, I was unemployed for a year, but then someone helped me get this job as a guard. Now I am married and I have two children. They’re both girls. One is 5 and the other is 2. I’m going to school too because I want a better future for myself and my children. I’d like to become an electrician or a lorry-driver, anything actually. Life goes on. I’m working here now, and I’m happy to have this job. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I could lose my job tomorrow. And the next day, I could find another one. That’s life, isn’t it, a circle. The future scares us. I try not to think about tomorrow. That’s why when you ask me about tomorrow, I can’t give you an answer because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. That’s the way things are here.

“A Scarred Generation” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.