Children of war in Angola

Young boys in Kuito
Boys in Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

Despite the gradual disintegration of Angolan society, neither the Angolan authorities nor the UNITA rebels seem prepared yet to embrace peace and national reconciliation. Many Angolans and Western diplomats are convinced that the fighting will return to Angola, that it will be worse than the last war…more than a thousand dead a day. And the children?

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 31, 2000

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.


For over 30 years, war has raged in Angola. 60% of Angolans have known nothing more than war all their lives. This week, Eric Beauchemin reports on the children of Angola a year after the end of the fighting.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents Children of War. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The situation of children in Angola is pretty bad. The infant mortality rate is over 170 per 1000…it’s the highest in the world. In Luanda alone, we have thousands of street children. There are 82-thousand war orphans…

The fighting in Angola started in the early 1960’s. This war against the Portuguese colonizers ended in 1975 when Angola became independent. But the groups which had expelled the Portuguese were already fighting amongst themselves, and the second war began. It became one of the superpowers’ longest proxy wars. For 16 years, the Angolan government received support from Cuba and the Soviet Union. The UNITA rebels, for their part, got the backing of South Africa and the United States. The government and UNITA finally signed a peace agreement in 1991, and a year later, elections were held. UNITA lost and charged that there had been electoral fraud. The war began again…Angola’s third war, the “War of the Cities”, undoubtedly the most traumatic of the three. Today a million people remain displaced in the country and another quarter of a million are refugees.

Orphanage in Kuito
Orphanage in Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

Among the displaced and the refugees are thousands of orphans and children separated from their parents. A few kilometers from the central Angolan city of Kuito, scene of some of the bloodiest battles during the last war, there’s an orphanage. It’s no more than a few tents that serve as dormitories. There’s also a kitchen and a shower. There are over 70 children in the orphanage. The youngest one is 18 months old. The oldest: 16. Alajmina da Concenção is one of them.

I’m 13 years old. I have been here since May of last year. My father and mother were killed during the war. I have three brothers and sisters, and they are all here with me in the center. I’m the eldest. The youngest is one year old. I’m going to school now. When I’m older, I want to be a doctor.

It’s a common dream among Angola’s children, a dream most will never realize. The children in this orphanage sleep two to a bunk, 40 kids per tent. Disease remains a major problem: malaria and diarrhea are common. Many of the diseases among Angola’s children are caused by bad drinking water. Even in the capital Luanda, only 40 to 50% of the water is safe. To help improve the situation, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has launched a major program to provide water and sanitation to people who aren’t receiving any government assistance.

This UNICEF well, for instance, is providing clean drinking water to a camp for displaced people about an hour’s drive from Luanda. UNICEF is concentration its efforts in the south of the country, which not only saw heaving fighting but is now also experiencing a drought. Clean water though will not solve a more pressing problem for many of Angola’s children: malnutrition.

Malnourished child near Kuito
Malnourished child near Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

For the past several months, the Belgian branch of Médecins sans Frontières or Doctors without Borders has been active in the Kuito area. During the last war, Kuito, a city of 30-thousand, was effectively divided in half, with UNITA forces on one side of the main street, government forces on the other. For nine months, the two sides fired at each other, damaging every single building in the city. Throughout the siege, there was hardly any food. Groups of armed men, women and children had to fight their way out of town walked 70 kilometers – in spite of hunger and fatigue – to get food for their families who stayed behind. The war ended in May of last year, and an MSF nurse and doctor told me that the condition of children living in the immediate vicinity of Kuito has been steadily improving since November.

During the month of November, the children who came here, one out of every four died. Now it’s going down. It’s only 5%. EB: A significant improvement. Yeah, I don’t know. It could be only for this moment. It could be very bad again next month. EB: Do you want to tell me something about what you’ve done to the hospital here? I mean, just like every building here in Kuito, it was virtually destroyed. Yes, the hospital was completely destroyed: the roof, the walls and everything. We first started to repair the roof. Then we put on windows, and now we just need to get the doors. Everything is clean, and I think it’s going in a good way.

We are now in the feeding center. It’s intensive feeding. We have now around 90 children in a bad condition – less than 75% of them the normal weight. We give a heavy supply of food every three hours.

Feeding centre
Feeding centre (© Eric Beauchemin)
Feeding centre run by Doctors without Borders
Feeding centre run by Doctors without Borders (© Eric Beauchemin)

Normally after three or four weeks, they come in a normal condition. EB: These children are malnourished because of a lack of food, or what is the primary reason? What we can find here is not enough to have a normal regime. Also the quantities is very small. Food is now in big part corn. They don’t have other kind of food. EB: There are severe cases here. What about the general health status of children in the Kuito area? In Kuito area, in the towns, the situation is not so bad. But when you go maybe five kilometers from this town, you see lots of problems of malnutrition. EB: These children, they stay here in the center for three weeks, and then they go back home. What do they go home to? These children in this place go to Camacupa. It’s around 70 kilometers from here. But the place where they live, there’s no food. So they arrive in good condition, but because there is no food, the will come back very quickly. EB: Pretty hopeless situation then. If there are other organizations that can give food there. But the problem is that the roads are very bad and it’s still very unsafe. So, the children will come back.

Malnutrition is so widespread not only because of the banditry but because many areas of the country are mined. Angola has the dubious honor of being the country with the highest concentration of mines in the world, after Afghanistan. There are 10 million or more mines, say the experts – at least one for every Angolan. Large areas of the country remain inaccessible, including for international relief organizations. Food has to be flown in at huge cost, and many children haven’t been vaccinated against diseases like polio for two years now. In some regions, the mines make farming like playing Russian roulette. Every day mines and unexploded bombs and shells kill and maim. Over 70-thousand Angolans have had limbs amputated, and thousands more have been killed. The victims are usually out getting wood or food for the family when they step on mines. Most are women and children, like 11-year-old Lucas. Lucas can no longer walk. He crawls around like a spider, sandals attached to his knees. He propels himself forward with his hands and drags these thin stumps with no feet behind him.

My mother said: go call your mother and go get some peanuts. My mother went in front. I was behind. I was cutting wood, and I stepped on a mine. When I stepped on the mine, I was thrown up in the air, and they had to look for me in the grass. I felt dizzy. My mother came to get me, and they took me to the hospital. I lost both my feet, but I got better, and UNICEF decided to have me fitted with artificial limbs in Germany.

Young landmine victims
Young landmine victims (© Eric Beauchemin)

Only the very fortunate have received artificial limbs. Most amputees – adults and children – get about as best they can, using rudimentary crutches, sticks or their hands, like Lucas. It would take years to fly Angola’s 70.000 amputees – 8.000 of them children – abroad to get fitted with an artificial limb. Fortunately, the International Committee of the Red Cross has decided to build a center in Angola to manufacture artificial limbs and fit the amputees.

Despite the end of the fighting in May of last year, nearly a million people remain in camps for displaced people in Angola. Another quarter of a million live in refugee camps in Zaire and Zambia. In a camp near Benguela, an hour’s flight south of Luanda, few people are prepared to return home yet. They fear a return of the fighting, and they fear the mines. So they try to make do, as I heard from Alfonso, an 18-year-old.

We came here because of the war. My village suffered a lot during the war. They weren’t able to get out. I came here two years ago with my mother and my six brothers and sisters. I’m the eldest, so it’s a big responsibility, but I don’t do much here in the camp. I play some sports. I also work the land in the morning, and in the afternoon if necessary. My family hasn’t gone home yet because we’re still waiting for peace and for the roads to be opened. Then I’ll go home. Even if I wanted to go, I wouldn’t be able to now. I don’t have any means of transport.

But schools have restarted, and some children are back in the classroom after a two year break.

Just outside Kuito, a dirt path leads down a hill to a clearing where over 200 children are attending school. There is no building…only three tents. The kids are sitting outside in the shade. Like many buildings in Angola, the school was completely destroyed in the last war. The school is far from ideal, but these kids are fortunate in some ways. In today’s Angola, it’s common for two different groups of children to share the same classroom. Nonetheless, the fact that the school is running is already an achievement, says Rona Blackwood of the Irish charity Concern

The local delegate of education said to me just before the distribution of materials that this area had no provision for schools. And given the short notice, all we could come up with were some tents for when it’s raining and some mats for sitting under the trees. But we felt it was much better to start than wait until a permanent building could be built. EB: What type of materials have you provided the children? We arranged the tents from UNICEF, and I’ve bought the mats locally. We’ve given all the children pencils, pens and copy books. We’re arranging for the teachers to get blackboards and textbooks for the teachers. We don’t have enough for the children. Pencil sharpeners, chalk. We’re getting the distribution of T-shirts for the children next week. Footballs as well. EB: Why is it so important for these children to get back to school?I think the past two years has been particularly hard on the children here in terms of war and suffering. I’ve never spoken to one child who hasn’t lost a father or a mother or a friend. Had a very interesting conversation with some of the children last week. And I said, you know, tell me about the war. And he says: “oh, no, we can’t. It’s too difficult. You know, we don’t want to talk about it.” I feel that school and games are just one step back to normality for them.

Outside a school near Kuito
Outside a school near Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

Not far from that school is another. Our arrival provides a welcome break from the lessons in the hot sun. Here too, some of the classes are out on the lawn in front of the school. The rest of the 900 pupils are sitting on the floor. The principal of School 24, Martino Savembo, says they’re coping… barely.

We could use more school materials because we have had to start all over again. Everything here was completely destroyed. A foreign non-governmental organization helped us rebuild the school. At the moment, we need office equipment and food. We have children who have lost their parents and would like to study, but they can’t because they’re hungry. Many children come to school on empty stomachs. Many students haven’t been to school in the past two years. They had to help government forces to defend Kuito. Now they are having problems. They have problems studying.

The children of Kuito had to hide for weeks or even months on end under houses, like the rest of the city’s inhabitants, to escape the bullets. They experienced hunger and saw parents and relatives killed. It’s not surprising the, says Hanneke Schepers, a Dutch psychologist who works for the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, that Kuito’s kids are traumatized.

I think that they are all traumatized. The children are numb. You see that in their faces. They look down at the ground. They don’t take action in any way. They wait for something to happen. Lots of children have nightmares. They have pictures bumping in their heads every time about what happened. Some children are aggressive. Most of the children have a very negative future view.

Night after night in Kuito, children emit these chilling, painful howls as they relive the war in their nightmares. Many of Angola’s kids have seen such unspeakable things that it’s hard to get them to talk about their experiences. According to Ludovino Neto of the Angolan National Institute for Children, even when they speak, traumatized kids often try to hide their feelings.

If you go there and ask children how they feel, they say they’re fine. But then they’ll tell you stories about the war or about their father or mother who was killed in the fighting. They have headaches and nightmares every night. They don’t sleep well. They sleepwalk. This is trauma. This is all linked to bad childhood experiences. These kids had no love and had to deal with a lot of problems. Now many have antisocial behavior. They steal, they sniff glue. If nothing is done about it, these kids will become angry young men. And if it reaches that level, it’s quite bad.

Young boy in Kuito
Young boy in Kuito (© Eric Beauchemin)

UNICEF has now begun a trauma recovery program for children in the Kuito area. It was set up by Hanneke Schepers. Her first experience with trauma among Angolan kids was a series of counseling sessions with three groups of mine victims in Kuito.

We sat down, and we started talking about the war. I didn’t talk to them about nice things. We started talking to them about what happened in the war. We started talking about what happened when they stepped onto the mine, about everything they could remember, as specific as possible. After that, we talked about other things that happened during the war: losing parents, lost family, seeing people killed. We talked about their good memories before and during the war and how the situation is right now. So I wanted to connect the past with the present. After that, we talked about the future: how do they think about the future, what do they want in the future and how do they see themselves. I think it definitely helps. My experience is that the first week I talk to the children, they couldn’t say anything. When I asked them a question, they said nothing…all the time. They looked at the ground and didn’t have any facial expression. The week after, they started talking. They couldn’t talk about their feelings, but they talked about what happened – the facts. The week after, they started crying. I don’t want them specifically to cry but they could show emotions. And the fourth time, they were laughing. Not laughing about what happened, but they could show their feelings.

Hanneke Schepers is now training local people to provide counseling to Kuito’s war children. The goal, says Hanneke, is to make sure these children do not remain forever scarred by their war experiences.

We don’t want them to lose their memories. But we want to teach them to live with the memory so they can pick up their normal life. They can have a normal life with their memories.

Carlita Monteiro, the regional technical advisor for the Christian Children’s Fund, thinks the trauma healing process must go one step further. Her organization is supporting a center for about 150 child amputees in Luanda and hopes to get funding to build additional centers in the worst affected provinces of Angola. Carlita Monteiro believes that trauma healing must also include steps to stimulate national reconciliation.

When we talk about the war, we want to also do some – how shall I put it? – peace education. We believe the only way to get war children back on their feet again is by creating a therapeutic atmosphere, which means that a child must realize and understand that peace begins with himself or herself.

Children in Malanje
Children in Malanje (© Eric Beauchemin)

Angolan musicians sings about poor children from streets with no names in dark neighborhoods, but that’s as much attention as street children get from a society trying to cope with its own memories. There are some 10.000 street children in the Angolan capital…30.000 across the country, according to UNICEF estimates. The street kids often tell harrowing stories of how they wound up on the streets of Luanda. Alfonso comes from the province of Moxico, which saw intense fighting during the last war. He’s 11.

Me? I saw many people die. I saw my grandmother being hit in the spine by a bullet, and I saw her die. I also saw many UNITA fighters die. My parents stayed in Moxico, but I haven’t had any news from them since I arrived in Luanda in November ’93. I don’t know if they are alive. I think all my brothers and sisters are over there. I know some went to neighboring provinces to seek shelter. A plane few in some government reinforcements to Moxico because there was fighting in the provincial capital. There were many kids at the airport, and some of them were allowed to get on a plane. I was lucky enough to get on board and come to Luanda. I was living at the airport with my friends. We played a lot at the airport. But what I liked doing most was fighting with my friends. Here I don’t fight. I don’t feel like it anymore. EB: How did you get money to be able to live? I washed cars and worked as a porter. I never stole anything, but there were kids who did. They’d steal luggage and plane towels. If they saw a really well-dressed kid come by, they’d steal his clothes. One day, one of my friends saw a kid. He took all the rich kid’s clothes and gave him his instead. We were hungry a lot. To cope, I smoked cigarettes, sniffed petrol and took some drugs too. I’d buy the stuff with money I got from washing cars. There were about 10 kids in my group, and each of us would chip in 5000 kwanzas – half a US cent – to buy petrol, and then we’d share it amongst ourselves. EB: Do you still think a lot about the war? People were really hungry, and a lot of people were killed. There was lots of fighting. They threw a grenade onto the road. People were running. Many people were killed. Many people were hit in the head. Even today, I have nightmares about it. Everyone here in the center knows about it. I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and I see the war again, as if it were happening in the building.

Many of Luanda’s street children have had similar experiences, and the Angolan National Institute for Children, INAC, is now training social workers to counsel the kids. These children and young people not only have to live with their war traumas, they must do it on the street. According to Ludivino Neto, these kids need everything because they have nothing. They’re an indication of what’s happening to all of Angolan society.

These people are mentally stunted, irritable. They’re unable to understand things, and they become aggressive. Everything in this society has become harder. People in general are less caring. The family in Angola is in crisis: there’s no more authority. Children no longer respect their parents. Everyone here does as he or she pleases. It’s like a boat that’s out of control. Only the tiny middle class has managed to maintain parental control. And even there, there are problems. There really are deep moral problems in this society. The war affected every child, some more than others, but all our youth has been scarred.

There are neighborhoods in Luanda where it’s difficult to imagine that Angola and its 10 million inhabitants have been at war for over 30 years….that 900.00 people have been killed, 90% of them civilians. But downtown, the effects of the war are there for all to see: an ever increasing number of children.

There are two main reasons for this influx. Because of the war, many people were forced to leave their homes. They came here without any money, and they haven’t succeeded in adapting to life in the city. So, the war is the first factor. The second is Angola’s abysmal economic situation. Many parents can no longer take care of their children. They have to send them out onto the street to get money or food for the family. No one in Angola earns enough to survive, that’s all, because what they’re earning is next to nothing. They have to buy their goods from wholesalers, and they only get a tiny commission. They earn enough to eat and buy some clothes, but never very much, never very much.

INAC, together with UNICEF, is trying to get some of the street kids off the street and back to life in an abnormal society. It’s established a center on the outskirts of Luanda to deal with emergency situations. Here, the street children receive a basic education, training, clothing and medical assistance, and the opportunity to simply play.

This child is a good example of what I’m talking about. His father and his mother are here in Luanda. They came here to take him back home, but he doesn’t want to go. He says his parents tortured him. He says he’d rather be here than with his parents. These are the types of problems we face.

Former street children at a centre in Luanda
Former street children at a centre in Luanda (© Eric Beauchemin)

The children have been in the center for 10 months, and the institute plans to continue the project, if they can find funding. There are so many children, says Ludovino Neto, that the institute would need to build 20 centers like this one in Luanda lone. There are also plans – but no money – to build centers in some of the worst affected provinces, like Benguela, Lubango and Malanje. The children and teenagers who’ve made it to the center are lucky. Most kids never get off the street. On one of Luanda’s typically hot, humid nights, I met a group of five girls standing in the middle of one of the main squares, watching the traffic go by. They are all between 12 and 17. They survive by begging in the street or going from house to house and doing odd jobs like cleaning houses, fetching water or washing dishes. When I told them this was a strange place to be standing, they say this is where they usually sleep … and where they’ve picked up a few clients.

A certain white man proposed love to me and I slept with him. He gave me 10 million nuevos kwanzas. EB: Was that the first time you did this? Well, this was my second time. EB: Are you going to do it more? No. EB: Why not? I’m afraid because this brings diseases, sickness. EB: What type of diseases? AIDS, gonorrhea and syphilis. EB: Do you also sleep with men? I’m afraid they might hurt me. OK, sometimes when we sleep, some policemen come. They harass us, ask to sleep with us. Sometimes if they ask us to make love with them, we do accept.

UNICEF has a mobile clinic in Luanda which provides girls like these with some medical care, primarily to treat malaria and sexually transmitted diseases. But a single mobile clinic cannot possibly deal with the 10.000 street children on the streets of Luanda alone. All these children are prone to disease because of malnutrition and the unsanitary conditions in which they live. The National Institute for Children says it would take about $4 per child per year to provide basic medical services and schooling for these and the rest of Angola’s children, a grand total of 24 million dollars a year. This is not charity, says Ludovino Neto. It’s essential.

They’re still children now, but in five years from now, they’ll no longer be kids. They’ll be adult criminals. These kids haven’t been to school. They’ve never been cared for by anyone and they’ve never received support from the government. Children like these are on the road to delinquency. They become aggressive and become involved in crime. There have already been cases of voluntary homicide involving children. Enough examples, I should think, to believe that in two to five years from now, the problem will be enormous. The war has had a pervasive effect on all of Angola’s youth. Young people’s moral values and standards are falling. And if nothing is done, people will lose hope and become completely resigned. That’s dangerous.

Despite the gradual disintegration of Angolan society, neither the Angolan government nor UNITA seems prepared yet to embrace peace and national reconciliation. Many Angolans and Western diplomats are convinced that the fighting will return to Angola, that it will be worse than the last war…more than a thousand dead a day. And the children?

There are children who were born during the war, who’ve grown up with the war and have died in the war. They’ve never know peace. This has been very traumatic for the kids. We’ve been through so much that people should realize that we must stop the war. People must understand that Angola’s children have suffered more than enough for something which was not of their own making, which had nothing to do with them. They’re suffering unjustly. Even if the war were to stop today, there’s an entire generation, literally, which is going to have problems for years to come. Yes, the war must end for good. If not, we will continue to murder our young people and our children. They’ll become adults without ever having had a chance to play.

Children of War was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.