Refugees in Angola

Displaced women at a refugee camp in Angola’s eastern province of Moxico, April 2002. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the country’s civil war. (Photo courtesy of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.)

HUAMBO, Angola (WOMENSENEWS)–The Mess Hall of the Officers is a dark, barren building that reeks of smoke and urine, but the more than 300 people taking shelter here have no where else to go. Ask anyone why they live here, and they will respond with the same, simple answer: because of the war.

Pushed a little harder to explain, a few, like 78-year-old Emelia Nascente, will talk about the fighting that took place at night in the fields around her village and the landmines strewn in her fields.

"You cannot cultivate your fields, so you cannot get food," she says, explaining why she came to Huambo, Angola’s second largest city deep in the country’s central highlands. "We came here because we were starving."

In the last four years alone, nearly 4 million Angolans have been displaced, two-thirds of them women and children. The 300-plus people at the Mess Hall, a government-run transit center where the displaced wait to be relocated to more permanent settlement camps in the countryside, are among the last driven from their homes in the fighting, which ended last month.

The government and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, a rebel group backed by the United States, signed a ceasefire in April, ending a 27-year conflict that began as a Cold War proxy battle.

‘You Get By By Selling Things’

The human costs of that peace were high. International aid organizations say during the last, intense months of the war, during which government forces killed rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, the government starved out the rebel group, known as UNITA, by burning the crops of villagers suspected of supporting the rebels. The United Nations says that more than 50,000 people per month have been displaced from their homes since November, more than usually seen in a year.

People in Angola

(Photo courtesy of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.)

Many of the displaced made their way on their own along the relatively safe areas on the coast, and walked treacherous roads at night. In the past 15 years, the population of capital Luanda has more than doubled to almost 4 million, a third of the country’s total population. With a 70 percent unemployment rate in the city, many women enter the informal market, selling bread, fruit or even themselves.

The story of 21-year-old Nelda, who came to Luanda four years ago, is like that of many of the women who haunt the city’s markets and slums. Dressed in a black shirt advertising some long-gone American cartoon, she uses a cloth to swat at the flies that swarm around the basket of bread she sells at the San Paulo market. On a good day, Nelda, who declined to give her last name, makes $6, on which she supports her husband and a young child.

"If you are a poor person coming to Luanda, you get by by selling things," said Paul Robson, a researcher at the Development Workshop, a group that works in Luanda’s slums and informal settlements. "Women tend to dominate the informal market, in part because families have found that they’re good at the negotiation and bargaining."

Other displaced people, such as Nascente, are brought to government transit centers and camps where they live in squalid conditions, dependent on international food aid. More than 1 million Angolans, 70 percent of them women, receive food aid from the World Food Programme.

A recently passed Angolan law, which is based on United Nations standards for refugees, sets a minimum standard for conditions in transit centers and relocation camps, but many, like the Mess Hall of the Officers, fall short of these guidelines.

‘It’s Never Enough, But It’s Better Than Where We Came From’

Even in the well-run camps where food and housing are adequate, life is particularly difficult for women. Women continue to be responsible for the bulk of child care and food production, without the traditional support networks of their villages.

Violence against women is also rampant. A U.N. survey found that one-third of displaced women in Angola suffered physical or domestic abuse.

At the Lomanada II camp about 15 miles outside Huambo, a long line of women holding tattered bags and plastic buckets snakes through a dirt field around rectangular mud huts, waiting for the government’s monthly food distribution. A handful of men, mostly elderly and separated from their families, are also in the line. They are looked down upon by the other men, who stand milling around with little to occupy their time, because here, as in Angola’s traditional villages, collecting and preparing food is considered women’s work.

Marianne Chipita, 38, is among the women examining her monthly handout. She has lived here for a year with her husband and five children. Each month she waits in line for her small bag of beans and corn, wondering how she will stretch it to the next distribution.

"It’s never enough," she says. "But it’s better than where we came from because at least here there is some food and no violence."

Like Nascente and Nelda, Chipita and her family are hoping to return to their home in the countryside now that the war is over. The government has said it will provide transport and seeds and tools so that her family can make a new start. But with nearly half a million people sitting in camps like Lomanada II and millions of others displaced in cities like Luanda, the repatriation process is likely to be long and slow.

Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg. She has traveled extensively around Southern Africa and writes frequently for The Christian Science Monitor and The Sydney Morning Herald.



For more information:

The Global IDP Project of the Norwegian Refugee Council:

University of Pennsylvania African Studies Department, Angola page:

Official Web site of the Republic of Angola, virtual tour: