Waiting for food is the central occupation for thousands of Angolan refugees


LUENA, Angola -- There are 5,000 people in the railway station in this city on the high plateau in eastern Angola. They are not waiting for the trains.

It has been more than a decade since one of those pulled into this station, plying the once-important but now deserted route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The 5,000 here are waiting for food.

They are part of the 70,000 refugees who have come to Luena, tripling its population since April. It is a pattern repeated in besieged cities throughout the country.

They are fleeing fighting that resumed in Angola a year ago after Jonas Savimbi rejected his electoral defeat and took the troops of his Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) back to the battlefield.

A scramble for food

When the trucks of the United Nations' World Food Program pull up in front of the station, laden with bags of corn and jugs of cooking oil, all labeled "USA," the people pour out of the station by the hundreds as if materializing from thin air.

The refugees come from farming villages in the surrounding countryside. When the UNITA rebels began to attack, the villagers headed for town on foot, moving into various buildings like the train station when they got there.

Thousands are in schools, hundreds in long-abandoned apartment buildings.

There are 2,000 living in the former kindergarten, where even the rusty sliding boards provide shelter for a few families.

Everyone moves outside during the day to cook over open fires, making a pasty meal out of the corn they have pounded into flour.

At night, they go back inside to sleep.

"The attacks came in January, February, March and April. At first, we hid from UNITA. Then we started walking to town," said Jeremy Leitro, one of the refugees at the kindergarten.

"Some of us made it in three days, but if you had a family with children, that slowed you down. You had to hide from UNITA. It might have taken a week."

Along the way, they tried, not always successfully, to avoid the land mines scattered throughout the countryside.

A 14-year-old girl here is a typical victim of the war. She balances on crutches and one leg. She lost the other one to a mine when she tried to harvest some vegetables.

"It is much worse now than before the elections," said Mr. Leitro, referring to the first vote in the country's history that was supposed to end the fighting, but instead just got it started again.

"Now, we are completely isolated. We can't move more than two or three kilometers because of the mines and attacks. You're always taking a risk that UNITA troops will rob you or kill you.

"But here we feel completely secure. Luena is very well protected by government troops."

And the refugees keep coming. Three weeks ago, 500 arrived. They are camped out in what's left of the Luena sports center. A skeletal diving platform towers above the long-dry pool. Behind the building, ragged nets sag over weed-choked tennis courts.

The sports center, like all of Luena, was built in the days of Portuguese colonialism, before Angola received its independence in 1975 and the 16-year war for control between UNITA and the Marxist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began.

Faded civilization

During those years of war, Luena gradually changed from what was clearly a delightful city on a bluff overlooking a river.

The electricity quit working. The running water stopped flowing. The bright paint on the houses faded. The broad tree-lined avenues became overgrown and unkempt. Windows broke. Garbage piled up.

Twice a day now a World Food Program flight comes down in a tight spiral over the town to avoid fire from UNITA troops 12 miles away.

They surround the city, making overland convoys impossible.

So the planes come in, landing at Luena's nearly deserted airport. Each flight brings 17 1/2 tons of food.

It is up to Hans Peter Vokoler, the World Food Program representative in Luena, to hand out the official allotment: 11 pounds of corn and about a pound each of oil and beans per person every two weeks. The food goes directly to refugee camps or to Lutheran or Catholic charities at work in the town.

The severely malnourished, mainly children, are sent to a nutrition center where they receive soy-enriched milk. It's currently serving 150 youngsters.

Elsewhere, the trucks delivering bags of corn and boxes with oil attract kids scampering to collect any kernels that spill out of the bags.

Extra food is traded in the town's small markets, perhaps for dried fish or some vegetables or maybe a plastic cup.

Water comes from the river, brought up in large tubs that the women carry on their heads. Bathing is a luxury. There's no real sanitation.

People dress in charity castoffs, many from the United States. One woman walks by, a large tub balanced on her head, dressed in a shirt with long orange sleeves, Baltimore Orioles written around a smiling bird on the front.

Life in Luena is simply a matter of survival, of waiting for the food allotment, grinding the corn, eating the meal.

There is little else.

"I wish that more could be done to help people survive mentally, not just physically," says Phillippe Borel, who directs the World Food Program operations in Angola.

"These people are in terrible shape mentally. I am worried about a syndrome of dependence. But we are not equipped at the World Food Program to do anything about that. We can just feed people."

Mr. Leitro, the refugee, yearns for his old life as a farmer.

"The old people hope very much to go back to their villages as soon as possible," he said. "We put much hope in that."

He didn't mention the young people, the children who crowd around any visitor to their squalid home, the ones who have never known a time of peace, the ones who have spent a large part of their lives waiting for the food.

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