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Thousands of Orphans, Amputees : Both Sides in Brutal War Target Angola's Civilians

December 28, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

BIONGUE, Angola — Fehina Teheia was walking home with her children after a day's work in the cornfields outside her village in central Angola when "the earth suddenly blew up."

She had stepped on a land mine buried along the trail to the fields near Sambambi in Huambo province. Three of her children--3, 4 and 5 years old--were killed. Her left foot was blown off, and her body was laced with shrapnel.

"I lay there the whole night in the pouring rain with the bodies of my children, my poor children, around me," Teheia recalled. "I tried to remember prayers, but the pain was too great."

Lourenco Chimbango, accompanied by his children, was on his way to the fields at another village when he, too, stepped on an anti-personnel mine, then fell on a second. Three of his children, aged 11, 12 and 14, were killed. He lost both his legs and lay on the little-used footpath for three days before he was rescued.

Antonio Samukonga was asleep with his family when mortars began falling on his village near Menongue in southeastern Angola. One shell hit just outside his hut, killing his wife and shattering his left leg. The death toll in the attack was 54, all of whom Samukonga described as farmers and craftsmen.

Biongue, a settlement of 2,000 in southeastern Angola, is full of such stories--testimony to the brutal civil war between Angola's Marxist government in Luanda and the guerrillas of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

More than 60,000 people have died in the 12-year conflict, according to government figures; the rebels say the actual toll is undoubtedly higher. Two-thirds of the casualties on each side are said to be civilians, most often women and children.

"In its ferocity, this war is like those in medieval times, but the modern weapons that are being used make it far more devastating," a medical worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Luanda earlier this year, asking not to be quoted by name.

"The carnage--there is no other word for it--is appalling, and what is happening to the people of Angola is heart-breaking."

690,000 'Displaced Persons'

Angola has at least 20,000 orphans, according to international relief agencies. There are an estimated 30,000 amputees, half of them women and children. And about 690,000 people, three-quarters of them women and children, have been driven from their homes by the fighting and are classified as "displaced persons" by the United Nations; more than 60,000 others have sought sanctuary as refugees in neighboring countries.

The government and UNITA, as the guerrilla movement is known, accuse each other of waging war by atrocity--massacres of civilian supporters, indiscriminate bombardments of villages, attacks on meager medical facilities and the laying of anti-personnel mines along paths used by farmers.

"More and more attacks are made especially on women and children in order to terrorize the population and create instability," said a recent report on the war by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. The report put most of the blame on the guerrillas.

Miguel de Carvalho, the government's press director in Luanda, who was crippled during Angola's war for independence from Portugal, went further in an interview earlier this year: "UNITA, as it murders and maims, purposely picks on the defenseless, knowing that the people support us and that our forces are too strong for them. . . . This is not a political struggle for them--it is butchery by bandits and terrorists."

But Dr. Andelino Manassas, director of UNITA's 200-bed hospital at Jamba, the rebels' headquarters near here, said more than half of his patients are civilian victims of government military actions and that the proportion is growing.

"The concept of 'civilian noncombatant' seems to have lost all meaning for enemy forces," Manassas added. "Half of our beds are filled with amputees, mostly villagers who have stepped on the mines planted by the (government) troops."

Common as Measles

Shrapnel wounds are nearly as common as measles among the children of Angola, another Jamba hospital worker commented. Luanda's Josina Machel Hospital routinely does four or five amputations on land-mine-injured civilians each morning, and children as young as 3 and 4 with only stumps of legs are frequently seen in the country's towns and villages.

"Our children are the true victims of this war," Madalena Ruth Ndashala, information secretary of UNITA's women's organization, said in an interview at Jamba. "They should be the future of the country, but they are dying by the hundreds, by the thousands.

"When the Cubans or Russians bomb our villages, most of the victims are children. Sometimes they live but lose their mothers and fathers. Their little bodies are so frail that when they step on the mines, they die."

And the villagers at Biongue, all UNITA supporters, tell tales of savagery by government troops so matter-of-factly that combat veterans often cry as they listen.

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