Angola, a former Portuguese colony on the southwestern coast of Africa, is slowly recovering from decades of civil war that left over half a million dead and displaced at least 3.5 million people. The UN-brokered effort to disarm the combatants and return the refugees to their homes, while making some progress, has nonetheless been marred by a number of human rights violations. Although Angola stands to reap billions of dollars from its considerable oil reserves, international watchdogs are concerned that the revenues will not be adequately accounted for or distributed equitably.
The origins of Angola’s current problems can be traced back to the struggle for independence against Portugal waged by three guerrilla factions: the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, or FNLA), the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or MPLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, or UNITA). Once the country was granted its independence in 1975, civil war broke out as the rival groups competed for power. The MPLA formed one government based in the capital of Luanda under Agostinho Neto, and the other two groups established a second government in Huambo under the command of Joseph Savimbi. The two regimes sought allies outside its borders, with the Soviets aiding Neto and the United States supporting Savimbi. In effect, Angola became the setting for a proxy hot war in the context of a global cold war. South Africa, then under white rule, also intervened in the war on the side of UNITA. During the 1970s Cuban troops were dispatched by Fidel Castro to bolster MPLA forces. Even though Washington continued its support of Savimbi, it also sought a diplomatic solution, and in 1992, when a cease-fire was reached and elections agreed upon, the U.S. officials thought they had found one. But after the MPLA candidate, Jose dos Santos, won the presidency (Neto had died in 1979), Savimbi experienced a change of heart and resumed fighting.
Efforts to restore peace over the next eight years repeatedly failed until Savimbi was slain in 2000. Within weeks of his death, UNITA at last agreed to lay down its arms, which finally allowed the painful process of reconciliation to begin. Since UNITA could put tens of thousands of troops in the field, the task was not going to be easy. However, human rights organizations monitoring the process have raised concerns about the way in which the government is going about demobilizing combatants and returning REFUGEES to their homes. According to HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, authorities have used violence or intimidation to evict refugees from settlements or drive them out of the capital, which had become home to over 100,000 people fleeing war in the interior. The human rights organization also reported incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence in connection with the relocation of refugees. Millions of internally displaced people and excombatants either remain in exile or are still in refugee camps. Moreover, the government also appears to be giving priority to the resettlement of ex-combatants at the expense of women and children, failing, for instance, to provide them with identity documents that would help them obtain humanitarian assistance. In some cases, though, children and ex-combatants are one and the same. UNITA was known for abducting children and pressing them into service on the front lines; there may be as many as 11,000 such child soldiers who were involved in fighting in the last years of the war. The INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS has instituted a program to reunite these children with their families, but most of such child soldiers were boys. There is ample evidence that a far larger number of girls were abducted—some estimates put the figure at close to 30,000—many of whom were then forced to serve as cooks, domestics, and porters or as “wives” of UNITA fighters, in effect, sex slaves. Human rights organizations are especially concerned about the reception that these girls will get once they return to their home villages.