Visit to Angola: Where Civilians are Disabled as a Tactic of Low-Intensity Conflict
The impact of US foreign aid on the war-battered country of Angola, in southern Africa, is immediately apparent to the visitor. On every city block I passed in the eroded capital of Luanda, I saw at least two or three disabled people. Men, women, and children hobble along with the help of wooden poles or crutches. Boys with a missing leg, on makeshift crutches, leap with astounding agility after a ‘ball’ made of bits of foam plastic and rags stuffed into an old plastic bag. Gaunt young men in army fatigues poke with their crutches through trash heaps, looking for useful bits of wire or wood or string. Stubbornly, resiliently, life goes on.
The most common disabilities of people on the streets are amputation and polio, both the result directly or indirectly—of relentless ‘low-intensity conflict’ (LIC), the destabilization strategy to which the Angolan people have been subjected ever since Angola gained independence from Portuguese rule in 1975. The amputations result mainly from stepping on US-supplied land mines, which have left Angola with the world’s largest per capita population of amputees. † The continuing high incidence of polio is a consequence of the breakdown of health care and immunization coverage in a country where access and services to rural areas have been cut off due to random yet persistent terrorist attacks along roads. Today (even after the supposed ‘ceasefire’) the only relatively safe travel in Angola is between major cities, by air.
† Cable News Network, “International Report,” October 10, 1989.
The economy is likewise a disaster, despite a wealth of natural resources (including petroleum, which Gulf Oil continues to exploit profitably, apparently immune to the war). Power failures are frequent, often due to sabotage. Water supply, even in the capital city, is marginal and uncertain. The hotel where I stayed had running water for only about 15 minutes every other day. In view of such shortages, outbreaks of cholera have been on the rise, as have many other diseases of poverty. In Angola as a whole, it is estimated that almost one child in three dies before the age of five. † .
† UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children, 1990, p. 76.
Unfortunately, the aid the US government has been providing, overtly and covertly, for more than a decade has not been channeled through the Unrecognized government of Angola (headed by the MPLA, or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Indeed, Washington has broken diplomatic relations with the regime, cut off all aid, and imposed economic sanctions. In place of such aid, the US has given millions of dollars of assistance—much of it in the form of military hardware, explosives, and training in the tactics of LIC—to UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), the partly mercenary opposition guerrilla force sustained by South Africa.
The huge number of disabled people in Angola is no accident. It is part of the strategy of low-intensity conflict. Leaving people seriously disabled puts a greater economic burden on families and the nation than does killing people outright.
US destabilization tactics in Angola are consistent with those used against other small, impoverished countries that have tried to liberate themselves from neocolonial rule. In Angola, as elsewhere, these tactics range from the most brutal and calculated terrorism to propaganda (usually called “social marketing”) aimed at “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” Rather than seeking to overthrow the government through a direct military strike, the approach is to erode popular support by undermining the economy, paralyzing public services, and sustaining a constant onslaught of terrorism.
UNITA’s attacks are targeted, not only at military and government facilities, but also at civilians. It makes extensive use of land mines—which it plants strategically along paths, roadways, and in fields where villagers grow their crops—In order to restrict the production of food and produce widespread hunger. According to Africa Watch, a Washington based human rights organization, the UNITA rebels deliberately “strangle' villages by encircling them and blocking all incoming food shipments, which “means virtual starvation for the civilians in those areas.”
The huge number of disabled people in Angola is no accident. It is part of the strategy of LIC. Leaving people seriously disabled puts a greater economic burden on families and the nation than does killing people outright. It also takes a bigger toll psychologically: disabled persons remain far more visible than dead persons. So leaving a massive number of people disabled is one means of turning people against the government, and especially against the drafting of young men into the military.
This October I was invited to Angola to take part in a workshop to help meet the needs of rural disabled people, especially civilians injured in the war. The two-week workshop was sponsored by the Angolan Ministry of Social Affairs (SEAS) together with the Development Workshop, a Canadian nongovernmental organization active in Angola. Those invited included the heads of the provincial rehabilitation centers, along with a disabled person from each center. Amazingly (in view of the enormous difficulties in arranging air transport), participants showed up from 15 of the 18 provinces. Of the group of 33 participants, 8 were disabled. Outside resource persons, in addition to Allan Cain from Development Workshop, included Pam Zinkin, who runs an international course in community-based rehabilitation in London and has worked for years in Mozambique; Kennett Westmacott, who conducts workshops on appropriate technical aids in Africa and Asia; and Ben Male, from Uganda, who works with Action for Disability and Development (ADD).
Rather than simply discuss how to make do with minimal tools and materials, we decided to actually try to make a variety of aids and appliances.
The workshop was an exciting adventure for us all. The participants came with a wide range of experiences, many questions, and few predetermined solutions. Our challenge was to look at the reality of the needs, resources, and limitations, and to try to work out approaches that would permit disabled people to become self-sufficient, active, integrated members of society. The rehabilitation centers in the provinces had been set up initially as training workshops where disabled persons would learn ills such as leatherwork and carpentry, and then return to their homes and villages. But the constant shortage of materials such as leather, nails, glue, and quality wood meant that the disabled persons in the centers did very little work; nor did they move on. Rather, the centers had become long-term asylums: sheltered workshops with no work.
In the course of our dialogue, everyone, especially the disabled participants, expressed concern about the lack of technical aids. One of the participants had to crawl on hands and knees because he had no wheelchair. Another with paralysis of the lower body moved about laboriously with two sticks because he had no crutches. Another, with a missing 1q, got around on crutches because he lacked an artificial limb. The group of disabled people was very interested in exploring possibilities for learning how to make limbs, crutches, wheelchairs, orthopedic appliances, and other aids. But the biggest problem was the shortage of tools and materials.
Rather than simply discuss how to make do with minimal tools and materials, we decided to actually try to make a variety of aids and appliances. If disabled persons could master these sills, they could not only help to answer the mobility needs of the vast and growing numbers of disabled people, but would also have important work to do.
We set out to produce what we could with whatever materials we could find. We began by making a trip to the city dump, where we collected bits of wire, broken plastic buckets, blown-out car tires and inner tubes, and bits of metal. About the only wood that was available was from packing crates leftover from international aid shipments, plus branches that could be cut from the few remaining ornamental trees.
To start off, Kennett showed the group how to make a saw by filing teeth into the steel strapping from packing crates, then stretching the blade between a frame of sticks. To get ideas for construction, we went out on the streets and watched the children playing with their homemade toys, such as scooters, pushcarts, and baby carriages with wheels made of wood or with large bearings from junked or bombed trucks. The ingenuity of the street children, inventing games and playthings out of anything at hand, was an inspiration and challenge to all of us.
Altogether, our group managed to create a wide range of devices, including:
a log scooter-board with wooden wheels
a folding sitting frame for a disabled child
a special seat, tray, and toys for a child with
a tray suspended by a cord for one-handed
transport without spilling
parallel bars for learning to walk
an enclosed swing made from an old tire turned
underarm and elbow crutches made from tree
hand ‘shoes’ soled with pieces of car tire, for
people who have to get around by crawling
an arm rocker permitting a person with
paralyzed arms to feed him- or herself
ramps for wheelchair access and for exercise
an orthopedic lift for a sandal, made from an
old rubber sandal
a pair of leg braces, made from a plastic bucket, especially designed for a little girl with a severe, progressive bowing of the knees
a large wooden wheel with flat wooden spokes, lined with car tire (its design was later adapted for a wheelchair)
an all-wooden wheelchair, made from old packing crate
Of these various projects, the biggest, most challenging, and most exciting was the wheelchair. We were able to work out a special design adapted to the poor-quality, half-inch-thick planks we had scavenged from packing crates. We even made the large (26-inch) back wheels from packing crate wood. We put the whole thing together with nails pulled out of the packing crates and straightened. With four ball bearings we found, we mounted the back wheels on an axle made from a length of 3/4inch reinforcing rod. We were also able to obtain a few scraps of Angolan hardwood, so we force-fitted the bearings into inset holes chiseled into square pieces of the wood. We had intended to use ball bearings from old trucks for the small front caster wheels, but at the last minute someone located a couple of old plastic caster wheels and we adapted these. No welding was required for any part of the chair.
By dividing into several small groups that worked simultaneously on various parts of the chair, we managed to complete the project in four days. The result was a remarkably sturdy, functional wheelchair, specially designed to fit the participant who crawled about on his knees. A special rack was fitted to the chair to carry his pole.
Perhaps the most worthwhile part of the workshop was the growth of understanding and respect that took place among the members of the working group. In the beginning, the heads of the rehab centers were reluctant to take part in the manual work, or to work on an equal footing with the disabled participants, many of whom were more rustic and unschooled. For their part, the disabled persons seemed uncomfortable and unsure of themselves when working alongside the administrators. But in the process of working and solving problems together, everyone began to relax and to appreciate each other’s skills. In some areas, such as measurement and interpretation of designs, the officials were more capable. But in much of the actual building and use of tools, the disabled persons were noticeably more skilled. Each group learned from the other, and a sense of camaraderie and self-confidence developed.
What is more, the disabled persons from the different provinces discussed a lot of common concerns, and began to talk about forming some sort of network or association. This was of special significance because to date there is no organization of disabled people in Angola. This may be a beginning.
Among the most needed aids for disabled people in Angola are artificial limbs. We had planned to make a provisional bamboo or PVC limb for the one amputee in our group, and the prosthetic team from the Swedish Red Cross brought to the workshop an ingenious prosthesis they had made from materials obtained in Angola. This consisted of an adjustable leather socket attached to a thin steel tube, which could also be adjusted through a simple telescoping mechanism. On examination of the participant with the missing leg, however, we found that the combination of contractures and muscle weakness in the hip made the use of a simple prosthesis impossible. This led us to explore exercises and bandaging techniques which the participants could teach amputees to practice on a daily basis, so that if and when they were able to obtain artificial limbs, they would be more able to use them without major problems.
We all agreed that there was an enormous need for small, decentralized limb-making workshops in the provinces, preferably with disabled persons themselves as technicians. Today Angola has tens of thousands of young amputees waiting for prostheses. And more amputees are produced every day.
This was our most sobering thought. We realized that for every artificial limb or wheelchair or pair of crutches the members of our workshop produce once they return to their respective provinces, dozens of additional people will become disabled by the continuing war. We all agreed that our rehabilitation efforts for and by disabled persons—although important—do little to resolve the root problem.
We realized that for every artificial limb or wheelchair or pair of crutches the members of our workshop produce, dozens of additional people will become disabled by the continuing war.
The average American citizen knows very little about Angola or the tragic, pointless devastation that his or her tax dollars have been financing for the last 14 years. Those who follow the scanty news reports on Angola have learned that a ‘ceasefire’ has been declared, and that Cuban and South African troops have pulled out. They are led to believe that progress toward peace and reconciliation is underway. But they don’t know that the US government is sabotaging the Angolan peace initiative by continuing its multimillion dollar financing of UNITA. Far from respecting the ceasefire, UNITA has taken advantage of the Cuban withdrawal to step up its attacks. Almost every day that I was in Angola there were new reports of bombings and attacks, many on civilians.
In the past, UNITA did not have quite as bad a record of targeting health workers and health centers as is the case with the Contras in Nicaragua, Renamo in Mozambique, the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, the ‘vigilantes’ in the Philippines, and other US- or South Africa-backed terrorist outfits. But since the ‘ceasefire', the pattern seems to be changing. On October 9 (the day before I left Angola), an article appeared in the International Herald Tribune titled “Massacre of Angolan Civilians Makes Mockery of Ceasefire.” The article reported that in the town of Samba Caju, in Angola’s central highlands, UNITA guerrillas “not only assaulted unarmed civilians but also sabotaged the community’s economic infrastructure.” One of their chief targets was a two-room medical clinic, serving 60,00 people, which was completely destroyed. In the raid, said the townspeople, “15 unarmed peasants were killed and at least 40 wounded.” Who knows how many of these persons lost limbs or may remain permanently disabled?
These terrorist attacks have left a huge number of orphans. Traditionally, African societies have never needed orphanages. When something happens to a child’s parents, the extended family or neighbors take the child in. But the continuing terrorism in the countryside has made this very difficult. Entire villages have been uprooted, with the survivors fleeing in every direction. During the 14 years of siege, the capital city of Luanda has grown from 500,000 to triple that size, and now contains nearly a million refugees. There are thousands of lost and abandoned children. No one feels that orphanages are the best place for them, but trying to locate their families will remain very difficult as long as UNITA’s terrorist attacks prevent travel to isolated communities.
I returned from Angola convinced that the biggest changes regarding the disabled community there need to be made in South Africa and here in the US.
Finding foster homes for so many displaced children is not easy—especially for those children that are severely disabled. So, for the meantime, orphanages maybe the only alternative. On my last day m Angola, I visited the Kwzola Orphanage for war displaced children in Luanda, which has been constructed and maintained through aid from Italy. In general, the care provided for the children was excellent. But the disabled children were clearly in need of more attention. One little girl had a broken-down wheelchair without tires. (The disabled participants in our workshop could easily have made tires for it like the ones they attached to the wheelchair they built.)
The child who most caught my attention was a five-year-old boy named Geraldo. He was from a village in southern Angola which had been raided by UNITA two years before. The terrorists had gunned down his whole family. His parents died from their wounds. Although shot through the spine, Geraldo miraculously survived. He was taken to the provincial hospital and finally to Luanda, where he was hospitalized for six months. Today he lives in the Kwzola Orphanage. He has the best wheelchair in the place-but it is a huge, heavy, adult-size chair that he is barely able to move by himself.
Maybe some day, when the US government decides to stop financing UNITA and destabilizing Angola, a search can be made for Geraldo’s relatives, and he can be reunited with his extended family. Until then, Geraldo and thousands of children like him will continue to live in orphanages. And many others will continue to become disabled through the ravages of low-intensity conflict designed—according to a 1977 policy-forming “White Paper” of the South African government—as part of a “total strategy …to keep the neighboring black states dependent and submissive.” †
† San Jose Mercury, Oct. 15, 1989
According to the United Nations Commission for Africa, the ongoing war in Angola—sustained by South African and US military aid to their proxy forces—cost the country 30 billion dollars and took 500,000 lives between 1980 and 1988. The Red Cross has so far counted 55,000 people disabled by the war, but the true figure is probably much larger. At least half of those killed or disabled have been women and children. If we add the number of children who have died or become disabled because of malnutrition, disrupted water supply, aborted immunization campaigns, displacement of families, and emotional trauma, the figures become even more staggering.
I was invited to Angola to help disabled persons meet their needs. In the workshop, we tinkered enthusiastically with a few appropriate technologies and other alternatives. But what we accomplished was merely a finger in the dike.
I returned from Angola convinced that the biggest changes regarding the disabled community there need to be made in South Africa and here in the US. The US government must stop supporting terrorists who strategically disable individuals, communities, and nations. It is up to the people of the US to bring our government’s behavior into line with international law and common human decency.
The first step is to educate ourselves so as to overcome the systematic disinformation we are being fed by Washington and much of the mainstream media. It is imperative that more Americans learn about what is going on in Angola and the role that our government is playing there. Once we have become as well-informed as possible, we must share what we have learned with others. Then we need to begin writing letters to the press. And to our Congresspersons: Demand that we get out! HW