Struggling through Peace: Return and Resettlement in Angola

Friday, August 1, 2003
Southern Africa

After three decades, hundreds of thousands of deaths and mass displacement of the civilian population, the death in February 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, UNITA), led to the signing of a ceasefire on April 4 of the same year and put an end to Angola's bloody conflict. Peace has brought hope but also new challenges to Angola. One of the critical challenges facing the country in its transition to peace will be the successful return and integration of millions of internally displaced persons, refugees in neighboring countries, and former combatants displaced during the conflict.

A year after the signing of the peace accord, more than two million internally displaced persons and approximately 25 percent of refugees living abroad have already returned to their places of origin. However, the majority of those displaced by the war remain in exile, in transit or temporary resettlement sites. Tragically, the return of internally displaced persons—often without any formal assistance—has led to hundreds of deaths and maimings, due primarily to the widespread presence of landmines in Angola, and has left hundreds of thousands of civilians in urgent need of assistance and protection.

Human Rights Watch believes that the successful transition from war to a lasting peace demands that the fundamental rights of these three groups be respected. In particular, the Angolan authorities and the United Nations (U.N.) must guarantee security, ensure delivery of humanitarian relief supplies, and provide education and other basic services to those in transit camps. They must also work towards achieving similar conditions in the areas to which the internally displaced, refugees, and former combatants will return. Angolan authorities and the U.N. agencies should pay special attention to the needs of women, children and other vulnerable groups. Failure to ensure that these standards are met—and promptly—will aggravate the current situation, threaten Angola's recent peace and undermine its hopes of development.

Most importantly, the Angolan government must respect international and domestic law requiring the resettlement of displaced people to be implemented on a voluntary basis. Despite recent legislation designed to regulate the resettlement process (the Norms for the Resettlement of Internally Displaced Populations) the Angolan authorities have in some cases induced or forced many internally displaced persons to return by making false promises about the conditions of the areas to which they have been sent. In one case in Bengo Province reported to Human Rights Watch, Angolan police entered a transit camp and burned homes and crops of displaced people living there. In some instances, as revealed in the province of Uíge, local authorities have restricted or discouraged the movement of internally displaced persons. Those who have returned have often encountered abysmal conditions such as food shortages, poor hygiene, lack of infrastructure, limited access to social services such as health services, and landmine infestation.

Many Angolan refugees, mainly those living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia have returned to Angola spontaneously with their own limited resources. Some returnees have suffered extortion while crossing borders and checkpoints. Others have drowned while trying to cross rivers. At border areas, women and girls have been victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. At this writing, the basic conditions to receive these returnees are still not in place. Transit and temporary centers have yet Human Rights Watch 1 August 2003, Vol. 15, No. 16 (A)
to be established at important entry locations in bordering provinces. Most of these areas of return are still neither safe nor accessible to humanitarian agencies. Authorities have dedicated their limited resources to the assistance of former combatants first and, to a lesser extent, internally displaced persons.

The integration of former combatants, estimates of which vary widely, presents another serious challenge. To further complicate matters, ex-combatants have been classified as either internally displaced persons or returning refugees to guarantee their access to humanitarian assistance. In general, women and girls, including former combatants and wives and widows of combatants, have been excluded from the demobilization process. They bear the burden of their own subsistence and that of their children alone. Child soldiers, boys and girls seventeen and younger, have also been excluded from the benefits of the demobilization program.

After decades of civil war, Angola's infrastructure lies in ruins. Landmines litter the countryside and hospitals, health clinics, and schools were destroyed in the fighting. A lack of qualified professionals in the interior means basic health and education services are not available to the majority of the population. Human Rights Watch is concerned that efforts to develop Angola's devastated infrastructure do not overlook the needs of those Angolans who remained in their place of origin during the civil war.
This short report is based on an investigation by Human Rights Watch conducted in March and April 2003. Our researchers interviewed over fifty internally displaced persons, refugees, and former combatants in the transit centers and the camps of Bengo, Bengo II and Kituma in the province of Uíge and Cazombo in the province of Moxico.

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted twenty-one interviews with concerned U.N. agencies, NGOs and other organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), Oxfam-GB, GOAL, African Humanitarian Aid (AHA), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-Spain, MSF-Belgium, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Trocaire, Associação Justiça, Paz e Democracia (AJPD), Liga da Mulher Angolana (LIMA) and Mulheres, Paz e Desenvolvimento. Human Rights Watch researchers also interviewed Angolan central government officials and police, and conducted six interviews with local Angolan authorities in three provinces. Where necessary, the names of those interviewed are withheld or changed in this short report to protect their confidentiality.

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Human Rights Watch, Struggling through Peace: Return and Resettlement in Angola