“Unimaginable suffering” and “appalling conditions” have been reported by Father Andrzej Halemba and Ulrich Kny of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), who traveled to Angola during the past two weeks and were able to visit some of the refugee camps in the town of Damba in northern Angola.
The governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and the neighboring Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) are currently expelling all Angolan citizens living in their two countries. The methods of the authorities are quite brutal, with police and civilian groups arriving unannounced and ordering the Angolans to leave the country immediately.
Angolan employees are being fired from their jobs and schoolchildren sent away from school. Thousands of people are being forced to set out immediately back to Angola without even being given the chance to gather up their few possessions. Families are being torn apart in the process and children have been left behind alone, unable to find their parents in the pitiless confusion. Angolans with a Congolese husband or wife are being forced to separate and leave their spouse behind.
The refugees are obliged to travel sometimes as much as 550-600 miles on foot, with no consideration being shown to the elderly, the sick, children and pregnant women, the two ACN staff report. They were told for example of a woman who, despite a recent operation wound on her back, was forced to walk some 65 miles on foot.
Other women have given birth to babies by the roadside. One fifteen-year-old boy arrived after a 50 mile walk, totally exhausted and with bleeding feet in a refugee camp, only to have his cooking utensils stolen from him. Many people, including the elderly and young children, arrive having eaten nothing for days.
The two Angolan Dioceses of Uíje and Mbanza Congo are now facing the challenge of helping thousands of starving, exhausted and in many cases gravely ill refugees. In the town of Damba, five reception camps have been set up, but heavy thunderstorms have so softened ground that conditions where the tents have been set up are quite catastrophic, with huge puddles forming inside some of the tents themselves.
Ulrich Kny reports: “Some of the refugees are attempting to continue walking straight on to their relatives in other villages. Others have no idea where to go – their villages were totally destroyed during the civil war and their relatives have long since fled. Others again have been turned away by their relatives and are returning, still more deeply wounded, to one of the reception camps.”
In Damba, four Franciscan Capuchins and four Sisters of Mercy are caring for the flood of refugees. The sisters have opened up their convent to the refugees. Other refugees are seeking shelter in empty or unfinished buildings.
“The sisters are helping as much as they can. They are taking people in, distributing food, utensils, nappies, medicines and clothing; they are making sure that the refugees are vaccinated against tetanus, polio and other diseases and trying to provide spiritual and psychological support to the suffering,” Father Halemba reports. Every day they care for hundreds of people, while dozens of volunteer helpers from the parish are also helping them. But the number of refugees is growing from day to day.
Estimates suggest that in the last few weeks as many as 40,000 Angolans have been expelled from the two Congos. It appears that this is a blatant act of “revenge” for the expulsion of illegal Congolese refugees in Angola, which began two years ago. Unlike that action, however, the expulsion from the two Congos is not limited to illegal immigrants but is directed against all Angolans, who have been living legally in the two countries, either as refugees from the Angolan civil war or for other reasons, the two ACN representatives explained.
The bishops of the Dioceses of Uíje and Mbanza Congo have appealed urgently to ACN for help for the refugees, and the charity is looking to its generous benefactors for donations.