NGOs urge govt to apologise for war atrocities

Human rights activists in Angola on Tuesday called on the government to follow the lead of former rebel group UNITA and apologise for its part in one of the longest and most violent conflicts in Africa.

UNITA political affairs secretary Abilio Camalata told Radio National on Monday that the ex-rebel movement had "conducted a war and shouldered the blame for many errors committed during the conflict, as deaths occurred and nobody can repay a life ... It is in this context that UNITA comes before the people to ask for pardon".

The apology made clear that UNITA's armed struggle was propelled by a "political project" and "wasn't one person's personal adventure".

Three decades of war in Angola ended in February 2002 with the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi. The conflict left a million people dead and one-third of Angola's population displaced. Massive humanitarian needs have emerged as the international community gains access to areas previously under UNITA control.

But while NGOs welcomed UNITA's apology, saying that it was a "remarkable step towards reconciliation", there were concerns over the government's willingness to shoulder responsibility for its part in the conflict.

"For years Angolans went through a collective madness. It is only right that those responsible for years of war claim responsibility for their actions. UNITA owes every Angolan this apology, but an apology such as this should have been done in a more formal way. Thousands of lives were lost and it not enough to apologise to people over the radio," Open Society country representative Rafael Marques told IRIN.

Marques added that until the ruling MPLA government acknowledged its part in the civil conflict, reconciliation among Angolans would remain elusive.

"The government is not exempt from the guilt. It is time for the MPLA to come out and say exactly how they helped to destroy the country. Without an apology the government will continue to have a green light to commit crimes against its own people," Marques said.

Senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, Joao Porto, agreed that it would be timely for the government to share responsibility for the "collateral" damage as a result of the war.

"UNITA's apology makes it very clear that there was a clear political agenda behind their struggle, and that contrary to popular opinion it was not a personal war of Savimbi's. It is in this context the apology is being made. The apology cannot be seen as a sign of weakness though, but rather a recognition of the consequences of a brutal war.

"Nevertheless, the government should definitely do the same. Whether or not it does the same remains to be seen. But the MPLA is firmly in control and may not think it necessary," Porto told IRIN.