Impending crisis in the north

Aid officials in northern Angola have warned of a new humanitarian crisis in that part of the country, once the coming rainy season blocks access to an already vulnerable population.

In the province of Uige, bad roads mean that only half of the population are within reach of aid operations. Once the rainy season begins in late September, four fifths of the population are expected to find themselves isolated.

A UN official, who did not want to be named, said medical care was the most urgent priority, in a region where sleeping sickness, malaria and leprosy are endemic.

In the municipal area of Bungo in the centre of the province, 47,000 people have no access to medical care, and 30 percent of the population live without shelter. A measles epidemic has been claiming the lives of up to six children each week, the legacy of years of war when infants were denied vaccination.

"I call Uige the forgotten region of Angola," the UN official said. "Some people have been living under conditions of war for eight or nine years."

As is the case elsewhere in Angola, the displacement of peasant farmers as part of the military strategy of the government and UNITA rebels has caused widespread hunger.

"Humanitarian assistance is just a band-aid, when the patient needs surgery," the official told IRIN. "We need a massive injection of non-food items, including seeds and tools. What is sad is that Uige has tremendous agricultural potential."

Soil erosion has created ravines up to 50 metres deep which have caused road surfaces to collapse in some places, and this problem is expected to worsen once the rains start. Elsewhere road surfaces are covered with deep sand, likely to be impassable during the rainy season.

On the road to Sanza Pombo in the east of the province, the military has built a raft as a temporary replacement for the bridge over the Kwilo River, which was destroyed during the war.

However, soldiers have allegedly been trying to extract payment from humanitarian staff using the raft, despite an agreement with the authorities that vehicles that are part of aid efforts could cross the river free of charge.

Many roads have dense bush on either side, making it difficult for vehicles to pass each other. While anyone venturing off the road is in peril - security officials say that landmines have been found less than a metre from the edge of main routes.

An aid official called on the government to press ahead with road repairs as fast as possible: "When the government fixes the roads, a lot of the aid will happen by itself, since this will promote commercial activity as well."

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has appealed for a further US $4.1 million to fund its humanitarian activities in Angola.

The ICRC said in a statement that it was increasing its total budget for operations in Angola to US $20.8 million. The death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi on 22 February 2002, followed by the 4 April ceasefire agreement and subsequent peace and reconciliation initiatives, had resulted in a series of new opportunities and challenges for Angola and its people.

"Until recently most of the country was off-limits to humanitarian organisations. For some weeks now, the security situation has improved and these organisations have begun to gain access to thousands of severely malnourished people who are being discovered in formerly inaccessible areas. At the same time, there have been massive movements of internally displaced people searching for food and hoping to locate family members with whom they have long lost contact," the ICRC said.

Recent field surveys and a review of its operations in Angola had led the ICRC to expand a number of its protection and assistance programmes, the organisation said.