Poor shut out of 'New Life'

A long line of homeless people formed outside Angola's National Assembly earlier this month, paitiently waiting to hand in individual petitions to a government official.

The queue - made up of 250 of the capital's dispossessed - defied the midday sun at its hottest, snaking around the block and spilling onto the well-manicured lawns outside government ministries.

"Our houses have been destroyed by the government," explained one 20-year-old, who gave his name only as Felizao. "Now we want an audience with the president of the National Assembly. We are demanding compensation."

The complainants were former inhabitants of Cambamba I and Cambamba II, both poor areas on the outskirts of Angola's capital, Luanda, close to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' official residence 'Futungo dos Belas'.

As well as petitions, the residents also sent letters to dos Santos outlining their demands - an audacious form of direct action in a country where civil society is weak.

The forced evictions were condemned by Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, as an infringement of human rights. He described the dispersal of the Cambamba residents as part of an ongoing pattern in Angola of a "lack of prior notice, inadequate or no consultation" - charges the government strenuously denies.

On 13 March police and members of a private security company moved in to destroy the homes of 600 people to make way for the expansion of a government-sponsored housing project - ironically called 'Nova Vida' or New Life.

According to Kothari, this was the fourth eviction carried out in the area in recent months, leaving thousands of people homeless and without shelter.

After Nigeria, Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's second largest oil producer. It pumps 1.3 million barrels per day, and with record oil prices, is reaping windfall earnings. Housing - especially to accommodate the growing number of foreigners flocking to take advantage of the country's oil bonanza and reconstruction boom – has become big business.

According to the latest government figures, the state-run private investment agency ANIP approved 290 investment projects amounting to US $2.577 billion in 2005 - with the construction sector representing 85.4 percent of the total, as the country rebuilds after a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002.

But the reconstruction drive hasn't left much room for the residents of Cambamba, living on land the government accuses them of occupying illegally.

"In 1975 at the time of independence there were half a million people in Luanda. Now there are over 4 million - and all these people need to find security and livelihood. So the government accuses people of being illegal in order to take the land," alleged Rafael, who helped organise the National Assembly petition, and is a member of the local NGO, Habitat SOS.

The government claims prior notice of the Nova Vida expansion was given. District administrator Jose Frank told IRIN that people had moved into the area recently, hoping to swindle the government.

"We will compensate those who are genuine," Frank said sitting in his office on the outskirts of Luanda. "Look around in this area," he added, pointing to the slums outside his window. "You need order and you need the space to build social services. We must take a long-term approach."

But Luís Araújo, head of Habitat SOS, disagrees and lays the blame squarely with the authorities. "The government has invested nothing in urban planning. So it just uses violence against the poor."

Luanda Provincial Governor Job Capapinha has set up a commission of inquiry into the forced evictions.

Maria de Gonga would like the opportunity to give her testimony. She was returning home from hospital with her sick infant when the police arrived in Cambamba at around lunch time. "I came back and my house was destroyed," she said, cradling her baby. She and other residents have been forced to sleep under a baobab tree for the past week. "Nobody comes here to represent us, we are poor. What can we do?"

According to Habitat SOS, which has been monitoring government evictions of slums - popularly referred to as 'musseques' - for three years, members of the police as well as agents of a private security company shot into the crowd of residents, seriously wounding a 5-year-old child in the knee. Other witnesses describe how they were beaten with whips.

Amnesty International has launched a campaign against the security forces involved, alleging that they acted with excessive force, not proportional to the level of resistance offered by the unarmed population.

In the end 325 houses - mostly made of metal sheets and cement blocs - were destroyed, along with the residents' belongings. Until now, there has been no indication of the legal mandate for these actions by the government, and no compensation has been offered.

In the windswept plains of Cambamba, the bulldozer tracks are still fresh in the uprooted fields where the residents grew food for subsistence and to sell at a nearby market. What's left of the houses, splintered wood and stray pieces of sheet metal, sit crumpled below the gaze of the nearby Nova Vida condominiums, neatly arranged in pretty pink and white rows.

"The Europeans get to live in condos while we live like this - sleeping rough in the outside - no food, no doctors. Just mosquitoes. There is no law for us," said Manuel Antonio standing outside his makeshift shack in a nearby field, having salvaged what he could of his house.

In nearby Benfica on the outskirts of Luanda, inside the office of Habitat SOS, human rights activist Alberto explained what he thought was the logic of the evictions: "There isn't enough space in the city anymore, housing there is too expensive, so the rich are moving out to the periphery where there's more space to build. But they don't want to pay; only take. Right now the government is not interested in improving the lives of people in the slums. It is a government of the city - not of the slums."

Habitat SOS has taken it upon itself to demand representation for those who have been left behind in Angola's growth boom. "Pacifist resistance is the only way. If we are violent the police will beat us," said Arajao.

As the queue of petitioners outside the parliamentary building begins to thin out, one curious onlooker expressed shock at such a brazen display of defiance. "This is not typical," he said. "To challenge the government here is very difficult."