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Giving Blood in Angola
August 30, 2004

August 30, 2004
Posted to the web August 30, 2004

Kevin Lowther
Gamba, Angola

Pedro Siloka told the people that I had given blood. First in Portuguese, then in Mbundu, he told the story of my first visit to Bie Province in 1991, when I had given blood at the hospital in Kuito. Thirty people had died outright the day before when the truck they were riding detonated an anti-tank mine on the main road from Huambo, in Angola's central highlands. I had driven past the scene. A lone tennis shoe in the middle of the tarmac had caught my attention. Then I saw the crater.

"His blood flows in the veins of those who survived," Siloka told the large gathering of villagers in Gamba. They were assembled late last month to celebrate the opening of the health center which my organization-Africare-had rehabilitated with their assistance. It had been destroyed during Angola's long conflict, which ended two years ago with the killing of Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA rebel leader, 200 miles to the east.

Pedro Siloka knows something about blood. When the war started afresh in late 1992, he was trapped in Kuito, a picturesque Portuguese colonial town, with its elegant, pink government buildings. For much of the next two years, UNITA and government soldiers fought street-by-street for its control. An estimated 30,000 civilians perished in the shelling and crossfire. Many died in the minefields, which both sides laid surrounding the town, while foraging at night for food.

The avuncular Siloka, a former school teacher, had just joined Africare as its provincial coordinator. He and his wife dug an underground bunker behind their collapsed concrete home. For more than a year, we did not know if he was alive or dead. When the first United Nations relief flight was allowed to land, he emerged and organized a feeding program for small children and the elderly. He saved hundreds of lives while the fighting continued and until peace was restored-temporarily-in late 1994.

Siloka does not claim to be a hero. But for me, he is. He also is a symbol of the resilience of the Angolan people. They endured more than 40 years of struggle, starting with their fight against the Portuguese colonial regime in 1961. When Portugal abandoned the fight in 1975, the two main Angolan factions turned to deal with each other in what became a bloody proxy battleground between East and West.

Cuban forces arrived to stop a South African invasion in 1976 and to support the Soviet-backed party which had secured control of the new government. Savimbi and UNITA retreated deep into the interior. With support from the apartheid regime in South Africa and, later, the Reagan Administration, they fought the Soviet-backed government throughout the 1980s.

This was at heart an Angolan war. Although outsiders stirred the pot, it was Angolans on both sides, or caught in the middle, who fought, bled and died. No one really knows how many died from wounds, disease or hunger. Probably more than one million.

It is impossible to know the long-term human consequences of the Angolan conflict. Yet it is hard to ignore how Angolans are responding to a hard-earned peace. Long dependent on international food aid, they are quickly returning to their lands and producing for themselves. They are establishing makeshift schools until permanent ones can be built. They are rebuilding bridges. Perhaps most important, they are not preoccupied with settling scores.

Kuito itself is a kaleidoscope of change. When I returned in 1994, not a single home or building was unmarked by bullets and shells. Many were completely destroyed. Parachutes left from military drops served as roofs. The surviving civilians moved about, dazed and ragged, wary of landmines and a resumption of the fighting-which would come, as it always did. The nearly absolute quiet struck me, until I realized I had neither seen nor heard a single bird. There were none left.

The birds have returned to Kuito. Neatly dressed children, carrying small stools or plastic chairs, can be seen walking to and from school. People in the streets appear normal, animated, striding somewhere with purpose. The gutted and bullet-pocked government buildings are finally being rebuilt-and painted pink. Pedro Siloka has raised a new home.

I have hope for Angola, largely because of the people. They have fought a war-their war. They are now constructing a peace-their peace. They take pride in both realities, I think.

When it was my turn to speak to the people of Gamba, I told them about the last time I had cut the ribbon at a reconstructed health center, near Kuito, in December 1998. Angolan television had covered the event. Armed police had guarded it. There were rumors of imminent war and that UNITA was lurking nearby. The rumors were correct. Two weeks later the fighting began and the clinic was reduced again to rubble.

This clinic, I predicted to the people of Gamba, would remain standing as a symbol that Angolans are done with war, and with giving their blood. The women ululated. The men clapped. The children stared. Then I cut the ribbon.

Kevin Lowther is Regional Director for Southern Africa at Africare, a Washington-based development and relief organization.


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