Three months ago Angola´s northern city of Malanje was a tragic symbol of the suffering inflicted by the country´s civil war: A ghost town where those that could afford it had left, and the more vulnerable among those those who could not, starved.
Now, although the crisis is far from over, there are signs of a recovery in the town. According to a September survey - after a month of food distribution to over 300,000 war-affected people - the malnutrition rate in the city was around 22 percent: Bad, but better than the results of a government assessment in June that put the figure at 32 percent.
A government offensive in mid-September has also managed to end the sporadic shelling of Malanje by UNITA rebels and has helped raise confidence, according to humanitarian officials. People who had fled to the capital, Luanda, are beginning to return, and increasingly commercial vehicles are plying the route to the capital. “The city is starting to live again,” an aid official working in Malanje told IRIN. But, he cautioned, although the situation may have improved, “it has not yet stabilised.”
Malanje, some 360 km east of Luanda, has historically been a stronghold of the ruling MPLA. But its strategic significance lies in its position as a doorway to the diamond-rich Lundas to the east, and its proximity to a UNITA supply corridor running from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the north to the rebels’ central highlands heartland.
In April last year, with the unravelling of the Lusaka peace accord, villagers started fleeing the countryside for Malanje. By May this year, when the World Food Programme ended its transportation of food to the city, 125-130,000 people were receiving relief assistance. The government held a narrow security perimetre of only a few kilometres around the city - preventing any meaningful agricultural activity - and had a precarious grip on the road west to Luanda. UNITA seemed able to shell Malanje almost at will.
The resumption of humanitarian deliveries in August and general food distribution - albeit half rations - to the war-affected has made “a big difference”, the aid worker said. The government´s drive on UNITA positions has also enlarged the security cordon to the south and east of the city, security analysts told IRIN.
However, ensuring Malanje’s future food security depends on the ability of its citizens to farm. The problem at the moment is there is not enough safe land available, and with the planting season already underway, little locally grown food can be expected to offset the humanitarian supplies needed into next year.
Currently the army is denying access to the territory it has only recently captured. Instead, 3,000 hectares are available for some 49,000 families registered as displaced to the west of Malanje. Even if each family were given one-quarter of a hectare each - well below their requirements for food subsistence - a total of 12,000 hectares would still be needed. There is not enough seed at the moment to sow anywhere near that amount of land.
“The offensive has had a positive impact in terms of better security for the city, although we don’t know what UNITA´s reaction will be,” the aid worker said. But, he added: “We will still need to give substancial amounts of assistance into next year.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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