Monday, March 24, 2008

No one can stop the rain: a story of aid workers in Angola

On Saturday, Angola celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of the most important battles of the civil war. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale on 22 March 1988 was a key episode in the conflict between the Marxist rulers of Angola supported by Cuba and the UNITA rebels supported by apartheid-era South Africa. While victory was claimed by both sides the conflict was significant as media criticism in South Africa led both sides back to the negotiation table, the departure of all foreign troops from Angola and the eventual independence of neighbouring South West Africa as Namibia.

The Angolan war itself dragged on for well over another decade. It took the death of charismatic UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002 to be the catalyst for a lasting ceasefire. One of the cities worst affected by that war was another Cuito or Kuito as it is better known. Set in the middle of Angola 600km from the capital Luanda, Kuito is the administrative capital of Bié Province and was the scene of a nine month siege by UNITA in 1994. The city was also attacked in 1998 and was left a crumbling and heavily landmined ruin. Only now is the city beginning to plan for the future with the announcement of a new thermal power station comprising four diesel ten-Megawatt generators to be built within 30 months.

The news will be greeted with delight by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Chang, an Australian-Chinese couple who were posted to Kuito in 2000-2001 as aid workers. The pair documented their experiences in the book “No One Can Stop the Rain”. The title comes from a poem by Angola’s first president Antonio Agostinho Neto written in a Portuguese colonial prison in 1960.

In 2000, Wei Cheng was a Hong Kong-based paediatric surgeon, and his wife Karin Moorhouse (her author uncle Frank Moorhouse wrote the introduction to the book) was a senior marketing executive for Nestlé. The pair decided to act out a long-term ambition to work for an overseas aid agency and they signed up for Médecins Sans Frontières. They were assigned to Kuito, Wei as a surgeon and Karin as a financial administrator at the MSF project. They would be arriving at the end of 2000, with the civil war petering to a close and Kuito in government hands, but military violence a very real presence in the nearby countryside. Kuito was a safe haven in an otherwise dangerous landscape just beyond the city limits.

Due to the desperate need to get a surgeon on the ground, Wei arrived in Kuito some eight weeks ahead of his wife. He flew into a hot, listless town that was devastated by years of war. Every house façade was peppered by mortar spray and there was no running water and heavily rationed electricity. His place of work would be the Provincial Hospital of Bié ostensibly managed by Angola’s Ministry of Health. They provided the nurses and administrative staff. But it was MSF who provided most of the drugs and equipment and all of the doctors.

Facilities were rudimentary as was hygiene. Wei was horrified to see people walk into theatre wearing street shoes while scrubbing for an operation simply meant washing hands with soap. Many of Wei’s operations were on victims who had stood on a landmine. Typically the victims had travelled large distances to get to the hospital by which time their wounds were foul smelling and ridden with maggots. More often than not, Wei was left with no option but to amputate. In his first week there, he visited the British humanitarian de-mining organisation called HALO Trust. Here he found out where it was safe to move and where it wasn’t. It was at a HALO Trust site near Kuito where Princess Diana made her famous minefield walk in 1997.

At the time, Kuito’s population of 100,000 was almost doubled by a vast amount of Internally Displaced Persons from neighbouring areas. The IDPs camped around the outskirts of the city in search of security, care and food. But because they had not crossed any international borders they could not come under the jurisdiction of the UNHCR. Despite two million IDPs in Angola, the government in Luanda consistently downplayed the problem. In 2001 Angola exported 800,000 barrels of oil a day, yet the majority of the country lived in abject poverty.

Wei had settled into a rhythm of almost endless surgery by the time Karin arrived in Kuito. Wei forewarned her of what to expect with a photomontage of the patients he had treated. It was a catalog of legs blown away by landmines, children’s arms shredded by bullets, festering wounds, shattered bones, gunshots and distorted limbs. When Karin arrived, Kuito’s dry dusty air struck her as resembling outback Australia. That impression would change quickly with the coming of the rainy season.

Wei and Karin had to deal with a constant stream of children though the hospital. UNICEF have claimed Angola is the second worst country on the planet to be a child. One in three die before the age of five. In 1999 Angola ranked 146th out of 162 nations in terms of human development, despite its oil and mineral wealth. Angola was also the sixth most corrupt country in the world and a million people had died in the 25 year civil war. The capital Luanda had only one doctor for every 50,000 people. This statistic was even worse for the country: one doctor for every 400,000 people, the equivalent of just 50 doctors for the whole of Australia.

The couple gradually got used to life in Kuito. They became “desensitised” to the lack of fresh food, the constant power blackouts and the litany of cruel injuries they had to deal with on a daily basis. Even harder to deal with were the patients they had to turn away because their wounds were not serious enough. Prioritisation was their toughest task. Most of their patients were civilians as the army treated their own. Wei and Karin survived and even thrived due to their strong love for each other, the occasional break in South Africa and Luanda, and the bonds they made with fellow staff, patients and locals. They celebrated Christmas by giving out simple presents to the children in the orthopaedic ward and enjoying a rare food order from Luanda.

Although one of their staff was killed in an ambush, Wei and Karin kept out of harm’s way during their stint in war-ravaged Kuito. The closest they came to trouble was related to Angola’s Independence Day, 4 February, when a bomb exploded at an already gutted premises near the house where they lived. They were away at the time so were not impacted. After eight eventful months, their assignment came to an end. Wei later spoke about his hopes for the book of their experiences. “One could believe that the flickering light of humanity we witness almost daily in this world of conflict and tragedy is not about to be extinguished,” he said, “but rather can be given new energy through the efforts of ordinary people.”


Anonymous said...

Your review made me read this book. I was so moved. Touched by what Angolans endured, but also by the fact that there are people who dedicate time to help.

Anonymous said...

Great Book... I wonder how life would be if people dedicated eight months of their life to help others.

Mario Riva said...

The village of Cuito Cuanavale is 200 kilometers south east of Menongue (administrative capital of Cuando Cubango province). You are mistaking for Cuito Bie (administrative capital of Bie province). Cuito Bie was very far from the operation theater.
Cuito Cuanavale is a village of a few hundred inhabitants.