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HEADQUARTERS PRESS BRIEFING BY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

22 May 2002

The most immediate and urgent action required in Angola today is responding to a grave humanitarian crisis,Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told correspondents today at a Headquarters press briefing.

Addressing correspondents after his return from a mission to assess the condition of children in Angola, Mr. Otunnu said that there was “very good news” out of Angola based on three elements: for first time ever after 40 years of war (10 years of war for independence and then more than 30 years of civil war), Angolans felt that peace was now definitive; that they had turned a new page and that whatever problems they might encounter along the way, there was no prospect of returning to war.

“This is earth-shaking good news, especially for the children of Angola, and especially if you consider the many false starts which have been in the path of peace for Angola,” Mr. Otunnu said.

Secondly, after a very bitter and acrimonious war, it was remarkable to note to what extent the issues of national cohesion and unity were in place in Angola. For example, the people arguing most urgently that arrivals from the newly accessible areas should not starve, should be given medicine and succour, were not people from UNITA-controlled areas, nor were they sympathizers of the late Jonas Savimbi. Almost all of them were people associated with the Government, who lived in Government-controlled areas, and who in all likelihood were sympathizers of the ruling party.

Thirdly, he said he was also very struck by the eagerness of all sectors of the Angola population to reach out to each other across the previous dividing line and to begin a very genuine and very serious process of reconciliation. “I found this to be extremely good news out of Angola.”

Finally, he said, in spite of the incredibly damaging and devastating impact of the war on children and youth, the level of resilience and sense of hope and determination on the part of young people he met in the schools and in the camps for the displaced was “simply remarkable”.

“The impact of the 30-year civil war on children has been truly devastating. Look at the internally displaced -- more than 4 million people, the vast majority of whom are children. Something over 100,000 children have been separated from families as we speak. Perhaps between 50-100,000 have been left as orphans. The incidence of street kids has gone up very sharply.”

He added that, “in the course of the 30-year civil war, 5,000 schools were destroyed. And because of the dislocation, the destruction of the war, today more than 60 per cent of school-age children are not attending school and had no access to schools. It was no wonder that today so many kids were suffering from malaria, malnutrition and entirely preventable diseases, because something like 60 per cent of hospitals and medical centres were destroyed.

Although accurate figures were not available, it was well known that the incidence of child soldiering was widespread, and it was one of the things to be tackled in the context of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The provinces he visited, the children he saw, and the women he met, he added, were all severely malnourished. It was simply a question of what degree of malnourishment. All of the children were suffering from several diseases such as malaria, measles, skin conditions, pneumonia, and similar but otherwise preventable diseases. The conditions in the quartering and family areas -- the areas where the 55,000 ex-UNITA soldiers and some 300,000 dependants were assembling –- were very serious. He said that although he did not visit them, he heard very consistent reports by those who had that the situation was even graver. And in all those areas where new arrivals were pouring in and where newly accessible areas had populations in distress, the problems of food, medicine, water and shelter were equally grave.

“So I issued in Luanda, and I repeat here, an appeal to the Government of Angola and the international humanitarian community to join hands to mount a major and immediate mobilization of food, medicine, water and shelter to the populations emerging from the previously UNITA-controlled areas. This is urgent, it’s a matter of saving lives,” said the Special Representative.

Beyond responding to the immediate emergency, a key challenge facing the Government of Angola and the international community was to rehabilitate crucial social services that benefited children -- especially schools, medical centres (above all in the rural areas), and vocational training centres. “I hope very much that now the war is over, the Government of Angola will begin to redirect the distribution of national resources, especially budgetary allocations, to favour the social sector. And within the social sector, it’s particularly important to underline the following: expenditure on education, health and medical centres, and expenditure that will provide nutrition to children and youth in particular.”

He also hoped that the process would soon include identification of ex-child soldiers and their home areas and families, thereby facilitating their return to their homes and to programmes of rehabilitation. Given the large number of children separated from their families -- more than 100,000 -- the task of reunification of those families was obviously an enormous one and could not wait.

Given the fact that Angola today was one of the countries worst affected by the incidence of landmines, it was especially urgent to identify which areas of the countryside contained landmines in order to isolate those areas and thus free other areas for resettlement and agriculture.

Mr. Otunnu said that the landmine awareness campaign was very important. The actual programmes for demining would take time and were very costly. The most immediate aim was identifying and reporting where they were, and then freeing up uncontaminated areas for human resettlement and farming.

In the context of what might be a new United Nations mandate of peacebuilding for Angola, and given the magnitude of the problem facing youth and children, it would be very important that the mandate should have as its central segment the protection and rehabilitation of children and youth, he said.

“I believe that investing in the children and youth of Angola is one of the best ways to actually guarantee and underpin the emerging peace within the country. These young people can go either way. They could become a very powerful force for reconstruction, for creative healing and peacebuilding and progress. Or, if neglected, they could become disconnected, disillusioned, alienated, bitter. And then become a formidable army of spoilers. And Angola simply cannot afford that.”

He said he was encouraged by a number of developments there, by the renewed engagement to the peace process and the very wide spirit of reaching out to each other and seeking both reconciliation and the construction of national unity.

He also discussed with Angolan authorities the importance of creating more opportunities and avenues and framework for young people and children to participate more fully in national life, in the process of consolidating peace and in the reconstruction of the country, he said.

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