The Angolan government and the United Nations are failing to ensure the safe and voluntary return of millions of Angolans to their homes, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 29-page report, “Struggling Through Peace: Return and Resettlement in Angola,” documents several incidents of government authorities using violence, or the threat of violence, to drive people out of camps where they had been living sometimes for years. The Human Rights Watch report also raises concerns about reported incidents of rape and other sexual violence against internally displaced women and returning refugees.

“The end of the conflict in Angola is a blessing for millions of Angolans who can now return home,” said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “But unless urgent measures are taken to stop these abuses, peace will be a curse instead.”

Hundreds of Angolan refugees have spontaneously returned to their homes since the ceasefire of April 2002, but millions of internally displaced people, refugees and ex-combatants remain in exile, in transit or in temporary resettlement sites within Angola.

Rather than paying special attention to children, women, and vulnerable groups, the Angolan government has granted preference to ex-combatants for resettlement. The government has also failed to provide people with identity documents that would help them get access to humanitarian assistance, which is in any case inadequate.

“Angola is an oil-rich state with the resources to help its people,” said Takirambudde. “There´s no excuse for the way they have been suffering.”

Angolan law has incorporated international standards on the protection of the displaced, but the government has failed to respect that law in practice, Human Rights Watch charged.

Landmines have killed or maimed hundreds as they have tried to return home, Human Rights Watch said.

"U.N. agencies have also failed to take effective steps to ensure the protection of Angolans from human rights violations. Human Rights Watch urged the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and U.N. Human Rights Division in Angola to increase their outreach to vulnerable groups whom the Angolan government has ignored in resettlement efforts. Human Rights Watch also appealed to the donor community to fully fund the U.N. interagency appeal for Angola.

The Human Rights Watch report urges the Angolan government and international agencies to ensure reasonably uniform conditions in the areas to which the internally displaced, refugees, and former combatants will return, and to pay special attention to the needs of women, children and other vulnerable groups. Most importantly, the Angolan government must respect international and domestic law requiring the voluntary basis on which displaced people should be resettled.

Findings: Forced Return

Human Rights Watch found that local authorities have forced internally displaced Angolans to return to their home areas by violence or threat of violence. One such incident occurred in transit center Cambabe II, in Bengo Province. Local administration and police forces entered the camp in September and October 2002, and burned the internally displaced Angolans´ homes and 10 acres of crops. With their homes and crops destroyed, the displaced people had nowhere to go except their home areas, which were not ready to receive them. Most fled immediately, without stopping to gather the animals or possessions that had survived the fire.

One Angolan humanitarian worker who was present at Cambabe II and witnessed the burning of the displaced persons´ homes, told Human Rights Watch:

They were forced to leave the area because the Government wanted to have the land for its own agricultural projects. The [internally displaced] lost ten acres of crops—sweet potatoes and manioc. Burning houses was part of the Government´s policy.

In another case, the government threatened to suspend assistance to people in the camps they had been living in for many years. Another humanitarian worker reported:

Local administration determined that the camps [at Bengo II] had to be emptied. They told us that the return process was officially open and people should go back to their areas of origin. However, they did not provide transportation or other assistance and they threatened to suspend current assistance. And then, in July 2002, there was a general embarrassment, when WFP food distribution was temporarily suspended in Bengo and Feira [transit centers].

Marlene V., 28, told Human Rights Watch that local authorities instructed her family to leave Bengo II and go to Sanza Pombo (their place of origin), even though they wanted to remain at Bengo II. She said:

I don´t have any one there. My mother and father passed away and my children are going to school here [in Negage]. In Sanza Pombo there are no health centers or other services. My husband went there and told me so.

In Bengo II, there were about 12 families from Sanza Pombo that did not wish to return. Jorge S., 33, told Human Rights Watch their reasons for remaining:

We have been here since September 1999. Here we have a house and land to work on. ‘Return´ means go to a place where roads don´t even go.

In other cases, displaced people have been prevented from moving where they want to go, in particular to Luanda, the capital city. Helena S., 29, a displaced woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Uíge, where she had been living as a displaced person for years, told us that local authorities had been preventing her from moving on to Luanda, where five of her children and other family members were living. She told a Human Rights Watch researcher:

I have not seen my mother for seven years. We were separated during the war. I am from Mbanza Kongo. Here [in Negage] I don´t have land. I don´t have anything. I have five children in Luanda and two here with me. I wanted to go to Luanda where I have family but they told us to wait. I have been waiting for ten months. I´ve been waiting [ever] since there was finally peace.