By BARRY HATTON - Associated Press Writer
LUANDA, Angola (AP) — The evening rush-hour traffic lurches along a busy street in Angola’s capital when suddenly a boy pops his head out of a hole in the road and takes a look around.
Cars swerve away as he and a few others nimbly wriggle out of the sewers where they live to begin scavenging for dinner in Luanda’s garbage cans. The ragged, barefoot boys scuffle playfully on their way to the trash outside grimy apartment blocks.More than a dozen boys live underground at Antonio Barroso Street, just a handful of the estimated 5,000 children in the city left homeless by the Angola’s civil war.
A 12-year-old who says his name is Fender has lived underground for three years. He says he enjoys the freedom of his life on the streets but is reluctant to give details of what he does all day.“We go out for walks around town seeing what we can find to eat,'’ he said.
Although Luanda is heavily protected by the army and removed from battles raging in the countryside between government troops and UNITA rebels, the children are still victims of the fighting.
Aid workers say parents who see the conflict headed their way send their children on the last flights to the rundown coastal capital in hopes of saving them.But the city of several million people is often "the end of the line" for the children, aid workers say. Unless they can find family or are picked up by social institutions, they must fend for themselves in a city already overburdened by tens of thousands of people displaced by the war.
The children grow up in filthy, garbage-strewn streets rarely visited by refuse trucks. They spend their time looking for scraps to eat or hustling for change. Fun is hanging onto the back of a truck for a hair-raising ride along the city’s potholed roads.Public reaction to the homeless children ranges from complaints that they are delinquents to the charitable exchange of food for small chores.
Elena, 14, and Mangota, 15, are prostitutes who work on a murky side street. Elena looks younger than she claims. Both orphaned, the miniskirted girls say they make $35 a night that helps feed the numerous brothers, sisters and cousins with whom they share a hut."We usually have three or four clients a night," Elena said.
They have a modest ambition: to save enough money to invest in beer to sell at the side of road, competing with dozens of other beer vendors throughout the city.In the Cassenda neighborhood near the airport, 17-year-old Belita cradles her 1-year-old baby, Carlos, outside their home - the rusted shell of a wrecked car that was left to decay.
The shell, where Carlos was born, is covered with strips of cardboard and cloth. Inside there is a mattress and blankets. There are no toys, no books, no television.Aninha, 16, Belita’s friend who shares the car, says all the kids help raise Carlos.
"He’s a good boy. He doesn’t keep us awake at night," she said.An Irish non-governmental organization called GOAL is trying to help the street children, although it is overwhelmed by a surge of new arrivals since the civil war in the southwest African nation, which began in 1975, resumed in December after a four-year pause.
GOAL has set up makeshift classrooms around the city. On weekday evenings, four volunteer teachers give 90-minute classes in reading and writing.In a dirty car lot wedged between two 12-story apartment buildings, teacher Paulo Domingos props a blackboard against the skeleton of a long-abandoned car and starts his class under the dim streetlights.
Twelve young boys sit on old tires or rusting engine blocks, or lean against cars, as they recite the alphabet within view of an old Volkswagen van, picked clean of anything removable, which is their home.GOAL also tries to reunite family members, but aid workers say the job is getting more difficult because of the flood of new arrivals.