When war flared up over Kosovo, the world's attention immediately swung to the Balkans -- and stayed there, virtually unbroken, for the three months the conflict took to play itself out. It has been argued that the humanitarian resources devoted to the crisis were out of proportion to its scale; whatever the final verdict is on that score, the international community, including the United Nations' World Food Program, is relieved that the need for resources for the Kosovar refugees was so brief.
Why? Because collective compassion is short-lived. People want "closure" to a problem, and they want it quickly. They want -- and who wouldn't? -- a swift, sound political settlement to justify the money, time and attention expended on a humanitarian crisis. Who knows how generous the world would be if the Kosovo crisis were in its 10th year and the refugees were still languishing in their tents in Albania and Macedonia?
So consider how far international attention would wane if a war dragged on for 25 years. After a quarter-century, the initial shock and concern would have turned into indifference. This is the nightmare in Angola. Civil war has been bleeding the country for so long the cynical observer would be inclined to think it is business as usual there. As for the public at large, so many other issues clamor for its attention.
Angola is teetering on the verge of yet another humanitarian horror, and we have to stop it from falling into the abyss. After a quarter-century of war, the dead already number in the hundreds of thousands, the mutilated more than 100,000, the displaced well into the millions. Meanwhile, the countless hidden land mines and the diseases breeding in dirty food and water have turned Angola into a time bomb. It is, according to the UNICEF Progress of Nations report, the worst country in the world for a child to grow up in.
Children are dying from hunger in Angola. Families have reverted to desperate survival methods: If food is available, children eat last, because they are the most expendable. And those children who survive will come of age amid malnutrition, illiteracy, violence and ruthless epidemics such as polio and meningitis. Their legacy, should they survive, will be a vast plain of scorched earth. People in Angola have become so desperate for firewood that they are harvesting the wooden sticks stuck into the earth to identify the location of land mines.
The fighting, which began in 1978, was renewed last November following two failed cease-fires. The rebel movement UNITA never entirely disarmed or demobilized as it had claimed to do under the cease-fire terms. The government, for its part, ordered the personnel of the U.N. observer mission in Angola to leave the country earlier this year before relenting and rescinding the decision. Neither side has made it easy to end the war.
At the same time, the extreme hazards and security risks associated with visiting Angola mean that few journalists go there to spotlight the problems. Journalists bound for Angola can wait weeks just for a visa.
All these factors have combined to create a regrettable and pernicious insularity for Angola. It would be all too easy to forget about this tragedy. But we can't. To ignore Angola is to turn our backs on people like Cristina Gassova, who trudged through conflict zones to get to a center for the internally displaced at the city of Huambo. She carried her two malnourished babies, one seven months old, the other 18 months. When Cristina arrived she was resigned to the possibility that her younger child would die because she did not have enough breast milk to feed it. The World Food Program got the chance to save that child. But to save the hundreds of thousands of other desperately hungry people in Angola, we need a firm commitment from the international community to bring an end to 25 years of carnage.
The writer is executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program.