Protesters battle shunting of a shantytown in Angola

Residents and activists mobilize to fight against government moves to shift shantytown off prime real estate.

The shantytown of Boavista is perched on the side of a mountain. Not a natural mountain, but one that has swollen over the years as piles of uncollected trash have accumulated there. There are no real roads, just rocky, narrow paths between the small huts and shacks. Pigs wander in the muddy run-offs, and children everywhere play, fight with toy guns, or help their parents prepare food.

But these days there is a new sight in Boavista - a large empty plot filled with rubble, right in the center of the shantytown. This is where 800 families used to live. Their homes were demolished last month, leaving the odd single shoe or school book. Children pick through the piles looking for small treasures, which the original homeowners may not have had time - in their haste - to rescue from the bulldozers. They play football on the newly open space, using broken pieces of cheap furniture as the goal posts.

The shantytown of Boavista is a stone's throw away from Luanda, Angola's capital. Home to 14,000 families, Boavista sits in striking contrast to its surroundings. Above it, sprawls a wealthy neighborhood, where most of the foreign embassies are situated. Below it is the sparkling Bay of Luanda.

On July 8th, armed police stormed Boavista, moved 800 families to a tent camp 27 miles out of town, and bulldozed their shantytown property. Now, most of those people can't afford the daily bus fare to town for schools, churches, jobs, or friends. Alternative housing has been promised, but nothing has happened.

The government justifies the evictions, saying Boavista is fraught with safety hazards and that houses were built illegally. It also cites concerns that the town might be harboring rebel fighters in the ongoing civil war. It plans to remove the 13,000 remaining families in coming months.

Residents and activists here say the government is not acting out of concern for Boavista residents. Instead, they say, the government and its state oil subsidiary SONANGOL are paving the way to build a multimillion-dollar shopping and entertainment complex on the site.

In a country where few typically speak out against the government, and no culture of protest exists, a growing number of protesters appear to be changing that by challenging the government's moves in Boavista.

"This is a test case, and if we don't fight back, we will continually be crushed," says David Mendes, a human rights lawyer. Mr. Mendes is collecting property deeds and tax receipts and is preparing a lawsuit. "It's not much, but it is a beginning."

On the day after the first evictions, residents marched in protest. Subsequent demonstrations have been banned by the government, which has aired stern warnings on TV saying that anyone who violated the order would be severely punished.

Meanwhile, some churches are using a church-run radio station to debate the issue and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are uniting to pressure the Angolan government.

"The more illiterate and the poorer people become in this country, the less they have to lose from speaking out," says Raphael Marques, a political activist and writer. "Two years ago Boavista would not have even considered protesting. Now we are less passive. Less scared."

Still, government claims of safety hazards ring true, to some degree. Last year, a mudslide washed several tin shacks off their fragile foundations, killing 11 people. But Boavista is no worse off than dozens of other shantytowns scattered in and around the capital.

For many people here, the eviction of the Boavista residents is a classic example of all that is wrong in Angola: The wealthy elite enriches itself without regard for the poor, using the ongoing civil war as an excuse, they say.

Since independence in 1975, Luanda's population has grown from half a million to almost 4 million. But little has been added to the infrastructure, and much has deteriorated. Some 50 percent of this capital's residents do not have access to proper latrines. Even more must buy drinking water from street vendors.

The difference in this case, says Boavista activist Joseph Rashgadinho, is that Boavista is sitting on property worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The March edition of the SONANGOL oil company magazine describes its planned development. "We will construct a commercial area with entertainment clubs, restaurants, bars, leisure areas, a supermarket, swimming pool etc.," the glossy reads. "[However], ... the project is a challenge that requires a joint solution with the provincial government of Luanda," it continues. "They will need to construct a residential area to which to relocate the people of Boavista."

But the government officials are wrong to point at the war as a reason for the evictions, says lawyer Mendes. Officials from the UN and NGOs agree. They criticize the government's actions in Boavista, although they asked not to be named, to avoid getting into confrontations with the government.

But when asked to provide food for the hapless new refugees, the organizations collectively declined, saying that in a country where their resources are already terribly stretched, this problem is of the government's own making.

Isabel Emerson is director of the National Democratic Institute in Angola, an organization that promotes civil society. She sees this as a possible impetus for change.

"Civil society is often accused of being passive, but as Boavista shows, we are not," she says, speaking of a wider movement. "We are suing, we are demonstrating. There is some incremental change - and civil society is maturing."

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