After 30 years of civil war, Angola is a country in tatters. Mia Farrow traveled there with her son to bear witness to the devastation as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to report back to America what she’d seen. MSNBC.com chatted with Farrow about her experience, relaying chat room questions to her over the phone. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Farrow
Mia Farrow: Thank you.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Before we begin, can you give us some background on your involvement in this program generally in terms of what you do, and also specifically how it is that you ended up in Angola.
Question from Gina: Has she adopted Angolan children? Is that why she went there?
Mia Farrow: My initial involvement with UNICEF came several years ago and it was at first related to the eradication of polio. I forget what the title was, but I was asked to do this because I had polio myself at 9 years-old and also because I have a son, adopted from an orphanage in India, who is paraplegic as a result of polio. So that was my initial introduction to UNICEF.
Over time my role has expanded. Last year I traveled with my 14 year old son to Nigeria to be there to witness one of the immunization days. During one weekend, 40 million children were immunized. In the process we traveled across Nigeria to many different villages, towns, and cities. It was impossible to confine my interest or focus to polio alone. So, my role as a UNICEF Representative was of necessity expanded during that trip and now I am just “UNICEF’s Special Representative.”
Question from j. e. pary: Was Mia given a tour or allowed to see the country on her own?
Mia Farrow: This year they asked me if I would go to Angola. At the time I knew very little about Angola. I knew probably what most Americans know, just that there had been a war 30 years long, that they had found a new peace that occurred in April. But I really didn’t know a great deal more than that. I knew that there had been rebel forces, we’d all read about UNITA and boy soldiers, child soldiers, and I think boy soldiers were on the cover of many of our national magazines. So the plight of Angola was fixed in my mind as a country that had suffered a great deal. But beyond that generality I knew little. So I made it my business to brief myself as best I could before my trip during the journey there and certainly on the trip itself.
I had two mandates, first to travel around Angola to see and hear as much as I could, to understand as best I could the situation confronting the Angolan people. This was a huge task. The problems in Angola are myriad and just devastating. Nothing in my self preparation nor in the briefing by UNICEF really could have prepared me emotionally for what I found there. The entire infrastructure of the country is devastated -it’s non-existent. There’s a food crisis. Millions of people are being fed by the World Food Program, which is part of the United Nations.
Many of these areas that I traveled to are only recently accessible, and by that I mean within weeks of my visit they had opened up -two weeks earlier. They had not been accessible because they had been occupied by rebel forces. Also not accessible to the general public because there are no internal airlines. The only planes flying in and out of these towns are World Food Program airplanes. So my job, my first mandate, was to be the eyes and ears for the American people because most people can’t travel there. This was an opportunity and a huge responsibility. I took it as an immense moral responsibility to see, to understand, to ask… I asked so many questions.
My second mandate is to come back with this information and represent the problems facing these wonderful people I met who are trying so hard to survive and represent them and their problems as accurately as I possibly can. So I’m not engaged in stage two of my trip.
My choice was not to go to Angola, I don’t make these decisions, UNICEF asks me and if it’s possible within my family for me to leave at the time they want me to go, that’s how it’s decided. I do still have six kids still living at home.
MSNBC-Will Femia: You mentioned your own shock at the situation in Angola, this person asks about your son...
Question from Beverly: I read that you brought your son along on this trip. Are you worried about traumatizing him or other harm that could come to someone so young on this kind of trip?
Mia Farrow: It probably isn’t the safest place in the world even now. My son Seamus is 14 years old but he is a college senior and has tremendous interest in the world and our brothers and sisters in the part of the world that we normally give very little thought to -in Africa, Southeast Asia, countries that are in trouble. And so I felt that if anybody’s going to do something about it when they grow up, he’s likely to be one of those people. I feel while it may be shocking for him, it’s also important for him to grasp that life isn’t just what we see here in the relative luxury of our Connecticut farmhouse, it isn’t what we see when we travel around America. It isn’t anything like that at all.
Simultaneously on this planet there are people who are suffering beyond description. They are innocent people, they didn’t bring this upon themselves. They are the victims of the sins of other people. And while it’s hard to see, it’s important to understand that these people exist. I’m talking to you now because they can’t and I hope to be a voice for them. They need support.
The end result, one hopes, for Angola would be an autonomous Angola. It wasn’t a hopeless trip. My son is writing and article for the New York Times and also a presentation for his college. He is very, very motivated to do what he can now and as his life unfolds. But it’s far from a hopeless situation in Angola. As devastating as it is, I don’t think there is a country more devastated than Angola is currently.
Question from Giani Malto: Now that the fighting is over, what is the next step for Angola in terms of becoming a functioning nation? Are they a democracy? Do they have huge debt? Are they threatened by Muslim fundamentalists?
Mia Farrow: As of April, peace was declared. Last February, the head of UNITA, Savimbi, was killed and the government, President dos Santos, remains fixed in place as he has for the last 30 years since the Portuguese left in 1975. It is not a Democracy, it is far from a democracy. It’s a wealthy country in terms of natural resources. The oil revenues alone are about 6 billion dollars (you get various figures from various sources). They also have diamonds, gold and arable soil. None of this is any use to the people, the people haven’t seen a penny of the oil revenues. The soil is completely devastated right now. It’s been bombed to death, shot to death, and it’s full of land mines.
There are about 2 million or more land mines in Angola all over the place. A third of the population is displaced and they can’t return home because of the land mines. But a future is possible because these things exist. If the government would get behind the people and crucial social programs, feeding the people and getting seeds and tools. UNICEF and other NGOs can’t do it alone. This is potentially a very wealthy country and if they help the people in the ways that the people need to be helped, an autonomous Angola is more than a possibility, it’s an eventuality.
But the big if is if the government is going to get behind the people with its 6 billion dollars in oil revenues. It sure would be nice if the oil companies could work out a way by which the people would see the money, and not just the government and a few select wealthy people.
Question from Bill Franklin: What was/is the US role in Angola? Do we give them money? Weapons? I assume they don’t have oil or we would have ended the war for them long ago.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I didn’t realize they did have oil.
Mia Farrow: They have a lot of oil. We’re getting about 2% of our oil from them. This could easily going to 5% in the next few years. But we fueled this war, we financed this war. We were backing the UNITA forces which lost. The Russian government was backing the government, Dos Santos.
Without outside funding, this war could never have continued for 30 years. Americans can’t just invest in a war for 30 years and then just walk away from theses people who can’t even connect with each other. I don’t think there’s a person in Angola who isn’t looking for someone in their family.
People have been moved by government troops, by UNITA forces, by hunger, by the fact that their villages were encircled and under fire. There was a tremendous hunt to kill Savimbi and in the process the entire town of Kuito, which is in central Angola, there wasn’t one house that wasn’t shot up and destroyed.
When you fly on a World Food Program plane (it was hair raising beside being interesting), you start high and spiral down in a tight spiral because planes have been shot down. The airstrip is just a little unpaved strip in a field. They begin a very tight spiral, a multi-multi-multi tight spiral until you’re down on the ground. They accomplish this within 4 minutes from high altitude to being on the ground.
The same way taking off, they spiral taking off. You’re literally on your side. It’s scary. It’s a heart stopper. So that’s how you get in. But the people can’t connect from one town to another at all. The land mines are a huge problem. People can’t return to their land, they’re afraid to walk on the roads.
Question from AfricanMan: Am happy to see you do some work in Africa which in many cases have been neglected by many westerners. Now, since princess Diana has passed away, who has taken over her high profile position? Is it You? and if yes, what have you done so far for the mine victims in Angola and other nations?
Mia Farrow: I would never presume to fill anyone’s shows, let alone shoes so delicate and well placed as Princess Diana. She did a lot of really fine things in her life. I don’t begin to compare myself to her in any way. The land mines are a huge issue in Angola and in other countries as well. Angola is what I know about now. Really, people can’t begin to go home until we get rid of these land mines.
I met two groups, one American and one English, working on getting rid of the land mines. But given the fact that there are millions of them and given the fact that even with shared information with UNITA forces and government forces, no one is really sure where they are. They’re everywhere. They’re on roads, they’re off roads, they’re in fields, in villages.
And land mine victims are everywhere too. Children blown to smithereens, legless, with one leg. Women and children especially because children think they’re toys and pick them up.
In every village we went to we saw little enactments with puppets for children, this is a UNICEF sponsored program called Landmine Awareness and it showed children how they must not touch these landmines. This is a short term remedy. You’re trying to save children from being blown apart by land mines. At the same time it isn’t going to help the people return home. The only people who can do that are the landmine experts. Land mine by land mine they are taking them out. It’s going to be a lengthy process and I don’t really see how Angola can rebuild in the way that it needs to until it’s rid of the landmines.
I should say also to the African man, I have two African American children and one biracial child from America’s inner cities so I feel… well, probably that’s not even the reason, but I feel very, very connected to the African American community here in the United States, but also our African brothers and sisters over in the African countries. I don’t know why I feel such a connection but ever since childhood I’ve felt this. When I was a child I wanted to be a pediatrician and work in Africa. So this is the closest I could come.
Question from Abbie Devoney: Do you think Bush should have the US more involved in these kind of countries? Don’t you think it’s best for the US to just stay out of it. Most of our biggest problems are ones we create ourselves by getting mixed up in conflicts that are none of our business.
Mia Farrow: This country is now at peace and it’s a hard won peace and the country itself is in a humanitarian crisis that we can’t turn away from. Since we were players in their war we should be players in helping to reconstruct Angola. And as I said before, Angola could be a thriving country. We need to help get rid of land mines, provide essential food supplies that UNICEF and World Food Program is there doing. The other humanitarian partners, the work they’re doing is extraordinary. The American government has to help with funding in the reconstruction of Angola.
I’m not saying we need to get involved in their politics, and I’m not saying that we need to get involved in a long term way. I see this as a short term problem, getting Angola on its feet. Probably the biggest problem is just hoping and praying and keeping our fingers cross that the Angolan government is going to take the lead here and do the right thing. That’s something I’m not qualified to say.
Question from Pat Schultz: Does the resolution of the fighting in Angola give any insight into resolving other long-term conflicts like Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, or even Afghanistan (which is still quite divided in spite of the Bush propaganda)?
Mia Farrow: I visited camps where UNITA soldiers were living and they had temporarily set up their own lives. They were living there together with a lot of the people that were living in UNITA-occupied territory. There are camps where people are living together. They have achieved a peace and at this point they’re exhausted. There seem to be no animosity. They’ve managed to put the blame on Savimbi and now that he’s dead along with other top leaders, they seem to have no animosity for each other at all. And this was a 30 year war. Does it say something about that people can lay down their arms and begin a life of peace, and a new kind of life? Or is it just that a country was so depleted, so exhausted and so without other recourse that from its knees it “hollered injun” (is that what it used to be the thing was?) -they just gave up.
The point is, they’re doing it and they’re doing it together. Everyone’s all mixed up now. There is no army forces, nobody’s fighting anybody else and it seems to be a homogenous blend of people struggling to survive.
When I say struggling, I mean one out of four children die at birth. Fifty percent at least of the children are stunted in their growth. You see a child you think is 5 or 6 and they say they’re 17. You just can’t get your mind around it how emaciated and stunted. The rags on the backs are all they have, standing waiting for a ladle full of this white stuff that UNICEF was handing out that was keeping them alive.
People can help UNICEF. I did a lot of my own research about what organizations are doing what. The other one is Doctors without Borders. They’re there and doing great work. But for me, if I had millions I would be giving it to UNICEF. I don’t have millions, but I give what I can and I give them my time and effort because their operational costs are minimal compared with almost all other agencies and wherever children are in need, you’ll see UNICEF.
Question from kellima: Do women have any rights in Angola?
Mia Farrow: Oh boy. Women in Africa, generally a lot needs to be done for women. Women are not being educated, not only in Angola but my trip to Nigeria, one point I would make over and over again was that women need to be educated too. In Nigeria a man can marry a girl as young as 10 years old and have as many wives as he wants. I’m not sure if that’s true in Angola where the country is so devastated there isn’t village life, but I do know the role of women. Wherever you see people carrying heavy, heavy loads down these dusty roads, it’s women carrying them. Men will be walking around carrying nothing. Women are not given the same status as men. And this needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
Question from saveTHEworldNOW: Mia, what is the most important thing we/the U.S. government needs to know as a result of your visit to Angola?
Mia Farrow: I’ve been trying to tell you in the last half hour about a country that seems very far away, that is not accessible to most Americans or anyone really outside Angola. I’ve been trying to tell you what the effects of a 30 year war can be.
I’m a pacifist going back to the 60’s, I don’t let my kids play with squirt guns. But if I could bring all of you to this town of Kuito and you could see the utter devastation of this town and understand what happened to this country through war, I don’t think anybody would ever have the spirit to start another war. The town of Kuito should stand as a memorial not only for the people who died there but for the future to say, “Look, a whole city can be razed to the ground and all of the people in it can have lost their families.” There is no complete family in the town of Kuito.
And what was it all about? The ambition of a couple of greedy people and the big players are oil and diamonds. Another thing that brought that war to an end was Khofi Anan, the Secretary General of the United Nations got a moratorium on the diamond trade and the diamonds were supplying a lot of money for the UNITA forces.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Did we miss anything that we ought to have covered?
Mia Farrow: Yes, I would like to say that anyone who wants to support UNICEF, there are two ways. There’s a phone number is 800-FOR-KIDS. Or online it’s UNICEFUSA.org.
That’s important to know because Halloween is coming up and those little UNICEF Halloween boxes are everywhere. Maybe people have kids and maybe those kids are going to see those little boxes. If their parents tell them a little bit about our brothers and sisters in Africa and how they’re suffering and when they put their pennies in those boxes it really is reaching kids who need a meal, who need basic vaccinations, kids who are dying of diarrhea, of malnutrition, of respiratory infections, of malaria. This money goes to help those kids and that’s really a good reason.
Even if you can only give ten cents, that’s a meal for several kids, probably more than several. I would urge people to support UNICEF. Or if you have another organization that’s working over there, I don’t know of another other than Doctors without Borders but there are other organizations working there.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Have you given up on the U.S. government itself to do these things? Is that a lost cause?
Mia Farrow: I know that the U.S. government has been the biggest donor in terms of helping Angola, so no, I haven’t given up on the U.S. government. I know we are very preoccupied with our own problems right now, our stock market, and our people with savings depleted, my own included. But we can’t turn away from a humanitarian crisis of this proportion.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Ms. Farrow for your time today.
Mia Farrow: Thank you! Take care.
MSNBC-Will Femia: More on Mia’s trip to Angola.