27 November 2008

And then there was violence

Today on the way home from work, our dear friend had the car he was driving stolen at gunpoint. There were five people in the vehicle; one of the passengers was struck twice but it wasn’t serious and all escaped with their physical health. They lost cell phones, laptops, wallets, a passport, and a considerable chunk of time but all remained cool under pressure. Everything happened very quickly. They were passed by a vehicle which stopped immediately in front of them in such a way that their vehicle was blocked. Five men emerged from the car with weapons trained on the victims’ vehicle (one hand gun and the rest fully automatic military-style rifles). Everyone was ushered out of the car and ordered to hand over the contents of their pockets. The armed men piled into both vehicles and drove quickly away.

I know two things about violence and crime here in Angola. The first is that both are prevalent and that the average Angolan suffers a tremendous amount of each. Unfortunately they likely receive as much from the police as they do from criminals. Certainly the criminal activity of the police is more visible. I can remember two times in the last two weeks that I’ve actually seen bribes changing hands and have seen countless other instances where you can be sure they also did. The second thing I know, however, is that this country is far safer than your average expat or fat cat would have you believe. Companies and embassies regularly disallow their staff to walk on the streets of Luanda beyond the distance from their car to their door (frequently this distance is covered inside a compound instead of in a semi-public space anyway). The wealthy eye the average Joe on the street with haughty suspicion and/or complain about how everyone that works from them steals from them.

Having regular contact with foreigners and the well off I speak loudly and clearly about the safety of my neighborhood and the comfort I take in being well known by my neighbors. While most in my position wouldn’t set car (let alone foot) in my neighborhood I compare it to the suburbs and brag about my neighbors being the mid-level employees that actually work in this country. When people stutter with disbelief at where I walk and how much time I spend on foot not to mention how much I ride the condongueiros (mini-buses), I laugh with pride and talk about how much I’ve learned and add I’ve yet to experience personal violence and see little evidence of crime (excepting the police). I receive warm smiles and greeting from a majority of the people I pass on the street. I do not carry a target on my back and take confidence in the feeling that the average Angolan is far more likely to my aid in a moment of crisis than the average American.

Today, however, I can no longer say, "Knock on wood, we haven’t had any trouble!" Instead, when the inevitable conversation about crime comes up I have to admit that my friend who works for a non-governmental organization and has given everything he has to this place for three years had his car stolen from him and, much worse, his trust violated by an extremely small minority. I have to say that it was off the main road going through a neighborhood where he travels regularly and that it was planned and well executed by professional criminals. Worst, I have to say that I feel less secure here today than I did yesterday and that I worry that before I was being naive. This day was a terrible one for our friend and is a sad one for me.

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