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Tuesday 27 December 2005
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UGANDA: Humanitarian crisis persists in northern region

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Gulu, Kitgum and Pader - the districts that have borne the brunt of LRA atrocities

KITGUM, 17 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - The stream of people trudging along a road in northern Ugandan stretches for about two kilometres. Tense soldiers armed with AK-47 rifles walk alongside. The civilians have just received a bundle of food each from a relief agency. Now they are bound for Kitgum Town, 22 km away, where they plan to pass the night.

It is a scene that repeats itself each night in the Kitgum area and other parts of northern Uganda.

"People are still very scared because the rebels have changed tactics - moving in smaller groups," George Canopwonya, chairman of Kitgum Matidi subcounty, told IRIN on 28 October. "They have far less arms, but the smaller groups are more vicious towards civilians."

According to Canopwonya, a group of seven Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels had abducted a 52-year-old man two days earlier from Kitgum Matidi, but he was later rescued. "Two weeks ago, they killed a soldier and before that, they had killed a man and abducted four people - two of whom are still missing," he said.

"The worst was on 14 June when they killed 13 women and a man who had gone to look for mangoes to eat," Canopwonya added. "Each of them had their hands tied behind and were then cut with ‘pangas’ on the back of the head. We found one baby crying on the back of its dead mother."


Ugandan officials claim the national army has lately scored major successes against the LRA.

"Kony [LRA leader Joseph Kony] probably has only 500 fighters left," the army spokesman in the northern region, Lt Paddy Ankunda, told IRIN in Gulu on 26 October. "The conflict has subsided and the rebels are surrendering every day."

Analysts in the region disagree, saying the LRA force still has at least 2,000 fighters.

"At the end of 2002, the army said Kony had 700 fighters left - then last year they said they had killed over 1,000," one analyst, who did not want to be named, told IRIN. "Now they say there are 500 left. The math does not add up."

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) also do not feel the LRA has been seriously weakened.

IDPs colleting water from a well in Bobi camp near Gulu
"The rebels are still active in this region," Charley Okot, a leader at Lagoro IDP camp, 38 km west of Kitgum, told IRIN. "Yesterday, they stole cabbages from our gardens near the camp and last month they took four women who had gone to collect water."

The head of Bobi IDP camp, a sprawling settlement of 22,765 people just outside Gulu town, also told IRIN the rebels had been sighted nearby only days earlier. "They dress in civilian clothes to disguise themselves," Alex Odong told IRIN. "If the government thinks they are finished, it is wrong."

Reports compiled by relief agencies in Gulu show that there are fewer attacks on civilians, but the situation in Kitgum and Pader continues to be precarious. In September, seven women were hacked to death by rebels near Kitgum and another eight persons were executed near Padibe.

According to the Ugandan army, hundreds of LRA fighters have been killed or rescued in recent years, while many commanders have surrendered to the military. The feeling is that the LRA has grown weaker, thanks largely to "Operation Iron Fist" - a military operation in which the Sudanese government has allowed the Ugandan to pursue the LRA inside Sudan.

Relief workers in the region are optimistic, but point out that needs remain huge.

"The military side is getting better," Andrew Timpson, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gulu, said. "But the situation will take a long time to normalise."

"There are indications that actual combat has declined," Mohammed Siryon, head of the OCHA office in Kitgum, told IRIN. "But there is still widespread fear and the humanitarian situation remains serious."

A relief worker in Gulu, who requested anonymity, told IRIN: "It is still a cat and mouse game. IDPs cannot go beyond three kilometres from their camps because the LRA are still active. The reality is that the situation is not yet safe."


The district chairman of Kitgum, Nahaman Ojwee, insisted that while the LRA could have been weakened, the humanitarian situation remained a major crisis.

"Militarily, the army is dealing with the situation," he told IRIN in Kitgum on 28 October. "But from a humanitarian point of view, it is no different from Darfur."

"What disturbs me is the fact it is such a forgotten crisis," Ojwee said. "The media and the international community would rather highlight the situation in Darfur than the one here. Is it because we do not have resources that could interest the international world?"

"We are as desperate as the people in Darfur," he added. "We lack food, health services and education facilities in the camps. For example, we have only one doctor for every 50,000 people, yet we cannot afford to attract any skilled medical workers to come here."

Ankunda said the army was discouraging IDPs from returning home because it was not yet safe enough.

"It is not yet time to return to the villages because the LRA still has pockets out there," he told IRIN. "Even if you don’t meet the LRA, you could step on a landmine. The army still has to mop-up and rid the villages of these remnants."

An Italian NGO, AVSI (Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale), has started mine-awareness training in Kitgum, following the explosion of an anti-personnel mine (APM) in Pelah village that injured two soldiers. Another two mines were found on 22 September in Pajimo IDP camp and according to unconfirmed reports, there is a minefield between Puranga and Geregere in Pader district.

The army said it recently found a cache of 52 APMs and 34 anti-tank mines buried in the ground. However, Ankunda said the region was not heavily mined.

Okot Charley, camp leader in Lagoro IDP camp near Kitgum in northern Uganda

Protection remains paramount in northern Uganda. Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, a religious leader in Kitgum, said: "Life in the camps is such a miserable experience. The quality of life is zero. Now we are receiving reports from Pabbo camp of three suicides a week. Suicide was extremely rare among the Acholi people. Now when people start taking their lives, then they have lost hope."

Pabbo is one of the oldest camps in the region. In late October it hosted 67,000 IDPs, of whom 48,000 were women and children. Facilities in the camp were so bad that it suffered a cholera outbreak in mid-October. An assessment by the World Health Organisation found all domestic water pots had faecal contamination.

According to OCHA, rape, the sex trade, child delinquency and harassment are endemic in the IDP camps and centres for night commuters. In Kitgum, for example, most of the centres where the night commuters stay are poorly lit, lack inadequate water and sanitation facilities, and are poorly secured.

"There are alarming revelations of abuses amongst verandah dwellers, ranging from rapes of adolescent females, harassment of children by soldiers, molestation by drunk disco-goers, to appalling sanitary conditions," OCHA said in a September situation report.

The primary concern is fear of rebel attacks. While there has been a decline in actual attacks, IDPs across the region live with memories of past incidents. For example, the attack in February by the LRA on Barlonyo camp near Lira, in which the rebels killed over 200 civilians, remains vividly etched in the memory of people in the region.


The needs of the displaced people are huge. According to one NGO, the International Rescue Committee, the war in northern Uganda has "shattered the agrarian economy, education system and healthcare infrastructure - eroded Acholi culture in many respects and instilled a constant state of fear among the population".

In Kalongo IDP camp in Pader district, which had 35,800 people, a July survey by another NGO, GOAL, found that 76 percent of the children had been ill during the previous two weeks.

An IDP woman cooking food at Bobi camp near Gulu
The situation in the camps is dire. In Kitgum Matidi IDP camp, which had 31,972 people, there were four boreholes, two learning centres for children from 20 schools that have been forced to close because of the war, one health centre staffed by a nurse, two nursing aides and eight community volunteers. About 180 patients visit the health centre daily.

In Bobi camp, which had 22,765 IDPs, there were four boreholes, one health centre and one school with 2,500 pupils. Still, another 1,800 children did not go to school because of lack of space in the classrooms. A number of people collected water from the nearby Tochi River.

Relief workers are also worried about child soldiers. Ankunda denied the army recruits children into its ranks. Yet in Kalongo, according to UN agencies operating in the region, over 80 percent of people recruited into local defense forces were children.


The Ugandan government insists the situation in the region does not compare to that in Darfur. Government spokesman Nsaba Buturo, who is also information minister, recently said that the government had already put aside US $100 million to kick start the rehabilitation of the region, given that the conflict "was ending".

The minister of state for the rehabilitation of northern Uganda, Grace Akello, told IRIN the government had developed a broad multi-sector recovery and development plan for the region.

Under the 10-year $2 billion programme, the government plans to improve infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals, as well as water and and other social services. The programme is also looking at re-introducing a railway link in the region.

"We think that by the end of the programme, northern Uganda would have caught up with the rest of the country in development," Akello told IRIN by phone from Gulu. The plan, she added, would be discussed by parliament in the next few weeks.

She said the government hoped to raise the funds, locally and internationally through donor conferences.

"If we cannot get the money here, then we shall talk to other people who have a feeling for Uganda," Akello told IRIN. "But currently, the most important aspect is to bring about peace in the region before we can embark on that programme."

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is also laying down plans to help the region, once peace returns. "The UNDP is taking a step-by-step strategy," Auke Lootsma, the agency's deputy representative in Uganda told IRIN. "We will have to look at a very comprehensive programme for the north once the violence stops."

"We need to look at the whole caseload," he added. "When you look at the numbers, you are talking about a huge challenge for a time to come. For example, the return, resettlement and re-integration of IDPs may take a while."

The IDPs in the camps could not agree more. For most of them, the most important issue now is peace. "You have to ensure peace first," Joseph Onen, an IDP in Bobi, told IRIN. "Even if you wanted to bring food, you can only distribute it when there is peace."


 Theme(s) Peace Security
Other recent UGANDA reports:

EU creates new fund for African crises,  27/Dec/05

Britain cuts aid over concerns about democracy,  22/Dec/05

Insecurity hampering aid efforts in the north - UN,  14/Dec/05

War-affected civilians receive reconstructive surgery,  13/Dec/05

Northwestern communities engage in fish farming,  13/Dec/05

Other recent Peace Security reports:

AFGHANISTAN: Roadside bomb wounds two NATO peacekeepers in north, 27/Dec/05

CHAD-SUDAN: President Deby, Sudanese envoy meet with AU head Obasanjo, 27/Dec/05

IRAQ-MIDDLE EAST: Street children face hunger and abuse, 26/Dec/05

NEPAL: UN welcomes Maoist statement on aid and development, 23/Dec/05

ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Border tense despite troop pullouts, says UN, 23/Dec/05

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