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Terror and hunger haunt northern Uganda

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Northern Uganda's humanitarian crisis is worse than ever. Terrorised by rebels and haunted by hunger, nearly one million IDPs are crammed into 60 impoverished IDP camps.
Kampala, February 1 - Northern Uganda is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since rebels took up arms against the government over a decade ago.

The number of displaced people needing food aid in the region has risen from 520,000 to 800,000 since last July, when the Ugandan government launched a fresh offensive - Operation Iron Fist - to root out rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) bases.

"This is the worst humanitarian crisis since the fighting began in northern Uganda more than 15 years ago," said Ken Noah Davies, WFP's Country Director in Uganda.

"We had expected things to improve in 2002, but instead the numbers of displaced people has continued to increase, and the displaced people have lost both of the last two harvests due to insecurity ".

Villagers from the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Padar have been driven out of their homes and are now living in 60 densely populated, improvised camps, where the living conditions are very poor.

Even in these pitiful conditions, they continue to be terrorised by the LRA's rebel forces, and are regularly victims of brutal attacks.

Some 70 percent of the local population in the three districts is estimated to have been displaced as a result of the ongoing insecurity.

Villagers from the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Padar have been driven out of their homes and are now living in 60 densely populated, improvised camps, where the living conditions are very poor.

Even in these pitiful conditions, they continue to be terrorised by the LRA's rebel forces, and are regularly victims of brutal attacks.

Some 70 percent of the local population in the three districts is estimated to have been displaced as a result of the ongoing insecurity.

DESPAIR AND HUNGER

The fighting has prevented villagers from farming. As a result, last year most people lost their August/ September harvest.

With farmers also unable to get to their fields to plant their crops in September/October, the January harvest, which usually feeds families for the first six months of the year, has brought only despair and hunger.

Displacement, general disruption of economic activities and fear of venturing out of the camps has compounded the dire situation.

"People are living like animals. They don't have a life - they simply exist," said Charles Uma, Chairman of the Gulu District Disaster Management Committee.

"They do not have the bare minimum even to buy clothes. The situation is very bad. If we stop providing people with food, they will die."

MILITARY ESCORT

WFP, currently the only UN agency with access to northern Uganda's displaced villagers, relies on heavy military escorts to reach the IDP camps.

The agency's operations feed some 1.2 million Ugandans, including 800,000 IDPs and 150,000 refugees from the civil war in southern Sudan. However, a serious shortfall in funding is now threatening the WFP lifeline (see box for details)

Without aid, people will be forced to venture outside of their camps to search for food and run the risk of being abducted by the rebels.

"It is extremely dangerous", says Fred Olaa, a WFP Programme Officer in the region, "communities have recounted several cases of abduction, estimating on average, that 20 take place each day in and around the camps. "

CHILD ABDUCTIONS

Most people are abducted to help carry loots and, at the rebels discretion, for recruitment into their ranks. Led by Joseph Kony, who claims to have spiritual powers, the rebels have also abducted thousands of children to use as child soldiers and sex slaves.

"All the children have had bad experiences with the LRA", said Dora Ala, who runs a rehabilitation centre for abducted children under the age of 18.

"The children are forced to kill, to load guns. They are trained to use guns very well. They are also forced to burn vehicles. Girls are given to the LRA commanders. I have seen children with bullet wounds, in critical conditions, with limbs off".

Aid agencies working in northern Uganda estimate that to date the conflict has killed more than 23,000 people.

"The people simply don't have a life - they simply exist," said Charles Uma.

WFP Uganda operation: funding crisis

WFP has appealed to donors for immediate cash contributions to buy locally produced food for northern Uganda's IDPs

The agency's emergency operation urgently requires new donations after lack of funds forced the suspension of its cereal distribution in January

In January, lack of funds forced the agency to suspend distribution of cereals

In total, WFP Uganda needs some 47, 000 metric tons of food commodities from February to July 2003 to assist 1.2 million people in the north, including 800,000 internally displaced people, 150,000 refugees, as well as other vulnerable groups such as HIV /AIDS victims, orphans, and malnourished children and mothers

Last October, the poor pipeline situation forced the agency to cut food rations to 70 percent of beneficiaries' daily food requirement as a result of the poor pipeline situation

Prior to the current conflict, WFP was providing only 30 percent of daily rations to the displaced populations in northern Uganda as a compliment to their dietary requirements

The rest of their food came from farming activities and casual labour - all now halted by the fighting in the region.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

Led by Joseph Kony, who claims to have spiritual powers, the rebels have abducted thousands of children to use as child soldiers and sex slaves.

Benson Opiyo, aged 16, was abducted by the rebels but escaped. Here, he tells his terrifying story:

"I was abducted in 2001 and beaten very severely. Children who tried to escape were killed. Most abducted children were taken to Sudan and trained as soldiers then, we were brought back to fight the Ugandans"

"They also abducted four of my other brothers at the same time. One of my brothers tried to escape, but the rebels caught him and killed him. They also killed my father when they abducted us"

"You cannot be afraid in the bush. I saw a girl in the bush who was afraid. The soldiers brought a dead body and told her to smear the blood from the body all over her own body to prevent her being afraid of dead things"