ARUA, 8 July (IRIN) - Kennedy Abonga fled his home in southern Sudan when the notoriously brutal Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), killed 11 people in his village, including his nephew.
"The LRA first abducted people to use as carriers of their looted food and eventually released them, but they changed that," Abonga said. "Now, when one carries food to the bush, when the food has been eaten, that also marks the end of your life - they kill you."
Abonga and his family sought refuge at Ikafe refugee settlement in Arua district in the northwest of neighbouring Uganda, home to some 10,000 south Sudanese refugees.
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimates that since January almost 9,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled attacks by the LRA in south Sudan.
The refugees however, said safety was not guaranteed even when they reached Uganda, because the LRA continued to terrorise them. In 2002 more than 60 were killed at Achol Pii camp in Pader district, 400 km north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
The exodus that followed the Achol Pii attack saw thousands of refugees relocated to the nearby Lira district and later to camps in Kiryandongo in the west, where congestion and poor sanitation made conditions worse. In 2004 they were finally transferred to Ikafe and Madi Okolo in Arua.
HOPES PINNED ON CPA
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum and the southern Sudan People's liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), signed on 9 January, has raised the expectations of Sudanese refugees in Uganda.
Florence Bol, 51, spoke for many at Ikafe: "We hope the international community will try to see that by the time we return facilities like schools for our children are in place; medical facilities, water and more importantly, our security, which we have enjoyed here for the past year, is in place too."
Aid workers said governance, protection of rights, equal access to quality services and an environment of respect, peace and security remained big challenges in southern Sudan.
"Returning refugees will play a crucial role in creating the society in Sudan, but to do this they must be properly prepared," Ciaran Donnelly, the director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Uganda, told IRIN.
"Appropriate resources [must be] made available, so that refugee assistance programming in host countries is implemented in a manner that will actively make them valuable contributors to the reconstruction of their country," he noted.
However, the LRA is continuing its 19-year war against the Ugandan government from bases in southern Sudan, making efforts to encourage the refugees to return home the biggest challenge.
The rebels are particularly known for their brutality towards children, and aid workers say they have abducted more than 20,000 to serve as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
After the CPA was signed, the SPLM/A leader, John Garang, promised that his organisation would assist in efforts to drive the LRA out of southern Sudan, but to date little progress has been seen and sources said the Ugandan insurgents continue to attack the inhabitants of southern Sudan.
As a result, many Sudanese refugees in Uganda prefer to remain where they are, and have expressed limited interest in returning home: only 6,000 out of a total pf 204,400 refugees are expected to be repatriated in 2005, according to UNHCR.
In the meantime, many of the refugees
at Ikafe have enrolled in the free primary and secondary education provided
by the Ugandan government.
A few, like Isaac Taban, 19, a student at Mvara Secondary School in Arua who hopes to become a civil engineer, have been lucky enough to find sponsors for their tertiary education.
"My education is currently sponsored by Hajj Pilkington Charitable Trust - they pay my school dues, uniform, and give me a stipend of 15,000 shillings [less than US $9] per term," he said.
Ikafe settlement has one primary and secondary school, supported by IRC. The primary school has 3,931 pupils and the secondary school 389, but low female enrolment and overcrowding are major problems.
The refugee community has also started their own schools and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, recently visited one.
Oliji primary and secondary school in the Adjumani district of northwestern Uganda educates Sudanese students who fled when their settlement in Mungula in Arua was attacked last year by the LRA, but its classrooms are makeshift structures of plastic and reeds, and provide scant protection from sun and rain.
The refugees say Mungula was extremely fertile, so parents could pay for their children's school fees with the profits from their crops, but at Oliji they struggle to make ends meet.
Albert Licki, the headmaster and also a refugee, said there were children from six different tribes in the school, and expressed the hope that this would pave the way for peaceful co-existence once they returned home to south Sudan.
HEALTH, WATER AND SANITATION
In the refugee settlements, primary healthcare and reproductive services are shared with the 15,000 Ugandans living in the vicinity of the camp.
"When the IRC took over control of a local health centre of Ariwa [in Ikafe] in the settlement [in 2004], the in-patient capacity was eight beds with 11 professional staff. The global malnutrition rate for under-fives was 20 percent," the IRC said in a recent statement.
"At present, with the construction of a new male [ward], a female ward and a therapeutic feeding centre, the in-patient capacity of the health centre is 60 beds, while the global malnutrition rate for under-fives has dropped to 7.8 percent."
The refugees have also had to cope with water shortages. According to the IRC, they initially had to make do with four litres per person per day, but this had now improved to 12 litres per person per day.
Settlement leaders said four more boreholes were being drilled, and seven existing ones rehabilitated, which would further improve water supply in Ikafe. Latrine coverage had also improved from 12 percent a year ago to 49 percent at present.
Aid workers said some rehabilitation work had started in southern Sudan to accommodate the refugees when they returned.
Kitty McKinsey, the UNHCR's East and Great Lakes region spokesperson, told IRIN such work was at an advanced stage in the Western Equatoria province of southern Sudan. "We are rehabilitating schools, health centres, water points and demining feeder roads."
She noted that $76 million was needed for rehabilitation work this year, but donors had so far contributed just over 50 percent.
UNHCR and other UN agencies, she said, were laying the groundwork for the return of an estimated 4.5 million people, refugees as well as those displaced within Sudan.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005