KITGUM DISTRICT, Uganda, 25 July 2005 - UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman travelled to Uganda on Friday, to highlight the situation of children in the north of the country - a region where children have been targeted by rebels in a brutal but largely ignored civil war.
"We are very concerned about the plight of the children here, and about the impact of 19 years of war in this region," Ms. Veneman told reporters. "The fact that children are the main targets of this war is unconscionable."
The 19-year conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been marked by rebel attacks on villages and abduction of children. The fear of abduction has led to the so-called 'night commuters' - children who flee from outlying villages to the safety of towns every evening, often doing so on the instructions of their parents.
For example, eleven-year-old Vicky has been told by her family that she must sleep in the town, but she doesn't know why. Nine-year-old Andrew has been given a blanket and a sack to carry it in on his nightly journeys; he returns home at six in the morning after sleeping in the town.
Improving conditions in shelters
Current estimates suggest there are around 40,000 'night commuters'. Many sleep rough on the streets, but UNICEF is committed to creating a safer environment for them.
In Kitgum Town, UNICEF and its partner organization, Mothers Union, have provided tents and fencing materials for a shelter site operated by the YY Okot Girls School, where approximately 500 children sleep each night. The fencing materials have been used to create separate quarters for boys and girls, and in particular to better protect adolescent girls.
UNICEF has also supported training in management skills for the managers of shelter sites, in order to improve health and water services.
"What we plan to do is to improve the conditions in different shelters, work with the community so that they can protect children when they are moving from their homes to shelters, ensure shelters are better organized, provide better water and sanitation facilities, and provide better protection," said Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Child Protection Officer for northern Uganda.
Progress is essential
Some former child abductees have been fortunate enough to escape from the LRA rebels, and are taking shelter at reception centres like the one run by the Kitgum Concerned Women's Association. Most of these boys and girls are still haunted by their experiences as combatants or sex slaves. UNICEF is providing assistance through the centres, to help them return to their normal lives.
The conflict in the north has forced 1.4 million people to flee their homes. Around 80 per cent are children and women. Since 2002, almost 12,000 children have been abducted.
Children in the region face desperate conditions; many are denied access to basic healthcare, safe water, primary education, essential protection and even shelter. Child survival is one of the UN Millennium Development Goals, agreed to by world leaders.
South Korea's Arirang TV contributed to this report with video footage and additional reporting.