Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Famine Stalking 1.2m People in Northern Uganda

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

GULU, Uganda, Feb 26 2003 (IPS) - Famine is stalking 1.2 million people in northern Uganda.

Of the total, more than 800,000 have been forced to flee their homes and live in squalid displaced camps in Acholi region, where the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) operate.

Moses Ali, the Minister for Refugees Affairs, has appealed to donors to assist the displaced.

”The general disruption of economic activities and failure of rain have constrained the food acquisition strategies of the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons),” he told parliament recently.

Early this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) made similar appeal. Britain responded, with a grant of around 1.7 million U.S. dollars, Ireland 214,883 U.S. dollars, Japan 420,782 U.S. dollars, Sweden 2.9 million U.S. dollars, Italy 1m U.S. dollars, Germany 500,000 U.S. dollars, and the United States around 21 million U.S. dollars.

The U.S. pledge, coming in kind, will arrive in May.

The available funding – excluding the U.S. pledge – will only cover February to March. ”Additional cash contributions are therefore required to bridge the period from April to early June,” Ali said.

The conflict between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, which launched its bush war in 1986, has retarded development in the region.

The LRA, led by former Catholic catechist Joseph Kony, is seeking to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

Last October, the World Food Programme, the sole provider of relief aid in the region, warned that unless donors make contributions urgently, the population would face unprecedented hunger.

It appealed for 18,000 tonnes of food.

The fighting between the army and LRA climaxed in recent months, forcing President Museveni to pitch camp in the region, after launching ‘Operation Iron Fist’ in March 2002 to wipe out the rebels.

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 6,000 abducted children in the region remain unaccounted for. It is not clear whether they are alive or are now child soldiers in Southern Sudan, where the LRA soldiers often hide.

”People in northern Uganda are already suffering horribly as a result of the fighting, and the destruction of their crops is having a terrible effect on their nutritional condition,” says Ken Davies, WFP’s Country Director for Uganda.

He says stocks from the previous harvest have been exhausted, and no additional food production is expected this year unless donors come to the rescue of the displaced.

WFP is the only aid agency with access to displaced camps and settlements beyond the two main towns (Gulu and Kitgum) in northern Uganda.

”We do not want to live like this. We all want to go back home. We want to till our gardens. We are tired of living like this,” says Benjamin Obalim, a community leader at a displaced camp at Awere, near Gulu, some 328 kilometres from the capital Kampala.

”The humanitarian crisis has become more intense since June last year,” says Nobert Mao, Member of Parliament for Gulu, where 40,000 people displaced by war live.

In Awer camp, there are only two boreholes for a population of more than 20,000, says Mao.

Speaking to IPS from his office at parliament Building in Kampala, Mao says the displaced live in ‘concentration camps’ and are at the mercy of soldiers.

”It is the army who decides how they (the people should live). The army is the authority. If the army says no moving after 7:00 p.m., this is obeyed. When the army says no moving beyond the camp into the fields for food, this is also obeyed,” he says..

Mao says no civilian authority participated in the creation of the displaced camps in northern Uganda.

”It was a military order. In many cases, people were forced into the camps,” he says.

Recently, as a war tactic, the government introduced a policy aimed at destroying all fruit trees and burning crop fields, claiming they are used for feeding the rebels.

”In my opinion, the army is now aiding, and abetting, the famine. It looks like the people no longer matter as a factor in the conflict. How else would you explain the cutting down of fruit trees which could be the last resort for a famine stricken people?” asks Mao.

School dropout is also common. The majority of children are not benefiting from the free Universal Primary Education (UPE) that government introduced in 1997.

Up to 90 percent of the schools in the villages are now closed, Mao says. The remaining schools perform poorly. ”Their poor performance is because of the disrupted effect of Operation Iron Fist,” he says.

”Operation Iron Fist was meant to be fought in southern Sudan but 80 percent of the war is being fought in Northern Uganda,” says Mao.

A few ‘lucky’ displaced have been able to travel out of the war zone to live in Kampala with their relatives.

”I have faced a lot of problems since I was young,” says 17-year-old Lira Patrick.

”In 1998 I was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels. After about a month, I escaped and walked back home on foot…,” he recalls.

But the persisting insecurity drove Patrick to Kampala where he now lives with his aunt.

”It’s very hard for us. We just pray this war ends soon. We are suffering,” says Martina Aketch, 24, who has also moved to Kampala.

Aketch lost her husband in a rebel attack just before she was forced to travel to Kampala three months ago.

”There is need for government to do more in terms of humanitarian assistance and to make it possible for other humanitarian agencies to operate,” says Martin Masiga, National Co-ordinator Human Rights Network – HURINET (UGANDA).

”Right now, government is providing too little, too late. I think they are dodging their responsibilities,” claims Masiga.

Mao concurs. ”The forced displacement of the people is contrary, not only to our constitution, but also to the Geneva Convention. The restriction on the movement of the people as well as restrictions on their rights go beyond what is necessary for the situation even if it is described as an internal conflict,” he says.

”There is progressive abuses of the rights of the people, and the neglect of the Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian laws which our government is signatory to.

”The situation has amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity and some individuals can be held liable,” Mao says.

Willy Katumba, a businessperson in Kampala, says ”Like everybody else, I think this war should come to an end. It is costing everybody too much. It is not northerners’ war alone. It is affecting all of us. Imagine how much money is being put into fighting this war!”

President Museveni has ruled out talking with the rebels, while the LRA say they will only talk peace when international community mediates.

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