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Slaves in their own motherland

The internally displaced people of northern Uganda, besides being exposed to frequent attacks from the Lord s Resistance Army (LRA), are living in deplorable conditions in overpopulated camps.
James Oweka

For seventeen years, they have never known peace. Forced to be refugees in their own land, the people of northern Uganda have been herded and put into concentration camps.

Nearly one million people in the region are in the camps except those who live in towns. The most affected districts in the north are Kitgum, Gulu and Pader, and of recent Lira and Apac and parts of the eastern region. The security and humanitarian situation is bad for the once agriculturalists now displaced by the 17-LRA war led by Joseph Kony.

Although there are army detachments near the camps, the LRA rebels still sneak in and massacre the refugees. The camps are so wide that soldiers cannot guard every spot. People keep dying at the rebels hands.

The grass -thatched huts in which the refugees live are so compact that whenever fire breaks out, several of them are burnt, leaving the owners homeless. Since February this year, over 3000 huts have been burnt down in Pabo camps alone, north -west of Gulu district.

Since 1996 when the camps were created by the government, most of the Gulu s population, as well as in Kitgum and Pader, have been living miserably in the concentration camps. Some of the displaced persons (refugees) have had their home villages burnt down by the rebels or government soldiers. Others have stared death in the face, or witnessed their dear ones hacked to death. They would rather stick around the camps, than dare go back home to let their throats slit by the rebels.

The hygiene and sanitation of the refugee camps are deplorable. Smelly children faeces litter the compounds everywhere, even inside the houses. The mostly half-naked children dressed in unwashed torn clothes squat and relieve themselves anywhere. In the surrounding grass thatch huts, human refuse is left to dry or decompose.

In all the camps in the northern Uganda, there is an inadequate water and health service. Women have to beat long lines to fetch water at the lone borehole or tow in each camp. Older women, who cannot manage to force themselves in, go to fetch water at the streams.

Tuberculosis, skin rushes, diarrhoea, malaria and syphilis are common in the camps. According to the recent Ministry of Health report in Uganda, the northern region, most of whose population live in camps leads in HIV/AIDS cases, with the prevalence rate estimated at 45 per cent.

Young girls in the camps, some as young as 13, start engaging in commercial sex with well-to-do men, mostly soldiers. Parents are incapable of providing educational necessities for their children. So instead of being at schools, many children remain at home. The number of children at the camps is more than that of adolescents, most are malnourished and lack good upbringing. Most of the children including teenagers were born in camps, during the war situation and are being brought up in the same environment.

Bathing shelters, roughly thatched, also double as a urinal. The few shelters are shared by several families, including children. The situation is the same with the pit latrines, whose floors are littered with human refuse. Because of over population, the shallow pit latrines get full within a short time but there is no space to dig up more.

The refugee population does not eat much. Because of food shortage, some families eat once a day. They depend on World Food Programme (WFP) relief. The WFP officer in Gulu district Robert Adupa recently said WFP feeds over 370,000 refugees in Gulu alone. Each household gets 50kgs of maize and posho, and 10gs of beans a month. This food ration is given for an average of five people in a household. The larger families however, end up getting nothing by the end of the month, so they beg from neighbours. Adupa however said, what WFP gives food to meet the minimum requirement for human survival only.

According to Uganda Human Rights Commission report of 2001/2002, there are serious problems of domestic violence, health, food security, poverty and insecurity in all the camps for refugees in northern Uganda. The report adds the most worrying insecurity, lack of schools, shortage of water, food and land. The other worrying problem is poor medical services causing high prevalence of diseases like diarrhoea and measles.

In the camps the commission visited during the two years, it found that majority of the refugees are children and women. In Paicho camp II in Gulu district, there are 11,450 refugees. Most are women and children. Medical and sanitation services are poor. Health services lack drugs. In Padibe camp, Kitgum district, there are 29,821 refugees of whom 18,000 are women and 8000-9000 are children below 16 years of age. Lokung camp, also in Kitgum district has over 20,000 refugees.

Land for cultivation has been rendered unusable due to land mines. Sanitation in Lokung is appalling and there was no food aid by the time of the commission visit. There are primary but no secondary schools.

Pabo camp in Gulu district has 47,000 refugees. 60 per cent are children, 25 per cent women and 15 per cent men. The commission reported that there is a high birth rate, especially among teenagers aged 14-16 years, signifying issues of increased adolescent sex.

According to the commission, the number of children per household is about six, of whom about 40 per cent are of school going age. It also reported that government protection of refugees from rebels is inadequate.

The commission recommended a clear strategy to settle refugees and internally displaced persons without violating their individual, socio-economic and collective rights.

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