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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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The forgotten crisis

Life in the IDP camps has sunk to unprecedented proportions as the LRA rebels continue to wage war, abducting, killing and maiming civilians.
Grace Candiru

Martina Apio, a 34 year-old mother of four, sits under a mango tree staring blankly into space, as if looking at something in particular. This has been Apio’s ‘new home’ for a while and she expects to spend here quite some time – “for as long as the war lasts,” she said.

She moved to the camp (formerly a Starch Factory in Lira 365 kilometres north of Kampala) at the height of the rebel insurgency in November 2003. Just a few metres away is Apio’s two-year-old daughter wailing. It’s lunchtime but Apio has nothing to give her daughter – the family had not eaten for two days.

Apio said in the past she tried to work for the local population within the municipality to eke out a living but she was forced to give up. She said the people either underpaid them or just don’t pay anything at all. She now sells roasted cassava by the roadside but notes that everyone else was doing it and therefore wasn’t worthwhile. “Sometimes we end up eating the cassava ourselves because no one buys it,” she said.

As for aid agencies, Apio said she had not seen any since she moved in to the Camp. But other camp inmates recalled that the last time they came, a family of seven would get two small cups of beans, a little maize flour and that’s it. Although her home village is just about 15 km from the Camp, Apio can neither go to harvest nor work the gardens. A number of her colleagues who have tried to go have never been heard of again. The camp residences now believe that rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, (LRA) might have abducted or killed them.

But their case is not an isolated one. As I sat there listening to her, many more people came around all hoping to unburden themselves by telling me their story. One lady told me she and her two children from their hiding had helplessly watched the rebels chop her husband together with his father, as they picked cotton in broad daylight. They fled their home and have never gone back to bury their dead.

The rebels led by Joseph Kony say they are fighting the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but ironically it is the local population that’s bearing the brunt of the conflict. They have been fighting the Ugandan government since 1986 and are widely believed to be responsible for the abduction of children, the torture and mutilation of civilians, and the pillaging of villages in northern Uganda.

In recent times, at the height of the insurgency from November 2003 through to March 2004, fighting between the government and the rebels intensified. Church officials and human rights groups said dramatic increase in rebel abductions of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves accompanied it.

And according to the Documentation officer of Acholi Religious Peace Initiative, (ARLPI) Fr Carlos Rodriguez the same period also witnessed some of the worst massacres ever perpetrated by the LRA in the camps of Abia, Barlonyo, Pagak and Kalabong where about 500 people, mostly civilians were killed.

Over the last decade alone, up to 30,000 children are estimated to have been abducted by the rebels. At least 100,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict, and World Food Programme officials estimate that the fighting has displaced more than 1.6 million people.

Thus the atrocities have forced people to flee their homes to the town centres where hundreds of people commonly known as “night commuters” spend nights in the open or at the verandas of public buildings and shops. Many more others have gone to the Internally Displaced People’s camps where the camp residences live under inhuman conditions.

For example in Lira District from November 2003 to March this year the number of people displaced outside the Municipality stood at about 300,000 and yet no aid agencies were able to go there as there were no guarantees for their safety.

Due to lack of basic necessities like water, food, shelter etc, many people especially children died of preventable diseases like malaria, cholera etc. To date infant mortality in camps in Lira stands at 3:10,000 per week, while child mortality rate in Darfur in the Sudan stands at 2:10,000 over the same period.

And in Pabbo Internally Displaced Camp in Gulu, there are on average 3 suicides per week according to Fr Rodriguez. The Comboni Missionary priest who said he had not believed the stories of suicides himself but was able to confirm with the assistance of the medical personnel in the Camp (Medicines Sans Frontiers)

He said the figures were high especially among people whose tradition condemned suicide. He said among the Acholi, if anyone committed suicide, the body would be flogged before burial to cleanse the people and the land. As such people avoided suicides as much as possible yet because of the situation they find themselves in, many people see it as an option.

So, compared to the conflict in Darfur region of the Sudan that has about 200 aid agencies, there are only 60 aid agencies that work in the north. It was not therefore surprising that the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland last month referred to the conflict in Northern Uganda as “one of the world’s worst forgotten emergency crises.” He was speaking at the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, life in these camps has sunk to unprecedented levels. The camps lack pit latrines, clean water sources and proper structures and food, save for those in the municipalities.
For some, the hard conditions in the camps have forced them to live by immoral means. Many people including married men and women are involved in commercial sex in a bid to earn a living.

This trend of unprotected sex in the camps alone is a reason to cause worry about the level of HIV/AIDS transmission. And coupled with the commercial sex is the forceful sex that the rebels have with those they abduct. Aid workers now fear this may stifle government’s fight against AIDS.

Government has consistently insisted on military means to end the war. However the religious leaders think otherwise. Religious leaders from the major Christian denominations and Islam believe that dialogue is the only way to bring the 18-year old conflict to an end

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