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Huge numbers facing food shortages amid violence in Northern Uganda

NAIROBI - With daily rebel attacks continuing to leave huge numbers of people in fear for their lives in northern Uganda, the United Nations World Food Programme has warned it will soon be unable to cope with the escalating food needs of the displaced population, which now numbers at least 1.6 million.

The number of people in need has doubled in the past year and the sheer scale of the crisis is stretching WFP's resources in Uganda to breaking point. New donations are urgently required to prevent the crisis worsening dramatically.

"The people of northern Uganda are suffering on a massive, shameful scale," said Ken Davies, WFP Uganda Country Director. "They are urgently in need of help, and we risk failing them unless we receive new donations very soon."

A total of US$56 million is required before the end of the year. But unless significant donations are received in the coming weeks, stocks of cereals will be exhausted by July. Shortfalls of beans and other food aid items will follow shortly afterwards. WFP needs US$21 million now to continue to supply food until August, when the harvest is due.

If new funding is not forthcoming, WFP will be forced to cut rations drastically. Assessments have shown that people not assisted by WFP can meet only 20 percent of their minimum food requirements for survival. This month, WFP was forced to cut fortified blended food for young children from the standard household ration, conserving dwindling supplies for therapeutic feeding centres and primary schools.

When food supplies last ran short, between November 2002 and February 2003, there was a corresponding surge in malnutrition rates among young children. WFP is now appealing for cash contributions to buy maize and fortified blended food for malnourished children, both of which are available for purchase in Uganda.

To make matters worse, displaced farmers in northern Uganda missed the April planting season. As a result, even if the rebel attacks cease, many of these people will need assistance until the end of the year to survive.

"Vicious raids by marauding rebels create a climate of terror that prevents farmers from reaching their fields to plant crops. The people have lost an entire growing season, so even if security improves, the next harvest for most people will not be until the end of this year. We are dealing with a critical, ongoing crisis," Davies said.

An 18-year rebellion against the government of Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is behind the massive population displacement in the north of the country. Rebels continue to attack camps for displaced people, burn homes, loot assets, abduct children, rape and kill, in a brutal campaign of violence. They have disrupted road travel by ambushing vehicles on the main roads.

Most of those who have fled their homes are in camps where they continue to live in fear of rebel attack. Children are particularly at risk as they are targets for recruitment by the LRA, forced to fight or to enter into sexual slavery as "wives" of the rebel commanders.

Frequent attacks continue to prevent people leaving the camps to tend fields and gather firewood, making an already precarious existence even more difficult. In the past week, LRA rebels are reported to have attacked three women and a child who were returning home from selling goods at a market, forcing them to strip before killing them and then mutilating their bodies. The rebels also killed more than 50 others in the same period, either during raids on their villages or on market days. Efforts by the Ugandan army to protect its civilians have proved only partially successful.

"Aid workers are struggling to get food to the most vulnerable people and convoys need armed escorts," Davies said. "Most disturbing is the knowledge that the lives we save today are threatened both by continuing attacks and the imminent exhaustion of food supplies."

WFP currently provides assistance to 1.6 million internally displaced people in northern Uganda, of whom 80 percent are women and children.

Donors that have contributed to the Ugandan appeal so far this year include the United States (US$12.5 million), the United Kingdom (US$1.8 million), Germany (US$1.2 million) and Japan (US$0.9 million).

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.

For just US$19 cents a day, you can help WFP give children in poor countries a healthy meal at school -- a gift of hope for a brighter future.

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