KAMPALA - The wanton violence and killing in northern Uganda that has created one of Africa's largest displaced populations must end, said the United Nations World Food Programme Deputy Executive Director, Sheila Sisulu. She made the call today, after visiting a displaced camp in Uganda's beleaguered north.
"What I saw in Pabbo camp in Gulu District is totally unacceptable under any circumstances," said Sisulu. "Atrocities against innocent civilians must cease immediately, and all parties must work tirelessly to end this conflict."
An 18-year rebellion has forced over 1.5 million Ugandans to flee their homes. Most are huddled together in displaced camps where they live in permanent fear of rebel attack - such as the one on Barlonyo camp on 21 February in which 337 people were brutally murdered.
Displaced families are afraid to work their fields and have become dependent on food aid. As many as 30,000 children have been abducted to work as porters, child soldiers and serve as ‘wives' of rebels, since the rebellion began in the 1980s.
In Gulu town, Sisulu met the so-called ‘night commuters' - these are thousands of children, frightened of being abducted by rebels, who walk several kilometres from their villages each night to sleep in makeshift shelters in the relative safety of town, and then trek home again at first light.
"To see those children lying on the ground, packed together in their hundreds, filling rooms and tents, with some even out in the open, tells me that the population is terrified," said Sisulu. "Children are the fodder of this conflict. Tens of thousands have been forced to kill, fight and bear the children of soldiers. Hundreds of thousands are raised in camps. And the night commuters are growing up in a state of constant fear. It is the most vulnerable that carry the burden of violence and these kids are carrying it directly into the future."
The conflict in northern Uganda has escalated over the past year, extending into districts that were previously unaffected. The growing number of displaced people across a widening area presents a huge challenge to WFP and its partner agencies in terms of staffing, resources, access and overall ability to respond to the urgent needs. WFP is currently the only international organisation reaching all the displaced camps in northern Uganda.
Even if security were to improve immediately, the majority of Uganda's displaced people would still be reliant on food aid for the rest of this year. It is now the planting season, but families have limited access to the countryside due to the presence of rebels. People are planting at most two to three kilometres away from camps, mostly along roadsides, which will not produce a sufficient harvest to cover their food needs.
Sisulu said the World Food Programme was sending food aid to 1.5 million displaced Ugandans at a cost of US$90 million this year, but the agency would prefer to spend money on recovery and projects such as school feeding.
"Against a background of insecurity, we dispatch three convoys a day, six days a week - it's a huge logistical challenge," said Sisulu. "Too much of our time and resources are spent just keeping people alive in the north, when we would much prefer to move on to recovery and even development activities in that region, as we are doing in other parts of the country."
WFP activities such as school feeding, food for assets, and HIV/AIDS programmes account for only about one-fifth of the agency's work in Uganda. WFP currently works in 26 districts, reaching over two million hungry people. WFP is the main purchaser of Ugandan-grown commodities and bought over US$24 million worth of food in the country last year.
Sisulu noted that Uganda was not the only country to be caught up in a tragic waste of lives and resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burundi are equally fertile countries which should be feeding themselves but civil conflict has made them dependent on aid agencies to feed large numbers of their people.
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2003 WFP fed 104 million people in 81 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.
WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.
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