Friday, October 22, 2004

Exhausted by war, Ugandan refugees 'give up on life'

Copy of 22 Oct 2004 Reuters report by Daniel Wallis

LALOGI CAMP, Uganda, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Punishing military strikes against northern Uganda's rebels have yet to benefit refugees packed into squalid camps where often only drink and sex can blot out hunger and despair, aid workers say.

Uganda's army has claimed significant victories in recent weeks against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal sect that kidnaps children to turn them into soldiers. But life remains desperately harsh for the estimated 1.6 million people who have fled to camps in fear. "Things have improved," aid worker Ben Omaro told Reuters. "Half the top rebel commanders have been killed or surrendered, but the people here do not even have the basic needs of life.

"The biggest problem we have here is starvation," he said as he watched supplies of maize and beans being unloaded from trucks at Lalogi Camp, about 600 km (373 miles) from Gulu town, epicentre of the brutal war.

HIV/AIDS is rife in the camp, fuelled by alcohol abuse and promiscuity. "When people have nothing, they are left with only sex and drinking," Omaro said. "Immorality is now very high. These people have given up on life."

Senior U.N. envoy Jan Egeland on Thursday described the crisis as the world's most neglected humanitarian emergency and urged the international community to provide more aid and put more pressure on the parties to end the killing.

The LRA, led by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, has been terrorising northern Uganda for 18 years. The group mutilates its victims and has kidnapped tens of thousands of children, taking them to southern Sudan where they are forced to become fighters, porters and sex slaves.

Egeland, the U.N's Emergency Relief Coordinator, said he hoped the peace process in southern Sudan would help end the LRA's long reign of terror. In the meantime, the people of northern Uganda still live in fear, and most would starve without food aid from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

Gesturing to the sacks of grain, Omaro said the food, while welcome, was nowhere near enough to feed the camp's 19,000 residents. Children, their bellies distended by hunger, wandered naked around the makeshift shelters.

The aid convoys are heavily guarded by Ugandan troops because of the risk of attack from marauding bands of LRA rebels, who appear to have no clear objective beyond overthrowing the government of President Yoweri Museveni.

Fear of abduction, killing and mutilation by rebels has forced farmers to abandon their fields. "They have no way to cultivate their land, because if the rebels catch you far away from the camp and the soldiers you are finished," Omaro said. "All civilians are now their enemies."


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