Eyewitness - Anna in UgandaCommunications Officer Anna Ridout reports from northern Uganda.
I feel safe as I wake this morning in my hotel guarded by Ugandan government soldiers. My basic inn is in Gulu, the district traditionally considered the capital of the north. It is at the centre of a 20-year war between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda. Here, thousands of people live in displacement camps in fear of abduction from rebels and with little work or food. Feeling safe is a luxury in northern Uganda, so I am here to talk to people living in the midst of the humanitarian emergency.
It is difficult to tell where Coope camp starts as we drive a short distance from Gulu town. More then 20,000 people live in 3,708 small mud huts that have built up close to the army barracks. I meet many families, all affected in some way by AIDS. World Vision helps 3,000 people in Gulu living with HIV with counseling, support and food – but the need is so much greater. I talk to Charles, a 33-year-old man with a swollen neck and face due to AIDS. His wife died two months ago giving birth to their new baby, Charles is guardian to eight children and they are short of food. Everyone who I speak to today tells me they are hungry. Coope means “no man” and after only a day in the camp, I can think of no better name.
The Children of War Centre in Gulu run by World Vision has been rehabilitating children abducted by the rebels for more than a decade and the number of children reunited with their families is now in the tens of thousands. After yesterday I was eager to find out what the future may hold for this generation of children who have grown up in the conflict. Meeting with Michael Oruni he explained the complexity of the war: the layers of ethnic, historical, spiritual, mystical and fundamentalist roots compounded by the economic disintegration of the area. “The great development challenge for us,” he said, “comes when the war finally ends – how will we reintegrate a generation who have grown up outside normal society?”
This evening I visited the Noah’s Ark night commuter centre. Every night hundreds, sometimes thousands, of children walk here from rural villages to sleep safe from the threat of abduction. By 9pm there are a group of more than 50 boys and girls dancing and singing a welcome to the lines of children making their way up to 10kms to town. Aged between four and 17, some children stay at the centre all week and attend school near-by; others travel home to their families before making the long walk back again the following evening. I am surrounded by a group of lively girls all speaking English with ease, they are wrapped in the wool rugs they will sleep on in the large sturdy tents inside the guarded entrance.
Today I visit another camp, this time 90kms outside Gulu. Pabo is the largest camp in the region with more than 60,000 people squashed into one displaced community. Like Coope on Tuesday, food is short and families are largely dependent on food aid. Today water is also limited and queues of people, mostly children, trail from the water pump waiting their turn. People talk to me about being prisoners in their homes. The army retreats to its barracks at 4pm and so people stay close to their hut fearing rebel attacks. With no work or land to cultivate, they sit and wait for the war to end.