Almost two million people live in temporary camps in northern Uganda – some for more than 15 years. Anna Ridout went to the largest camp in Gulu to talk to people living without sufficient food, sanitation or education.
Fielda Acayo sits in the glare of the midday sun and points to a group of red hills in the distance, “that is my home,” she says. She has not been there for 13 years and does not know when she will return – she is too afraid.
Almost thirty, Fielda was nine when the war started in northern Uganda. Her home village of Palwong was rural and green with land where she could grow crops. Now there is no one there.
They all live in Pabbo displacement camp with 63,000 others. A population the size of Stafford is huddled together without water, food, sanitation or education. For more than a decade they have lived here in fear of abduction and attack from the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel movement at war with the Government of Uganda (GoU).
“My husband was abducted in 2004,” says Fielda, “and has never returned. I don’t know if he is dead or alive – I am wordless.”
In the past two decades, nearly 30,000 civilians have been abducted by the LRA and forced to fight and commit atrocities against their own families, communities and government soldiers. It is one of the world’s most forgotten emergencies.
Almost two million people live in overcrowded displacement camps, mostly dependant on food aid with unemployment rates at near 100%. Charities such as World Vision provide income-generating programmes to camp communities but the need is just too great. Fielda is left with no help.
“I am alone now,” she says. I don’t have enough money to survive. My husband used to do casual work to provide food but now I do odd jobs or weed someone else’s land.”
Fielda has lost three children and a sister in the camp to disease or malnutrition. Acute malnutrition rates hover near 20% and HIV and other diseases are rampant.
There are more than 50 camps like this one in Gulu district. They were built around army barracks and became “protected villages”. The army patrols everyday between 9am and 4pm. Outside this time, people remain imprisoned in their five-metre radius huts, too afraid to work or leave.
Speaking at the recent World Council of Churches Assembly former UN under-secretary-general and special representative for children and armed conflict Mr Otunnu said, “In the face of relentless cultural and personal humiliations and abuse, suicide has risen to an alarming level. Suicide is highest among mothers who feel utter despair at their inability to provide for their children or save them from starvation, and death from preventable diseases. For example, in August 2005, 13 mothers committed suicide in Pabbo camp alone.”
“I don’t let my daughter Molly leave the house,” says Fielda. “Two of my sister’s children were abducted. I leave my children at home, even if we are without food.”
Molly is 12-years-old. She cleans her feet with a sharp rock and piece of rope. She talks quietly: “If I could meet anyone I would meet the president of the United States,” she says. “I would tell him how hard things are for me. The most powerful man in the world would be able to give me a hand and end this war.
“I fear the rebels and I fear meeting the soldiers. The army beat children as they don’t know if we are rebels. They beat some of my friends with sticks because they went to the borehole too early. They offer protection but sometimes they act violently when we break the rules. The army tells us we are not allowed to move at night because they say they cannot differentiate between civilians and rebels.”
Girls like Molly are particularly vulnerable in the camps. Recent research in Pabbo by Unicef and a local working group found that sexual and gender-based violence is considered “normal”. It found rape, defilement, child molesting, forced widow inheritance and marital rape to be common.
The camp leader of Coope camp explains how he has to call security once a week because of a “disturbance”. “Girls between the ages of 14 and 17 are raped or defiled,” he says. “The day the UPDF, the Ugandan government army, get their pay packet, they change. They become like gods.”
“There are many sex workers,” he says. “Sometimes women blindfold 17 or 18-year-old girls and sell them to army men. Other women come from town and work. They spread Aids. They come for two or three months and then leave again.”
Asked if education can help, he replies, “not much – we don’t have schools here".
Sex for survival is the reality for many young girls in the camps. It is an open secret that is difficult to decipher amongst the euphemisms and delicate answers girls give. Everyone has a story of a friend who “has a boyfriend that pays”.
Joyce, 18-years-old, sits with her four-month old son Moses on her lap. She has lived in the camp since she was seven. “People are suffering because of the insurgency,” she says. “Without education, we depend on food aid. The war created poverty – compare our lives with other parts of Uganda not impacted by the war.”
Moses’s father left when Joyce fell pregnant. He used to give her 3,000 Ugandan Shillings (less than a pound) a week for sex. She used the money for school and for shoes. Now she does not go to school.
World Vision’s programmes manager for northern Uganda, James Otim, has been working for World Vision in the north for more than a decade. “Girls are the most vulnerable in war,” he says. “They often resort to survival mechanisms and they think eloping with a soldier will give them protection and money. Society in the camps has completely broken down. Men are bored and drunk most of the time resulting in destructive behaviour. There is a general breakdown in law and order. Who is in charge?”
“The conflict is complicated,” James continues. “Caused by a fatal mixture of ethical, spiritual, fundamentalist, political and economic issues, the solution is far from simple. World Vision is providing holistic development and relief as well as working on local and international advocacy.”
“There is a continual need to move beyond quick-fix relief responses to sustainable responses by building a culture of peace alongside development activities. Significant resources must be invested in peace-building activities and rehabilitation.”
Northern Uganda Advocacy Partnership for Peace (NUAPP) is an inter-agency group working towards effective advocacy, primarily in the UK, to effect a “good peace” in northern Uganda. The group works closely with civil society organisations and networks in Uganda.
NUAPP acknowledges that the response of the GoU to resolving the conflict has fallen short of that expected of a progressive member of the international community. However, it believes the response of the international community has fallen short of the robust political engagement that such a crisis deserves. For a comprehensive peace to be found in Uganda, NUAPP calls on the UK Government to prioritise the conflict as an issue deserving of increasing attention.
Now the Ugandan army is starting to send people home in the less volatile areas of the north. They are attempting to resettle more than a quarter of a million people in the Lango and Teso regions, which have been relatively peaceful for months. However many displaced people feel the region is still too insecure for them to return home. Such resettlement schemes must be voluntary.
“When peace finally does come,” James Otim says, “it is going to be a real challenge for aid organisations – how do you rehabilitate a whole generation who have known nothing but war?”
And with half of all camp residents under the age of 15, most do not know what “normal” society looks like.
“I came to live here in the camp when I was very young,” says Molly. “My greatest fear is being abducted by the rebels when they invade the camp. Life is hard – I fetch water at 6am, and again in the afternoon. I fear meeting the soldiers – the dogs bark at the sign of strange people – I never know if it is government soldiers or rebels on patrol.”
Anna Ridout is a communications officer at World Vision and has recently returned from northern Uganda.