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Caution follows peace promise; children still prey to abduction, abuse

© IRIN Uganda
Night commuters: Girls seek overnight refuge at a makeshift shelter in a town in northern Uganda

KAMPALA/NEW YORK, 19 October 2004 - Fresh talk of peace has brought new hope to war-torn northern Uganda, where children and women are continuing to bear the brunt of the humanitarian crisis.

The 18-year conflict between Ugandan government forces and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has forced 1.5 million people to flee their homes and destroyed the lives of many more. The vast majority of those seeking shelter in camps are children and women.

Thousands of children have also been forcibly involved in the conflict, by being coerced either to fight or to labour for armed groups. Some 3,000 children were abducted from their homes in the last year alone.

When UNICEF Executive Directory Carol Bellamy visited Uganda in May this year, she described the situation as one of the most serious humanitarian emergencies in the world and said the global community’s response had been “woefully inadequate.”

But there are now reports that the LRA is weakening and dozens of children forced to join the rebel ranks have been released this month. However, there has been no formal end to the war, and the fighting and abductions are continuing.

“There is a sense of cautious optimism,” says UNICEF communication officer Anne Lydia Sekandi. “There have been several announcements in recent weeks by the Ugandan military and the Ugandan President that the LRA rebels have been defeated and peace is coming back to the northern region.

© IRIN Uganda
Children are caught up in the fighting of Uganda’s 18-year civil war

“But as far as humanitarian aid agencies are concerned, there is still a sense of caution because pockets of LRA rebels and fighters are still attacking people in camps. The problem of ‘night commuters’ still exists too, which implies there is still fear and insecurity in the area.”

The ‘night commuters’ are children who flee to towns when darkness falls to avoid being attacked and abducted. It is estimated that 44,000 children do this every night, becoming vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation in the process.

UNICEF accelerated its emergency response in June 2002 when fighting escalated. Providing health, education, protection, water and sanitation are the priorities. Basic household items, such as blankets and jerry cans, have been given to those who have lost everything in the conflict, and temporary learning centres have replaced schools that were destroyed.

UNICEF has also supported the construction of motorized water pumps in camps and the construction of latrines in vulnerable areas. Basic health services are being improved – most recently, UNICEF trained 190 young people to offer education about HIV/AIDS to other children in camps.

But funding remains a problem. Earlier this year a UN appeal raised less than a quarter of the $127 million target.




19 October 2004: UNICEF’s Anne Lydia Sekandi offers cautious response to talk of peace in Uganda
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