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UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah visits war-afflicted northern Uganda

© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
A child ‘night commuter’ arrives at the YY Okot Girls School shelter site on the outskirts of Kitgum Town in northern Uganda.

By Kun Li

NEW YORK, USA, 6 February 2006 – “What I want most is to go home. Can you please help us to go home?” pleaded 15-year-old Gladys. She was speaking to UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah, at a shelter for ‘night commuters’ in Kitgum Town, northern Uganda. The night commuters are children who walk many miles each night to sleep in shelters instead of in their own homes, to avoid being abducted by rebels.

One of the ugliest aspects of the war in Uganda is the rebels’ practice of abducting children and forcing them to serve as soldiers or porters, or to become sex slaves for commanders. Since the conflict began, more than 20,000 children have been abducted.

While Ms. Salah was at the shelter, hundreds of children and mothers arrived to spend the night. Ms. Salah spoke with many of them about their situation and their daily journey. She heard how their lives had been turned up side down by the civil war waged between the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA) and the Ugandan Government.

© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah meets with a group of girls and women who were abducted by the LRA and subsequently escaped, at Kitgum-Matidi camp for displaced people in northern Uganda.

“The international community must not be numbed into keeping northern Uganda a ‘silent’ or ‘forgotten’ emergency, as it has been previously described,” said Ms. Salah. “We can’t and must not lose sight of the simple fact that the toll being taken on children is this conflict’s most tragic and distressing impact.”

Visiting a camp for displaced people

The war has also forced about 1.7 million people to flee their homes on a long-term basis. At a camp built to house 26,000 displaced people, Ms. Salah observed the work of UNICEF and partner organizations in providing clean water and supporting education. A school has been built in the camp so that children can continue their education and preserve some sense of normalcy, despite the war and turmoil that surrounds them.

But danger still threatens camp residents. Ms. Salah was told how a 13-year-old was abducted by rebels while looking for firewood outside the camp. She also met with girls who had been abducted by the LRA and later escaped from their captors. Many of them were forced to fight; some bore children in captivity. The young mothers, some only 12 years old, are often left alone to raise their children and face discrimination from their own community.

© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun
Ms. Salah and French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, in Gulu, northern Uganda.

French Foreign Minister says perpetrators must be punished

At a reception centre for formerly abducted children in Gulu, northern Uganda, Ms. Salah was joined by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. Together they heard boys and girls describe how they had been abducted by the rebels, and what they had endured in captivity.

“What I saw in the faces and heard in the voices of these children was the impact of the total collapse of a secure environment on the most innocent and most vulnerable members of society,” said Ms. Salah.

During a press conference held jointly with Ms. Salah, Mr. Douste-Blazy asked the international community to do more for Uganda’s children. He said the perpetrators of abductions must be punished, and that more support is needed for children who have escaped abduction and captivity, to help them reintegrate into society.

Ms. Salah hopes her trip to Uganda can help bring more attention to the war and the children who suffer because of it. “It is the children bearing the brunt of poverty; it is the children being largely deprived of basic services that would otherwise enable them to survive, develop and thrive; and it is the children being brutalized into combat, hard labour and sexual slavery,” she said.




6 February 2006:
UNICEF Correspondent Kun Li reports on Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah’s visit to northern Uganda, where thousands of children have been abducted during a 20-year civil war.

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