17 March 2004
There are now one and a half million displaced people in northern Uganda seeking safe haven from attacks by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. Humanitarian agencies are hard pressed to meet the needs of those who have gathered in many camps in the north.
One such camp, named Pabbo, houses at least 50 thousand people. Also, thousands of children travel by night to such places as Kitgum and Gulu Town to try to avoid being abducted by the LRA.
Sheila Sislu is the deputy executive director of the World Food Program and former South African ambassador to the United States. She’s just finished touring northern Uganda under heavy military escort. English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua reached her in the town of Moroto in a remote area of northeastern Uganda. She explains where she’s been and what she’s seen.
Regarding the Pabbo camp, Ambassador Sisulu says, “Conditions are definitely not conducive to good family health, to good community health, to stability. (The camps) are not a place for raising children for any length of time.” Nevertheless, she says some people have been displaced persons camps in northern Uganda for 18 years. She says, “So you’re going to have something like three generations growing up and living in encampment, which does not make for a good, stable society in the future.”
The children who travel by night to Kitgum and Gulu Town to avoid being abducted are called “night commuters.” Ambassador Sisulu went to visit them. “What I saw was unreal,” she says. “I’d never experienced anything like that in many of the places I’ve been to that have gone through conflict, including my own country, where children have been making this trip from almost when they are born. Some of them on their mothers’ backs.” Thousands make the trip every night. When they arrive at their destination, they huddle in groups of as many as 100 hoping the towns will not be attacked. Thousands of children have been abducted by the LRA during its long war against the government.
When it comes time to briefing donors on what she saw, Ambassador Sisulu says she will tell them “it is paramount that the conflict end. Because the way people are living is not conducive to stability for any country. Secondly, it is not sustainable for donors and ourselves (WFP) to continue to provide food to these numbers of people…and the numbers are growing. And I think most importantly, children are most affected in this, which means the future stability of the region is at risk.”