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Each evening in northern Uganda, children by the thousands leave their huts to trek to safe havens to avoid fanatical rebels. (Paul Raffaele)

Uganda: The Horror

In Uganda, tens of thousands of children have been abducted, 1.6 million people herded into camps and thousands of people killed: A dispatch from the world's "largest neglected humanitarian emergency"

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Ongako housed 10,820 internally displaced persons. Many wore ragged clothing as they waited for food in long lines in a field near hundreds of small conical mud huts. The crowd murmured excitedly as WFP workers began unloading the food—corn, cooking oil, legumes and a corn and soybean blend fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Davies told me that the WFP provides camp dwellers with up to three-quarters of a survival diet at an average cost of $45 a year per person, about half of it supplied by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The displaced are expected to make up the difference by raising crops nearby. The Ugandan government provides little food for the camps, Davies said. The leader of the camp residents, John Omona, said there is not enough food, medicine or fresh water. More than half of the camp residents are children, and World Vision officials say that as many as one out of five suffer from acute malnutrition. When I was there, many bore the swollen bellies and red-tinged hair of kwashiorkor, a disorder brought on by extreme protein deficiency, and I was told that many had died from starvation or hunger-related diseases. “The extent of suffering is overwhelming,” Monica de Castellarnau of Doctors Without Borders said in a statement.

Benjamin Abe—a native Ugandan, an Acholi and an anthropologist at North Seattle Community College—said he was horrified by his recent visit to a displaced persons camp near Gulu. “It was inhumane, basically a concentration camp,” he said when we met last November in Kampala.

Compared with the open countryside where LRA terrorists may remain at large, the government camps are a refuge, but people in the camps say they, too, are preyed upon, as I learned during an unauthorized visit to campAwer, 13 miles from Gulu. Awer nudged the roadside, a gigantic huddle of thousands of small conical family huts. The air was sour with the smell of unwashed bodies, poor sanitation and sickness. Men slouched in the shade of their huts or played endless games of cards. Children squatted on bare earth in mud-hut classrooms, with neither pencils nor books. Exhausted-looking women cooked meager meals of maize or swept the dust from family hearths.

About 50 men and women gathered around me. Many of the men bore scars—on their legs, arms and head—that they said came from torture by government soldiers. Grace, who said she is in her 30s but looked 20 years older, told me that a Ugandan government soldier raped her at gunpoint three years ago as she was returning to the camp after taking her child to the hospital. “It’s very common for soldiers to rape women in the camp,” she added. Her attacker had since died of AIDS, she said. She didn’t know if she had the virus that causes the disease.

The U.N.’s Hanawalt said that young women in the camp avoid going to the latrines at night out of fear of being raped by government soldiers or other men. One camp leader told me that the AIDS rate in the camp was double that in the rest of Uganda.

In 2000, Museveni, to draw the rebels (and their captives) out of the bush, began offering amnesty to all LRA members, and some have taken advantage of the offer, though not Kony. Then, in January 2004, the president complicated the amnesty offer by also inviting the International Criminal Court into Uganda to prosecute LRA leaders for war crimes. The human rights group Amnesty International supports the move to prosecute Kony and other LRA leaders.

But Anglican bishop Macleord Baker Ochola, vice chairman of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, opposes prosecution. He says it would ruin any chance for a peaceful resolution and would amount to a double standard unless government soldiers were also prosecuted for their crimes, including, he said, the rape and murder of civilians. Ochola argues for granting LRA members amnesty, even though he says an LRA land mine killed his wife and LRA rebels raped his daughter, who later committed suicide.

Many aid workers advocate a peaceful settlement. “There is no military solution to the violence and insurgency in the north,” the U.N.’s Egeland wrote last fall. One drawback of a military approach, critics say, is the high casualty rate among LRA captives. Relief workers have condemned the army’s use of helicopter gunships to fight LRA units because women and children are killed along with the rebel soldiers. The Ugandan Army defends the practice. “The LRA train their women and children to use rifles and even rocket-propelled grenades, and so we shoot them before they shoot us,” Maj. Shaban Bantariza, the army spokesman, told me.

This past November, Museveni declared a limited ceasefire zone in northern Uganda between the government and LRA forces. In late December, internal affairs minister Ruhakana Rugunda and former government minister Betty Bigombe led a group, including Odama and U.N. representatives, that met with LRA leaders near the Sudan border to discuss signing a peace agreement by the end of the year. But the talks broke down at the last minute, reportedly after the government declined the LRA’s request for more time. President Museveni, speaking at a peace concert in Gulu on New Year’s Day, said the cease-fire had expired and vowed that the army would “hunt for the LRA leaders, especially Joseph Kony . . . and kill them from wherever they are if they don’t come out.” He also said: “We have been slow in ending this long war,” although, he added, 4,000 child captives had been rescued since August 2003.

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