Children are malnourished and many are suffering from curable diseases. The conditions in which they live are deplorable. This is a humanitarian crisis of tragic magnitude and much needs to be done to help more than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by the war between the Ugandan Army and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
One unusual phenomenon in Uganda is that of ‘night commuters’. There are about 40,000 such people, mostly mothers and their children, who every evening take refuge in major towns, sleeping outside hospitals and community centres out of fear of LRA attacks. According to UNICEF, at least 12,000 children have been abducted over the past two years to serve as sex slaves or forced to join the fighting ranks of LRA.
Salvation Army mission this month
In response to the growing problems, specialists from The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services section are carrying out a fact-finding mission to Uganda this month. Accompanied by government representatives and Salvation Army leaders from Uganda, the group will visit the northern province of Gulu, where more than 400,000 displaced people are seeking refuge. The team will be assessing their needs and will then plan its response accordingly.
Captain Mike McKee, The Salvation Army’s Emergency Field Operations Officer, reports: “The situation in Uganda is heartbreaking. Things we take for granted in the developed world are denied to those who have suffered from this lengthy conflict. We are encouraged by the determination of our Ugandan colleagues to offer support and will provide as much assistance as we can.”
Refugees are “victims not terrorists”
As well as having more than 1.6 million internally displaced persons, Uganda also finds itself home to some 220,000 Sudanese refugees. Despite its own problems, the country has welcomed the refugees, a situation that has been highlighted as a “lesson to the West” by new head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres.
Guterres, who marked World Refugee Day last week with a visit to camps in northern Uganda, appealed for a new approach to refugees and asylum seekers. “Nations like Uganda, which host hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring African conflicts, should serve as a lesson to the West, where asylum has become confused with terrorism and crime,” he said.
Despite a deal in January to end decades of war in southern Sudan, aid workers say more than 7,000 refugees have crossed the border into Uganda since then. The refugees say they are fleeing hunger and attacks by armed militias, and some say they also left because of growing tribal tensions, as power is shared following the peace deal.
“Refugees here have had generous support,” Guterres said. “Land has been granted to them and they have been integrated into communities, and that is something that is really difficult to find anywhere in the world.
Guterres assumed the post of High Commissioner at the UNHCR last month after former Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, resigned following allegations of sexual harassment. After being nominated for the position by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Guterres was formally elected by the UN General Assembly to a five-year term. The head of the UNHCR oversees the assistance of the world’s 17 million homeless people and is in charge of 6,000 staff in 115 countries.