Health and education suffer as LRA steps up attacks in the north

Rosemary Aya, a mother of four in northern Uganda’s Olwal camp, lives in a state of perpetual fear, because the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has recently increased its vicious attacks on civilians.

"It has started all over again," Aya told IRIN on Monday at the camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) located 24 km west of Gulu town, itself 380 km north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

"We go to the field to look for food. Sometimes we find rebels there and we come back running - those who are unlucky are killed, abducted or beaten before they are released," Aya added. "My children can no longer sleep with me here - we have to send them to the health centre every evening since the rebels attacked our neighbouring village."

Northern Uganda’s conflict has witnessed an escalation in violence over the past few weeks, government officials have said.

"Rebels have stepped up their attacks, especially on women," Maj Shaban Bantariza, an army spokesman, told IRIN on Thursday.

"The situation has worsened in the past three weeks," Walter Ochola, council chairman for the northern district of Gulu, told US ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Tony Hall, when he visited the area on Monday.

Officials also said that over the past month more than a dozen women had been maimed by the LRA who ambushed them as they left their IDP camps to perform domestic chores.

Confirming the most recent attack, Ochola said that on Friday, rebels from the LRA had mutilated three women who had gone to collect firewood in the northern district of Kitgum. The rebels had hacked off the women’s lips, ears and breasts.

"All good people should work to see to it that these atrocities are stopped - and whoever will stop this suffering will be our second God," said the council chairman.

Abductions of civilians by the LRA have also been on the increase, with relief sources reporting the abduction of up to 49 children last week in Apac district, just south of Gulu.

However, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) rescued almost 60 people last week, a northern-based spokesman told IRIN on Monday.

"We rescued 59 captives in Apac and Gulu districts between 15 and 19 March, and also killed 26 LRA fighters during the same period," Lt Tabaro Kiconco said.

"There is no logical reason for the increased attacks, except perhaps they want to show that they are still here despite the surrender of many of their top commanders," Bantariza said.

Since peace talks between the government and the LRA were revived at the end of 2004, the region had experienced a lull in hostilities, with several high-ranking members of the rebel movement surrendering themselves to the UPDF.

Calling the humanitarian situation in northern Uganda a "silent tragedy", Hall told journalists in Gulu: "What I have seen here is something new. I have not seen this situation before, where thousands of children leave their homes with the consent of their parents to some town facility fearing they will be kidnapped."

The ambassador was referring to the nightly trip made by thousands of northern Ugandan children, known as "night commuters", from their rural homes to the relative safety of towns like Gulu, where they are less likely to be abducted by the LRA.

Education in jeopardy

Olwal’s maze of huts are home to 29,092 IDPs, driven from their own homes by the 19-year-old war between the government and the LRA.

School-age children wander about in dirty, tattered clothes, their distended bellies highlighting their malnutrition.

Due to continued rebel attacks, many families have had to keep their children out of school - rebels attempting to abduct children often target schools.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 80 percent of the LRA’s soldiers are children.

Even so, the classes at Olwal’s only primary school are overcrowded, according to Matthew Okum, the headmaster. The school is desperately short of materials, and Okum said he had received just 1.5 million Uganda shillings (US $880) to cater for the school’s needs for three months.

Okum’s school, which has eight classrooms and no windows, has over 1,600 pupils, with each teacher handling as many as 215 children. The school is affected by the region-wide, chronic water and food shortages, with the camp depending on nine boreholes for all its water needs.

Despite primary education being free, the dropout rate at the school has been alarming, especially for girls. In primary one this year, 239 out of 429 pupils were girls, but in primary seven, the stage at which pupils leave primary school, just 28 girls were registered in a class of 114.

When children finish primary school, more often than not their parents cannot afford to pay for them to advance to secondary school, and the children find themselves idle in the camp, according to some parents.

"Children drop out at the level of higher education, [and] as a result many become thieves or outlaws because of the redundancy in the camps," Tom Okello, Olwal’s camp leader, said.

HIV/AIDS – a different war

At Gulu district hospital, the outpatient ward overflows with patients.

Medical staff at the facility said it was severely under-resourced to handle such a heavy caseload. The most worrying phenomenon, the staff told visiting reporters on Monday, was the ever-increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS, which was double the national prevalence.

At the antenatal clinic, an average of 10 percent to 16 percent of pregnant women who take the voluntary test are found to be HIV positive, according to Grace Adokorach, a senior nursing officer at the hospital.

The AIDS Support Organisation official at the facility, Michael Ochwo, said that when the organisation started working in the district at the beginning of 2004, it expected at least 500 people to register at the centre within the first year - but the turnout went far beyond their expectations.

"A year later we had registered 3,000 who wanted our services," he said.

Ochwo attributed the high prevalence of HIV to the insecurity in the region, observing that war-induced poverty had led people to indulge in risky sexual behaviour. He further noted that promiscuity was on the rise in the region, particularly within the camps.

The protracted conflict between the LRA and the UPDF has forced over 80 percent of northern Uganda's population - more than 1.6 million people - to flee their homes and live in the squalid conditions of IDP camps, according to relief workers.

Civilians across the region live in constant fear of the LRA, a cult-like rebel group that terrorises villages and camps, raping, mutilating and abducting civilians. The group claims to be fighting to replace the current Ugandan government with one based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments.

Relief agencies estimate that more than 20,000 children have been taken captive by the LRA since 1988, and used as soldiers, porters, domestic workers or sex slaves.