AIDS leading cause of death in war-ravaged north - World Vision

AIDS is killing three times more people in northern Uganda than the ongoing violence there, World Vision International said on Monday, adding that the 18-year conflict between the Ugandan army and rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) was to blame for the high infection rates.

"World Vision found that HIV/AIDS was the leading cause for death, constituting 69 percent of deaths in the Gulu area, three times higher than direct killings during military confrontation," the aid agency said in a report entitled "Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda".

It noted that although the national HIV/AIDS prevalence rates for Uganda were estimated at 6.2 percent and declining, the rates in war-affected areas such as Gulu were 11.9 percent, almost double the national average. Gulu is the district most affected by the conflict.

The LRA has been active in northern Uganda since 1988, fighting ostensibly to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni, over alleged marginalisation of the region. The group is notorious for massacring civilians and abducting children, forcing girls into sexual slavery and conscripting boys into its fighting units. It is estimated that around 25,000 children are held captive.

The World Vision report said that massive displacement of northern Uganda residents, poverty, lack of health care and high incidence of rape were to blame for the high rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

According to World Vision, displacement left many people destitute with many women finding themselves with no other alternative but to engage in risky "survival sex" in exchange for food, soap or money. Young girls who left their homes at night to seek shelter in towns were raped.

World Vision called for appropriate HIV/AIDS control measures to be incorporated into government, UN and NGO programmes meant to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the conflict. It said that the virtual collapse of health-care systems meant that people did not have easy access to HIV/AIDS information or take advantage of testing, counselling and treatment facilities.

Uganda has won international acclaim for managing to reduce the HIV infection rate from around 30 percent in the early 1990s to 6.1 percent currently. But World Vision said that that achievement could be eroded by failure to bring the conflict in the north to a quick end.

World Vision described the conflict as a "tragic struggle for power involving children who are used as pawns for military and political purposes. They are abused; they are manipulated; and by most they are pitied – then ignored."

The report urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to focus more attention on "its unique mandate for child protection under the provisions for the Geneva Convention, including protecting the rights of children taken hostage by the LRA across international borders."

It said children were the main victims of a war that had cost the country more than US $100 million annually, an amount of money larger than the government's national health budget. The total cost of the war, since the beginning, was estimated at $ 1.3 billion, according to the World Vision report.

World Vision said that any post-conflict plans must make special provisions for psychosocial services and community reintegration programmes for victims of sexual slavery.

"Turning his [LRA leader Joseph Kony] cause into a spiritual crusade provides both justification and sustenance for the conflict. Kony invented a tailored religious cocktail, that superficially resembles traditional Acholi [local ethnic group] beliefs, Christianity and Islam, so as to root the cause of the LRA in a spiritual worldview," World Vision wrote in its report.

It noted that the military option pursued by the government had worsened the humanitarian situation, observing that 80 percent of the rebel forces were made up of abducted children and therefore the "terrorists are themselves hostages".