Kampala — The executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, visited camps for displaced people in northern Uganda from 25 to 27 May. Among others, she met "night commuters" - children who trek into the towns every night to avoid being abducted by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. On return to the capital, Kampala, she talked to IRIN about what she had seen and what could be done. Below are excerpts:
QUESTION: How would you describe the situation you have just seen in northern Uganda?
ANSWER: Northern Uganda presents a situation of extraordinary violation of the rights of children. First, close to 1.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, and 80 percent of these are women and children. Secondly, very specifically, one of the fighting forces - the rebels, have based much of their fighting on the use of children abducted from the area.
It is an explicit violation of children's rights and a humanitarian crisis directly affecting children. It is a crisis of enormous proportion, one that unfortunately is not getting the attention it ought to get both from the perspective of intervention from a humanitarian point of view and therefore the resources needed, whether for food, health or education; and from the global community in terms of encouraging a movement towards peace.
Q: What did you see or hear during your visit to the region?
A: I have seen many disturbing images during my time with UNICEF, but few of them are as shocking as the sight of the "night commuters" whom I saw just two nights ago. I call them small communities who are flowing in huge numbers into shelters in Gulu, where 90 percent of the population has been forced from their homes by the conflict, but less than 20 percent have access to effective health care. The number of children suffering from severe malnutrition is probably around 7,000 every month, but only 700 access health services. These figures and images show that Uganda is home to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. HIV/AIDS is spreading in the north at an alarming rate and basic literacy is in decline.
Q: Given what you saw during your trip, what can be done to alleviate the suffering of the people of this region?
A: We would like to see every effort towards a peaceful resolution, so that government and rebels can come to a peaceful solution in the medium term. Right now, there is need for serious humanitarian intervention from the international community and from the government itself. The government needs to focus its efforts in this area. The people need food, they need shelter, and they need security. The children need to go to school even if they still live under these conditions. They need clean water and sanitation. These kinds of humanitarian interventions are critical. We at UNICEF are strengthening our efforts in this area, and others should do the same.
Q: What is UNICEF going to do to strength its efforts to address the situation?
A: We have been working in the north for the last 20 years. From last year when the number of the displaced increased, we have expanded our physical presence in the north. I was there and inaugurated an office in Gulu. We have some more staff, not only in Gulu but also in Lira and in Kitgum. We are particularly focusing on issues of children's health, support immunisation for children, not only in the community but also in the camps [and] make sure that sanitary facilities in the camps are improved.
We have provided building materials for temporary learning centres. We also try to help young children to access very simple playing materials, but largely focusing on life-saving types of health needs to make sure that the kids don't become a lost generation in terms of not being in school. We are supporting our partners in providing shelter and some protective environment for the so-called night commuters: the thousands of children who run away or are urged by their parents to run from their homes at night to shelters in town.
Q: The situation seems to be overwhelming. How does it affect UNICEF's operations in the country?
A: The violation of one child's rights is probably overwhelming. But you are talking about 1.6 million people, of whom 80 percent are women and children: this is a very serious emergency. We have done some adjustments in our budget to cater for this emergency. We are also seeking other funding to supplement the adjustments we have made in our budget. We need about US $7.5 million, of which we have received more than $3 million. In order not to delay, we have also done some internal borrowing to allow us expand our effort more rapidly.
Q: You met the displaced and other groups. What was your message to them?
A: Our message is that they can count on UNICEF as a partner. We will continue to help. But humanitarian action is only that: a managerial action. What needs to happen is peace, and that has to be led by government and the rebels, though I did not meet the rebels.
One other additional message that I think is very important at this point is that in the most affected areas of the north, the government needs to look at how it is allocating its approved budget resources. Since the budget goes very much to districts, I was urging the government that the resources approved should follow the people where they have fled.
Q: What would you say to both the government and the rebels?
A: My message would be to encourage what the government has said they want to provide: an amnesty. If the amnesty could work, I would certainly urge the rebels to take advantage of the amnesty. I would urge both rebels and the government to continue seeking all possible avenues of peace.
Q: As you return to New York, what impressions of the Ugandan situation do you leave with?
A: Uganda's social and economic progress will not continue unless there is peace throughout the country. The plight of a million children in the north directly affected by the conflict is a matter of urgency for us as humanitarians, for the government of Uganda, which has direct responsibility for its people, and indeed for all of us as human beings.
I will be leaving Uganda with deeply mixed feelings. On one hand, I see the tremendous progress that has taken place in this most beautiful of countries. But on the other, I will be troubled by my memory of mothers in the north who love their children so much that they send them away from their homes every night to seek safety and the protection that they are powerless to offer.
Q: What would be your comment on the talks between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, which could impact on the situation in northern Uganda?
A: Peace has taken a long time to come by in Sudan and, as with all peace processes, it is not an easy process. One would hope that people won't give up hope of reaching peace here in northern Uganda. If peace can be reached in Sudan, it can be reached even in northern Uganda.