The situation in northern Uganda, where rebels are abducting children and subjecting them to sexual abuse, constitutes one of the world's most neglected crises, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator said today.
"Where else in the world have there been 20,000 kidnapped children?" Jan Egeland asked at a press briefing held in conjunction with the launch of the UN's annual appeal for funding for its relief work in countries and areas ravaged by war and natural disasters.
"Where else in the world have tens of thousands of children trekked into villages and hospitals every evening to sleep on the dirt for the night, to go back without being fed to their villages - and they do this because they are scared for their lives?"
The plight of children in northern Uganda has also been spotlighted by the UN as one of the 10 most under-reported news stories in the world.
Joining Mr. Egeland at the briefing was Angelina Atyam, whose daughter was kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and taken to Sudan, where she was held captive and sexually enslaved for eight years. After finally being freed in July of this year, the daughter returned with two children of her own.
Ms. Atyam, now the Chair of Uganda's Concerned Parents Association, told the briefing that in addition to those children who had been abducted others had been killed.
"Our region has been left behind, and that is why we are appealing," she said. "My daughter is just one of the few who managed to come back."
She called on all concerned to help Ugandans "get back our children - all our children - and stop abduction for good."
"Help us rehabilitate and reintegrate our children with health and education, and help us build peace, sustainable peace, through national reconciliation."
Northern Uganda has 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), as many as in the Darfur region of Sudan, which UN officials have called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. In addition, Ugandan children suffer more abuse than any others in the world, Mr. Egeland said.
"It is mind-boggling how little international attention there has been and also how difficult it has been over the years to fund the work for the children, the reintegration of the children who have escaped, and a real response to the crisis in the north."
The UN is seeking $158 million for Uganda as part of its overall $1.7 billion appeal for 2005. Most of the funds to help address the crisis there are targeted at providing basic goods and services such as clinics, clean water and sanitation, food and supplies.