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12 Nov 2003 13:05:00 GMT
Christian Aid partners help those left homeless by Ugandan rebels
Christian Aid

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Christian Aid - UK
Website: http://www.christianaid.org.uk/news
In June the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) launched a series of raids in the eastern region of Teso in Uganda. This was a new development in the 17-year civil war the LRA has waged against the Ugandan government.

The Acholi people in the north have been the main victims of this brutal war; innocent civilians have been killed or mutilated; thousands of children have been abducted and forced into combat or sexual slavery. More than a million have been displaced and forced to live in camps where they receive little food and have poor sanitation.

The town of Soroti has been overwhelmed by terrified people who have flooded in from the areas attacked by the LRA. This small district capital is normally a sleepy town of 40,000; now there are some 120,000 camped out in schools and churches. The less fortunate are obliged to camp under trees or in the streets.

Soroti is struggling to cope. There are pressures on the town's health, sanitation and water supplies. A long-planned measles immunisation programme for the month of October came too late for the 15 children who have already died from the disease.

The yard of the Pioneer Primary School is one of the makeshift camps. The official figure for the displaced in this school is 8,000 and facilities are desperately short. There are only 12 latrines, three water taps and one water pump.

The scene is chaotic; food is cooking over charcoal fires, laundry is hanging from lines strung up between trees and camp leaders are trying to bring order. At night all the school desks and benches are moved out and the refugees sleep in the classrooms and in the morning they are put back in time for classes.

Many of the children here were abducted by the LRA during the raids and were lucky enough to escape. Emanuel O. escaped after a week in captivity. 'They took ten of us from my village, we had to carry heavy luggage, it was all the looted things from my village,' he said. 'We were all tied at the waist and got very little food. Only the soldiers got proper food.'

Emanuel made friends with one of the rebels and convinced him to untie him. When food was served Emanuel went to a nearby river saying he had to urinate. He then jumped and 'swam as I never have before.'

Emanuel was taught to kill with a knife and gun, although he said he did not kill anyone. He was obliged to watch the girls from his village being raped, 'they would gather all the girls and choose one and then they would rape her in front of us. Three of the girls were friends of mine, I am afraid they are now wives of rebels and I will never see them again.'

'When I got back home I found out that my mother had been killed by the rebels so I went to my auntie's and she brought me here.'

Emanuel and the hundreds of other people at the Pioneer School need food, proper sanitation and other basics. Everyone knows the reputation of the LRA and they fled with nothing.

Christian Aid is funding two partners in Teso to help the displaced people. The Teso Diocesan Development Office will provide blankets, kitchenware, clothes, mosquito nets, farming tools and soap in Soroti town and to the rural camps to the south of Soroti.

Another Christian Aid partner, Youth With a Mission (YWAM) will be given funds to continue its work with HIV/AIDS. YWAM has been working with people in their villages. They have all been displaced into Soroti town and need YWAM's help even more.

According to Joyce Eribu of YWAM the people she is helping are even more at risk of diseases. 'Already five people we were working with have died,' she said. 'When you are displaced, sanitary conditions are poor, people are crowded together and infections are passed around more easily.' Eribu is worried that the advances Uganda has made in the fight against HIV will be reversed if the situation in Soroti continues.

The Soroti Referral Hospital is filled with the LRA's victims of brutality. Dr Bernard Odu, the medical superintendent at the hospital, is resigned to it. 'We are the receiving end of the casualties, my surgical wards are full of victims of ambushes and landmines.'

Agracia, 45, is a graphic example of this brutality. She is propped up in her bed in the women's ward. She has horrific third degree burns on her neck, arms, throat and back. Her skin is open, pink and raw, oozing pus. She tells her story haltingly in a strangulated voice.

'We were staying in a camp for displaced people and my husband and I decided to go home to collect his bicycle and some food. The rebels surrounded us, they took away my husband. Then they forced me to show them my home and then splashed paraffin on me. Then they put grass on me and set it on fire. They didn't say anything. While they were doing this I heard the bullet which killed my husband.'

The rebels left once they had set Agracia on fire. She ripped her dress off and managed to make her way to the army barracks. It is unlikely she will survive a nurse said.

Age is no defence against the LRA. At Father Hilders School in Soroti are several young girls who had been abducted this summer when the LRA attacked. Betty is only 13 years old and clearly remembers the day she was taken.

'It was Wednesday, June 18 when they came to my village. On the Friday they came into my house where I was preparing dinner. I was taken with my brother and other children. We had to walk long distances and carry heavy loads. We were all tied at the waist and at night the last person was tied to a tree and we also had our hands tied behind our backs.' As Betty says this she instinctively puts her hands behind her back.

After weeks of walking they reached a camp in the far north. That was when the rapes started. 'One rebel raped me and the commander gave me to another rebel and said: "He is now your husband and if you refuse him you will be killed". If you see a gun or a knife,' said Betty, 'you can't refuse.'

On the long walk to the LRA camps in Sudan Betty managed to escape 'they discovered I was gone and they came looking for me. It was dark and I was hiding in the bush. One rebel even stepped on my big toe,' she continues as she sticks out her left foot. 'I was praying, I was so frightened.'

Betty has been traumatised by her experience and refuses to go home to her parents until she is convinced it is safe and the LRA will not return.

[ Any views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not of Reuters. ]

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