In a fertile African land, swords batter plowshares

Observers warn that Ugandans face risk of starvation if they are unable to plant soon.

With famine knocking on Southern Africa's door, the world's aid organizations are already stretched to their limits. The last thing they need is famine in northern Uganda. And, in theory, this part of the continent should not be of any concern. Gulu district boasts of the second highest rainfall in the country, has arable land, and is inhabited by hard-working farming people.

But with the fighting between the government and the brutal rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) intensifying in recent months, the World Food Program (WFP) finds itself needing to provide people here with 100 percent of their food needs in order to keep them alive.

Herded into camps for the internally displaced – for their own protection, according to the government – unable to tend to their land and stuck with nothing to do and nothing to eat, the people here have been made helpless. "If they don't get out to their land and plant for the next harvest within the next three weeks," says WFP's Uganda country director Ken Davies, "they will be at as great a risk of starvation as anyone in Southern Africa."

Throughout Africa, conflict has become the biggest cause if hunger, say experts. When Mr. Davies joined WFP in 1989, 75 percent of the agency's resources were devoted to development work, such as school feeding programs, food-for-work projects, and reforestation efforts. Last year, he points out, almost 85 percent of WFP's assistance was in emergency relief and protracted post-conflict assistance.

"If peace were to break out around the world we would work ourselves out of business," says Davies. "The tragedy is that ever since the end of the cold war we have had a less stable world, more civil wars – and as such more suffering and hunger." Conflict and politics are the culprits behind the hunger now found in half a dozen African countries- including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Zimbabwe.

Pabo is Gulu district's largest camp – with 43,000 people, whose actual homesteads may lie as close as two and a half miles away. The camp is a quiet place, with families sitting listlessly around their mud huts, and children, most with the yellow tint of hair which indicates malnutrition, staying close to parents.

There are a few attempts to grow some greens on the rough ground – with seeds left drying atop newly constructed mud graves – but most residents here simply rely on the WFP. Some 500,000 northern Ugandans are living in 33 scattered camps just like this one. Tens of thousands of others have crowded into Gulu town. Almost no village in the district is left inhabited.

The arrival of the 14-truck food convoy and its military escort is the biggest action of the month at Pabo. Children do cartwheels and yelp, grown men come out beating drums and women, holding last month's food sacks over their heads for protection from the blazing sun, line up to receive their share of corn, beans and cooking oil.

Christine Achero is a mother of seven and a farmer. On her plot of land back home – four miles away from the camp – she used to grow rice, sorghum, and cassava. While some camp residents occasionally trek back to their farms during daylight hours to try to salvage what they can – she cannot bring herself to do so.

Her in-laws were killed by the rebels, two of her brothers were abducted, and she is frightened. "My children do not have enough to eat," she says. "They want to cry but they know I have nothing for them." When she was a child, she recalls, her mother gave her all the food she needed. "But today is different. I cannot be like my mother," she says.

"I am angry at the rebels and the government guys," says Albion Odung, a camp resident who is sitting around doing nothing. "The government brought us here and there is no food and no digging – but we are scared to go home because of the rebels." At his home, he continues, he has everything – cassava, tomatoes, and good ground nuts. "I miss it," he admits.

Last year, during a long lull in the 16 years of fighting between the government and the LRA, aid organizations in northern Uganda began preparing an ambitious plan to begin bringing about half of the north's displaced people home.

"There was a sense of optimism," says Ruth Butao, head of the WFP office in Gulu town. "We thought we could begin some rehabilitation work." But a few months later, the Ugandan army pushed into southern Sudan in a failed attempt to rout the rebels, and the conflict flared up again – this time with the LRA right inside Uganda.

While all the villages of this district have emptied out into the camps – even this is not enough to protect the population, and the rebels regularly raid here, stealing the little food there is, burning huts and abducting children.

On Monday, the Ugandan Army accused the LRA of abducting 23 youths at a weekend political rally in Pabo. "The LRA lured the people to the rally and crushed their bicycles ... smashing them against the ground, hitting them with gun butts," the Army's northern Uganda spokesman, Lt. Paddy Ankunda, told Reuters.

The LRA also issues warnings to aid organizations to stay away, which has led to most agencies scaling down operations. Three workers for the International Rescue Committee were abducted in August – and then released with a stern warning and on Friday a bus hired by UN's children fund (UNICEF) to deliver aid was ambushed and one woman killed. All roads linking the northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira and Pakwac are considered unsafe. The WFP completely stopped its deliveries between June 8 and July 15 and while today they are operating, the security situation is evaluated daily and no one will predict what will be next month.

As the WFP convoy leaves Pabo, a small child gets down on the ground to collect the corn kernels that have spilled out of ripped food sacks. He shovels them carefully into his hands – only about a dozen fit – and blows off the dust. The trucks speed off, the smoke from their exhaust pipes almost obscuring him, but he does not run away, remaining fixated on his task. His mother watches quietly from behind a tree and waves at the retreating trucks.

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