Thousands starving in Uganda as food trucks hijacked or halted

International relief organizations are having a hard time trucking desperately needed food to starving Ugandans in the hinterlands. Included among the needy are a reported 150,000 hungry Karamojan tribespeople in northeastern Uganda. But reaching them has proved so difficult and dangerous that relief agencies threaten to halt their convoys if the ruling Ugandan military commission does not guarantee their safety.

In recent months, one United Nations agency lost more than 50 vehicles in armed hijackings, and last week the New York-based CARE organization lost two Ugandan employees who were shot dead by soldiers who stole their truck.

In this way, hundreds of tons of relief food have found their way onto the Ugandan black market instead of to the proper recipients.

CARE now has suspended all operations except for the distribution of food already in its warehouses. But 30 truckloads of materials to rebuild schools damaged in last year's war to liberate Uganda from dictator Idi Amin have been sent back to neighboring Kenya.

CARE Uganda director Peter Reitz said: "Our program is temporarily suspended pending improved security. We hope we do not have to leave Uganda, but we are prepared to if the harassment of our personnel by thugs in military uniforms or even by soldiers themselves does not stop."

Mr. Reitz has written to the military commission and now is to ask Army commander Maj. Gen. Tito Okello for armed escorts for CARE food envoys. The request also has been made by other aid agencies.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister for Rehabilitation Kefa Sempangi has left for a tour of Karamoja and Teso regions to assess how to coordinate the aid effort to those areas. He also will see if more Ugandan food can be mobilized, so the hungry will not have to rely on imported foodstuffs, which are slow to arrive and expensive to handle.

United Nations estimates are that 4 million people face food shortages in northern Uganda after severe drought and the lack of a planting season last year during the liberation war. Of these, half a million are chronically short of food, and in the Karamoja tribal area, the worst-hit sector, 150,000 are reported to be dying from starvation.

A conservative estimate of the number of starving in Karamoja is 100 per day, but one mission priest at Moroto, the principal town, put the figure as high as 500 a day. Agencies estimate that a minimum of 1,500 tons of food was needed each month to stave off starvation in Karamoja. Church of Uganda officials say only about 800 tons has been received there since the beginning of the year.

Although there has been a lack of coordination between relief agencies on who delivers food where, the major drawback has been insecurity. In Karamoja, armed cattle rustlers have gunned down villagers, burned out their clusters of huts, terrorized police and travelers, and stolen an estimated three quarters of the region's 400,000 head of cattle.

Cattle rustling has been a traditional pastime among the Karamoja tribesmen, where wealth is measured only by possession of cows. But spears were replaced by automatic rifles and antitank grenades when Idi Amin's armories were looted after the liberation last year. Police officers report their tracker squads have been driven off by as many as 150 heavily armed raiders in pitched battles.

The Karamoja, thus deprived of their traditional diet of milk and cows' blood , have had to turn to meager agriculture in the past year. But this failed when two successive rain seasons proved dry. Now the mission stations in the region are surrounded by groups of thin men, women and children awaiting the few food consignments that do get through.

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