Uganda moves to aid hungry peasants after routing dissidents

Less than an hour's drive from Uganda's capital, 70,000 to 100,000 displaced peasants live in more than 50 camps in conditions that are among the most wretched in the world.

This is the bitter legacy of the armed - but defeated - challenge to President Milton Obote's government in Uganda.

The government has declared relief and resettlement for peasants a top priority now that its effort to wipe out the insurgents is largely over. Leaders of the revolt, which began in January, are in exile, in prison, or dead, and dissident organizations have been smashed. The government has issued an international appeal for aid and set up an interministerial committee in the prime minister's office to coordinate the efforts of government departments and international relief agencies.

It will be an arduous task. Some of the camps are deserted hamlets, with hundreds of families crammed into abandoned shops, houses, and schools. Others consist of flimsy structures woven from the fronds of banana trees - shelter that does not keep out the tropical rains that fall for more than an hour every day.

Oxfam, an international relief organization, has provided plastic sheeting, but there is not enough of it. Few of the displaced peasants have a change of clothing, and the many of the children are naked and appear not to have enough food.

These peasants are the worst-hit of the 750,000 peasants in the Luwero triangle who became the victims of civil strife three years ago. The fighting arose when several opposition movements mounted an attempt to overthrow President Milton Obote's elected government. Although the elections were controversial, they were seen at the time as reasonably fair, under the conditions that followed Idi Amin's ouster.

The toughest resistance was in three of the eight districts of Buganda - a triangle of 9,000 square miles of verdant bush and savannah. Dissident movements , able for a time to establish a grip on the largely anti-Obote peasants, began by driving out supporters of the government. This set off the first wave of displaced peasants in 1980.

The strongest of the armed dissident forces, Yoweri Museveni's Uganda Patriotic Movement, claimed to have an army 15,000 strong that had ''liberated'' the Luwero triangle from Obote's rule. Last January the government decided to clean out the dissidents.

By then government forces had largely defeated Idi Amin's supporters in the north of the country. And by then the peasants in Buganda had wearied of harassment and begun to support the Uganda Army.

The military operation was a difficult one since the armed dissidents were lodged among the peasants. Caught up in the cross fire, tens of thousands of peasants rushed to find security close to army camps. Others, fearful of reprisals, fled with the retreating bands of Museveni's men. Thousands more were moved from their homes by the Army to prevent them from being harmed.

Uganda critics blame the government for this human tragedy. President Obote's reply is that there is no government in the world which would accept a situation in which ''terrorists and gunmen'' can claim to control any part of the country.

While welcoming international aid, the President rejects any idea of ''there being two sides'' to the conflict. ''There is no war here. It is a case of the government putting down the violence of terrorists.''

Obote has promised that irrespective of international aid, his government will use whatever is needed of its own resources to resettle the peasants as soon as possible and to ensure their security.

There has been an immediate positive response here from the Red Cross, UNICEF , and the World Food Program, which have declared that 25 percent of the victims are children who face famine and diseases.

International agencies estimate it will require at least $17 million to provide urgent relief and to resettle the peasants whose homes have been looted and/or destroyed.

The government is now confident that armed dissident forces have been effectively destroyed and that in the immediate future Uganda will be faced only with sporadic acts of violence by small bands of desperadoes who, without leadership or organization, will seek to survive in the wooded countryside.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.