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Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in Uganda

11-11-1997 Operational Update

Uganda has been undergoing major changes since the beginning of the year: the Lord's Resistance Army, an armed opposition movement operating mainly in the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum, has intensified its activities in recent months, adding significantly to the existing numbers of internally displaced. In the West Nile, though the situation has generally calmed down, a renewed rise in tension, linked to a splinter group of the West Nile Bank Front, has been observed in the area. In the south-western Kasese region, a new rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces, emerged in the Rwenzori mountains. Their presence resulted in a dramatic upsurge in hostilities in the region, culminating in attacks on the towns of Bundibugyo and Kasese in June and July 1997. Until then, the internal conflict had largely been restricted to the north and north-west of the country. 

The civilian population is affected in numerous ways. In the north, around Gulu and Kitgum, civilians have been living in constant fear of attack and abduction for more than a decade, and even though some of the people who have had to flee the fighting have recently been able to return to their homes, hundreds of thousands are still displaced. Thousands more, the so-called " night-stayers " , seek shelter during the night in towns and trading centres. The Ugandan government's policy of protecting villages and trading centres with the army, thereby attracting internally displaced people and concentrating them in these areas, has cut off farmers from their fields and livelihood. The clashes in the south-west have triggered mass population displacements, currently totalling some 70,000 people, and are seriously disrupting economic activity in the area.

In the West Nile area, approximately 30,000 displaced people have been moving back to their villages, and thousands of Ugandan refugees have returned home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. At present only a few thousand internally displaced remain in the region, as do some 60,000 Sudanese refugees.

 Protection and detention activities  

The ICRC currently visits some 1,700 detainees in 16 places of detention including military barracks, prisons run by the civilian authorities, and police stations. To address the problem of poor material conditions in civilian prisons, the ICRC distributes food and non-food assistance (such as soap, blankets, buckets and cleaning materials) on an ad hoc basis and provides technical advice on how to improve water and sanitation facilities. Medical supplies are available in the case of acute emergencies, such as the threat of an epidemic. The ICRC also reminds the authorities of their obligation to maintain acceptable standards in prisons and to ensure fair treatment of detainees. Efforts are being made to improve contacts with opposition movements in order to obtain access to people possibly held by rebel groups.

 Health activities  

The worsening security situation, population displacements and lack of access to land have resulted in a gradual deterioration of the health of people living in or adjacent to conflict areas. In particular, the incidence of many common illnesses is raised among displaced populations as a result of changes in environment, lack of health care facilities or inability to afford treatment. Population movements also place an additional burden on fragile water supply and sanitation systems, which in turn increases the risk of outbreaks of water-bo rne diseases.

Local public health facilities are supported to enable them to treat those affected by conflict and notably the war-wounded. As malaria in particular is an enormous problem among internally displaced people, a malaria control programme is being planned in conjunction with the Ugandan Red Cross Society (URCS).

 Water and sanitation activities  

In the West Nile, the ICRC continued to implement a water rehabilitation programme in cooperation with the URCS. Seven out of 12 planned spring protection structures have been constructed and work has commenced on repairing existing boreholes. Fifteen of these are planned to be finished by the end of the year. The water supply system in these villages serves some 22,000 people.

In the South-West, owing to hostilities in the Rwenzori mountains, 300 families were displaced to a disused cobalt mine in Kilembe. With material and financial assistance from the ICRC, the mines engineer and his team restored the water supply to areas now inhabited by internally displaced.

 Relief activities  

As with health care, the combined effects of conflict, displacement and lack of access to land resulted in a gradual deterioration of the economic and nutritional status of people in conflict areas. Given that there is an estimated total of 300,000 internally displaced people in Uganda, conditions in many parts of the country are conducive to poverty, illness and malnutrition. For internally displaced people who have some coping mechanisms, such as family or rented access to land, the ICRC provides basic non-food necessities, including hoes and small agricultural packages, so as to avoid a further deterioration of their situation and to help them get back on their feet. Newly displaced people, many of whom lose all their belongings when fleeing their homes, are assisted with food and shelter materials as the situation requires.

 Cooperation with the National Society  

As part of ongoing ICRC efforts to support the URCS tracing service, ten motorbikes were handed over to the National Society. The first URCS regional tracing/dissemination training workshop took place in September and was attended by 29 participants from branches throughout northern, eastern and north-western Uganda.

Two joint URCS/ICRC tracing missions took place in July and August to the Kyangwari, Kiryandongo and Oruchinga refugee camps.

Assistance programmes in Gulu, Kitgum and western Uganda are carried out in close cooperation with local branches and volunteers in the areas concerned.