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Aid reaches northern Uganda

By Karie Atkinson

A camp for displaced persons in Soroti, northern Uganda
A camp for displaced persons in Soroti, northern Uganda

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(CNN) -- International aid workers have found the break in the security situation they have been waiting for to enter a war-torn region of northern Uganda.

Displaced people have been flowing into Amuria county in Katakwi district since June 2003 after they were caught up in clashes between Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and government troops.

Catrin Schulte-Hillen, of international aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the 10-year-old violence had recently extended into areas not previously affected, such as the neighboring Soroti and Katakwi districts.

Schulte-Hillen also said the violence was now directed against civilians, putting them in constant fear of their lives.

"Because of their fear of going back to where they have seen their families massacred, mutilated, beat up and raped in front of them, displaced people live in fear," she told CNN.

"Displaced people are afraid to leave their mud huts and cultivate their crops even though they are not far from the fields because they are scared they will be abducted by soldiers from the LRA," said Laura Melo, a United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) representative based in Nairobi, Kenya.

"As a result displaced persons in the camps are almost 100 percent dependent on food assistance," she added.

About 33,000 displaced people are living in makeshift shelters in Amuria county, which quickly built round huts made of dried squares of mud with straw covered roofs that are susceptible to unsanitary conditions.

Villagers gather at a makeshift home in Soroti
Villagers gather at a makeshift home in Soroti

The situation mirrors that of Soroti district just below Katakwi district where according to MSF's Shulte-Hillen, people squat in any possible place they can -- in storefronts, public buildings, schools and shop verandas.

The situation forced medics to abandon their posts in Amuria's only health center so MSF was allowed in last week to relaunch its healthcare services and respond to urgent health needs.

Schulte-Hillen said the medical team had provided treatment and care mainly for children aged five and under who were suffering from malaria combined with anemia and severe malnutrition.

According to recent assessments by MSF, mortality rates for children of this age are at twice the emergency threshold levels.

Displaced people in Amuria are also suffering from a lack of water and food supplies.

The WFP has been distributed more than 1,000 tons of food to nearly 84,000 displaced people dispersed in six camps throughout Amuria since October 2003. And because of the improved security situation since January it has been able to deliver food without military escorts.

WFP is the only U.N. agency that has consistently had access to northern Uganda's war zone since it agreed to let military escorts from the Ugandan Army accompany its food aid convoys.

But Shulte-Hillen, who just returned from a recent visit, said the severity of the health situation could easily be missed.

"It's only when you go into people's huts that you extract everything going on," she said. "Those who are sick are not walking around outside so we can't wait for people to come into the health center -- we have to go to them and recruit health workers within the community to help us."

International aid organizations, including MSF and WFP, hope to continue their work in other parts of northern Uganda as soon as the security situation allows.

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