As the world finally turns its gaze toward the horrors in Darfur, an equally terrible situation in northern Uganda continues to go unnoticed. The actions of a fanatical rebel movement, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), have displaced more than 1.6 million people in northern and eastern Uganda, a number even higher than in Darfur. The conflict, which has destroyed lives, communities and rich cultural traditions, cannot be allowed to continue. The international community must help bring it to an end and stanch the hemorrhage of human suffering.
Where else in the world do we see the kidnapping of children in attacks targeting boys and girls? Not long ago, I witnessed firsthand the suffering of families in northern Uganda, and I found it more shocking than anything I had seen in visits to conflict areas. More than 20,000 children have been kidnapped, including 12,000 since 2002. This is a conflict fought by, with and against children. More than 80 percent of the LRA forces are children. They are forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves to their commanders.
In the town of Gulu, I met a young girl who had escaped from the LRA. She told me she had been forced to club and bite another child to death. Like this girl, thousands of other children have been raped, brutalized and drugged. Deprived of even the most elemental humanity, they have been forced to inflict unspeakable violence on others.
Where else do we see the phenomenon of the "night commuters"? Each night in northern Uganda, more than 40,000 mothers, grandmothers and children leave their homes and travel many miles by foot into the towns of Gulu, Kitgum and Kalongo seeking refuge from abduction by the LRA. When the sun rises, they make the trek back to their villages, usually on an empty stomach.
This brutal conflict takes place in a country that has rightly received praise for its efforts to combat AIDS. And yet the horrors in the north grind on. No one knows how many people have died as a result, but thousands of homes, schools and clinics have been destroyed and countless communities and livelihoods torn asunder by violence.
The conflict has reached a peak in the past two years. In response, U.N. agencies and their partners among the nongovernmental organizations have scaled up their activities, expanding food distribution and health care to key towns and camps in regions where more than 90 percent of the population has been forced to flee. Living in crowded, poorly protected camps, thousands of families now depend on humanitarian aid. Their regions were once known as the breadbasket of Uganda. Today these same families dare not venture out of the camps to till their land for fear of LRA attacks. Rebel attacks also make it difficult for aid workers to deliver more than the bare necessities.
The Ugandan government has taken steps to improve protection, but it can do more. Civilians in northern Uganda are still at too great a risk. The international community must publicize and condemn the LRA's atrocities. And the international donor community should complement the government's increased efforts through sufficient humanitarian assistance for those in need. To date, less than three-quarters of the $143 million requested in the U.N. appeal for Uganda has been received.
Now is the time to step up actions to end the abuses, stop the conflict and assist in rebuilding northern Uganda. Under a government amnesty, growing numbers of LRA fighters are renouncing violence and are ready to resume their places in society. A far stronger program of demobilization and reintegration must be created. As it is now, children who escape from the LRA do not receive the help they need, and they live in fear of being abducted again.
There is no military solution to the violence and insurgency in the north. Dialogue is needed to end the conflict and enable child combatants to lay down their weapons and reclaim a life of peace and dignity. The government of Uganda should apply the same determination and wisdom it has displayed in tackling HIV-AIDS and revitalizing the economy in the south to peacefully resolving the war in the north. If the LRA members take advantage of the government amnesty and international donors increase their assistance, we can help those in desperate need and prepare for the safe return of 1.6 million people to their lands.
These steps will provide the platform for local civil society and interfaith groups to continue their valuable work of pursuing reconciliation and lasting peace.
The writer is the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.