The wanton violence and killing in northern Uganda that has created one of Africa's largest displaced populations must end, said Sheila Sisulu, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) deputy executive director on Thursday.
"What I saw in Pabbo camp in Gulu District is totally unacceptable under any circumstances," said Sisulu in a statement issued by WFP. "Atrocities against innocent civilians must cease immediately, and all parties must work tirelessly to end this conflict."
An 18-year rebellion has forced over 1.5 million Ugandans to flee their homes. WFP said most were huddled together in camps where they lived in permanent fear of rebel attacks such as that on Barlonyo camp, near Lira town, on 21 February in which 337 people were murdered.
The displaced families, it added, were afraid to work their fields and had become dependent on food aid. As many as 30,000 children have been abducted to work as porters, child soldiers and serve as 'wives' of rebels, since the rebellion began in the 1980s.
In Gulu town, Sisulu met the so-called 'night commuters' - thousands of children, frightened of being abducted, who walk several kilometres from their villages each night to sleep in makeshift shelters in the relative safety of town, and then trek home again at first light.
"To see those children lying on the ground, packed together in their hundreds, filling rooms and tents, with some even out in the open, tells me that the population is terrified," Sisulu said.
"Children are the fodder of this conflict. Tens of thousands have been forced to kill, fight and bear the children of soldiers. Hundreds of thousands are raised in camps. And the night commuters are growing up in a state of constant fear. It is the most vulnerable that carry the burden of violence and these kids are carrying it directly into the future," she added.
The conflict in northern Uganda has escalated over the past year, extending into previously unaffected districts. WFP said the growing number of displaced people across a widening area presented a huge challenge to WFP and its partners in terms of staffing, resources, access and overall ability to respond to the urgent needs.
Even if security were to improve immediately, WFP added, the majority of Uganda's displaced people would remain reliant on food aid for the rest of this year. It said the planting season had started, but families had only limited access to the countryside due to the presence of rebels. Those who were planting were doing so two to three kilometres away from camps, mostly along roadsides, which would not produce a harvest sufficient to cover their food needs.
Sisulu said WFP was sending food aid to 1.5 million displaced Ugandans at a cost of US $90 million this year, but that the agency would prefer to spend money on recovery and projects such as school feeding.
"Against a background of insecurity, we dispatch three convoys a day, six days a week. It's a huge logistical challenge," she said. "Too much of our time and resources are spent just keeping people alive in the north, when we would much prefer to move on to recovery and even development activities in that region, as we are doing in other parts of the country."
WFP activities such as school feeding and HIV/AIDS programmes account for only about one-fifth of the agency's work in Uganda. WFP currently works in 26 districts, reaching over 2 million hungry people. It is the main purchaser of Ugandan-grown commodities and bought over US $24 million worth of food in the country last year.
Sisulu noted that Uganda was not the only country to be caught up in a tragic waste of lives and resources. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Burundi are equally fertile countries which should be feeding themselves, but civil conflict has made them dependent on aid agencies to feed large numbers of their people.