ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross)

Uganda: humanitarian problems in the country are not adequately reflected in the media

Pierre-André Kono has just completed his mission in Uganda, where he has served as the head of the ICRC delegation for the past two years. Despite the scale of the humanitarian disaster, the internal conflict in that African country has not attracted the attention of the media. We offer you an interview in which Pierre-André Kono shares with us his thoughts on this matter.

Interwier:  Can we say that the humanitarian situation in Uganda is changing for the worse? 

Pierre-André Kono : I would rather say that the already difficult humanitarian situation in the country has been somewhat preserved. A significant deterioration was observed in 2003, when the number of internally displaced persons increased from four hundred thousand to one and a half million. These people live in overcrowded camps in various areas in the North of the country, with acute shortages of food and drinking water and lack of qualified medical care. In addition, due to the violation of the usual way of life there is a gradual destruction of traditions.

There are two key factors that further exacerbate the situation. On the one hand, the population is being attacked by the parties to the conflict. On the other hand, domestic violence remains a serious problem. This is due to the fact that in conditions of overpopulation and disruption of the usual way of life, the number of sufferers of alcoholism is growing.

I:   What are the challenges facing the ICRC? 

P: The main challenge remains the security of our staff. After a three-year break, we resumed our operations in Uganda two years ago. In order to work effectively, it is necessary that all parties accept our activities. In this case, I am talking about the Lord's Resistance Army, the police, the defence Forces of Uganda and the government as a whole. The government authorities have a positive attitude towards our activities, and as a result, we have been able to easily relocate personnel and equipment to the North of the country.

However, the rebels, whose activities have not subsided for nineteen years, do not have an organized political core. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to engage in a constructive dialogue with them in order to find out how the Lord's Resistance Army actually relates to what the ICRC is doing. We have never been able to obtain reliable security assurances from that group, which is a prerequisite for our operations.

However, in our discussions with defectors and conflict-related detainees, we have learned that the attitude of the rebels towards the Red Cross is more or less positive. I am referring to both the ICRC and the national Red Cross society of Uganda, with which we are actively cooperating in our operations.

Nevertheless, the attacks against six humanitarian workers who were travelling without armed guards, organized at the end of 2005, as well as the ICRC, dispelled the myth of the Lord's Resistance Army's positive attitude towards the red cross.

Do these attacks, which are considered to be the work of the Lord's Resistance Army, mean that the attitude of the armed group towards the ICRC is changing? In any case, we have decided to reduce all our programmes in the North of the country and to increase our efforts to obtain more reliable security guarantees. Due to good knowledge of the area, we are gradually moving our staff to areas that we think are safer. But, I repeat, as long as we do not have reliable guarantees, the safety of our employees does not inspire much confidence.

I:  How does the ICRC explain the suspension of its activities in Uganda in 2001-2004? 

P: The suspension of ICRC activities in Uganda was caused by a tragic incident - on 26 April 2001, six ICRC staff members were killed in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At that time, there was a confrontation between several opposing factions and the Ugandan armed forces. Following these killings, the ICRC decided to withdraw from Ituri and suspend its operations in the Northern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, with the exception of Kampala. A dialogue has begun with the authorities on the reasons for the attack on humanitarian workers in the performance of their duties, while their movements have been notified in a timely manner to all parties. Efforts in this direction are still ongoing. In March 2005, the ICRC's General delegate for Africa met with the Ugandan authorities to discuss the issue, and the ICRC President continued this dialogue in June of the same year in talks with President Museveni. All we can say at the moment that the dialogue is still going on.

I would like to note that this issue is in no way related to the resumption of our activities in Uganda. They are two completely different problems. Our return to the North of the country, in particular, was justified by the severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation in 2003, as noted by our staff and the international community as a whole.

I:  Do you think that humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of the Northern regions of the country is provided in sufficient amounts? 

P: No. This is primarily due to the poor security situation and the problems of access of ICRC staff to the victims of the conflict. The fact that the ICRC and some other organizations have decided not to use armed protection remains a guarantee of our neutrality.

For that reason, it would be desirable for the authorities also to mobilize to assist displaced persons living in Uganda. This would reduce the dependence of the population on humanitarian assistance.

However, in whatever volume it may be displaced, it is impossible cardinally to reverse the situation. The indefinite length of time spent in camps for displaced persons has led to the destruction of the normal way of life, and no organization will ever be able to compensate for the damage caused to people.