By Ashley Rowland
GULU, Uganda Mary Ayugi opens the makeshift door to the outdoor latrine, releasing a swarm of flies and a potent stench.
The latrine is a roofless hole in the ground surrounded by three mud walls. Its door is made from flattened jerrycans, the containers many Africans use to carry water from water pumps to their homes.
That plastic door is both a blessing and a burden for the 39-year-old and her five children, refugees in a war that has terrorized northern Uganda for 20 years. Few, if any, toilets in this camp have complete privacy, and Ms. Ayugis closed latrine has far more users than the 40 people it was built to serve, making it difficult to keep clean.
"We tried to raise money to buy a padlock to restrict the number of people going in," said Ms. Ayugi, who moved to the Chope camp two years ago after rebels attacked another camp where her family lived, burning their hut and killing her husband.
The camp about six miles down a rutted dirt road from Gulu, the nearest city is really more of a small town housing 27,000 people, about one-sixth of Chattanoogas population. For Ms. Ayugi and her neighbors, it is almost impossible to earn enough money for food, medicine and clothing, much less a padlock.
They are among the 1.8 million Ugandans who live in 202 squalid, government-guarded camps scattered across the red soils of the north. They are seeking protection from rebels who have looted, kidnapped, mutilated, raped and killed in the name of religion.
Aid groups say the Ugandans plight is overlooked in rich countries such as the United States, though those nations have a political interest in ending the war and improving living conditions there. Experts say Uganda , a largely Christian country, borders predominantly Muslim Sudan and could be a foothold against the spread of terrorism by groups that espouse fundamentalist Islamic ideas.
Dennis McNamara, director of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs International Displacement Division, in November called the situation in Uganda "one of the longest, largest and least addressed humanitarian crises in the world today." Doctors Without Borders named it one of the 10 most underreported stories of 2005.
Amii Omara-Otunnu, who holds the UNESCO Chair of Human Rights at the University of Connecticut, said so many people are dying that the crisis should be considered genocide on the part of Ugandas government, which has done little to end the war.
"If you look at every circumstance, whether it is the condition of the camps, or the entire population being subject to almost inhuman conditions, it is a genocide," he said.
Uganda is a tropical, coffeeproducing country about the size of Oregon, known for its whitewater rapids, mountain gorillas and dramatic, banana tree-covered mountains.
That is in the south. Travel north, and the landscape flattens and the towns become fewer and smaller. Cross the churning Nile River, and the first signs of the war emerge burned out shells of cars, roadblocks manned by Ugandan soldiers and settlements of round mud huts officially known as "Internally Displaced Persons," or IDP, camps.
"There are two Ugandas within this one country," said Chulho Hyun, spokesman for UNICEF in Uganda . "It would not be an exaggeration to say that half a days travel away in Kampala, you have very much a world capital, with all its creature comforts. Yet a two hours flight away to the north, you have a situation of extreme hardship which is showing no letup 20 years later."
Almost one of every 13 Ugandans and 95 percent of residents in the northern districts affected by the war live in an IDP camp. They are fleeing the Lords Resistance Army, a group of rebels whose leader says he wants Uganda to be ruled according to the Ten Commandments, aid workers say. The LRA raids homes, particularly in unprotected rural areas, and even the IDP camps, looking for food and for children, whom it forces to become soldiers or sex slaves.
People have lived in the camps so long that they have become hometowns for some, said Mr. Hyun.
"Its not surprising to hear from some of the older children, saying, I was born here, and Im probably going to grow up here," he said. "The war now has grandchildren."
Conditions at the camps are grim. Nearly 130 people die every week from violence and squalid conditions, according to a March report released by more than 50 aid organizations working in Uganda . Rates of violent death in the camps are three times higher than in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the report stated.
The U.S. Congress passed the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act in 2004, which states the United States should support an end to the war and work with Uganda and other countries to provide humanitarian relief.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., co-sponsored the bill. Harry Valentine, his spokesman, said in a statement that the senator "continues to be deeply disturbed by the situation in northern Uganda , particularly by the numbers of children being abducted, brainwashed and forced to become child soldiers for the Lords Resistance Army."
Dr. Omara-Otunnu said that bill had little effect.
He said the Ugandan government hasnt ended the war, though its soldiers invaded and occupied a third of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ugandan officials say they will solve the problem by fighting instead of negotiation, though Ugandas army has been fighting the LRA for 20 years. He said the United States should offer peace mediators and offer to enforce peace if a settlement is reached.
"If the U.S. were to do this, people in the region would be eternally gratefully to the United States, and they would always be their friends," he said. "Its almost a moral imperative that we do this. The alternative is what happened in Germany (the Holocaust), and we came to regret it."
Residents of the IDP camps typically are farmers who grew their own food before fleeing their homes or being forced into the camps by the government. In a country where the average yearly income is $1,700, they are among the poorest of the poor and usually have no way to earn money at the camps.
Like her neighbors, Mary Ayugi sleeps in a round mud hut, with a doorway so low that she has to stoop to go through it. Inside, a crumpled picture of Ugandas president hangs on the wall and a single grass sleeping mat sits on the dirt floor. A tube of toothpaste is tucked between one of the branches that holds up the grass roof of the hut. Her most precious possessions are her saucepans, which she uses to cook over a tiny stove in an identical hut a few steps away. Some residents leave Chope during the day to tend to their gardens at their homes, usually about an hours walk away, risking encounters with the LRA, which has been known to attack during the day. Without the maize and cassava they grow themselves, many say they would starve.
"There is no land where we can eat, so we just resort to waiting for the handouts from the welfare programs," Ms. Ayugi said.
Malaria, tetanus, cholera and other diseases spread unchecked because of overcrowding, lack of clean water and lack of medicine. Many Chope residents have AIDS. There are sick children everywhere. Many have white spots on their heads and are missing patches of hair. A 7-year-old girl ignores the flies that land on a raw, bloody sore on her shoulder. She says she has not seen a doctor.
Everyone is hungry, camp residents said.
"I have no source to feed them," said Okumu Slajabo, the camps elected leader.
The United Nations World Food Programme delivers maize, beans, oil and other staples to Chope each month, enough to supplement what residents grow themselves and meet their daily calorie requirements. The program decreased the amount of those rations in February from 74 percent of the estimated daily calorie requirements to 60 percent.
Matthew McIlvenna, WFPs emergency coordinator in Uganda , said residents steadily are growing more food outside the camps, indicating that security is increasing. But Mr. Slajabo and other residents at Chope said they still dont have enough to eat, and the government needs to provide more food.
"If not, we are all going to die, including camp leader (of) Chope," Mr. Slajabo said.
E-mail Ashley Rowland at firstname.lastname@example.org