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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 December, 2003, 04:51 GMT
Searching for hope in Uganda

Andrew Harding
BBC correspondent in Uganda

A New Year brings new hope in many parts of Africa - of wars ending in Sudan, Congo and Burundi - the prospect of cheaper Aids drugs for some of the millions affected.

But that's all overshadowed by a growing disaster which has overtaken Uganda creating more than a million refugees.

Victim
The Lords Resistance Army uses torture to instil fear
I was planning to write something upbeat about Africa for a change, something full of Christmas cheer.

Unfortunately, I'm sitting in a hotel in a place called Lira in Northern Uganda, and there's nothing much to smile about here.

It's almost seven in the evening, and there's a spectacular rainstorm going on outside.

When I pulled back the curtains a minute ago, there were five small, soaking children walking past in the gloom.

They, and thousands more like them, come in every night from the villages outside Lira.

They come here to escape what may well be the purest form of terrorism on earth

They find any inch of shelter they can, usually in front of the shops on the main street and camp out for the night.

A carpet of damp, coughing children.

Fear

They come here to escape what may well be the purest form of terrorism on earth.

It's called the Lord's Resistance Army, a group of brainwashed killers who specialise in abducting children and butchering anyone else they run into.

Terror for terror's sake.

The LRA have been in business now for 17 years.

Their crazed ranting leader, Joseph Kony, doesn't seem to have any real political agenda.

Joseph Kony
Joseph Kony ironically proclaims Uganda should be ruled by the Ten Commandments

He's more like a biblical plague which has now forced almost a million and a half Ugandans to abandon their homes.

Right now, 25-year-old Esther is sitting on a veranda down the street, trying to keep her five children warm.

The family has been coming in every night for a month since the LRA hacked her husband to death and seized a dozen children from her village.

Esther's got a three-week-old baby. He was born on the street.

She hasn't got round to naming him yet, but he's coughing like everyone else.

He's got so fed up with the army's failure to beat the rebels that he's just signed up to a local vigilante group
I could go on and tell you about people like Rose, an 18-year-old I met this afternoon who was abducted by the LRA and forced to machete a man before she managed to escape.

Or Angelous Aweng, a tall earnest town councillor whose two daughters are missing.

He's got so fed up with the army's failure to beat the rebels that he's just signed up to a local vigilante group.

Progress

There is plenty of good news around, but in Africa the bad news is always so obscenely bad

But this wasn't supposed to be another African despair story.

I was planning to talk about all the things that have actually gone right on the continent this year.

The wars that seem to be ending in Sudan, Congo and Burundi.

The fact that Aids drugs are getting cheaper.

That there was no famine in Ethiopia and that Kenya has finally got round to sacking half its judges for being so outrageously corrupt.

There is plenty of good news around, but in Africa the bad news is always so obscenely bad that it's hard to keep a sense of proportion.

You can't play the glass "half full" or "half empty" game when you're sitting in a place like Lira.

Local hero

A few days ago back home in Nairobi, I went to a funeral.

It was for an 82-year-old Kenyan businessman, called Hasan Rotansi.

He's the sort of man you don't read about much in Africa.

He doesn't fit in to the usual Western media diet of disasters and emergency appeals.

For the past half century, Mr Rotansi has been quietly rescuing Kenyans from poverty by funding them through university.

Kenyan worker
The average Kenyan earns $350 a year according to a recent estimate

His educational trust has given bursaries and scholarships to thousands of needy students, making all the difference between a drop-out and a doctor.

And he's done all this without once inviting the cameras in to show him handing over a cheque or asking Western donors to buy him a 4x4 jeep.

In his newspaper obituary he was described as a selfless icon of virtue, a man Africa's famously corrupt elites would do well to emulate, and someone to bear in mind when you hear this continent written-off as a basket case, utterly dependent on outside help.

Well, the rainstorm seems to be getting worse here and it's pitch black outside now.

Here in my hotel, I can get satellite television, email and an international mobile phone network.

Outside, Esther and her children are probably trying to sleep.

Six small, damp shapes on the crowded veranda.


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 27 December at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Sudan inches towards final deal
23 Dec 03  |  Africa
UN keeps observers in Burundi
23 Dec 03  |  Africa
Kenyan courts grind to halt
17 Oct 03  |  Africa


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