By Pacato Peter Obwot
PAGIRINYA, Uganda (Reuters) - Hunger is forcing desperate refugees from South Sudan to steal food from poverty-stricken locals in northern Uganda, residents say, after a funding crisis compelled the United Nations slash rations in refugee camps by half this month.
More than 875,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Uganda since South Sudan's civil war broke out in 2013, and the cuts come nearly two months after the United Nations warned the situation was at breaking point.
Ugandans say they have caught hungry refugees taking crops, vegetables or livestock after the World Food Programme (WFP) was forced to cut monthly rations from 12 kg of maize a month to 6 kg.
"The refugees are stealing, they stole a goat at night and their foot marks were traced up to the camp," said Otti John, 62, who lives near the northern Pagirinya refugee camp.
Another resident, Vukoni Scondo, 29, told Reuters three refugees were arrested for stealing pumpkins from her garden.
A parched and stony stretch of plateaus and savannah, Pagirinya hosts some 35,000 refugees about 30 km south of the border with South Sudan.
Camp authorities there say there has been no violence yet, but worry about clashes if stealing continues.
"These people will go to steal food from nationals and it can cause fights," said Robert Baryamwesiga, camp commandant for Uganda's Bidi Bidi, the world's largest refugee camp.
Many refugees feel they have no choice. There is just not enough money to feed them, said Lydia Wamala, spokeswoman for the U.N. food agency in Uganda. WFP needs $109 million to provide full rations for the May-October period but so far has only received $49 million.
Food prices in East Africa have shot up due to a regional drought. The crisis has fueled widespread hunger in Somalia, parts of Kenya and Ethiopia and famine in South Sudan.
Africa's youngest nation, South Sudan was sucked into civil war after President Salva Kiir fired his then vice president and rival, Riek Machar, in 2013.
A regionally mediated peace pact signed in 2015 failed within months. Massacres in the capital of Juba sparked violence across the country, fracturing it along ethnic lines.
More than 3 million people, a third of the population, have fled their homes, creating Africa's biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide.
Most refugees head to Uganda, which allows them free movement, the right to work and access public services such as education and healthcare. Around 85 percent of them are women and children.
But an average of 2,000 South Sudanese arriving every day since July has left aid agencies unable to cope, forcing some refugees back into the violence to feed their families.
An elderly man in Pagirinya said he knew of at least three families who had returned to their homes in South Sudan this month to seek food.
Refugee Peter Obore, 26, said would soon follow them since he could not feed his wife and their young baby. "I will also leave with all my four brothers and my wife," he said.
(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kamapala; Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alison Williams)