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Concern at UNHCR Pullout From North Uganda

As refugee agency winds up work, concerns persist over future of elderly people still unable to return to homes.
By Arthur Okot, Bill Oketch, Gillian Lamunu











The withdrawal of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR from northern Uganda has sparked fresh concerns about the fate of vulnerable groups, particularly elderly people who have yet to return home after two-decades of conflict in the region, and are struggling to access basic amenities.

After nearly six years assisting communities displaced by the war with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, UNHCR closed its office in Gulu at the beginning of January. It handed over its mandate to protect the vulnerable to the Uganda Human Rights Commission.

Other specific needs such as food, shelter and water, which are no longer being met by UNHCR or the non-government organisations it sponsors, will now have to be addressed by local government structures, prompting questions about whether they can cope.

“I don’t want to say [care for the elderly] is appalling, but it is wanting external intervention,” Godfrey Ojok, the acting community development officer for Agago district, said. “Nobody is really covering it as we would expect, because if our target was to help up to 65 per cent of the older persons in the community, we are not able to make even ten per cent in a particular financial year. I would say the gap is still there, unaccounted for.”

At the height of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, in 2005, there were 1.84 million internally displaced persons, IDPs, living in around 250 camps across northern Uganda. Since a 2006 ceasefire agreement between the Ugandan government and the LRA, nearly all the camps have closed, and well over 90 per cent of IDP have returned to their homes.

According to UNHCR, that leaves 30,000 who have yet to go home. The figure includes elderly people who have not been able to return to their villages and have instead remained at the former camps, or have sought shelter nearby. Those who have returned are unable to rebuild their homes and grow crops, and struggle to access crucial services like healthcare.

Kalina, a 64-year-old woman from Agago district, is still living on the site of what used to be an IDP camp.

“I am squatting here. If well-wishers see that I am hungry, they give me food and that’s all,” Kalina said. “What can I do? I am like a dog that is given food in the hope it will go away, but continues staying on in the hope of taking some of the porridge meant for the children.”

As camps across northern Uganda close, landowners have sought to reclaim the land they gave up during the period of displacement. That has created frictions with those IDPs who remain there.

“I was in the camp here, but we were chased by the landowners because they wanted to use the land,” Abalo, 54, from Lamwo district, told IWPR. “Currently, I am living in Kakira, at the home of other people. They even chased me away from their house last December. I am now living in this house, which leaks a lot.”

Aside from what some see as a lack of government support, many blame the break-up of the traditional social fabric where the elderly used to be looked after by younger members of their family. After years of conflict and displacement, younger generations have returned to their villages with their immediate family, often leaving elderly relatives behind.

“In the past, the immediate [relatives] could care for the elderly people, but during the camp period when life was difficult, the elderly people were not given respect in that way,” said Ojara Sisto, a 67- year old local councillor in Padibe. “Most people who have gone back home give attention to the immediate members of their family. The food which is being shared in a home – the elderly people normally get it last.”

Local authorities in northern Uganda say they just do not have the resources to fill this gap.

“That is the truth; there is no fund for the elderly people,” Ochen Richard Kwang, deputy head of Lamwo district, said. “We only have funds for the youth, women and [those with] disabilities, so elderly people are not catered for.”

An even greater challenge for those seeking to support the elderly is the lack of statistical data on vulnerable groups at district level. There are few official records of how many elderly people remain displaced, or the conditions in which they are living.

“The districts believe that [some] elderly, and others, are still in camps but their report says that nobody [remains] in the camp because there is no [longer] a camp. So we really don’t have any statistics about this,” Walter Anywar, programme officer for Health Alert Uganda, a local non-government organisation, said.

At national level, the government agencies responsible for IDP returns and for rebuilding northern Uganda say local authorities have not collected the kind of information that would allow support mechanisms to be put in place.

“Where that has been done [information has been gathered] we have come in to support, but sometimes the local governments have low capacity and we have not been able to reach out to some of the [elderly] persons,” Bennon Kigenyi, principle assistant secretary to the prime minister’s office in northern Uganda, said.

The government has also been playing down UNHCR’s contribution to supporting the elderly prior to its withdrawal. It insists that the problems facing older people in the aftermath of the conflict are not widespread.

“It is not that an elderly person in northern Uganda is any worse off than in the rest of the country,” Martin Owor, the government commissioner for disaster management in charge of IDPs, said. “To say that there are elderly persons who are lacking food and shelter because UNHCR has left is very wrong. The government has been running programmes [to support the elderly] throughout [the resettlement process].”

Owor acknowledged that there were some problems caused by young people settling in urban centres rather than returning to their villages together with older relatives. But he denied that traditional family support networks had broken down completely.

“Those between 25 and 55-years are able-bodied adults who have not shunned the elderly,” he said.

Meanwhile, Milton Odongo, district commissioner of Amuru district called on the Ugandan government to step up assistance to the elderly and to “come out with a clear way forward how to address and solve their plight”.

Others have proposed reviving traditional models like the Acholi people’s “Rwot” system, which facilitated support for older people not only from family members but also from the wider community.

“The government, the local governments and all the local leaders have got a stake in this,” said Anywar.

Arthur Okot, Gillian Lamunu and Bill Oketch are IWPR reporters based in Gulu. They report for IWPR’s Facing Justice radio programme, which is broadcast across the region in partnership with the Northern Uganda Media Club.

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