Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crippled North Struggles to Recover

Families returning to former villages confronted by ruined homes and poorly-resourced, overcrowded schools.
By Caroline Ayugi
As peace settles across north Uganda and the lives of civilians return to something approaching normality, it is becoming painfully clear how much rebuilding there is to do in the war-devastated region.

While pupils are once again flocking to long-abandoned schools, dire shortages of staff, and basic supplies, such as books, desks and chairs, are severely hampering their education.

Meanwhile, many people living in internal refugee camps say they are unable to return to their villages as the government has not fulfilled its promise to supply them with the resettlement packages they need to rebuild their villages.

A 20-year rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, forced more than 1.7 million people into internal refugee camps in northern Uganda. The region’s schools were also forced to close, causing an entire generation to miss out on a solid education.

Since the rebel group has been based in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, from where it has been engaged in peace talks for the past two years, people have begun to leave the camps, and many schools have reopened.

Gulu District Inspector of Schools Robinson Obot told IWPR that more than 60 primary schools are now operating in the area, and only five remain closed.

However, there are few teachers, text books or desks. Students are forced to sit on concrete floors and share the few books available, he said, and many schools even lack basic toilet facilities.

While students say they’re happy to be in class, they complain that conditions are tough.

Nelda Lakop, a student in the sixth grade of the once-abandoned Pupwonya Primary in Atiak, about 80 kilometres north of Gulu, said many classes have been merged and children “all squeeze in one classroom”.

“There are no textbooks,” complained Lakop, “so we can't expand on the knowledge we get from our class lessons.”

Vicky Aol, who is in the fifth grade of the same school, said only 84 pupils out of 230 in her school sat at desks. “The rest sit on the bare floor and write on their laps,” she said.

Tony Ocaya, one of eight teachers at the school, said that while he was supposed to teach two classes, he now has to take four due to understaffing.

He said classes of more than 200 pupils mean it is hard to pay attention to every child, “Teachers' effectiveness in knowing every pupil’s weakness is a great challenge, and it becomes hard to help a child with special problems.”

Given the dire condition, standards of education are low. The school’s students did poorly in last year’s primary school examinations, said Ocaya.

As a result, the government ranked Amuru district, where the school is located, as one of the worst for schools in Uganda’s Universal Primary Education, UPE, programme. The ranking system also takes into account the number of pupils per teacher and the number of pupils per classroom, among other things.

By comparison, Gulu, which also saw many of its schools emptied by the war, was ranked 20th out the country’s 80 districts.

Susan Adong, whose child goes to Lamin-Luluka Primary School in Gulu, said the building was in a terrible state. “Parts ..have cracks and others [metal roofing] sheets [have been] blown off by winds,” she said.

According to her, pupils sit in the dilapidated chairs and benches that existed before the school was abandoned.

There is also a dire need for housing for teachers, she said.

“Some teachers sleep in classrooms,” she explained. “They were using tents distributed by NGOs, but a few weeks ago, the tents were destroyed by strong winds.”

Obot said the district has approached local organisations as well as the government for financial help.

The district education authorities had also asked parents and community members to build housing near schools to attract teachers, but to no avail, he said.

“The community is non-responsive [to the request],” he complained. “This has made other teachers miss lessons as most of them travel far from town to the villages.”

It is not only teachers in the region who lack a roof over their heads.

Many northerners remain in internal refugee camps because the resettlement kits that the government promised them more than a year ago – which were to include the tools and materials they needed to rebuild their homes and villages – have failed to materialise.

Gulu District Commissioner Walter Ochora announced this month that the resettlement packages would be restricted.

Ochara told IWPR that a limited supply of metal sheets was available, and that these would only be given to those who have already built their houses to roof level.

Those who want roofing sheets had to register, he said, and have their house photographed as proof of construction. Only then will they be given the materials.

The restrictions, which also include signing an agreement to use the roofing sheets only for housing, are an attempt to stop the resale of the materials. Ochora said that those caught violating the terms would be prosecuted.

Many residents are angry that the roofing materials are in such short supply, when entire villages have to be rebuilt.

"These iron sheets are not enough even for a single camp like Pabbo camp,” said Patrick Oryema, an official in the Armuru district.

Pabbo is one of the largest camps with an estimated 60,000 or more residents.

“Supposing all the returning [refugees] manage to set up their houses…where would we get [enough] iron sheets from?” he asked. "It is ridiculous for government to just give a symbol of assistance, while proclaiming to be resettling them.

“The concerned authorities should first ask the government for more iron sheets, or withdraw the programme altogether."

Former resident of the Opit camp Robert Opira said that the new restrictions had not been relayed to villagers. He said some think the metal roofing will never arrive, “'We have not been told to build houses [to] get iron sheets. Others even doubt when and how the iron sheets will be distributed.”

Oris Olal, who is from the same village, said the new rules have come too late. The rainy season has arrived and the rain makes it difficult to bake mud bricks and built houses. “It is now wet season and we can't lay bricks because they will be washed by the rains,” he said.

But Amuru district official Bazil Odongpiny urged refugees to return to their homes, and suggested that waiting for the resettlement kits to be delivered first was futile.

"Some camp dwellers are emphasising that the government brought them to the camps, and should therefore give them kits to return home, but please do not try to chase an animal that you cannot kill,” he said.

His colleague, Amuru District Resident Commissioner Edwin Yakobo Komakech said that if aid organisations stopped giving assistance to residents in the camps, and instead delivered the aid directly to the villages, it would encourage camp dwellers to return home.

However, Ketty Ladur, a resident of the Lacor camp, told IWPR that she was nervous about going back to her village with no guarantee of support from the authorities.

“I have stayed for many years in this camp with limited access to most basic needs. Sending us back like this without any help would be an equivalent of transferring my camp condition to another location,” she said.

"At home, there are inadequate building materials like grass, and if the government could give us the iron sheets they promised, I would be so grateful.”

Caroline Ayugi is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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